San Francisco City Hall
In rare instances when conducting archival research a scholar will come across something so unexpected that s/he is forced to switch directions (at least for the time being) and go on something of a wild goose chase. That happened to me last week when I discovered some new information about Hawaiians in pre-Gold Rush San Francisco, or as it was known at the time, Yerba Buena. In 1847, still a year before gold was discovered, the population of Yerba Buena was less than one thousand, but it was already starting to look kind of like the downtown San Francisco will know today. What I didn't know until recently, however, was that a number of Hawaiians (at least six or seven) owned land in the city of Yerba Buena. The Hawaiian population in the city at that time was very high. Perhaps as many as forty Hawaiians lived here, which would be about 5% of the population. Some say Hawaiians comprised even more of the urban population—as high as 10%—earlier in the decade.
I had always supposed that the Hawaiians who came to Mexican California in the 1830s and 1840s were migrant wage workers. At least those are the people I am writing about in my dissertation. But Hawaiian-Mexican landowners? I had no idea. Of course there was William Heath Davis, the famous Hawaiian pioneer of Mexican California's hide and tallow trade and, considered by some, the founder of modern-day San Diego. He was one-fourth Hawaiian. Probably today he would have identified as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) but at the time he actually hated it when people called him "Kanaka Bill." (It was meant to hurt his feelings.) He was embarrassed about his Hawaiian heritage and seemingly denied that side of himself for his long, long life. So should we count him as a "Hawaiian" in Mexican California? In my dissertation I have decided not to, but it is a valid and difficult question for historians to wrestle with. In some ways, that's just what Mexican California was like. Not only was a part-Hawaiian man one of the important "pioneers" of this period, but so was a part-African and perhaps even part-Carib man, William Leidesdorff, who, incidentally, was the great labor manager of Hawaiian wage workers in Mexican Yerba Buena. Here is a guy who, despite his Afro-Caribbean heritage, wrote in his account books of "colored" workers including African-Americans and "canaca" Hawaiians under his employ as if his status—as employer rather than employee—rid him of his own "color." By all accounts, just like Davis and his Hawaiianness, Leidesdorff denied his Afro-Caribbean heritage. Yet today people celebrate Leidesdorff as California's first great "Afro-American" pioneer. Again, historians are left with a puzzle: should we write about these men as the men they wanted to be, or as the people that we, in our twenty-first century world, want to celebrate them as?
Anyway, those are just some important caveats. But here we go: let's explore Hawaiian Yerba Buena, especially those Hawaiians who identified as Hawaiian. I decided that I had to take a day off from my research at Berkeley and travel to San Francisco to trace the places associated with these historic figures. The walk was not as long and epic as my eighteenth-century mission-to-presidio walk from earlier in this adventure, but it was still very interesting. It's an 1840s/50s-era walk through Hawaiian San Francisco.
Stop #1: Jack Hina's c. 1847-52[?] fifty (or one hundred?)-vara lot. Corner of Kearny Street and Post Street.
This is the hardest one to pin down. A variety of evidence demonstrates that Jack Hina, a native of Hawaiʻi, owned either a fifty-vara or one hundred-vara lot on this corner circa 1847, before the Gold Rush. A vara was a Spanish unit of measurement equal to a little shy of one yard. Take this view down Post Street from Kearny to Montgomery, for example. In Mexican Yerba Buena in the 1840s when these streets were laid out, there were three fifty-vara lots on each side of the block. Unfortunately, I have not discovered which corner Hina's property was on. Also, it is not entirely clear how long Hina was able to hold onto his property. Both Hawaiian and English-language newspapers of the 1850s comment on an ongoing legal struggle between Mary Hina (Jack's widow after his death in 1852[?]) and some other party. What we do know is that almost all landowners under Mexican rule—prior to 1848—got screwed once the Americans took over in 1848 and made new rules affecting former land titles. What did the Mexican-American transition mean for Hawaiian landowners in California? I don't know, but apparently it was tough for Hawaiians to hold onto their now-extremely-valuable city property once the Gold Rush got underway.
Stop #2: Keoni Panana's c. 1847 fifty-vara lot. Northwest corner of Kearny Street and Pine Street.
Here we are three blocks north of Jack Hina's lot, and just three blocks away from Portsmouth Square, the original plaza at the heart of 1840s Yerba Buena. I don't know much about Keoni (or "George") Panana, except that he was a Hawaiian who owned this lot in 1847 just prior to the Gold Rush. Unlike Jack and Mary Hina's property, which was fought over for a decade, there is little record of what happened to Panana's urban real estate. For most of these guys, we can assume that when the Gold Rush struck they sold out and headed for the hills. But perhaps that assumption is totally wrong. Perhaps they were stripped of their property. I just don't know. (Also note that Panana's lot is currently under construction. Someone should look into the archeological testing done at this site and whether anything from the 1840s has been discovered!)
Stop #3: Keoni Palani's c. 1847 fifty-vara lot. Southeast corner of Dupont Street (now known as Grant Avenue) and California Street.
He has a similar sounding name, but Keoni Palani was different than Keoni Panana. Even as their names were spelled in so many different ways in the documentary record, it is clear that these were two separate Hawaiians because their names are both listed in the same documents at the same times. Dupont Street is now called Grant Avenue, and it forms the backbone of San Francisco's Chinatown. But before this was the city's Chinese quarter, it was a hodge-podge home of Euro-American, Mexican creole, and Hawaiian residents. Like I said, Hawaiians were anywhere from five to ten percent of the city's population in the 1840s. Palani's lot today contains parts of St. Mary's Square, but there was no St. Mary's Square until the 1906 earthquake leveled the structures on Palani's and others' lots and at that time the city decided to convert the block into a park (across the street from the 1854 St. Mary's Church).
Stop #4: Keoni Kiwini's c. 1847 fifty-vara lot. Middle of the block on the southern side of Sacramento Street between Dupont (Grant Avenue) and Stockton Streets.
Again, we don't know much about Keoni Kiwini, the Hawaiian who owned this lot on the middle of Sacramento Street in 1847 before the Gold Rush. Like the other "Keonis," the Anglicization of his name is "George," and Kiwini was actually used in the nineteenth century to Hawaiianize the name "Stevens." There was a haole in Hawaiʻi named John Stevenson[?] who went by Keoni Kiwini. So we need to be careful to make sure that this guy was really Hawaiian and not some Euro-American from Hawaiʻi who fell in love with his Hawaiian name! It seems highly unlikely, though, that a Euro-American would officially (in land documents, for example) go by a Hawaiian name if he did not have to. And based on other sources I have found relating to all these Hawaiian landowners, I am pretty sure this guy was Hawaiian. He was just lucky to have an easy-to-be-Anglicized name. Anyway, a YMCA in Chinatown now stands on his fifty-vara lot. Note how the street follows a steep slope heading down to what was Yerba Buena Cove below (now the Financial District). We are also now within just a block or two from the city's main plaza, Portsmouth Square.
Stop #5: Leidesdorff Street and Central Wharf. Corner of Dupont (Grant Avenue) and Leidesdorff Street (today's Commercial Street).
Here were are still in Chinatown, inching closer to Yerba Buena's historic plaza, and at the very top of what was Leidesdorff Street in the late 1840s. Leidesdorff, the part-Afro-Caribbean Hawaiian-employing landowner and merchant—the sort of "king" of 1840s Yerba Buena—died in 1848. I'm not sure when this street was cut through the middle of Clay and Sacramento Streets. It is perhaps the oldest street in downtown Yerba Buena that cut through the traditional 50-vara lots. Now Chinatown is littered with interesting alleyways, but this was the original alleyway. It slopes down to the Financial District, that flat area that was all water back in the 1840s. That was Yerba Buena Cove, where the ships would come and in and out on their long voyages to and from Californian, Hawaiian, and East Asian ports (among others) across the Pacific World. The largest of all wharfs built in the last years of the 1840s here was the Central (or Long) Wharf, which was at the end of Leidesdorff Street.
Stop #6: Yerba Buena's 1840s-era plaza. Since the Mexican-American War renamed Portsmouth Square.
Stop #6: Yerba Buena's 1840s-era plaza. Since the Mexican-American War renamed Portsmouth Square.
My guidebook simply refers to Portsmouth Square as the heart of Chinatown, but says nothing about this square's significance as the original plaza at the heart of Yerba Buena. You would think that is important! If you ever wondered what was the historic center of San Francisco, here it is. It has changed quite a bit. I believe that the plaza in the 1840s took up the entire block from Dupont (Grant) to Kearny Streets and from Clay to Washington Streets. Today, various parts of the plaza are built up and multi-layered in an odd way. Anyway, 1840s-era sources describe Hawaiian workers—mostly sailors and stevedores—milling around the plaza. Not a sight that you will see there today.
Stop #7: Kale Puaʻanui's c. 1847 fifty-vara lot. Middle of the block on the northern side of Broadway between Dupont (Grant Avenue) and Kearny Streets.
So here we are three blocks north of the plaza, on the "other side of town" as it were in the 1840s. Today, Hawaiian landowner Kale Puaʻanui's 1847 lot is home to 1950s Beat-era hipsterdom! Here we are on the border between Chinatown to the south, San Francisco's Little Italy to the north, and a little bit of Beat history right here among us. Just behind me in the photograph above is City Lights Bookstore, famous for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl. There is now a Beat Museum on Kale Puaʻanui's lot. Interestingly enough, when I visited San Francisco for the first time in 2008 on a cross-country road trip, I believe we stayed in a hostel on this very block, perhaps on Kale Puaʻanui's land. Another change here is Columbus Avenue, which cuts through this block (it is the cross-street in the foreground). This did not exist back in the 1840s, but thankfully Kale Puaʻanui's lot was spared from the destruction brought about by Columbus Avenue's creation.
Stop #8: Pika Paele's c. 1847 fifty-vara lot. Northeast corner of Broadway and Montgomery Street.
Here is our last Hawaiian landowner of Mexican-era San Francisco (minus William Heath Davis, of course). Like the others, I don't know much about Pika Paele, except that he owned this lot along Broadway just prior to the Gold Rush.
If we look down Broadway from Pika Paele's property, we can see the proximity of the bay. Of course, in the 1840s the water was even closer. There was no Davis Street. There was no Front Street. Battery Street was about as far as you could go before you hit water. So imagine this view, but with the water coming up to the very bottom of Broadway's hill. Seen this way, we can see that while these Hawaiians were "pioneers" of early San Francisco, they were yet also just a few blocks away from a boat that could connect them with home—the Hawaiian Islands—in just a few weeks' time. The earliest newspapers circulating around Yerba Buena at this time were Hawaiian papers printed in Honolulu. So these men were in Mexico, but they were also deeply connected with their homeland in Hawaiʻi.
Stop #8: The view from Pika Paele's c. 1847 fifty-vara lot. Looking down Broadway from Montgomery Street.
So what's next? Well, I decided to walk back to Leidesdorff Street and trace the path of the Central (or Long) Wharf that jutted out into the bay. After gold was discovered in early 1848, hundreds of new Hawaiian immigrants came to California. They found work and pleasure and violence all down on the Central Wharf. The age of the landowners became history; now was the age of the landless wage workers.
Stop #9: A Hawaiian shoeshiner, 1859. Corner of Battery and Commercial Streets.
This is just about, in the late 1840s, where Leidesdorff Street would have met the sea. The Long Wharf continued ahead. Now this is the Financial District and site of some truly awful late twentieth-century urban renewal. One can no longer walk the path of the Central Wharf as so many Hawaiian sailors and immigrants did. Instead I had to walk along this skyway through a never-ending mall to recreate the experience. Anyway, California newspapers reported a Hawaiian "bootblack" working this street corner in 1859, ten years after the Gold Rush began. It is not clear how many Hawaiians lived in San Francisco circa 1859. The 1860 census records only about ten. But newspapers report over one hundred Hawaiians in the city in the mid-1860s. So who knows.
Stop #10: Central Wharf, early 1850s. Formerly Commercial Street, now an urban renewal mallscape.
There is nothing gratifying about trying to walk down the path of the old Central Wharf. The photographic scene above shows you what it is like. The Ferry Building ahead marks the edge of land and water, although that edge would have probably already been crossed by now in the 1840s or early 1850s. (I am not sure when the landfill took place, but I believe it was in the early 1850s when hundreds of ships were abandoned here and then built on top of.) Anyway, it was here on the Central Wharf where, in 1851, a headless "Mexican or Kanaka" body was found. It was here where a "Kanaka" and a Frenchman got into a fight after a disputed round of gambling. It was here where a young "Kanaka" was robbed. There are all these little anecdotes of Hawaiian seamen getting into trouble—even literally losing their heads (yikes!)—here along the Central Wharf. It was a rough and tumble world, and a place where hundreds of transient Hawaiian seamen hanged between voyages.
Stop #11: A homeless Hawaiian man, 1857. Corner of Commercial Street and Davis Street.
Just another story. A homeless Hawaiian man living on the sidewalk here on Davis Street in 1857.
Stop #12: San Francisco Bay.
Our tour ends here, at the bay. The Central Wharf is no more. After walking through that horribly awful mall, I finally popped out at an outdoor skating rink (of all places!) along the Embarcadero. Then, I went inside the Ferry Building and had some fish tacos. I had earned it.
The bay here reminds us that San Francisco's history is all about water, especially this bay which provided transoceanic sailing ships with a safe harbor. Actually, that safe harbor was Yerba Buena Cove, now totally submerged underneath the city's Financial District. But there are still wharfs here, and still some boats, so it gives one a little taste of what made tiny Yerba Buena turn into gigantic San Francisco in the decade between the 1840s and the 1850s. The bay also reminds us of the gateway to the Pacific Ocean (the Golden Gate is not pictured, but it is just a short sail away from here). The gateway connected Hawaiian and Mexican histories here in the 1840s.
After my fish tacos, I headed over to the California Historical Society on Mission Street to do some more research on Hawaiians in San Francisco.
California Historical Society
What an adventure!