San Francisco’s First Boom

Thomas O. Larkin's letters tell familiar stories about life amid a financial boom.

Thomas O. Larkin
Thomas O. Larkin

We think of San Francisco as a boomtown these days because of its central position in the technology industry, but, of course, it has played that role before, when the Gold Rush began in 1848. Thomas O. Larkin had a unique view of that frenzy — he was the Navy’s agent in San Francisco, overseeing movement of freight in the port, as well as being a successful businessman himself (the city’s Larkin Street is named after him). Before that, Larkin (1802-1858) was the first and only consul, or U.S. representative, to Alta California, the Mexican territory that later became California, Nevada, Utah and other parts of the modern Western U.S. Larkin’s Gold Rush letters to his friends and colleagues tell familiar stories about life amid a financial boom.

DEC. 26, 1848

Our whole country, as you may suppose, is in much excitement and from Monterey to the north in the highest state of apparent prosperity. Boat loads of men continue to arrive in the town of San Francisco, many of the men bringing from five to ten thousand dollars of gold dust to purchase goods. … House lots are raising like everything else, in particular in San Francisco. In ’46 I gave $500 for a … lot. In Sept 1848 it sold for $10,000. … This month it sold for $15,000. Another lot of fifty by one hundred [that] cost in April or May $6,000 is now under contract to be sold for $20,000. … The end of all this has not come.

JAN. 19, 1849

We yet remain in a quiet state under the combined influence of some gospel and plenty of law, the beauty of the first exemplified in many who attend church from early habits or to set an example without caring much what creed they listen to, only being aware that the preacher is a fine looking man and his sermon is orthodox, in quality and quantity. The law we have or live under is brief and accommodating, each party concerned bringing proof that either the laws of Mexico or the U.S. are or ought to be in force. The defenders of the latter are rather split into small parties as each advocates the law of his native state as the only just and true one.


Law, gospel and politics are beginning to be obsolete in the great eagerness to obtain a share of the [gold] placer. Last July gold diggers were satisfied to obtain 2 or 3 ounces of gold per day. Now they throw up spade and pickaxe if they do not find every heave or two a “junk” of gold. Up to $600 have been [paid] for single lumps.

JAN. 19, 1849

Many young men, who in May 1847 had less than $400, are now doing well and worth $5,000 to $30,000. … People come in by the hundreds, where they sleep I know not … My head whirls with speculation! My hair grows grey by the excessive working of my brain and ambitions! … Every one is becoming rich!

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