In 1848, Sam Brannan – an ex-communicated Mormon – ran through the streets of San Francisco yelling that there was gold in the foothills. Of course, this man who single-handedly started the gold rush bought up all the picks, pans and mining equipment he could find before announcing the discovery to the world.
In 1859, San Fransisco resident Joshua Norton – an Englishman who came to the city by way of South Africa – declared himself Emperor of these United States. Norton I: Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, later dissolved congress, saying:
It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing through the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of Government–in consequence of which, WE do hereby abolish Congress.
Over the years, he issued several other decrees, printed his own currency, and continued to insist his title was Emperor. How did San Fransisco respond? They called him Emperor and local establishments accepted his currency.
In 1863, Lillie Coit became an honorary member of the “Knickerbocker 5” volunteer fire fighters unit. This woman wore pants, fought fires, smoked cigars and gambled. It was all very scandalous, except nobody cared – she was just another character in a thriving city. Coit Tower, shaped like a fire hose nozzle (possibly apocryphal), now stands in her memory.
These folks – and many more I’ve failed to mention – may have been a little eccentric, and possibly mentally ill, but they were part of the life blood of San Fransisco. Part of character of westward expansion.
The people who settled California in these decades were exploring the final frontier. They came from around the globe. All of them were outsiders. Many of them hoped to find something in this “undiscovered” country. Most of them were crazy in one sense of the word or another.
The laws of high society hadn’t quite made it out here. The rough and tumble attitude allowed unique characters to thrive. This, of course, wasn’t always for the best – I understand the “Shanghai-ers” formed a union as they carted men off in the night to serve aboard ships.
And this isn’t some ancient, long forgotten history. These are the stories I heard growing up. These are the heroes I was taught to admire.
To be honest, California is still a little rough and tumble and it’s certainly still home to many colorful characters. We may be misfits without high society to keep us proper, but…it’s all good, man. We get by.