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San Francisco in July, 1849 by George Henry Burgess - Coursework on American History

6 pages
1449 words
Carnegie Mellon University
Type of paper: 
Course work
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The Gold Rush of California is one of the most phenomenal events in the history of America because of the socio-economic and cultural impact it had. A lot of urban centers in modern-day California came up in the wake of the Gold rush, the most notable of these being San Francisco. In the wake of the Gold discoveries in the year 1848, a lot of people migrated to California, setting off what would be the Gold Rush phenomenon that led to the establishment of San Francisco in 1849 (Clay & Jones 997). The wonder that was the Gold Rush is captured in many history works, but also in paintings, one of the most notable of which is the 1891 work by George Henry Burgess entitled San Francisco in July, 1849. The thematic focus of this oil on canvas painting, complemented by the artistry of Burgess cumulatively do well to illustrate that the Gold rush was a period of very rapid economic and metropolitan development for California and, by extension, the United States.

San Francisco in July, 1849 is a historical landscape painting whose beauty and verisimilitude is captured in every single stroke of Burgess brush. In the 62 inches by 133 inches painting, the brighter colors of red and yellow form a beautiful interplay in the middle of the painting to capture the bustle of activities in the town, which is located almost entirely in the middle ground. Remarkably, the scantily vegetated relief of California is well depicted in the naked yellow hills in the middle and left background of the painting. The sky is not azure, and traces of grey sit against the dim blue of Burgess paint brush to deliver a very realistic depiction of light but extensive cloud cover. Correspondingly, the sea in the right middle and background is not clear but is, instead, a dirty blue. This choice of color for the sea is complemented by the innumerable ships sitting on the water to capture the very busy Francisco Bay. One look at the painting and one can tell that this is a busy sea port. The Many ships in dock indicate the fact that the port in focus was a center for sea trade and probably connected the hinterland to other places beyond the bay shown. The truth of this observation is seen in a description of San Francisco by Frost thus:

But when the gold rush started, Yerba Buena, which by then had been renamed San Francisco, had established port facilities and became the place for transhipment for ocean-going boats that were too large to go further up the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers (p. 132).

As concerns form and technique, it must be pointed out that the painting is developed from short, sharp strokes that combine well to show a townscape alive with brisk activity. The fine red roofs and clean white walls tell of the newness of the buildings, and it is all too easy for even the inexperienced eye to discern the newness of most of the buildings in the settlement being depicted. The title of the painting is, therefore, very telling of the Gold Rush and very definitive of the painting itself because it describes the revamped activity in San Francisco just as the mining trade was picking up, having been newly renamed San Francisco from the Mexican name Yerba Buerna.

Keenly on the economic significance of shipping and the value of the Gold Rush to economic development, Frost explains very well how the Gold Rush spurred transshipping between California and other places in the quote below:

Food, drink, and clothing were all in short supply and this created a roaring trade for merchants and external suppliers. Prefabricated two-room buildings were shipped from Guangzhou (Canton) and assembled in San Francisco and other towns closer to the goldfields. Empty bottles were imported from Honolulu, Tahiti, and Mexico. Dirty laundry was shipped to Honolulu (p. 132).

It is clear from the above observation that business was booming in San Francisco because of the population influx and the corresponding demand for consumer goods and services. It needs no telling that the cumulative effect of these trades was a matured transshipping trade and increased mobility of labor, services and goods between San Francisco and other places, including the offshore islands of the USA and the Caribbean. In full view of these facts, it is clear that Burgess was fully aware of the situation of the Gold Rush and captured San Francisco, the landing of Gold Rush oceanic trade, in the very form it existed in during the Gold rush period. Above all, Burgess skillfullness with the brush goes a long way into effectively freezing Gold Rush San Francisco in time.

In the foreground and middle ground are well-done bushes, an indicator that the town was only just starting to grow. In the left foreground and middle ground one can see men galloping off on horseback, a clear indicator of industry. To complement this image is a man with a pan, obviously preparing a meal. Behind him are men next to a smoking fire, preparing a meal as well. The men cooking and living in tents captures the situation of the Gold Rush better than any other image in the whole painting. On this issue, frost says:

By January 1850, San Francisco had around 20,000 inhabitants, most of them living in hotels, boarding houses, tents, and shanties.13 Food, drink, and clothing were all in short supply and this created a roaring trade for merchants and external suppliers (p. 132).

There are tents to the right and middle and foreground too which, uniquely, have only men (Burgess). The tent imagery further delivers the truth the gold rush was a characteristically men-conducted affair (Clay & Jones 997). It is described by Clay and Jones that there were 11 men for every woman in San Francisco, which is very indicative of the gender imbalance that characterized urban California in the Gold Rush period. It is right to assert, therefore, that most of the economic development in San Francisco was conducted by men. Most of the middle and life middle ground and background depicts the town of San Francisco just starting. As noted on the painting description, the confluence of Montgomery and California streets is clear. Notably, this junction is the heart of the San Francisco commercial district even today (Burgess).

San Francisco in July, 1849 is specifically relevant to the Oakland Museum of California because it is a memoir from one of the most significant historical periods in the history of California. As a matter of fact, the painting tells a significant part of the complex story of how California as one of the most cosmopolitan regions in the USA came to be. Much to an observers insight, this painting not only captures the beginnings of San Francisco as one of the three main metropolises of California but also captures in the best fashion possible a typical day in Gold Rush California. Each and every detail of the painting reveals to an observer the story of the Gold Rush, more from an economic point of view than in any other way. It is, therefore, an artifact whose significance to the Oakland Museum of California and the USA as a whole will never dwindle.

In closing, San Francisco in July, 1849 is one of the most significant paintings of the Gold Rush by virtue of its realistic depiction of life and industry in the period. The painting effortlessly captures the transshipping trade that would be pivotal in the economic development of San Francisco. In addition, it captures the pressure on economic and social resource, another phenomenon that defined deeply the Gold Rush in California. Interestingly, the painting even reaches into the demographics of the Gold Rush because from its details one can infer the domination of the male gender in Gold Rush industry. What makes this painting powerful, therefore, is not the sheer artistry of Burgesswhich is itself commendable. Rather, it is the verisimilitude that the painting holds in capturing so much of what was going on in July 1849 in just one frame of canvas measuring 62 by 132 inches. Indeed, the value of the painting is demonstrated in the very realistic depicting of the Gold Rush, and this value is what makes the painting one of the greatest possessions of the Oakland Museum of California.


Works Cited

Burgess, Henry George. San Francisco in 1849, 1891.Oakland Museum of California, Oakland.

Clay, Karen, and Randall Jones. "Migrating to Riches? Evidence from the California GoldmRush." The Journal of Economic History, vol. 68, no. 4, 2008., pp. 997-1027doi:

Frost, Lionel. "Metallic Nerves: San Francisco and its Hinterland During and After the GoldnRush". Australian Economic History Review, vol 50, no. 2, 2010, pp. 129-147. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8446.2010.00297.x.


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