I was going to put this at the start of the Mission Dolores post but it seemed sort of confusing so I’m making it a separate thing. Apologies for the wait. I just began a new job. It’s been a bit of an upheaval despite my expectations to the contrary (yeah it’s just a transfer but bigger department, different town, blah blah blah, yadda, yadda). The good news is that I’m closer to home so the commute is wayyyy shorter. So, more time to write and blog. Yay!! Goodness abounds. Anyway, on with the show.
The same day that we took on Mission Dolores, my husband and I had planned ambitiously to tour the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. Unfortunately we spent so much time at the Mission that by the time we swung by the museum the street parking was impossible; something to keep in mind for those of you planning to visit. Earlier is better.
Not ready to leave the city, we went down to the waterfront on our way out and settled on paying a visit to the Musée Mechaniqué on Fisherman’s Warf, Pier 45 at the end of Taylor Street.
This is a favorite spot of ours and one that gets little play with the tourism industry. Open 365 days a year and admission free, the massive single floor space is dedicated to as many coin operated mechanical games as you can possibly imagine; from the early 1900’s to the 1980’s. Everything is wheelchair accessible. The prices range from a penny to 1$, most are 25 to 50 cents. There are change machines throughout the building.
Like any arcade (if you remember what those were like) it engulfs you with raised voices and clacking and pinging and buzzing noises, so brace yourselves and expect to holler at whoever you’re with when exclaiming over the weirdness of whatever you’re playing. And there is some interesting stuff to be seen. Lots of fortune teller machines, a creepy amount of Mutoscopes (an early form of motion picture that involved looking into an eyepiece while cranking a handle on the side) that advertise the opportunity to witness the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. There are a few that skew disturbing on the politically incorrect scale. At least one is labeled with the sign that it should not be played if one is easily offended.
An unsettling favorite of mine is the Chinese Opium Den.
None of the figures in this one come out looking good, from the wicked Chinese drug lords plying their product to the addict Miner draped in a filthy shawl.
I did take a lot of video footage inside but as I’m sure you’re beginning to notice, I shoot crappy video. Therefore I am including as little of mine as possible and attaching some great links here for the best videos on the Musée Mechaniqué I’ve found. Below are the hours of operation as well. This place is great for adults and children who love playing and exploring the history of playing before i-phones and computers started separating us into our own little worlds.
- (We will stay open later if the crowds demand it, Fun Doesn’t Sleep!)
- Mon-Fri 10am-8pm
- Sat-Sun 10am-8pm
- Holidays 10am-8pm
A concise look at the place with a little of the flavor
Unfortunately the next one would not embed but I urge you to copy and paste for a great in-depth look behind the scenes at the Musee Mechanique and a personal interview with the quirky owner
A wonderful interview with the owner and builder of the place
Mission Dolores is set at 3321 16th Street, San Francisco, California 94114. The cross street is of course Dolores. The adobe chapel completed in 1791 is the oldest building of any kind in the city. What began as a mission built by Spanish missionaries and colonial expedition leaders saw its peak as a religious center in 1820 and was gobbled in pieces by the Gold Rush, 1906 earthquake and fires. By 1913 all that was left of the complex of mission buildings – chapel, priest dormitories, stables, kitchens, granaries, carpenter shops, and living quarters for the native Ohlone living within the Mission walls, even the brick Gothic Revival church built beside it in 1876 – was the adobe chapel.
Weird how something so much a part of the actual beginning of the city could be such a hidden treasure. As a kid growing up nearby, I certainly never heard stories about it. As a tourist you hear about Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Gold Rush that stampeded the city into existence, Chinatown blooming from cheaply paid railroad and mining labor, the ever popular 1906 earthquake, and even the wild 60’s and 70’s era Height Ashbury district. But a single Spanish Mission built of redwood beams and adobe blocks standing since 1791 (through every earthquake since then) that ushered in the first breath of European culture on San Francisco shores, nope, they don’t pass out slick brochures about that one. WTF man?
Established by several Spanish soldiers, a few settlers, and a handful of padres in 1776, it was originally christened Misión San Francisco de Asís. Later it took on the name of the stream that wound beside it, Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores. Like every other mission in the renowned California chain they were there to convert the natives and expand European (read Spanish) territory. They wanted devoted Christians and Spanish citizens.
So the good missionaries of San Francisco de Asís spent a lot of time rounding up and enlightening the native Ohlone people of the area – Chutchui, Ssalson, and Yalamu – to the errors of their heathen ways and leading them on the path to salvation in Spanish Catholicism. Drawn by curiosity, offers of exotic trinkets and food, many died of diseases brought by their benefactors, or found that once they had entered the Mission grounds they were not allowed to leave as freely as presumed.
The rest of their time was spent on farming, care for livestock, and ongoing construction of buildings for the mission itself which included carpentry and adobe block masonry. Each mission in the chain had to be self-sustaining like a ranch or small village. The Spanish would send out a minimal crew of soldiers, padres and settlers with the expectation of “enlisting” as many indigenous people as possible to flesh out the number of laborers necessary to set up and maintain the settlement. They could hardly afford to have their “employees” leave en mass during their tribal winter migration. Spanish soldiers were sent to round up the wayward natives and drag them “home” where they were told that they would be safer from cold and hunger.
Aside from the ranching, farming, and unenlightened abuse of the native peoples, the mission spent its time in communion with God – the Spanish Catholic one anyway. The chapel that still stands probably saw countless baptisms and sermons suffered by many a “redeemed” Native Californian. The simple white exterior with its twin pillars and terracotta tiled steps and roof is plain wrapping for what waits inside. The ceiling is ablaze with orange and yellow patterns originally painted in vegetable dye by the mission’s captive workforce. There are lush religious oil paintings on every side and a massive mural covers fully one third of an entire wall. The altar or reredos is wildly ornate and filigreed – glossy with lacquer and gold leaf. It seems completely inappropriate for what was possible in the rough and raw California back then. But it was delivered from Spain via San Blas, Mexico in sections on the backs of mules and oxen somewhere around 1796. Two side altars flank the main altar and are equally extravagant (hauled from Mexico in 1810) with glossy heroic saints and columns painted to resemble marble.
Buried inside (or under) the chapel is William Leidesdorf – the first man of mixed race to become a millionaire in the United States, and the most important mover and shaker of Alta California before it became part of the United States. Mr. Leidesdorf we meet again! One of the Museum docents, Quene Rolo, a historian who had done his Masters thesis on Mr. Leidesdorf was kind enough to share some of his time and bring to life the history. Please ignore the number of times I say “facinating”. Or you could use it to play a drinking game.
The same gentleman from the Barbary Coast tour, was so important to the blossoming San Francisco that he was buried beneath the most prestigious edifice of the day. Upon arriving in the unshaped city from the shipping capital of New Orleans, he set up the first wharves, the first proper hotel (well a clapboard building with wooden bunks along the walls but that was class in the day), and the first school for both boys and girls. He built his home near Portsmouth Square – the rough business center of town and constructed a lush garden that drew every visiting person of interest to his door to be entertained and lobbied.
When Sutter finally struck gold, William had property near the Sacramento River which he had serendipitously invested in that soared in value, making him one of the richest men in America at the time of his death in 1848. Unfortunately Mr. Leidesdorf passed without heirs, intestate. By 1854, when the California State Legislature considered escheat to take control of the property, Leidesdorff’s estate was worth well over one million dollars and multiple of millions of dollars in gold was mined off his land.
The Mission Chapel is connected to the much grander Basilica which began as a gothic brick church that mostly toppled in the 1906 earthquake. In 1918 it was rebuilt in the more Baroque Spanish Colonial Revival style made popular in the 1915 – 1917 Panama-California Exposition.
The massive interior is full of glittering mosaic domed ceilings and glowing stained glass windows. Undeniably awe inspiring and beautiful. I can’t say what the experience is like from the point of view of a devout Catholic as I fell away from the faith some time in college. The size, grandure, and overwhelming opulence must be meant to comfort the believer with a sense of a powerful, respected God, capable of protecting all of his flock. But to me it feels shiny and distant. Too much space between me and…I don’t know, whatever I’d be seeking a connection with. It’s times like these that I really don’t miss my Catholic childhood.
Back to the Mission there is a small museum directly attached to the rear wall where you can find a glass window showing an exposed square of the original adobe brick that makes up the chapel itself.
The rest of the room is packed full of awesome artifacts, both Spanish missionary and native, a large diorama of a Native Ohlone village, and even a full size mannequin wearing authentic tribal attire from the period.
Leaving the museum you wind into the Chapel cemetery, a modest affair full of wobbled gravestones in a wide range of age and decay.
The first Alcalde or Mayor of Yerba Buena (pre San Francisco) Francisco De Haro has a very clear headstone.
There is a lovely if dour statue of Father Junipero Serra that dominates one area and another sculpture of a sweetly rapturous native maiden which stands in another surrounded by roses.
Unfortunately there is a fairly creepy element to the monument here. It’s meant to somehow acknowledge the more than 5000 native americans that died within the Mission grounds and were uncerimoniously buried without markers, likely more than 2 to a grave – I don’t want to go further there because it’s likely to get really grim.
But the story of the monument gets worse in that the woman depicted isn’t even a representation of one of the local Ohlone tribes people who would have lived, worked, and died on Mission property. She is instead a Mohawk maiden by the name of Takakwitha who not only converted to Catholicism but did so so devoutly that she took an oath of virginity until her death at 24. She was also renound for her excellence at mortification of the flesh – a popular Christian passtime of driving out sin through fasting, abstinence, and obsessivly long periods of kneeling (usually on painful surfaces) – and those were the easy options. She was so good at all of this that she was shunned by her tribe and the Catholic church eventually beatified and cannonized her as a Saint (after her death, of course). She was the fourth Native American Saint in American history. It all strikes me as fairly twisted and wrong.
Built later is a replica of an Ohlone reed hut. It stands open for visitors to see, touch, and even duck inside. I found it a much more authentic rememberance of the people who lived and died within the Mission walls. There was a printout attached to the hut with a brief explanation of the structure’s history.
Of course there is the obligatory exit through the gift shop. A stunning array of crucifixes plaster one wall almost completely. There is a small section devoted to Alfred Hitchcock and his film Rear Window which involved some scenes that were shot in the Chapel courtyard. The rest of the place is filled with postcards of the California Missions, miniature desktop missions, glass display cases of Native American inspired jewelry, and even a rack of somewhat tasteful men’s Hawaiian style shirts decorated in a map of the California Missions print.
That’s just a sampling, but the real treasure here is the staff. The two I met were Cathy Bogdan and Quene Rolo. Both were extremely knowledgeable about not just the Mission and Basilica but about San Francisco’s history during the Mission’s heyday.
Of course the history of the Mission barely begins with its final construction in 1785 – there was a lot of moving around to find the perfect spot for farming and building after arriving in 1776. In the 1830’s the California Missions were on the decline. The Mexican War of Independence left the missions cut off from Spain and Mexico saw them as something to be used for real estate. In 1834 after years of encroaching squatters and illegal purchases of their land; the Mexican government enacted secularization laws whereby most church properties were legally sold or granted to private owners. In practical terms, this meant that the missions would hold title only to the churches, the residences of the priests, and a small amount of land surrounding the church for use as gardens.
During this period Mission Dolores was host to bullfights and various other public events. Without subsidizes from Spain or income from the lost farm land, the Mission began to crumble from neglect. As the 1840’s slid into the Gold Rush, Mission Dolores mutated into a hybrid creature amid the urgency of San Francisco’s population explosion. It became a resort and entertainment district. The properties were used for saloons and gambling, even racetracks.
A popular diversion of the time was bull vs bear fights. Vicious, cruel affairs that involved unleashing the two animals into a high sided wooden pen and prodding them into killing each other. They were banned inside the city limits (that’s how awful these were, even in wild-ass Gold Rush San Francisco this was too much) but the Mission was just outside that border.
While a two story wing of the Mission was still used as quarters for priests and as a seminary, another part of the same wall was converted into San Francisco’s most well-known tavern and way station for travelers, The Mansion House.
Wild times, but that was San Francisco in 1850. Unsurprising I suppose to find that Mission Dolores had become something of a deflowered virgin by then. Still that’s what makes this period so exciting to me in terms of placing Evangeline’s story here and then.
In March of 1858 President James Buchanan, under an act of Congress, legally returned Mission lands in trust to Bishop Sadoc Alemany, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco. The city had come a long way. It had a Catholic Archbishop of its own. That’s half way to being tamed and definitely beyond the period I’m writing about.
So I’ll wrap up this post here. I’ve kept my own video clips to a minimum here because – frankly I suck as a cameraperson and commentator. Also, I need to read up before I go on any more of these excursions because I seem to wind up sounding like an asshole when I talk about what I’m looking at as I say dumb-ass things that are blatantly wrong and I would know that they are wrong if I had just read something, anything, even the tiny brochure handed to me at the door, before opening my idiot mouth.
So here are a few good links to follow for more information and some much, much better videos:
A very learned overview video tour of the mission
A beautiful and fairly thorough, if unarrated tour of the mission and basilica
A fantastic timeline history of the mission – as a bonus there are links to all the other missions that can be similarly explored
This one is great for general info about Mission Dolores
More in-depth look at the Mission Cemetery and the Indian Monument
Unfortunately These are Links that won’t Embed so You’ll need to copy and paste but they are well worth the effort
Interesting information about daily life inside the Mission
Everything you never wanted to know about Bull v Bear matches A well written San Francisco Chronicle Story
Beautiful shots of the Basilica interior
An interesting history of the Indian Monument at the Mission cemetery
Ah yes, The Barbary Coast Walking Tour curated and conducted by The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. https://sfhistory.org/barbary-coast-trail/ A 2 + hour excursion along everyday city streets transformed by colorful interactive narration into the roaring anarchy of the Gold Rush past. My husband and I give it quadruple thumbs up. Not only does this tour take you along the traditional stopping points (marked by the city with 180 stamped bronze medallions embedded in the sidewalks) ,
but it varies from the others you’ll find in slight detours to spots that divulge stories of equal if not more interest. The guide we had was knowledgeable, personable and always open to questions. Our group was commendably moderate in size (5 people not including our guide). I was told this is not uncommon for the Museum’s tours. As we saw the massive flocks of the other Barbary Coast tours passing ahead and behind us that Saturday we were enormously grateful for the intimacy of our group. We could actually hear and access our guide at all times without fighting a mob.
On to the tour itself. It starts in Portsmouth Square which began as a plaza in early Yerba Buena and evolved into the rough heart of San Francisco as the city sorted itself into a “civilized” pattern. As you can see in my video clips, what was once a Mexican and then Caucasian center of business has since been swallowed up by Chinatown. Ironic when you think of the way Asian Americans were oppressed and terrorized in the era that Portsmouth Square was created. I want to preface the beginning of my video clip entries with this apology. I had no permission to film the kind young woman leading our tour so I filmed everything around her during her narrations. When I went over the footage I found it was a bit “unwatchable” at best. So I trimmed what I could and am serving up the best remains as some evidence of what the tour was actually like and what we saw and heard.click here to open YouTube video
Portsmouth Square may have begun as an idea of central commerce but it quickly devolved into the heart of the Barbary Coast in 1849. It was lined with gambling houses, taverns, and shabby hotels – some of them all rolled into one. Most of them weren’t much more than clapboard structures with canvas roofs, each room partitioned by muslin “walls”.
From Portsmouth Square there was Commercial Street which I believe is where we had the story of the famous or infamous Samuel Brannan. And intriguing Mormon who sailed his flock to San Francisco just before it was claimed for America in the hope of securing a Mormon state all of his own. Unfortunately he arrived just after the flag had been planted. Man was he pissed. Long story short, he and his people stayed and put down roots anyway. He began a string of newspapers and started up a store at Sutter’s mill in 1847. Got wind of the gold early, bought up all the mining supplies there were, stocked his store – the only one between San Francisco and the mine fields – and then allegedly ran shouting the announcement of the discovery through the city streets.
But that’s just where the story of Brannan begins on this tour. Apparently he was quite the rebel Mormon. This crazy story includes corruption, finance scandal, hired guns, Mormon assassins (who knew?). I was loving this guy.
The Leidesdorff Plaque is one of the off-marker tour points.
It’s got a fascinating story about William Leidesdorff a strangely little known figure in San Francisco let alone American history. His story is sweepingly romantic, there’s tragic (deeply Romeo/Juliet style) interracial romance, bold rising from the ashes success in an untamed land, and of course the whole amazing angle of being the first person of mixed race to achieve such dizzying financial and civic power in American history.
I confess we toured some areas that strayed into the 1900’s and I sort of glazed over so I won’t cover them here. Empire Park includes some wonderful stories about Emperor Norton that will engage many but as he is primarily a character that found his fame in the 1900’s he isn’t going to be part of this piece.
The site of the 1st San Francisco Mint however is interesting in that it was originally the site of the first Assayers Building in San Francisco in 1849. An Assayer would weigh out gold dust (flakes of gold) and the more rare nuggets on a set of scales to determine how much you had in US currency. The Original Mint is housed in the Pacific Heritage Museum which is oddly part of another business building but they share space and the Museum is open to the public.
The Pony Express Plaque is on the tour and features in the brass sidewalk markers though the Express itself (1860-1861) ran later than the Gold Rush era which had petered out by 1855. So it was around during the Barbary Coast era but past the era of my primary interest.
The extremely wild Barbary Coast lasted into roughly 1917 when the brothels were closed down. It rolled on in a slightly less brazen fashion and attempted a resurrection in 1921 but was smacked down by watchful upstanding citizens with connections. Another revival was undertaken with more of a classy spin in the 1940’s with greater success but eventually lost out in the 60’s when more modern entertainment lured the crowds away. Who could compete with Carol Doda and her naked boobies at the Condor Club on Broadway?
The Niantic Plaque is interesting. Mainly it’s a plate of stamped metal on the side of an otherwise ordinary business building. But then you realize by reading the plaque and listening to the guide that its built on top of a rather large cargo ship circa 1849.click here to open YouTube video
How big was the ship? How did it wind up under a building seemingly miles from the ocean? What happened to the crew and its cargo? Some of that can be read from the plaque, most you learn from your guide and ask all the questions you like because what a weird concept.click here to open YouTube video
In the shadow of the Transamerica Building we were told the story of the first four story stone face building in San Francisco’s history. Built in 1853 and known as Halleck’s Folly it was the first fireproof and earthquake resistant building. Again our guide was patient with all of our questions.
Then we were led to The Old Ship Saloon. Here we were regaled with the stories of shanghaied miners and greenhorn visitors.click here to open YouTube video
This was the definitely vicious and sometimes deadly practice of knocking a man unconscious in whatever fashion was quickest and then selling him to the highest bidding ship captain.click here to open YouTube video
Finally the tour completed with a wrap-up of the Barbary Coast’s later years. We walked down the streets that played more important parts during the 1940’s revival. The posts that held up the arching International Settlement sign in all of its neon glory are still there. The Hippodrome is still on view, though its windows show clothing for sale beneath the vintage bulbs that would have lit up a night of wanton carousing.
At the end of the road we were cut loose to reenter the modern world. Everyone shook hands and laughed. My husband and I blinked a little like we were leaving a movie theater, trying to reorient ourselves. The guide made sure we knew how to get back to where we had started at Portsmouth Square. She also mentioned that there were a few good restaurants in the area if we needed to catch a bite. Some were listed on the back of our map – and no the Museum wasn’t getting any kickbacks.
My husband and I ended up eating at Enjoy! Vegetarian. He wanted Chinese food, I wanted vegan or vegetarian and definitely something other than the same tame Chinese food we’d had twice in the last week (War Wonton soup and vegetable eggrolls for me and War Wonton soup and Pork Fried Rice for him). Enjoy! Vegetarian was great. Great food, lots of choices, wonderful flavors, quick service, and reasonable prices. I gather they have 2 locations and the pictures included here should show both. We highly recommend them. The only flaw we find is that they are closed between 2:30 pm and 5 pm. So plan wisely if you are an early dinner or late lunch person or just fallen between the cracks meal-wise.
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Ah, the immortal words of Obi Wan seem so apt here. And yes I am that geeky. San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast took root and metastasized in a broad tendril bordered loosely on the east by the waterfront and East Street (now the Embarcadero); on the south by Clay and Commercial streets; on the west by Grant Avenue and Chinatown; and on the north by Broadway, with periodic seepage into the region around North Beach and Telegraph Hill.
This being said, the bronze markers used by the San Francisco Historical Society to mark the Barbary Coast have been placed in sidewalks as far as Portsmouth Square, Powell and Market streets, up to the Warf, throughout North Beach, Chinatown and along the Embarcadero.
If we’re a little hazy on where it was set up precisely at the beginning, there seems to be no hesitation in any historian’s mind about how seedy, corrupt, or vice ridden the area (wherever it started out) became pretty much immediately. In one account the reader was warned that the level of carnal depravity and deadly violence could not be overstated. Holy Hell, makes you want to tour the place in a bullet proof Pope-mobile.
It was named for a North African coastline stretching from Morocco to what would become Libya; home to dreaded pirates and slave traders that terrorized the coastal villages of Europe. San Francisco’s version was born in the awe inspiring confusion of the California Gold Rush. In 1847 San Francisco, freshly minted from its Spanish moniker of Yerba Buena, was still a sleepy little village of roughly 200 souls. The Spanish adobe Mission Dolores and Presidio were likely the sturdiest lodgings.
Check back in with the census around 1851, post Samuel Brannan’s announcement of “Gold in them thar hills” or words to that effect, and you’d find some 10,000 people coming and going. Unfortunately the local authorities just hadn’t set up for this potential situation. And the criminal element flourished, setting up shop in the areas we would come to know as San Francisco’s Barbary Coast.
As early as 1848 some veterans of the Mexican-American War arrived in San Francisco and, branding themselves The Hounds, became one of the first lawless gangs to roam the streets of the Barbary Coast. Their depredations were largely ignored by the “law” such as it was as the gang’s primary targets were Chilians, Peruvians, and Mexicans.
Quickly following in the wake of The Hounds were the Sydney Ducks, somewhere between 6 and 7,000 hardened Australian criminals. They ran rampant over the area that would become the Barbary Coast. And the Ducks put the Hounds to shame with their unchecked carnage, raids, arson, and eventually cornering the market on bordellos so deviant that some were said to tout bestiality as an attraction. Yeesh…
Many of the ships sailing into San Francisco’s wharves with men piling out for the Gold fields never left. Their entire crews would abandon them, taking off after the same miners they had just schlepped to the docks. Everybody was chasing those nuggets.
Some ships just stayed put, The Niantic is a popular example you can find in San Francisco today. It’s just a plaque on the side of the building that’s built over it now. But it’s still there, underneath. That’s what happened to some of the ones that never left. Most were broken up and used for scrap wood and parts. But the ones that were still in good shape, some 200, like the Niantic were repurposed into warehouses, boarding houses and (in the Niantic’s case) hotels, even one as a jail and another as a church.
Captains of these abandoned ships, however, were sometimes willing to do unscrupulous things to make sure they sailed away. This leads us to the term “to be Shanghaied”. So apparently the phrase comes from the idea that the furthest an unwilling new sailor might end up would be Shanghai. The owners of various drinking establishments along the Barbary Coast did a lucrative business in what was essentially slavery. They would ply a man with drugged liquor, if he didn’t pass out you could bash him over the head, then pile him into a cart and sell him to the highest bidding captain short of a sailing crew. Many like the infamous Shanghai Kelly, had such a streamlined process that he could afford to lose a few of his prey to unintended death. He just loaded up the bodies and delivered them as is. By the time the captains got them out to sea, he’d already been paid.
Eventually as the gang violence grew to an exponentially disastrous level, the Vigilance Committees would rise against them. Privately organized vigilante groups of San Francisco citizens waged war against the gangs for several years and gradually drove them from the outrageous power they’d seized so easily in 1848. Unfortunately these groups (while possibly not something that we’d approve of today) were dismantled in the end of the late 19th century as the city evolved from its chaotic beginnings to a larger, more prosperous, commercial and cultural metropolis.
Local government grew with in strength and size with the city. But the political and economic elite were motivated more by greed and self-interest than any sense of civic responsibility. Without the threat of the Vigilance Committees and emboldened by the indifference of corrupt politicians, the Barbary Coast rose again in full bloom. It was in the 1860’s when it would officially be christened “The Barbary Coast”.
Next post: My walking tour of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast
The Colt Dragoon Revolver is a strangely romanticized gun. While it is exciting as ranking among one of the first true six shooters, its true history, brutal intentions and grim design are no Wild West fantasy. And yet it shows up in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns,
Charles Portis’ True Grit,
Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian,
and on and on. It is a sexy-ugly gun in our pop culture it seems.
A collaborative creation between Captain Samuel Walker of the Texas Rangers and Samuel Colt, the Walker Colt – the Dragoon’s forefather – was commissioned for the Rangers to use in close range battle without dismounting.
Captain Walker needed a handgun that was extremely powerful in close quarters, could be carried in a saddle holster like a pistol, but it must be a revolver to allow its wielder to fire multiple shots without reloading. He wanted to increase the weapon’s caliber from .36 to .44 or .45 if possible so as to destroy both the enemy the horses they rode on. In 1846 the world saw the first 6 shooter. Named after the man who commissioned it, the handgun was known as the Colt Walker.
It was as powerful as Captain Walker could have asked for. In fact it was more powerful than any other handgun in existence, using nearly twice the gunpowder charge of any handgun in each of its chambers. The Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun bar none between 1847 and 1935 when the first .357 magnum came on the stage.
Of course there were design flaws. The loading lever, a slim hinged rod attached beneath the gun barrel that tamped each round into its chamber over gun powder, was not secured well. With the recoil of each shot the lever often fell, jamming the action and necessitating a “Walker slap” to return the lever to place. The cylinders, the barrels containing the bullet chambers, were extremely long and prone to overloading with black powder by troops who had never seen much less used a revolver before. All of this combined with Rangers often loading the new conical bullets backward and the untrustworthy metallurgy of the time led to a wide spread problem of ruptured cylinders. Not to mention they were simply enormously heavy, weighing in at 4 lbs 9 oz.
Nevertheless the popularity of the original Walker Colt and its slight variation (the Whitneyville Colts) as it found a method of “mass production” through a subcontract with Eli Whitney Blake – nephew of Eli Whitney senior the inventor of the cotton gin. Whitney senior while famous for the cotton gin, was a pioneer in manufacturing, invented the modern assembly line, and promoted the concept of interchangeable parts. His nephew Eli Whitney Blake assisted him in building their gun factory at Whitneyville, Connecticut.
With great success of the Whitneyville Walker Colts, the Colt reputation was made and Samuel was later able to build his own Colt factory. Over the next few years Colt would refine the weapon that made his name. Between the Walker and the first model Dragoon there were roughly 240 improved models produced, all between 1847 and 1848. The Dragoon itself began life as the Colt Model 1848 Percussion Army Revolver. It solved many of the problems of the Walker. The loading lever catch was redesigned to clamp it tightly through the hardest recoil. The barrel was reduced from 9 to 7.5 inches to lighten the gun’s weight and make it less unwieldy. The chambers were smaller, allowing about 15% less gunpowder to reduce the issue of ruptured cylinders. Originally ordered for the United States Mounted Militia (known as “Dragoons”) this model was popularly known as the Colt Dragoon.
Now don’t go imagining this was the six shooter as we know it today. These handguns were much closer in the family tree to muskets than the high noon quick draw pistols we think of as revolvers. Just prepping this baby for combat was an exercise in patience. The Dragoon’s 6 chambers had to be carefully loaded, one at a time with the correct amount of gunpowder, count those grains – too much powder and cylinder goes boom in your hands.
Believe me I’ve watched this done – it’s excruciating and what comes next is even worse. Each conical bullet can now be placed into the chambers over the powder, making sure that they face pointed tip out – tip pointed wrong way and it jams – cylinder goes boom in your hands. Once the cylinder is loaded and rolled back in place, the loading leaver is unclipped from the barrel and used to tamp each bullet firmly into its chamber. After this is done 6 mind-numbing times the lever is clipped back in place and caps are placed on the nipples that protrude behind the rotating chambers. Now the hammer can be locked back in placed. Yee Hah! You are now ready to shoot em up. Better make those 6 shots count. How the hell you’re going to reload in the heat of battle is way beyond me.
The Dragoon would go on to evolve at least twice more before Colt would move on to develop the next handgun series the Colt Model 1860. But here I’ll stop with the handgun history. I’m really only interested in the early Dragoons and our fascination with them in fiction. I’ll be honest I like the rough, almost vulgar directness they seem to imply with just the way they look. The plain dark gray pitted metal attached to a simple wooden butt – no fancy carving or curlicues for this weapon. This tool is for one thing only, killing.
Which is weird because I’m not a gun person. I don’t own any. I don’t shoot them. They sort of scare me on most levels. But reading about them in books and watching Westerns or any combination of Western/Sci-Fi/Horror movie…love it. What is that about? Fertile soil for all you self-styled shrinks out there.
So of course this leads to Evangeline. You didn’t think I’d fill my brain with all of this stuff for general gun enthusiasm purposes. She’ll be using some firepower in her fight against evil. A matched pair, a la just about any Clint Eastwood Western I can think of. I chose the Colt Dragoon for its plainness, its ruthless power, and because it was a gun that was roughly period appropriate. Yeah I’m tweaking things a bit but I’ll try to make the tweaks part of the story whenever possible.
It just feels like a weapon Evangeline would choose. Something no nonsense to get the job done, and boy does she need to get it done. Of course the bullets she’ll be using will be special order. But that’s something I’ll be saving for the book.
Everyone writes stories about the Wild West, including California. Not many mention Northern California except in reference to the Gold Rush and the miners. But there were indigenous Native American cultures distinctly different from the Midwest and North East tribes everyone learns about in school. Well before the Gold Rush, Russians built a trading fort along the Sonoma coastline in hopes of cornering the market on seal skins.
San Francisco was a city built on sand and mud – snatched from the elements by its Spanish conquerors. It literally grew from an adobe Mission, military fort and clapboard lean-tos strewn over the beaches. Later there were unpaved streets that would suck boots from feet, buildings with plank floors and canvas roofs. This was all before earthquakes and fires and the things you see in tourist guide books.
The massive redwood and pine forests, the hills broken by sudden toothy outcroppings of rock, the billowy fog that can roll in at a moment’s notice in some places and never be seen in others; none of these things ever appeared in stories I read about the “Wild West”. What a pity.
I suppose as a kid I was slightly disappointed with our “Indians”. Yeah, it was the ‘70s so they were “Indians” then. I apologize to all the Native Americans out there reading this. We were dumb then, me included. When I was a kid, I had seen all the westerns, all the bone breastplates, all the feather headdresses, braids with feather wrappings, fringed buckskin leggings, beaded moccasins, buffalo robes, and on and on. And then we had our assignments in grammar school about American History before European Settlers. Lucky me I was assigned Northern California Indians. Oh boy, when I saw the hand out with the mimeograph line art picture attached. What kind of Indians had round faces, wore sack like dresses made of willow bark and beaded skirts, apparently rode no horses, and lived in tepees made of huge chunks of cedar bark?
There was a lot of stuff written about the baskets the Costal Miwok wove and used for storing food which they made out of acorns, grasshoppers, and mussels. There was a lot about making food out of leached acorns – soup, cakes, bread, less about hunting deer, elk, or black bear as though that didn’t happen often. The acorn staples seemed to be rounded out by fish and small game – jack rabbits and quail. Oh and they gathered a lot of interesting things like buckeye nuts, mushrooms, bulbs, seeds, berries, and seaweed (considered a tribal delicacy). This did not satisfy the romantic image of the Wild West Indian I had seen in movies and TV and children’s books I’d already absorbed at that time.
It would not be until my twenties that I would begin to grasp how our Native American tribes were rich in their own traditions, their own unique characteristics and history. By then I would be grateful for the fact that there were some places in Northern California to still learn about and explore how these people first made their mark on the place I call home.
The Costal Miwok I saw were as dramatically exotic in their own right as any Apache thundering across the plains on his war horse. They had elaborate customs involving facial tatoos. There were ceremonial dances where men wore broad feather headresses over their eyes in flapping swaths. It was something to rival any Star Wars costume design.
The Miwok were only one of the tribes living in Northern California before the Russians or Spaniards came calling. The Pomo ranged into our area. These were also exemplary basket weavers. Some baskets were so tightly woven the stitches could not be seen without a magnifying glass. They used them for cooking, trapping, cradling their babies, dishes for eating, and hats among other things, some of them were even used as boats. They weren’t farmers any more than the Miwok; they gathered and hunted the same roots, wild produce, and game. Their religion though was something that caught my attention in my adult years (as a kid – it was “more baskets and acorns?”). The Pomo participated in shamanism which includes a great many exciting details (elaborate costumes, ceremonies, puberty rites) but most thrilling to me was the concept of shamanistic intervention with the spirit world. What a rich vein to mine for historical fiction! But it turned out they were actually influenced by a much more complex tribal religion.
On the fringes of these two tribes were the Wintu, a tribe that ranged between us and the Sacramento Valley. The Patwin tribe which was closest to our area, were much like the Pomo and Coastal Miwok in many ways, hunter gatherers, basket weavers, ate a lot of acorns. The men wore less clothing as in usually none except for the occasional deerskin kilt. The women wore long grass skirts decorated with beads and shells.
Their religion was deep and stirring. Spirits were present in all things and could be acquired by dreaming, going to a sacred place and engaging in ritualistic behaviors. Prayer, charms and magic could all be used to influence the spirit world which in turn affected the material. Bear shamans could destroy enemies. Their ominous power was derived from arduous 5 day initiation ceremonies conducted by an assembly of master shamans. Their cures included soul capture and sucking out of a disease causing object. Many of their secret societies that performed shamanistic ceremonies were open to high-status women as well as men.
Needless to say, by the time I’d started doing research for my novel I had a fantastic new respect for the Native Americans that first populated Northern California. And there are still places you can go in Northern California to see and learn about these people. The Coast Miwok Village at Point Reyes National Park is wonderful as is the small museum. Follow this link to read and see more with directions included https://www.nps.gov/pore/learn/historyculture/people_coastmiwok.htm
On the Sonoma coast’s Fort Ross is an absolutely worthwhile trip and a gorgeous drive to boot. The fort is part preserved/part reconstructed Russian trading post. It is a fascinating thing to explore. All the bunks the soldiers slept in, the Fort Manager’s house (surprisingly elegant by contrast to the other buildings), the Russian Orthodox Chapel and all the amazing history of Native American involvement. The museum there is comprehensive in its coverage of the Native Americans along the Sonoma coast line, their life before the fort and their lives during and after. To read and see more including directions follow this link https://www.fortross.org/
The Wild North West is a place that is every bit as thrilling as the westerns I grew up with as a kid in the 70’s. In fact it kind of makes those look dusty and faded in comparison. I am more than excited to write something about this time and place. It’s been a blast just learning and touring the sites listed above.
Stay tuned gentle readers. There’s more to come.