American Town

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How ‘accidental’ was the accidental city of San Francisco? What role did it play in turning America into a global power? Some of the questions I’ve started digging into.




American Town: How Washington Created San Francisco, 1845-1860

“A most horrible, degraded, violent and dirty place.”
– Diary of a Gold Rush miner

“It is to all intents an American town.”
– Hubert Howe Bancroft


Power, people, and politics: these were three shaping forces of American life in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Foremost, America continued since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s to be the world’s only remaining truly global economic and military power, able to exert influence and determine events from Atlantic to Pacific, and whose economic ups and downs and Presidential elections were the among the most followed news coverage in every major country. Secondly, the nation was a uniquely plural society, in which, after decades of difficult debate and outright violence, ethnicity and gender (and slowly sexual orientation) had ceased to constrain the package of rights citizens could receive and their ability to be full participants in society, and whose demographic makeup would less and less be dominated by one single group. Thirdly, and closely connected to the first two, America was a divided polity: the ideological and cultural lines were sharply delineated, and the beliefs and viewpoints of one side had become alien and unacceptable to the other. The red state/blue state division, the liberal coasts vs. the conservative middle and south, played out in election after election, and generated a substantial income in political entertainers eager to perform for their side of the show.

A global power, a plural society, a divided polity: these three core aspects of America in the 2000s were in turn outcomes of events set in motion two centuries before. And nowhere did these three characteristics stand out more clearly than in the creation and development of the city of San Francisco in the 1840s and 1850s. Here more than anywhere else were the preconditions for global power established, the clashes and ideals of a demographically plural society brought to life, and the starkness of the political divisions within a single community more vividly in focus.

Chapter One: ‘West of the West’

We may as well start with the sandbar. Standing directly before the mouth of the Columbia River, it blocked the passage into and out of the interior of the Pacific Northwest.  With neither a capacious harbor directly on the sea, nor a clear portal to the territories within, the lands the US acquired in the Oregon Country in 1846 were more of a coda than a capstone to continental expansion.

And yet what was ranked as one of the world’s great harbors lay just a few hundred miles to the south of the 1819 line marking the northern boundary of New Spain, and, after 18xx, the United Mexican States. Having reached the Pacific, the US had yet to secure a port through which its vast new territories could be provisioned and exploited, and from which the Pacific waters along its shores could be safeguarded.

In 15xx, the geographer Martin Waldseemüller produced a map which showed, for the first time, two things: the existence of a newly-conjectured Pacific Ocean separating the New World from Asia, and the name “America” applied to these new lands. Due to favorable geography, climate, and resources, the horizontal swath of American land between roughly the 50th and 30th parallel in North America, could, if a single government were in control of both coasts and the rich lands in between, grow to become a great global power protected by the seas, a ‘New England’ at a continental level.

Through generous accident and calculated intention, the United States was able to achieve this “Manifest Destiny” in a remarkably short period. However, to hold these vast territories required deliberate policy and action on the part of a national capital thousands of miles away.

Yet here the new nations of the Americas were already a precedent. As the royal court at Madrid projected its authority, institutions and culture onto the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan in the 1500s, and London first created and then projected itself onto Boston, New York ,and Philadelphia in the 1600s and 1700s, now for the first time a New World city was also to project its institutions thousands of miles to the west–a city that itself was barely a a half century old in 1850 was to raise up a new ‘instant city’ to fulfill the aspirations of the young nation.

San Francisco was founded, grew, and triumphed because an enormous natural advantage was combined with a vigorous military and political effort, fueled by a great historical stroke of luck–the discovery of gold in the very year of the region’s acquisition. Had none of these elements been in place, California may have continued into the twentieth century as a distant, depopulated corner of Mexico, or perhaps have become the most pleasant littoral of a greatly expanded British Columbia or Russian Alaska.

Instead, a great commercial and military city expanded its reach at an astonishing pace, developed a vast agricultural hinterland, and, over the next generations, projected American power and influence across the Pacific into Asia. In 1945, barely one century after its founding, San Francisco concluded the military defeat of Japan and ensured the preeminence of the US as a Pacific power, a development hardly possible to imagine in 1845, the year James K Polk, a little-known Southern governor, became President of the United States.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Christopher Sean Ketchem.

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About the author

I’m Sean Ketchem, living in Berlin with two passports, two cats, and a fascination for history and culture.

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