PhD Dissertations: James Delgado, 2006

Gold Rush Entrepôt: The Maritime Archaeology of the Rise of the Port of San Francisco

The California Gold rush of 1848–1852 transformed San Francisco from a small village into a major city. The rapid rise of the city, often attributed by historians to the accident of the gold discovery, is more a result of centuries-long processes of integration of the Pacific into the European world system. Integration of the Pacific occurred through maritime exploration, trade and commerce, beginning with European desires for trade with Asia for spices, silks and other commodities. By the mid-nineteenth century, California and its gold were another commodity in the longue durée of Pacific integration, and ships arriving in response to the gold discovery brought mass-produced industrial goods as well as commodities to support the growing city and its surrounding region and mining camps. The role of ships and shipping underscores how San Francisco’s rise reflects the role of entrepôts, or zones of free exchange, as a model for integration, and as a new way of assessing a "frontier". In this case San Francisco is not only as an American Settlement on the Pacific Coast of North America, but also as a globally-linked port on the edge of the Pacific Rim.

This dissertation assess the rise of San Francisco and the role of a maritime system as an agent of the world system through historical archaeological examination of the buried Gold Rush waterfront of the city. A 9-square block area of the city, partially burned and covered by landfill, represents a well-preserved series of sites including partly burned fallen building and sunken now buried ships filled with cargo. These sites demonstrate how the rapidly constructed Gold Rush waterfront of moored ships, piers and buildings are macro-artifacts reflecting economic, social and political agendas in Gold Rush San Francisco. The waterfront provided the means for an ostensible mining settlement to survive the pattern of "boom or bust", and to become a critical entrepôt for United States interests in and ultimate command of Pacific and Asian trade.

Analysis of theses sites is accomplished through a study of archival evidence, recovered artifacts and buried features. Through these data, the maritime cultural landscape of the Gold Rush waterfront is interpreted. The Pacific by 1850 falls beyond the range of Wallersteins' original thesis for World System. San Francisco's rapid rise as an entrepôt, however, is part of a frontier process linked to a "maritime system" that in itself can be incorporated within world systems theory.