This is a blog about a novel in progress and all the blood sweat and research that go along with it. The novel is set in the beginning of the Gold Rush in San Francisco. All manner of strange and horrible events transpire investigated by our intrepid, clever, heroine. The author will share places to see and explore that teach and inspire about the history of the novel along with the nitty gritty of pounding out the paragraphs.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Ah, the immortal words of Obi Wan seem so apt here. And yes I am that geeky. San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast took root and metastasized in a broad tendril bordered loosely on the east by the waterfront and East Street (now the … Continue reading "SAN FRANCISCO’S BARBARY COAST" The post SAN FRANCISCO’S BARBARY COAST appeared first on The Mysterious World Of...
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Ah, the immortal words of Obi Wan seem so apt here. And yes I am that geeky. San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast took root and metastasized in a broad tendril bordered loosely on the east by the waterfront and East Street (now the Embarcadero); on the south by Clay and Commercial streets; on the west by Grant Avenue and Chinatown; and on the north by Broadway, with periodic seepage into the region around North Beach and Telegraph Hill.
This being said, the bronze markers used by the San Francisco Historical Society to mark the Barbary Coast have been placed in sidewalks as far as Portsmouth Square, Powell and Market streets, up to the Warf, throughout North Beach, Chinatown and along the Embarcadero.
If we’re a little hazy on where it was set up precisely at the beginning, there seems to be no hesitation in any historian’s mind about how seedy, corrupt, or vice ridden the area (wherever it started out) became pretty much immediately. In one account the reader was warned that the level of carnal depravity and deadly violence could not be overstated. Holy Hell, makes you want to tour the place in a bullet proof Pope-mobile.
It was named for a North African coastline stretching from Morocco to what would become Libya; home to dreaded pirates and slave traders that terrorized the coastal villages of Europe. San Francisco’s version was born in the awe inspiring confusion of the California Gold Rush. In 1847 San Francisco, freshly minted from its Spanish moniker of Yerba Buena, was still a sleepy little village of roughly 200 souls. The Spanish adobe Mission Dolores and Presidio were likely the sturdiest lodgings.
Check back in with the census around 1851, post Samuel Brannan’s announcement of “Gold in them thar hills” or words to that effect, and you’d find some 10,000 people coming and going. Unfortunately the local authorities just hadn’t set up for this potential situation. And the criminal element flourished, setting up shop in the areas we would come to know as San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
As early as 1848 some veterans of the Mexican-American War arrived in San Francisco and, branding themselves The Hounds, became one of the first lawless gangs to roam the streets of the Barbary Coast. Their depredations were largely ignored by the “law” such as it was as the gang’s primary targets were Chilians, Peruvians, and Mexicans.
Quickly following in the wake of The Hounds were the Sydney Ducks, somewhere between 6 and 7,000 hardened Australian criminals. They ran rampant over the area that would become the Barbary Coast. And the Ducks put the Hounds to shame with their unchecked carnage, raids, arson, and eventually cornering the market on bordellos so deviant that some were said to tout bestiality as an attraction. Yeesh…
Many of the ships sailing into San Francisco’s wharves with men piling out for the Gold fields never left. Their entire crews would abandon them, taking off after the same miners they had just schlepped to the docks. Everybody was chasing those nuggets.
Some ships just stayed put, The Niantic is a popular example you can find in San Francisco today. It’s just a plaque on the side of the building that’s built over it now. But it’s still there, underneath. That’s what happened to some of the ones that never left. Most were broken up and used for scrap wood and parts. But the ones that were still in good shape, some 200, like the Niantic were repurposed into warehouses, boarding houses and (in the Niantic’s case) hotels, even one as a jail and another as a church.
Captains of these abandoned ships, however, were sometimes willing to do unscrupulous things to make sure they sailed away. This leads us to the term “to be Shanghaied”. So apparently the phrase comes from the idea that the furthest an unwilling new sailor might end up would be Shanghai. The owners of various drinking establishments along the Barbary Coast did a lucrative business in what was essentially slavery. They would ply a man with drugged liquor, if he didn’t pass out you could bash him over the head, then pile him into a cart and sell him to the highest bidding captain short of a sailing crew. Many like the infamous Shanghai Kelly, had such a streamlined process that he could afford to lose a few of his prey to unintended death. He just loaded up the bodies and delivered them as is. By the time the captains got them out to sea, he’d already been paid.
Eventually as the gang violence grew to an exponentially disastrous level, the Vigilance Committees would rise against them. Privately organized vigilante groups of San Francisco citizens waged war against the gangs for several years and gradually drove them from the outrageous power they’d seized so easily in 1848. Unfortunately these groups (while possibly not something that we’d approve of today) were dismantled in the end of the late 19th century as the city evolved from its chaotic beginnings to a larger, more prosperous, commercial and cultural metropolis.
Local government grew with in strength and size with the city. But the political and economic elite were motivated more by greed and self-interest than any sense of civic responsibility. Without the threat of the Vigilance Committees and emboldened by the indifference of corrupt politicians, the Barbary Coast rose again in full bloom. It was in the 1860’s when it would officially be christened “The Barbary Coast”.
Next post: My walking tour of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast
The Colt Dragoon Revolver is a strangely romanticized gun. While it is exciting as ranking among one of the first true six shooters, its true history, brutal intentions and grim design are no Wild West fantasy. And yet it shows up in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns, Old silver screen True Grit New silver … Continue reading "EVANGELINE GETS HER GUNS" The post EVANGELINE GETS HER GUNS appeared first on The Mysterious World Of...
The Colt Dragoon Revolver is a strangely romanticized gun. While it is exciting as ranking among one of the first true six shooters, its true history, brutal intentions and grim design are no Wild West fantasy. And yet it shows up in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns,
Charles Portis’ True Grit,
Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian,
and on and on. It is a sexy-ugly gun in our pop culture it seems.
A collaborative creation between Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers and Samuel Colt, the Walker Colt – the Dragoon’s forefather – was commissioned for the Rangers to use in close range battle without dismounting.
Captain Walker needed a handgun that was extremely powerful in close quarters, could be carried in a saddle holster like a pistol, but it must be a revolver to allow its wielder to fire multiple shots without reloading. He wanted to increase the weapon’s caliber from .36 to .44 or .45 if possible so as to destroy both the enemy the horses they rode on. In 1846 the world saw the first 6 shooter. Named after the man who commissioned it, the handgun was known as the Colt Walker.
It was as powerful as Captain Walker could have asked for. In fact it was more powerful than any other handgun in existence, using nearly twice the gunpowder charge of any handgun in each of its chambers. The Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun bar none between 1847 and 1935 when the first .357 magnum came on the stage.
Of course there were design flaws. The loading lever, a slim hinged rod attached beneath the gun barrel that tamped each round into its chamber over gun powder, was not secured well. With the recoil of each shot the lever often fell, jamming the action and necessitating a “Walker slap” to return the lever to place. The cylinders, the barrels containing the bullet chambers, were extremely long and prone to overloading with black powder by troops who had never seen much less used a revolver before. All of this combined with Rangers often loading the new conical bullets backward and the untrustworthy metallurgy of the time led to a wide spread problem of ruptured cylinders. Not to mention they were simply enormously heavy, weighing in at 4 lbs 9 oz.
Nevertheless the popularity of the original Walker Colt and its slight variation (the Whitneyville Colts) as it found a method of “mass production” through a subcontract with Eli Whitney Blake – nephew of Eli Whitney senior the inventor of the cotton gin. Whitney senior while famous for the cotton gin, was a pioneer in manufacturing, invented the modern assembly line, and promoted the concept of interchangeable parts. His nephew Eli Whitney Blake assisted him in building their gun factory at Whitneyville, Connecticut.
With great success of the Whitneyville Walker Colts, the Colt reputation was made and Samuel was later able to build his own Colt factory. Over the next few years Colt would refine the weapon that made his name. Between the Walker and the first model Dragoon there were roughly 240 improved models produced, all between 1847 and 1848. The Dragoon itself began life as the Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver. It solved many of the problems of the Walker. The loading lever catch was redesigned to clamp it tightly through the hardest recoil. The barrel was reduced from 9 to 7.5 inches to lighten the gun’s weight and make it less unwieldy. The chambers were smaller, allowing about 15% less gunpowder to reduce the issue of ruptured cylinders. Originally ordered for the United States Mounted Militia (known as “Dragoons”) this model was popularly known as the Colt Dragoon.
Now don’t go imagining this was the six shooter as we know it today. These handguns were much closer in the family tree to muskets than the high noon quick draw pistols we think of as revolvers. Just prepping this baby for combat was an exercise in patience. The Dragoon’s 6 chambers had to be carefully loaded, one at a time with the correct amount of gunpowder, count those grains – too much powder and cylinder goes boom in your hands.
Believe me I’ve watched this done – it’s excruciating and what comes next is even worse. Each conical bullet can now be placed into the chambers over the powder, making sure that they face pointed tip out – tip pointed wrong way and it jams – cylinder goes boom in your hands. Once the cylinder is loaded and rolled back in place, the loading leaver is unclipped from the barrel and used to tamp each bullet firmly into its chamber. After this is done 6 mind-numbing times the lever is clipped back in place and caps are placed on the nipples that protrude behind the rotating chambers. Now the hammer can be locked back in placed. Yee Hah! You are now ready to shoot em up. Better make those 6 shots count. How the hell you’re going to reload in the heat of battle is way beyond me.
The Dragoon would go on to evolve at least twice more before Colt would move on to develop the next handgun series the Colt Model 1860. But here I’ll stop with the handgun history. I’m really only interested in the early Dragoons and our fascination with them in fiction. I’ll be honest I like the rough, almost vulgar directness they seem to imply with just the way they look. The plain dark gray pitted metal attached to a simple wooden butt – no fancy carving or curlicues for this weapon. This tool is for one thing only, killing.
Which is weird because I’m not a gun person. I don’t own any. I don’t shoot them. They sort of scare me on most levels. But reading about them in books and watching Westerns or any combination of Western/Sci-Fi/Horror movie…love it. What is that about? Fertile soil for all you self-styled shrinks out there.
So of course this leads to Evangeline. You didn’t think I’d fill my brain with all of this stuff for general gun enthusiasm purposes. She’ll be using some firepower in her fight against evil. A matched pair, a la just about any Clint Eastwood Western I can think of. I chose the Colt Dragoon for its plainness, its ruthless power, and because it was a gun that was roughly period appropriate. Yeah I’m tweaking things a bit but I’ll try to make the tweaks part of the story whenever possible.
It just feels like a weapon Evangeline would choose. Something no nonsense to get the job done, and boy does she need to get it done. Of course the bullets she’ll be using will be special order. But that’s something I’ll be saving for the book.
Everyone writes stories about the Wild West, including California. Not many mention Northern California except in reference to the Gold Rush and the miners. But there were indigenous Native American cultures distinctly different from the Midwest and North East tribes everyone learns about in school. Well before the Gold Rush, Russians built a trading fort … Continue reading "NATIVE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA PEOPLE/The Wild Wild North West" The post NATIVE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA...
Everyone writes stories about the Wild West, including California. Not many mention Northern California except in reference to the Gold Rush and the miners. But there were indigenous Native American cultures distinctly different from the Midwest and North East tribes everyone learns about in school. Well before the Gold Rush, Russians built a trading fort along the Sonoma coastline in hopes of cornering the market on seal skins.
San Francisco was a city built on sand and mud – snatched from the elements by its Spanish conquerors. It literally grew from an adobe Mission, military fort and clapboard lean-tos strewn over the beaches. Later there were unpaved streets that would suck boots from feet, buildings with plank floors and canvas roofs. This was all before earthquakes and fires and the things you see in tourist guide books.
The massive redwood and pine forests, the hills broken by sudden toothy outcroppings of rock, the billowy fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice in some places and never be seen in others; none of these things ever appeared in stories I read about the “Wild West”. What a pity.
I suppose as a kid I was slightly disappointed with our “Indians”. Yeah, it was the ‘70s so they were “Indians” then. I apologize to all the Native Americans out there reading this. We were dumb then, me included. When I was a kid, I had seen all the westerns, all the bone breastplates, all the feather headdresses, braids with feather wrappings, fringed buckskin leggings, beaded moccasins, buffalo robes, and on and on. And then we had our assignments in grammar school about American History before European Settlers. Lucky me I was assigned Northern California Indians. Oh boy, when I saw the hand out with the mimeograph line art picture attached. What kind of Indians had round faces, wore sack like dresses made of willow bark and beaded skirts, apparently rode no horses, and lived in tepees made of huge chunks of cedar bark?
There was a lot of stuff written about the baskets the Costal Miwok wove and used for storing food which they made out of acorns, grasshoppers, and mussels. There was a lot about making food out of leached acorns – soup, cakes, bread, less about hunting deer, elk, or black bear as though that didn’t happen often. The acorn staples seemed to be rounded out by fish and small game – jack rabbits and quail. Oh and they gathered a lot of interesting things like buckeye nuts, mushrooms, bulbs, seeds, berries, and seaweed (considered a tribal delicacy). This did not satisfy the romantic image of the Wild West Indian I had seen in movies and TV and children’s books I’d already absorbed at that time.
It would not be until my twenties that I would begin to grasp how our Native American tribes were rich in their own traditions, their own unique characteristics and history. By then I would be grateful for the fact that there were some places in Northern California to still learn about and explore how these people first made their mark on the place I call home.
The Costal Miwok I saw were as dramatically exotic in their own right as any Apache thundering across the plains on his war horse. They had elaborate customs involving facial tatoos. There were ceremonial dances where men wore broad feather headresses over their eyes in flapping swaths. It was something to rival any Star Wars costume design.
The Miwok were only one of the tribes living in Northern California before the Russians or Spaniards came calling. The Pomo ranged into our area. These were also exemplary basket weavers. Some baskets were so tightly woven the stitches could not be seen without a magnifying glass. They used them for cooking, trapping, cradling their babies, dishes for eating, and hats among other things, some of them were even used as boats. They weren’t farmers any more than the Miwok; they gathered and hunted the same roots, wild produce, and game. Their religion though was something that caught my attention in my adult years (as a kid – it was “more baskets and acorns?”). The Pomo participated in shamanism which includes a great many exciting details (elaborate costumes, ceremonies, puberty rites) but most thrilling to me was the concept of shamanistic intervention with the spirit world. What a rich vein to mine for historical fiction! But it turned out they were actually influenced by a much more complex tribal religion.
On the fringes of these two tribes were the Wintu, a tribe that ranged between us and the Sacramento Valley. The Patwin tribe which was closest to our area, were much like the Pomo and Coastal Miwok in many ways, hunter gatherers, basket weavers, ate a lot of acorns. The men wore less clothing as in usually none except for the occasional deerskin kilt. The women wore long grass skirts decorated with beads and shells.
Their religion was deep and stirring. Spirits were present in all things and could be acquired by dreaming, going to a sacred place and engaging in ritualistic behaviors. Prayer, charms and magic could all be used to influence the spirit world which in turn affected the material. Bear shamans could destroy enemies. Their ominous power was derived from arduous 5 day initiation ceremonies conducted by an assembly of master shamans. Their cures included soul capture and sucking out of a disease causing object. Many of their secret societies that performed shamanistic ceremonies were open to high-status women as well as men.
Needless to say, by the time I’d started doing research for my novel I had a fantastic new respect for the Native Americans that first populated Northern California. And there are still places you can go in Northern California to see and learn about these people. The Coast Miwok Village at Point Reyes National Park is wonderful as is the small museum. Follow this link to read and see more with directions included https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/historyculture/people_coastmiwok.htm
On the Sonoma coast’s Fort Ross is an absolutely worthwhile trip and a gorgeous drive to boot. The fort is part preserved/part reconstructed Russian trading post. It is a fascinating thing to explore. All the bunks the soldiers slept in, the Fort Manager’s house (surprisingly elegant by contrast to the other buildings), the Russian Orthodox Chapel and all the amazing history of Native American involvement. The museum there is comprehensive in its coverage of the Native Americans along the Sonoma coast line, their life before the fort and their lives during and after. To read and see more including directions follow this link https://www.fortross.org/
The Wild North West is a place that is every bit as thrilling as the westerns I grew up with as a kid in the 70’s. In fact it kind of makes those look dusty and faded in comparison. I am more than excited to write something about this time and place. It’s been a blast just learning and touring the sites listed above.
Stay tuned gentle readers. There’s more to come.
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