From Cork to San Francisco: Tales of the Emigrant Irish of San Francisco, c.1850-c.1870
On California and San Francisco:
“It retains but a faint resemblance to what it was when the sole occupants and lords were the good missionary priests, the rancheros and the Indians. But a few years have passed since then, and what a change ! The landscape chequered with smiling farms, homesteads and villas – dotted with towns and villages – life and movement everywhere – Where there stood a few huts on the sea shore, there is now a great city, with bustling wharves and crowded thoroughfares and busy population – a majestic cathedral and the rival churches of almost every diversity of religious belief “ (John Francis Maguire, 1868, The Irish in America, Cork, Ireland)
When John Francis Maguire, a leading Cork politician, writer, explorer, founder of the Cork Examiner and a member of the British parliament visited the west coast of the United States of America in 1868, little did he know that his own home town, Cork would be twinned with the emerging metropolis and associated frontier of San Francisco, nearly 145 years later. In May 1984, Cork City in Ireland created a twinning relationship with San Francisco aiming to improve commercial, cultural and tourist links. This article arose out of a series of historical lectures held in San Francisco in early June 2003 by myself aiming to celebrate the twinning link. The lectures were kindly facilitated by the San Francisco Mechanics Institute, San Francisco Museum Society and the Irish Historical and Literary Society, the Irish Cultural Centre and the Sister City Twinning Committee.
The title of the lecture programme was “Tales of Two Cities, Cork, San Francisco and Irish Emigration in the Nineteenth Century”. Firstly, the lecture explored parallel historic links between Cork and San Francisco. The second part of the lecture examined the effects of the Great Famine in Ireland in the mid 1840s especially emigration to the United States. This article explores part of my paper delivered – the arrival, settlement and effect of these Irish communities in California. The article below is based on work completed by Maguire in 1868 and R.A.Burchell’s, The San Francisco Irish (1979). This article also depicts the perception of this new life back home in Ireland through contemporary media depictions from the Illustrated London News.
Prior to the years of 1825 and 1836, few Irishmen arrived by sea, and settled in California. If they did arrive, they were principally masters or other officers of American trading vessels, or seamen before the mast with an occasional adventurer in search of a home. An Irishman, Captain J.S. Smith is due the credit of having led the first party of white men over land to California. At the head of a band of some forty trappers, in the services of the American Fur Company, he had the courage to cross the high ridges of the Sierra Nevada. Smith who was a native of the King’s County, now Co. Offaly, emigrated at an early age to the United States, joined the fur company, and ultimately became chief trader at their post on Green River.
Many of these early settlers like Smith were well educated and came from wealthy backgrounds and came principally from the southern counties of Ireland. Among them were to be found Reads and Deans of Waterford, Allens of Dublin, Murphys of Wexford, Burkes of Galway and the Coppingers of Cork. These soon became extensive proprietors of land and raisers of stock. About the year 1838, the trail across the Sierras to California began to be travelled more frequently by hunters. The year 1844 witnessed a remarkable arrival that of a body of immigrants from Canada and Missouri, mostly Irish, including a single family numbering no less than 25 individuals. The leader of this party was Mr. Martin Murphy, a native of County Wexford, who brought with him his family of sons, daughters and grandchildren. Mr. Murphy had originally emigrated to Lower Canada from which he passed to Missouri.
Martin Murphy must have had great confidence in himself and in his associates to start a journey of 2,500 miles over a trackless prairie, inhabited by fierce and hostile Indians bound to a land that little was known about and that only from the vague accounts afforded by trappers and others. The gallant leader, with his unmarried sons and daughters, settled in the valley of San Jose, where the family purchased large tracts of land and became extensive owners of stock.
Another party, the Donner party, amongst whom were some Irish comprising over eighty persons, crossed the plain in the summer of 1846. On the 31 October, they were caught in a snow storm in the Californian Mountains, in which all their cattle perished. A courageous band was dispatched to their relief from San Francisco. On the 1st March 1847, relief arrived, but was too late for many of their party; for, out of a company of 81, not more than 45 were found alive, the remaining 36 having perished horribly. There are also other adventure stories, which could infinitely fill the pages of this paper.
In the ensuing years after 1848 or the post Irish Great Famine period, there was large scale emigration from Ireland to the United States. The year 1851 saw 221, 253 Irish arrivals in the United States; the largest ever to arrive in a twelve month period. Only 278,000 Irish arrived in the United States in the comparative years of 1840-1846; whereas over 1,180,000 arrived between 1847 and 1854. The United States, over the next forty years took in over 2,600,000 Irish refugees arising out Irish economic, social and political conditions. The Irish arrived on the east coast of the United States and there the majority of them stayed, settling particularly as a result of their low level of skills and capital. Even in 1870, when sufficient time had passed for Irish Immigrants to have joined the westward movement, over half the Irish born population of the country lived in the three states of New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
On arrival on the east coast of the United States, distress, confusion and dislocation were experienced by the newcomers. Past cultural antipathies reflecting class, religious and economic divisions led to anti-Irish feeling. This feeling had being forcibly expressed long before the Famine years. The history of the immigrant in the eastern United States was clouded by memories of shock and hostility. By 1850, two hundred years of American history had passed. Much power and status had been handed down from generation to generation within a group of often intermarried families. Irish emigrants were disliked not only for their strangeness but also for their Catholicism. Poverty, poorest paid jobs, worst housing, high rates of employment, disease and death were all common concerns amongst new immigrants.
There is little evidence of direct migration from Ireland to California. In 1852 only five per cent of the Irish-born in San Francisco reported that they had come direct from Ireland. The Irish experience in California coincided with gold discoveries of 1848-49, which produced extensive changes in the structure of society. Before 1869, and the opening of the transcontinental railroad, immigrants mainly journeyed to California through Central America, or trekked overland, with a very small minority braving Cape Horn. The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 did not have an immediate effect on immigrant traffic. The railroad did not introduce emigrant trains or fares for some time. In August 1870 it was said that, including board, it cost almost twice as much to travel by rail as by steamer.
Landing at San Francisco was a different experience from that of the arrival at New York or Boston. The history of the immigrant in the city was not clouded by memories of shock and hostility. Irish settlement patterns were partly determined by the city’s spatial growth. Up to the gold discoveries of 1849, San Francisco was spatially a small town, influenced primarily by Spanish missions in the late eighteenth century and Mexican influences from c. 1824 to c.1851. The settlement was constructed on a peninsula with its central area down by the bay, in the area now marked out by California, Montgomery and Pacific Streets or the present day financial district. In the following years after the discovery of gold, which was found in abundance over 180 miles to the north east of the city, San Francisco municipal boundaries spread enormously north, south, west and even east into the Bay. Some expansion to the northwest was held up by hills that stayed largely unconquered until the first cable care overcame them in 1873. Many in the downtown area lived in the upper stories of buildings whose ground floors were occupied by stores. Single room dwellings were very common in this area. The poorer classes, who needed to live closer to their work, largely lived these in. These classes included many Irish. Although the physical, spatial growth and transformation of the city was one index of its progress, another index was the feeling that the quality of life was improving. This improving quality was measured by the number of paved streets, the purity of water supply, the efficiency of the sewerage system, the increase in educational facilities and the development of welfare institutions.
The expansion of San Francisco proceeded with little municipal control. In April 1864, the state legislature authorised corporations to provide members with suitable homesteads, which might be either urban or rural. In 1857, the first Savings and Loan Society was founded in San Francisco. On 12th April 1859, a group of Irish capitalists founded what proved to be the most successful of all such ventures, the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society. The existence of the Hibernia Homestead Association in the city resulted in the Irish immigrants taking part in the movement to develop the suburbs of San Francisco. Much new housing was of a comparatively low quality and scarcely built to last. Streets such as Market Street rapidly filled with houses that began to assume the characteristics of a tenement system. The area attracted the young, the immigrant, the transient and the poor, particularly towards its eastern end.
One factor influencing residence was rent. At first, in the days of the Gold Rush, this was extremely expensive, with one of a dozen or fifty bunks in a lodging room costing from $6.00 to $20.00 a week. Rapid building, successive economic crises and a falling off in immigration helped to stabilise prices at a lower level. The ordinary, everyday strains of living were inherent – the tensions of urban life, the dislocation of migration, the problems of accommodation, the potential threat of nativism, the accident of unemployment and the possibilities of disease and death. Poorer Irish crowded Californian almshouses, the asylums and hospitals.
The Irish family was a stabilising agency for nearly all San Francisco’s permanent Irish population. In addition, the most important institution acting to maintain the hopes of the Irish community was the Roman Catholic Church. Religion was an integrating force for the Irish community. It functioned daily as well to meet the needs of the Irish, and its over-outward growth with the expansion of the city was a sign of its success. The earliest Irish Catholic churches began close to the waterfront; St. Francis of Assisi on Vallejo Street was founded in June 1849 whilst St. Patrick’s Church on Market Street was founded in September 1851. In July 1853, the cornerstone of St. Mary’s Cathedral on California Street was laid. New parishes grew around these religious nuclei.
The first Catholic parochial school had already begun in September 1849, connected to St. Francis’ and this was joined by St. Patrick’s School, begun by the Reverend John Maginnis in September 1851, together educating 300 pupils by the end of that year. The need to construct new ecclesiastical institutions gave the incoming Irish the opportunity to be among the first patrons of the new Catholic Church. The Church depended not only on the rich. The Day Home, for instance was greatly helped by the free services, skills and materials donated by a number of individuals. The McDonalds, Reileys, Gallagher’s, McPheeleys, O’Connell’s, Quigley’s, Noonan’s, McMillan’s, Flaherty’s, Daly’s and O’Connor’s, all of whom participated bore witness to the value and strength of the Irish connection with the Irish Church. The financial relationship was a major one. Once founded, Church institutions needed a continuous injection of funds from the pious to survive. By and large the Irish provided them.
The combination of the private stability of the family, the institutional strength of the Church and the vitality of being associated with Irish Societies were very important in producing Irish satisfaction. Societies provided companionship, social welfare, and combined protective, benevolent and fraternal aims. In 1880, according to Langley’s Directory, over, 7,500 Irish men and women could have been members of Irish and Catholic societies in the city, and an unknown number of Protestants members of the two lodges of the loyal Orange Institution.
During the post 1859 period many societies in the city, secular and religious, Irish as well as other, were established to deal with the challenges of urban and everyday life, but some problems were beyond the scope of small voluntary agencies and required institutional attention. The more noted institutions formed included: The Orphan Asylum established in February 1851, which was taken over by the Sisters of Charity in 1852. By 1880, a second institution had been founded, the St. Boniface Orphan Asylum. In January 1864, the Magdalene Asylum was founded under the charge of Sisters of Mercy. There were also other benevolent societies, which could also fill the pages of this newspaper.
Amongst the first teachers in San Francisco were the Sisters of the Presentation who arrived to the Bay area in early 1852. Their first school house was located on Powell Street in North Beach. Italian and Hispanic youngsters were taught to speak English. The Society of St. Vincent De. Paul existed ‘to relieve distress wherever found’, and had two branches. Several savings and loan banks were established by Irish Capitalists. Noted Irishman, Thomas Mooney was involved California Building Loan and Savings Society, which began in May 1861.
Irishmen also supported societies that looked to re-establishing of the glory of Ireland, or the establishing of Ireland in San Francisco politics. They joined the militia, in their own companies, for the status it gave them in the community. In 1864, the claim was that the California Fenians Brotherhood had organised in September 1859 ‘for charitable purposes and the redemption of Ireland’.
Since the city boasted a largely stable and generally expanding network of societies, it is not surprising that Irish politicians were successful in organising the Irish vote and acquiring political power. That power was also highly satisfactory to the Irish. It showed a sense of confidence that permitted the Irish to make a strong, often successful bid to control the distribution of resources in their new society. On 30th June 1879 Louis Kaplan, Registrar of Voters for San Francisco, reported that exactly 10,000 of the city’s 37,915 electors had been born in Ireland. Thus, nearly 27 per cent of the city’s voters were Irish-born.
Colonel Thomas Hayes acted as a delegate to the National Democratic Convention in New York. Hayes was from County Cork, had landed in San Francisco in 1849 – had been deputy sheriff of the County of San Francisco in 1850 and 1851. In 1867, San Francisco elected its first Irish mayor, Frank McCoppin. On 4 March 1863 John Conness, born not in the United States but in Abbey, County Galway, began his term in the United States Senate, followed by Eugene Casserly on 4 March 1869 of Mullingar, County Westmeath. David C. Broderick born in Washington, D.C. was of Irish parentage, and very Irish in his political style and associations. He became United States Senator for California on 4 March 1857.
In population terms, in 1852, there were over 4,200 first generation Irish in San Francisco. By 1880 there were over 30,000. In 1870, the Irish constituted one fourth of the population of San Francisco, or possessed one fourth of the entire property of the city, or twenty million of eighty million dollars. Yet of every 100 Irish who came to San Francisco, 75 per cent were either poor or scantily provided with means. In 1880 the city officially contained 30,721 first generation Irish, just over thirteen percent of the total population. In 1880, one third of the city’s inhabitants belonged to the Irish community. There was a significant Irish presence in all wards. Each ward in San Francisco had its own character or occupational profile, and Irish occupational status varied by ward. Numerically, the most common occupations remained labouring for men and domestic service for women throughout the period. Overall, developments in San Francisco and its Irish community between 1848 and 1880 ensured that they were a generation ahead of much of the remainder of the United States, where only by 1900 were the Irish ‘beginning to emerge from the immigrant community which the first and second generations had created’.