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On Feb. 28, 1852, a ship from Le Havre sailed through the Golden Gate, rounded Clark’s Point at what is now Broadway and Battery and unloaded 200 specimens of the finest flotsam and jetsam of France, including criminals, political prisoners, honest workers, the politically connected, dissidents, common thugs and various other types deemed undesirable by the authorities.
Between 1851 and 1853, the French government used the proceeds of a huge national lottery, the irresistibly named Lottery of the Golden Ingots, to ship more than 4,000 people to California, hoping that most or all of them would never return.
Just weeks after James Marshall discovered gold in Coloma in January 1848, a revolution toppled the French king, Louis-Philippe, ushering in a period of upheaval that climaxed in four terrible days in June when 10,000 people were killed on the barricades of Paris; 25,000 people were arrested and 5,000 deported, most to the French colony in Algeria.
To help restore order, get rid of revolutionaries and troublemakers and help some of the country’s desperately poor people, the authorities decided to encourage emigration to Algeria, Corsica and the French West Indies.
The California gold fields not only offered ordinary French citizens potential escape from poverty, chaos and violence, but they handed the French government a literally golden opportunity to solve both a humanitarian and a political problem.
The authorities would help poor people get a fresh start, while at the same time sending undesirable elements so far away they would probably never return.
The French and the California Gold Rush, 1848-1854, initial skepticism about reports from the American press, which the French derided as the “American puff,” gave way to wild credulity.
The California companies fanned the mania with an unprecedented advertising campaign, sometimes buying up all the advertising pages in French newspapers.
A company called La Fortune, offering 15,000 shares at 10 francs each and 3,000 shares at 50 francs, said it had just bought four “almost miraculous” machines, each of which could do the work of 100 men and was “capable of extracting 2 kilograms of gold a day.”
Not to be outdone, another company claimed they too had a machine invented “by a former university professor” and offered a thirtyfold return.
A fashion house announced it had just gotten in a large quantity of clothing suitable for emigrants to California “or any such distant country,” while women who wished to remain home in style could purchase a delectable “chapeau Californien” made by one Aimee Henry for 12 francs.
La Meuse was the first of dozens of ships that would make the long and dangerous voyage, carrying 30,000 French people to San Francisco.
The passengers made up a representative cross-section of the French population, hailing from Paris and the provinces and from all socioeconomic classes.
In August 1850, the French government said it would hold a Lottery of the Golden Ingots — a national lottery whose first prize was a gold bar worth 400,000 francs.
Every Saturday, Gary Kamiya’s Portals of the Past tells one of those lost stories, using a specific location to illuminate San Francisco’s extraordinary history — from the days when giant mammoths wandered through what is now North Beach, to the Gold Rush delirium the dot-com madness and beyond.
Devotees of the “cocktail route” dubbed it that because the prevailing winds raised women’s skirts.