Tuesday, January 20, 2009



The Magazines and Newspapers Center of the San Francisco Public Library offers a wealth of archived historical evidence tracing the tumultuous saga of our city – as told in the rough-and-tumble newspapers of the era – in our microfilm collection on the fifth floor.

The living legacy found in the early newspapers of San Francisco provides a one-of-a kind contemporary written record of the origins and development of a city that made itself great, as well as the settlements of Northern California and the entire Bay Area community. These roaring, rousing, and often opinionated publications documented the partisan zeal, political corruption, political demagoguery, lurid headlines, defamatory editorials, partisan feuds, moralistic essays, slanted sermons, heroic tales, stubborn individualism, proud independence, patriotic fervor, and oftentimes libelous pronouncements that galvanized readers and influenced public opinion and civic direction. San Francisco and the gold mines were a point of entry for men and material, a clash of moralities old and new – and the financial center of a rapidly acquired - and very vast, wealth.

Based in Monterey in August 1846, THE CALIFORNIAN claimed the title of being the first California newspaper, yet THE CALIFORNIAN (after relocating in May 1847) became just the second paper published in the village of Yerba Buena.

The first paper in San Francisco was the Sam Brannan-owned CALIFORNIA STAR (published 1847-1848), self-described in the April 1, 1848 issue as “a weekly journal, devoted to the liberties and interests of the people of California, published by Samuel Brannan and edited by Edward C. Kemble.” Brannan and a group of Mormon settlers had arrived in Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) in 1846 with the city’s first printing press, setting up shop on Clay Street, upstairs from a mule-powered grist mill. Kemble had accompanied the Brannan party voyage to Yerba Buena on board the Brooklyn (six months out of New York) on July 31, 1846, and became the (18-year old) boy editor. Brannan and Kemble began their modest enterprise with a No. 4 Washington press Star printing machine. According to Kemble,

“The name of the intended paper had been cut in wood six months before in the city of New York. We had half a dozen pairs of cases of old Long Primer and Brevier type, and two or three small fonts of job type. These, with the press, were set up in the loft of the mill, and the first printing office on the Bay of San Francisco was ready for business.”

The weekly STAR debuted on January 9, 1847. The January 23 and 30 issues of 1847 ran the military government order proclaiming San Francisco as the town name, replacing thereafter Yerba Buena

"....in all official communications and public documents or records appertaining to the town...."

The January 16, 1847 issue of the STAR detailed the still-unfolding story of

"...a party of emigrants from the United States, who were prevented from crossing the mountains by an early fall of snow...."

The ill-fated travelers, it was revealed on February 13, had traveled overland from the Missouri River, and,

"…After wandering about a number of days bewildered in the snow, their provisions gave out…..”

These first accounts of the Donner party ran even as San Franciscans frantically raised money to purchase supplies for the proposed rescue of the unlucky group of settlers, trapped in the Sierra snows.

The CALIFORNIA STAR attempted a census of the “Statistics of San Francisco” in the August 28th, 1847 edition. Besides noting a total population of 459 hardy souls living in “the town of San Francisco (Yerba Buena),” the STAR described the ethnicity of inhabitants, as well as their occupations (including 26 carpenters, 20 laborers, 13 clerks, 11 agriculturalists, 4 tailors, and 6 printers). The STAR census also mentioned that

"...there are two weekly newspapers printed in this place....THE CALIFORNIA STAR and THE CALIFORNIAN....and though of small size they are deserving of the support and confidence of the community. They are both printed in English with an occasional article and advertisement in Spanish."

News traveled slowly en route to and from Alta California; San Francisco readers waited weeks to learn of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the end of the war with Mexico, and the annexation of California by the United States Government. The STAR was one of the first in San Francisco to fleetingly report on the discovery of gold in California (some two months after it was first found along the American River). On March 25, 1848, the CALIFORNIA STAR reported in a rather obtuse fashion,

“….So great is the quantity of gold taken from the mine recently found at New Helvetia that it has become an article of traffic in that vicinity….”

The short-lived STAR ran a Marine Journal each week, listing Port of San Francisco arrivals and departures. The STAR booster edition (or “Express Extra”) comprised an overland shipment of some 2500 copies, carried by mule train to the Mississippi Valley – a vivid and effective method of attracting settlers from the East – with a first edition date of April 1, 1848. This title ceased publication with the June 14, 1848 issue – after editor Elbert. P. Jones found himself without a staff; the erstwhile members of his newspaper office crew had unceremoniously abandoned journalism for a try at the gold fields. Some months later, Sam Brannan sold his interest in the by-then idle CALIFORNIA STAR. Purchased initially by Robert Semple, the STAR was later combined with rival paper THE CALIFORNIAN in 1849. Publisher, editor, compositor, and printer Edward C. Kemble (Sam Brannan’s former partner) added two new investors and renamed his property the ALTA CALIFORNIA.

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