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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Steamship Golden Age, Pacific Ocean, Sept. 9. 1859.

Though my overland journey is ended, some facts gathered in its last stages remain to be noted. They relate exclusively to the moral and intellectual well-being and prospects of the golden state.


The last State Register gives a tabular view of religious denominations, making two hundred and sixteen Christian, and five Jewish congregations in the state, with two hundred and eighty-nine Christian, and three Hebrew clergymen. Of the Christian, one hundred and thirty-three—nearly one half—are Methodists, and seventy-one—nearly one-fourth—are Roman Catholics. I hear from different quarters that the Methodists and Catholics manifest generally far more energy and vitality than the other churches. The Catholics enjoy certain marked advantages over all others. Theirs is the church of the old Californians—that is, of the Spanish-Mexican population without exception—also a part of the Indians. The Catholic inhabitants are estimated to exceed one hundred thousand. But the old church is strong in position and wealth, as well as numbers. Much of the most valuable land in the state was lone since conceded by Spanish or Mexican officials to the Catholic missions; and, though a good deal of this has been clutched by squatters, a very valuable property still remains. Santa Clara College, near San Josť, is probably the best literary institution in the state, and attracts many sons of non-Catholic parents, though a Catholic seminary. It has by far the largest theological library to be found on this coast. Oakland College, opposite San Francisco, is a young, but thriving seminary, under Orthodox direction. There is to be a San Francisco University, I believe, but is not yet. Whatever colleges of a high grade may be established in the state, for many years will owe their existence to religion.

As yet, the great majority of the non-Catholic Californians have no habit of attendance on religious worship—no proclaimed attachment to any church whatever. Estimating their number, (not including Chinese or Indians) at three hundred and fifty thousand, I judge that less than one-tenth of them statedly attend church, or make any religious profession. I simply state the facts as they appear to me, without drawing therefrom any deduction beyond this: an unsettled, homeless population rarely or never build churches, or habitually frequent them.


There are between ninety and one hundred periodicals published in California. Thirty-one of the forty-five counties have each one or more journals. Of these, twenty are issued daily—six of them of the Buchanan-Lecompton stripe in politics, three anti-Lecompton, and only one (The San Francisco Times) decidedly republican. The remainder are independent —most of them with strong anti-Leconmpton proclivities. At the head of these stands The Sacramento Union (daily and weekly), which, by means of extensive and systematic reporting, presents the fullest and fairest account of whatever is said or done in California of any journal, and which has, very naturally, the largest and widest circulation. Next in importance and influence stands The Alta California, the oldest paper in the state, and I believe the first ever issued in San Francisco. The Bulletin is the only evening paper issued in that city, and is distinguished for the fullness of its correspondence. The California Farmer, by Colonel Warren, is the pioneer work in its line, and has hardly been exceeded in usefulness to California by any other. I trust it has a long and prosperous career before it.

Of the weekly newspapers issued in the state, twenty-five support Lecompton democracy, fourteen are anti-Lecompton, only two or three republican; the residue independent—several of them with strong and outspoken anti-Lecompton tendencies. It will thus be seen that the influence of the local press leans strongly to the side of whatever may for the time being be commended as regular democracy. No state is more intensely scourged by office-seeking than California; offices being here numerous and salaries and pickings very fat; hence each county has its powerful junto of office-seekers who understand (if little else) that the way to their goal lies through “sticking to the party,” right or wrong—in fact, if it be wrong, the merit of sticking to it is, in the party sense, so much greater, and the reward is likely to be larger. Intelligent as a majority of the people of this state are known to be, it is still deplorably true that the great mass of the facts which impelled and necessitated the republican movement and organization have never been made known through their journals—not even through those of the independent order. To this hour, California, otherwise well informed imagines that there was no serious struggle in Kansas—or if there was that one side was about as much in fault as the other—that Kansas was invaded, her people driven from the polls, her ballot-boxes stuffed, and the verdict of her settlers falsified (if at all,) as much by republicans (whence?) as by the Missouri border ruffians! One democrat with whom I discussed the matter supposed they came over from Iowa! Had the independent press done its simple duty in the premises, such monstrous fabrications could neither be credited nor profitably coined. But I rejoice in the hope that the break on Lecompton insures a more ample and truthful presentment of the current history of the great struggle hereafter. I trust that the people of this state are not much longer to be held in the leading-strings of slavery and sham-democracy.

Of the ninety-odd periodicals in California, three are printed in the French language, two in Spanish, one in German; and at least one in Chinese. (Whoever would subscribe to “The Chinese News” should address its editor, Hung Tai, at Sacramento.) Six are devoted to religion; two to agriculture; nine or ten to literature, mining, medicine, etc. About one-third of the whole number are issued from San Francisco alone.


The city of San Francisco is built along the eastern base and up the side of a row of high sand-hills, which stretch southwardly from the Golden Gate, between the Pacific ocean on the west and the bay of San Francisco on the east. The city has been built out into the bay some fifty to a hundred rods by carting in sand from the eastern slope of the hills, which are thus left more abrupt than they originally were. The compactly built district seems rather more than two miles north and south, by somewhat less east and west. I judge that the city is destined to expand in the main southwardly, or along the bay, avoiding the steep ascent toward the west. The county covers 26,000 acres, of which one-half will probably be covered in time by buildings or country-seats. I estimate the present population at about 80,000.* [* The S. F. Directory for 1859 makes it 78,083, including 3,150 Chinese and 1,605 Africans.] It seems not to have increased very rapidly for some years past; and this is as it should be. San Francisco has the largest trade of any city on the Pacific; but as yet she is the emporium of California and Oregon only. A railroad communication with the Atlantic states would make her the New-York of this mighty ocean—the focus of the trade of all America west of the Andes and Rocky Mountains, and of Polynesia as well, with an active and increasing Australian commerce. Without an inter-oceanic railroad, she must grow slowly, because the elements of her trade have been measured and their limits nearly reached. The gold product of this region has for years averaged about fifty millions per annum, and is not likely soon to rise much above that amount. That sum does not require, and will not create, a larger mart than San Francisco now is. The horrible anarchy of land titles forbids any rapid expansion of agricultural industry hereabouts; but if it were to expand, where is its market? Wheat is cheaper here to-day than in New-York or Liverpool; yet whither can any considerable amount of it be exported at a profit? I do not know.

With an efficient protective tariff, San Francisco would become, what she ought now to be, a great manufacturing center—the united Manchester and Birmingham of the South Seas. She ought to make half the wares she now merely buys and sells. Under our present tariff, with the high rates of labor prevailing in this state, this cannot be. She is evidently destined to become a great city, but not yet.

Some of the elements of greatness she certainly has—a spacious, secure, magnificent harbor, with easy access to the ocean, and a noble river communication inland; a temperate and equable climate—one very favorable to the highest efficiency in industry, though I do not deem it a pleasant one; an inexhaustible supply of the finest timber close at hand; the richest mines of the precious metals; and a fertile, beautiful, but not unlimited agricultural region filling up the interval between her and those mines, and stretching hundreds of miles north and south. She has a population rarely surpassed in intelligence, enterprise, and energy. Add to these a railroad and telegraph to the Atlantic, and she could hardly fail to grow in population, trade, industry, and wealth, with a rapidity for which there have been few precedents.

San Francisco has some fine buildings, but is not a well-built city—as, indeed, how could she be? She is hardly yet ten years old, has been three or four times in good part laid in ashes, and is the work mainly of men of moderate means, who have paid higher for the labor they required than was ever paid elsewhere for putting so much wood, stone, brick and mortar into habitations or stores. Her growth for the first five years of her existence was very rapid; but Pottsville, Chicago, Liverpool, have also had rapid growths, and St. Louis is now expanding faster than this city has done since 1852. Cities are created and enlarged by the wants of populations outside of their own limits; San Francisco will take another start when she shall have become beneficent if not indispensable to a much larger radius than that now buying and selling mainly through her. In the hope that the time for this is not far distant, I bid her God speed.

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