5 Things You Should Know About California’s 19th Century Maritime History

California is my home state. (Ironic, that I study the history of Virginia for Civil War studies, eh?) California played a significant role in 19th Century American Maritime History. Part of California’s role had to do with its location.

West Coast of the United States, bordered by the Pacific Ocean.

When California was a Mexican province, its people started welcoming the American merchant ships. When California became a state in 1850, the gold rush brought thousands to the west coast. California’s location also made it a gateway state for immigrants and a last port before a ship set off across the Pacific Ocean.

Today we’ve rounded up five important aspects of California’s maritime history of the 19th Century. We’re keeping it simple for the sake of time, but feel free to add comments if you have more information to contribute.

  1. Carrying dried cow hides out to the waiting ships.

    Trading For Leather Hides

From the North American east coast, the United States’ sailing ships circled the globe, bringing home foreign treasures and practical trade items. California had a market of leather and beef, and the Americans were willing to do business. Perhaps one of the most famous primary sources in California’s saga and American maritime history is Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. While detailing the hardships, injustices, and adventures of a common seaman on merchant ships, the account highlights trading for leather hides along the California coast. The book was published in 1840, and records voyages and trading accounts from the late 1830’s. (This paragraph was borrowed from an Emerging Civil War post written by yours truly; find the complete article here – 1846: Grumbling California.)

2. U.S. Navy Along The California Coast During The Mexican American War

The U.S. Navy had store rooms in California ports during the Mexican Era (prior to 1846) for the Pacific Squadron. Gunpowder, fresh food and water, and other supplies could be obtained through the store rooms.

During the Mexican-American War, thirteen U.S. ships were stationed off the California coast. With the conflict progressing on other fronts, the United States was anxious to seize California before a foreign power (Britain) made an attempt. The navy captured and occupied important port cities like Monterrey, San Francisco, and San Diego; many towns surrendered before shots were fired.

Following the conflict, California became a U.S. Territory and – two years later – a state. Californian ports provided safe harbors and “home bases” for American navy vessels through the latter half of the 19th Century and continues to welcome the modern ships and fleets.

Advertisement for a fast clipper ship

3. Getting To California For The Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush began in 1850, and “gold fever” swept through the United States and the world. Men quit their jobs, invested in pick and pan and headed for California. But how did they get there?

Well, Americans on the East Coast had three options:

a. Cross the Continental United States (usually by wagon train)

b. Sail to Panama, cross the Isthmus of Panama, sail up the Pacific coast

c. Sail all the way around Cape Horn (southern tip of South America) and up the Pacific coast

Two-thirds of the choices involved sailing. Passenger ships vied with each for speed and boasted of their successes in order to charge their gold-frenzied passengers more expensive passage. Clipper ships and steam ships were the major methods of transportation.

Once the ships arrived in San Francisco harbor, many crews and captains jumped ship, following their passengers to the inland gold fields. An observer described the harbor as a floating forest of ship masts and remarked on the oddity of the abandoned ships.

4. Fishing, Fishing!

The California Gold Rush brought people from many countries, backgrounds, and ethnic groups to the new state. These new arrivals brought their skill-sets with them and – when the fun in the gold fields ended – the “prospectors” started looking for new ways to make a living.

With fresh meat limited in the California markets, fish and seafood became a welcome source of protein. Azorean-Portuguese and Chinese immigrants embraced the opportunity and constructed fishing fleets.

San Francisco Harbor, c. 1851

At the very end of the 19th Century, (1899 to be exact) collapse of the Italian sardine fishing industry prompted many Mediterranean-based fishermen to immigrate to California, launching the sardine fishing and canneries – an extremely profitable maritime related business in 20th Century California.

5. Port of San Francisco 

The Gold Rush prompted the development of San Francisco harbor. Along the shore, it grew from a collection of wooden shacks to a full-fledged city. For a while, it was the only west coast harbor designated for port of entry and hosting the U.S. Customs Office. This meant that a huge variety of foreign imports channeled into the harbor, adding to the city’s wealth, national and global importance, and diversity.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to 5 Things You Should Know About California’s 19th Century Maritime History

  1. JEFFREY R. ROSS says:

    I HAVE TO USE A VOICE TO TEXT APP. DUE TO A WORK RELATED PERMANENT DISABILITY SO PLEASE FORGIVE ANY ERRORS IN GRAMMER, SPELLING ECT., LOOKING FOR BETTER ONES BUT ALL SEEM TO BE VERY UNPROFFESIONAL. WITH THAT OUT OF THE WAY I WANT TO SAY YOUR ARTICLES ARE AMAZING SARAH, I SEE THE TOPIC AND THINK “I’M NOT INTERESTED IN THAT” AND AFTER A PARAGRAPH I CAN’T STOP READING THEM FAST ENOUGH. YOUR ARTICLES ARE NOT ONLY SCIENTIFICLY BASED IN FACT BUT IT’S OBVIOUS THEY COME FROM THE HEART. THANK-YOU FOR ALL THE GREAT PAST READS AND I LOOK FORWORD TO YOUR FUTURE ONES SARAH. THANK-YOU, JEFFREY ROSS

    • Hi Jeffrey,
      Thank you for commenting. It means a lot to me to hear that you’re enjoying the blog posts.
      Do you have a favorite historical era or topic? Do let me know and I’ll consider it for a theme of the month; I like to hear from readers and know what’s interesting to them!
      Best,
      Sarah Kay Bierle

      • Jeffrey Ross says:

        Thanks for the reply Sarah, I really enjoy all history to be honest, at the risk of sounding like a caveman I think most men write in black and white whereas you write with gray (i.e. emotion). I sent a article into ECW since I’ve been gathering information for a book I would like to have finished by Christmas 2018, I told Chis I have to use voice to text due to physicall problems that have landed me on the disabled list and it causes alot of grammer ect. mistakes and I apologized for that, he sent a really nice e-Mail that the subject was good but they can’t get into in-depth editing which as a non-profit I totally understand. Anyway if you want the subject for a article it was with what we know now about concussions and about Joseph Hookers aggresiveness would he hsve turned tale and ran after the cannonball hit the pedestal into his head stunning him completely at chancellorsville? If you want it feel free. I’m in Detroit so guess time for bed lol, sweet dreams

      • Hmm…that sounds like an interesting topic. I’ll keep it in mind.

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