Historic Portland

Historic Portland Oregon is one of those large cities surrounded by absolutely beautiful scenery and a plethora of historic sites. The list of historic sites to visit seems endless and they stretch out in every direction. A Visit to Portland itself is quite historic for a number of reasons.

portland oregon mass transit

Portland Oregon's efficient and popular mass transit system

The Pioneers Head Down the Columbia

Portland Oregon is located where the Columbia River and Willamette River intersect. Portland, or the settlement that eventually turned into Portland Oregon, had everything to do with these two rivers.

The Columbia of course was the river traveled by the earliest pioneers into the northwest. It was the road that took the pioneers to the fertile Willamette Valley after a 2,000 mile journey along the Overland and Oregon Trails from Missouri. The Willamette River took them a bit south to what would be Oregon City.

It would be Oregon City that would be the main settlement for the Americans from the mid west. The British would mainly reside around Fort Vancouver which is on the north side of the Columbia and base of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Two Men in a Canoe Founded Portland

The story of the founding of Portland Oregon and how historic Portland was given it’s name involves a canoe trip between Fort Vancouver and Oregon City. The land where Portland resides today was a stopping off point along the river between these two settlements. In 1843, two men, William Overton and Asa Lovejoy, who had floated past this spot numerous times, filed claims for land in what was referred to at the time as “The Clearing“.

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Portland Oregon, circa 1890

Eventually Overton sold his claim to a man named Francis Pettygrove from Portland Maine. When it came time to name their settlement both men, Pettygrove and Lovejoy, wished to name it after their home towns. The choice therefore was either Boston or Portland. A coin was flipped, Pettygrove won, and the new settlement was officially named Portland. This event attests to just how close Portland Oregon once came to being named “Boston.”

In subsequent years the claim would be sold, resold, and split up. Some owners actually used their claims as equity for other investments.  Certain individuals owned certain sections and some with waterfront parcels. The town was incorporated as Portland in 1851.

Portland and Oregon City

Oregon City is located 12 miles upriver on the Willamette from Portland. Oregon City was the territorial capital. Although Oregon City was the capital and far older, Portland had the distinct advantage of being located where the two traveled rivers intersected and had water depth enough that could handle ocean going vessels. As a result, Portland grew steadily in population. Historic Portland grew into a major port in the Pacific Northwest.

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Beautifully restored interior of Portland's Union Station

Historic Landmarks of Today’s Portland Oregon

Portland  Union Station– Here is an historic building that fortunately has been saved and preserved. In addition to that it still serves as a busy transportation hub serving Amtrak and other rail lines. Union Station has leased offices on the upper floors and a restaurant on the ground floor. Union Station was built in 1890 for a cost of $300,000. When you view this train terminal, a significant piece of architecture that immediately stands out is the 150 foot high Romanesque style clock tower. Having been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, Union Station is operated by the Portland Development Commission as part of the Downtown/Waterfront urban renewal district.

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The Governor Hotel

The Governor Hotel– The Governor Hotel was constructed in 1909 and is one of the city’s oldest hotels. Architect William Christmas Knighton designed this luxury hotel billed as a “Hotel of Quiet Elegance”. The Governor Hotel has since become a landmark in Portland’s history and a place as familiar to Portlanders as home.  Portland had only four hotels in the entire city in 1900 which were considered first or second class. The Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition of 1905 in Portland brought in many more tourists and the tourism trade continued to grow after that. As a result there was a boom in the luxury hotel industry and the Governor Hotel is an excellent example of the result. Early guests at the Governor Hotel would typically pay from $1.50 for a sleeping room to $2.00 a night for a private bath and breakfast.

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Portland's old Roosevelt Hotel

Roosevelt Hotel– Built in 1924, the Roosevelt Hotel building, located at 1005 SW Park Avenue, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Named in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt, the hotel was eventually converted into 104 condos in the year 2000.

Theodore Roosevelt had a strong connection to the city of Portland. During the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905, President Roosevelt pressed on a gold telegraph key at the White House officially starting the exposition. Roosevelt is also dear to many in Oregon for his efforts in creating Crater Lake National Park in 1902. Many Roosevelt historians know that the president was quite involved with conservation and in setting aside a good deal of public lands for future generations to enjoy as national parks and monuments.

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Portland Oregon's Pioneer Courthouse

Pioneer Courthouse– Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse has the distinction of being the oldest federal courthouse in the Pacific Northwest and the second oldest west of the Mississippi River. The Pioneer Courthouse was built in stages beginning in 1869 and lasting to 1903. At one time the building housed a U.S. Post Office. Today, the courthouse serves as one of the sites of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. We are fortunate that the structure still remains because over the decades there had been efforts to have it demolished as far back as 1933.

First named the United States Building, The Pioneer Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips into History links to other sites in the Portland area. These include the Tillamook Head Historic Lighthouse and a Visit to The Dalles.

Also, on our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy a Visit to old Fort Vancouver’s Officer’s Row.

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Amtrak's Coast Starlight at Portland's Union Station

Visiting the Great Portland Oregon Area

As mentioned above visiting Portland offers the Oregon tourist easy access to a numerous historic sites in every direction. Historic Oregon City, once the territorial capital is located twelve miles south along the Willamette River. Fort Vancouver Washington is just across the Interstate 5 bridge to the north. The Columbia River Scenic Highway runs east from the Portland area and follows the south shore of the Columbia River to historic towns like The Dalles. Driving northwest from Portland takes you to the mouth of the Columbia to Astoria Oregon and Fort Stevens and the scenic coastline. There are many more areas and sites to explore in addition to the ones mentioned above. Historic Portland has much to offer.

A visit to Portland is a great way to enjoy beautiful scenery and learn much about how our historic Pacific Northwest was settled.

(Photos from author’s collection. Photo of Portland circa 1890 is from the public domain)


Grattan Massacre

The Grattan Memorial

There is a memorial in present day Goshen County Wyoming that many historians would say commemorates the very beginning of the Plains Indian Wars. What is known as the Grattan Massacre ushered in a quarter of a century of Indian warfare along the Great Plains of the western U.S.

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Gratton Massacre Marker

The marker shown in this article is located about 1/2 mile to the southeast of where the massacre occurred on August 19th, 1854. The marker is along Route 157 about 5 miles west of Lingle Wyoming.

At the time of the massacre, the battle site was east of Fort Laramie in Nebraska Territory.

A small detachment of U.S. Cavalty entered a Sioux camp and when it was all over a total of twenty-nine soldiers were killed plus a Lieutenant John Grattan and an interpreter.

The Ignition of Hostilities

Historians occasionally debate as to what represented the start of the plains Indian Wars. The Indian War was not one contiguous event but more of a decades long conflict with fits and starts and interspersed with weak treaties. History pretty much describes an escalating conflict that grew more violent and more fierce as more and more settlers traveled through traditional Indian lands. Of course, along with the settlers and emigrants heading to California and Oregon, so did the U.S. military increase it’s presence. In a very real way the Indian Wars were an event just waiting to happen. What was the spark that set it off? Was it a relatively small event that escalated into something much larger?

The Dakota War of 1862

The question then could be...just when did these hostilities begin? What was the beginning of the Indian Wars? In particular, what set off the Plains Indian Wars?

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Settlers fleeing during the 1862 Dakota Indian War in Minnesota

One answer often suggested is the very bloody Dakota Indian war in the state of Minnesota that occurred in August of 1862 right in the middle of the American Civil War.

The Dakota Indians residing in Minnesota were from the eastern band of the Sioux. Leading up to the war and one of it’s causes was something that would plague Native American-U.S. government relations for years to come...late or unfair annuity payments of supplies as per treaties in force at the time.

White traders had something to do with this as well since they were making demands to the government to send the annuity supplies to the Indians through them. The Dakota’s on the other hand wanted the supplies directly from their Indian agents, not from the traders. Everything reached a standstill.

In this unhealthy atmosphere, four young Dakota Indians came upon a farmhouse and were allegedly caught stealing some eggs. One thing led to another, and there are various variations of the story, but when all was said and done, five whites at the farm were killed by the Dakota youths. This event alone would have caused certain retaliation but to make matters worse, that very night a Dakota tribal council agreed to go to war against the whites and drive them out of the entire area of southwestern Minnesota. The bloody conflict went on for several months and only ended when the U.S. Army intervened and caused the surrender of most of the Dakota Sioux.

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Drawing of mass hanging in Mankato Minnesota in 1862

There are no reliable numbers of how many white settlers were killed at the hands of the Dakota Sioux, but most estimates say several hundred and some as high as 800. In December of 1862, an event never seen before or after occurred when the largest mass hanging in U.S. history took place. This occurred in Mankato Minnesota on December 26, 1862. A total of thirty-eight Dakota Sioux were hanged in front of a large crowd. After the U.S. government shut down the reservations in the spring of 1863, the Dakota Sioux were formally thrown out of the state and wandered westward to what is today Nebraska and South Dakota.

Trouble on the High Plains of Wyoming

What often is overlooked as the start of the Plains Indian Wars is what occurred just outside of Fort Laramie some eight years prior to the Minnesota Dakota War. What should have been a relatively routine event in the year 1854 exploded into the history books as one, if not “the” turning point in how Native Americans would be dealt with by the federal government for decades to come. This 1854 event marked the beginning of the Plains Indian Wars.

Additional articles we’ve published that you’ll find interesting are a Frontier Soldiers LifeExcerpts from the Oregon Trail Diaries…and the Fetterman Massacre.

On our Western Trips site, see the articles The Battle of Slim Buttes and the Steamboat and an Indian War.

A Mormon and his Slain Ox

The story starts with a Mormon pioneer making a complaint to the commander of Fort Laramie. The complaint as filed was that one of his oxen was killed by an Indian. The Mormon emigrant was traveling along the Oregon Trail and his ox apparently wandered away. The emigrant was certain that it was killed by one of the Sioux camped nearby. Handling of something like this would normally be the duty of the assigned Indian agent. It was not thought of as being a military matter.

The Indian agent was due in several days with annuities. In the meantime the owner of the ox was demanding an immediate $25 payment. The local Sioux Chief Conquering Bear tried to negotiate unsuccessfully.

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Old Fort Laramie, circa 1840

At this point the military ordered the chief to bring the guilty Indian, who was identified as a Miniconjou, in to the fort. This is where things started to get out of hand.

The chief refused because he said he had no power over the Miniconjou’s. With things at a dead end in the affair, the military dispatched a young officer, Second Lt. John Grattan, to go to the Miniconjou Sioux camp and retrieve the wanted Indian. Lt. Grattan rode to the camp with twenty-nine armed soldiers. The task was to be relatively simple…arrest and bring the accused Indian back to Fort Laramie.

Similar to other historic events, the real details often come out sometime later as told by those who witnessed them. Sometimes they conflict but you can usually get a general idea of what took place.

In this particular confrontation most interpretations paint a picture of a relatively inexperienced young officer leading his heavily armed troops to the camp of the Miniconjou’s bent on returning with the accused Indian. During what turned into a standoff, one of the troopers apparently shot the Chief Conquering Bear. At that point the Indians attacked the small detachment of soldiers and killed all of them. It happened that quick.

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An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians, artist unknown

Much of the descriptions of this event were related by a James Bordeau who owned a nearby trading post. Bordeau witnessed the massacre. Bordeau placed some of the blame on the interpreter brought along who he claimed taunted the Indians prior to the violence. Bordeau escaped with his life only because he was married to a Sioux and was also on very friendly terms with the tribe. Regardless, his trading post was cleaned out by the frenzied warriors.

In the aftermath of the massacre, some warriors rode to Fort Laramie determined to attack what they knew to be a lightly defended post. They ultimately withdrew without an attack and then moved their camp to the north knowing full well that some form of retribution would be coming.

Outcry From the Press

Outrage hit the streets when the press reported the Grattan Massacre. The description “Grattan Massacre” was the exact headline used in newspapers throughout the east. Newspaper reporting during the westward migration embraced the policy of Manifest Destiny. Stories often times were greatly embellished to help sell papers in a competitive environment, however the outcome of the Grattan Massacre was evident to all. What the press did was just throw lots of fuel on the fire.

general william harney

General William S. Harney

Outrage Throughout the Nation

People were riled and tempers were flaring. The outrage wasn’t only in towns and cities but reached all the way up to President Pierce in Washington. Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, characterized the massacre as being preplanned and vowed a strong military response.

The military response did come about one year later headed by General William S. Harney. Harney, a southerner and later a Confederate soldier, led a scorched earth policy against the Sioux. Harney was looking for retribution, not parley, and one result was the wiping out of an entire Lakota Sioux camp in a raid known as the Battle of Ash Hollow and sometimes called the Battle of Bluewater Creek. The infantry pinned the Sioux down between themselves and the cavalry. Women and children were caught in the crossfire.

Dozens of prisoners were also taken back to Fort Laramie and some sent back to Fort Leavenworth Kansas. General Harney was able to put together a treaty with the tribes a year later which was on strictly U.S. Government terms but as with many treaties agreed upon and signed years later, they usually weren’t lasting.

Historic Sites to Visit

The bodies of Grattan and his troops were recovered and buried. Later they were reburied and memorial markers built. The troops were formally buried at Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Lincoln County Nebraska and that of Lt. John Grattan at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery in Kansas.

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Chief Red Cloud in latter years

The Grattan Massacre in 1854 and it’s aftermath however was recognized as the first time the U.S. federal government officially set out against the plains Indians in a retaliatory mission. The military mission in 1855 was to answer the opening salvo which took the form of the Grattan Massacre. Many expeditions would follow in the ensuing decades.

From that point forward, through Red Cloud’s War in the late 1860’s and the resulting Fetterman Massacre, the Sioux War of 1876-77 and the Custer defeat, and then years later to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, conflicts took place on and off with various Native Americans of the Great Plains. The Plains Indian War was a war that raged on and off for almost four decades.

It all began with the Grattan Massacre on August 19th, 1854 in Nebraska Territory.

(Article copyright 2013 Trips Into History. Photos and images in public domain)

The First California Theaters

Trips Into History visits some of the old California theaters, many of which trace their beginnings back to the days of the Gold Rush. Several of these theaters are still standing and make great additions to your California vacation planner.

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Nevada Theater, Nevada City California

Interestingly enough, the theaters not only sprouted up to offer some type of “refined” entertainment to the gold prospectors, but in places like San Francisco, even warred against each other to compete for the money and gold streaming into that city.

Add These Sites to Your California Trip Planner

Nevada Theater– Located in Nevada City California up in the Sierra Nevada this is the oldest continuously operating live theater in California. Nevada City was at one time a booming mining town and attracted as performers such notable names as the Lotta Crabtree, Edwin Booth and Mark Twain.

Eagle Theater– This reconstructed theater is located in Old Town Sacramento California. The original theater which was built with canvas and wood was washed away by a flood in January 1850 just three months after it’s construction. The story is that Gold Rush miners attended live performances even while the theater was being filled with water. Eventually it collapsed and floated down the Sacramento River.

Napa Valley Opera House– This opera house opened in Napa California in 1880. The Italianate style building was the venue for the 1896 exhibition featuring the famous fighter, John L. Sullivan. The writer Jack London also read from his works at the opera house.

eagle theater in sacramento california

Reconstructed Eagle Theater, Old Town Sacramento California

Live Theater and the Gold Miner

The first entertainers to reach the remote mining camps in the Sierra Nevada foothills might be someone with a guitar and a song. Nothing spectacular. The venue might have been a saloon and a tent saloon at that. These were really traveling shows. What was realized by the traveling minstrels was that a prospector would gladly pay for entertainment. The San Francisco theater business was right around the corner. The gold rush of 1849 was soon to enrich the city in another way.

Men of means in San Francisco discovered that there was another way, in addition to gambling, to part miners from their gold nuggets. The 49ers gold rush was soon to pour more gold into San Francisco. Live entertainment was just the thing for home sick prospectors. Women at this early year were essentially absent. There was no Saturday night courting. The miners would gladly pay to be entertained and especially entertained with something comical or slapstick. A form of entertainment that would get their thoughts away from the drudgery of mining for gold. The wilder and funnier the better.

napa valley opera house

Napa Valley Opera House, Napa California

In the book Women of the Gold Rush by author Elizabeth Margo, she states that California’s very first concert was performed on June 22, 1849 in San Francisco. The venue was a small schoolhouse located on the plaza which also doubled as a jail. The entertainer was a man named Steve Massett who was a part songwriter and piano player. All reports were that the concert was sold out (in a very small structure) and was accepted well. As it turned out, this was a one time event and things on the theater front were quiet until the end of 1849.

In the winter of 1850, a man referred to as the Doctor, would open San Francisco’s first theater, although using the word theater is a bit of a stretch. A hastily put up shack was a better description. The Doctor, also going by the name of Yankee Robinson, was indeed a doctor who had a medical school degree from the east. Yankee Robinson operated a drug store on the plaza and also had a talent for performing. Robinson was a part mimic, songwriter, guitar player and monologist.

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Crowded San Francisco Harbor in 1851

It was time for the Doctor to start the first San Francisco theater. All accounts say that the Doctor was a hit with the miners. He was especially successful with telling jokes about the gold miners and their quest to conquer El Dorado. The Doctor found out that miners enjoyed being joked about and he had them rolling in the aisles. It was escapism and comedy and the miners loved it.

Fires and San Francisco

The Doctor also took in some decent money with his theater. Not long after the Doctor started his little theater, San Francisco was hit by a devastating fire. These fires in 1850 and 1851 came on a regular basis. They also occurred with regularity in the early mining towns in the Sierra Nevada.

During that era, most structures were either made of wood or were simply tents. Fires occurred almost every month or so. Tents and simple structures would be replaced about as fast as they burned up. It was quite incredible how San Francisco and the other towns rebuilt so many times in the 1850’s. Each rebuilding usually was a bit better than what was there before. Some historians contend that the fires in a way improved the San Francisco theater industry and the city in general.

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Today's Nevada City California

Robinson and Evrard

Yankee Robinson’s second theater was put together with a partner and was called the Robinson and Evrard Museum. While the theater used the word museum, the venue was a theater. At about the same time, a well established gambler by the name of Tom McGuire, also decided that there just might be another way to get miners to part with their gold other than gambling. McGuire owned and operated the Parker House gambling hall and was making a lot of money. He already had women at his gambling hall to help lure men in. Why not have them act on a stage and bring in even more money?

McGuire had also figured out that it might be a good idea to have a second revenue stream. You never knew how long the gambling binge might last. Gold miners who could afford it had no problem catching a steamboat to enjoy the San Francisco live entertainment.

What’s amazing was that the regular fires in San Francisco did not discourage the expansion of the theater industry. In fact, they didn’t seem to discourage anything. Each time a fire would burn the city down, another larger theater would sprout up.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History articles about Nevada City California and Madame Mustache and the Story of Sacramento’s Eagle Theater.

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Steamer service from Sacramento to San Francisco

The Theater Battles Between the Doctor and Tom McGuire

Tom McGuire’s theater was named the Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind was a celebrated opera singer from Europe who for whatever reason never did visit San Francisco. In all, McGuire had three different Jenny Lind’s due to the regular  fires. The last one was a showplace in 1851 with a capacity of some three thousand. Between the fires and the building of theaters, a competition started up between the Doctor and Tom McGuire.

The competition was for both the miners gold and for the available talent. Each theater owner tried to snag the best performers. As is the case with theater in general, personality flare ups were an occurrence and performers would change venues often. Promotion was very important. Prominent signs and employing barkers at the door to bring in ticket buyers was important. Simple ticket price cutting wasn’t a wise option because the overhead in owning a theater was substantial and the two owners both knew it. Much more overhead than simply running faro or monte tables at a gambling hall.

A funny story told about Yankee Robinson’s third and final theater, the American, had to do with it’s construction. As you might already know, much of the present day San Francisco waterfront area is landfill. In the 1850’s, roads were being formed on the cities sand hills and the sand would be pushed into the bay. As a result, the land area increased along the shore. It just so happened that the Doctor built his theater on just such landfill.

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Old Town Sacramento California

The Doctor built a three thousand seat showplace. It was considered an architectural wonder. His competitor, McGuire and his associates, however didn’t waste any time spreading rumors around town that Robinson’s new American Theater just might be unsafe on all that landfill. Regardless of the rumors, Yankee Robinson’s theater opened up to a full house. While the opening proved successful it was a bit shaky at first. The story is that Robinson’s theater sank some two inches into the landfill while the opening performance was going on.

While it had nothing to do where Yankee Robinson’s American Theater was built, Tom McGuire in the end did win the theater battle. The Doctor went out of business at the end of 1851. Possibly McGuire’s background in the gambling business worked to outsmart the ex drug store owner/ performer/physician. Regardless, the Doctor was finished, bankrupt and actually ended up working for McGuire. The Doctor after all was a performer.

McGuire himself got into some financial trouble in 1852 and as a result of knowing the right people, sold his Jenny Lind Theater to the city fathers for their first city hall. McGuire reportedly got around $200,000 for the building and turned around and opened another theater. Tom McGuire, the gambling hall owner at heart, always seemed to think a step ahead of others.

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Lotta Crabtree, 1868

Lotta Crabtree Launches Her Career

An interesting fact is that some very prominent entertainers came out of the California gold mining region. The book, Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson, gives a lot of detail about some of these performers. The most famous would have been Lotta Crabtree who went on to be the first millionaire entertainer. Lotta was from the east and arrived in California with her mother to join the father who had went in advance searching for gold. His gold efforts went nowhere but his young five year old daughter in the early 1850’s would go on to be a nationally recognized star.

The Times Changed and the Theater Changed

In a way, you could say that what played successful at the theater house ran in direct correlation with the amount of women arriving, respectable women, who inhabited both San Francisco and to a lesser degree the gold camps.

The more wives and relatives who arrived to join the prospectors, the more the atmosphere changed. And many would say for the better. If Shakespeare productions were not popular in 1849, and they weren’t, then they would begin to be as the region became, for lack of a better word, civilized. By the mid 1850’s, churches started to sprout up, schools were being established and a sort of moral standard was evoked. The new residents wouldn’t put up with what the first gold prospectors would. They would complain and complain loudly.

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Gold Panning Statue in Placerville California

This change wasn’t lost on the gambling hall and theater owners. The early success of Yankee Robinson’s one man act telling jokes about the miners with the accompanying catcalls from the audience declined by about the same rate as women arrived in San Francisco by steamer.

Theater productions, while possibly still performed without rehearsals, took on more serious and classical plot lines. Wild and rowdy show productions weren’t selling like they used to. While there have always been exceptions, plays and monologues that would be acceptable to both male and female audiences were the new money makers.

An Unintended Social Experiment

To demonstrate just how fast the moral atmosphere changed, the state of California in 1855 passed a law forbidding gambling in the state. Obviously, back room games still popped up behind closed curtains. The gambling prohibition also took a bit longer to take hold in the mining camps and villages. The remote locations and the inability to adequately enforce the law made change much slower in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

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Modern day San Francisco California

What is interesting is in just how short of a time these significant changes came about. From 1849 to 1855, things almost came full circle. The entire six year span was like a social experiment. The experiment demonstrated what would take place with an almost all male population placed in a remote area without family influences and while on a quest for riches.

It also included the element of no standing moral values. In other words, the prospectors first crude mining camps represented the first civilizing step in building a settlement. The difference with this experiment was that the settlement was being built in the middle of nowhere. Some might say that the 49ers situation was like that of a deployed military unit. The difference however is that a military unit has a chain of command and recognized leaders. There were neither during the first years of the California Gold Rush. I’m certain that many letters sent back home to wives or relatives during the first few years omitted much of the extracurricular activities that went on. Excessive drinking and gambling may have been left out of the letters back home. When the first contingent of respectable females arrived in the gold country, the clock started ticking.

When living conditions and social moors changed, so did the San Francisco theater business. There are many historic theaters in California and several of them make great additions to your California vacation planner.

(Photos of San Francisco harbor and Lotta Crabtree from the public domain. Remaining photos are from author’s collection)