John W. Geary
by Rand Richards
The following are excerpts from Rand Richards’ newest book, Mud, Blood and Gold - San Francisco in 1849.
All throughout the year 1849, thousands of people poured into San Francisco “like bees to a swarming.” One of those was John White Geary. Geary, for whom Geary Boulevard and Street are named, spent only three years in San Francisco but he looms large in the City’s early history.
Stockton Street in 1849.
Geary was born in western Pennsylvania in 1819. His penniless father died when he was 14, forcing young Geary to leave school to work to support his widowed mother. He put himself through college and studied law and civil engineering. During the Mexican War, he served as a lieutenant colonel with the Pennsylvania militia. He was wounded twice and participated in the capture of Mexico City.
When “gold fever” raged on the East Coast, starting late in 1848, he became infected like virtually everyone else. He hustled down to Washington D. C., and presented himself at the White House, and as a war hero received a commission from President James Polk to become postmaster of San Francisco—ground zero of the new golden land.
After crossing the Isthmus of Panama with his pregnant wife and 3-year-old son, he arrived in San Francisco in March 1849. He had with him 10 sacks of mail containing 5,000 letters. With no government building worthy of the name, he rented an 8 by 10 foot room in a building on the corner of Washington and Montgomery Streets at the waterfront for use as a post office. He chalked squares on the floor and labeled them A, B, C, and so on— and sorted the letters by names. Then he removed a pane of glass from a window and handed letters to eager recipients.
John W. Geary, last American alcalde and first mayor of San Francisco.
Geary commanded attention for several reasons. One was his size. He weighed 260 pounds and stood 6 feet 5 inches. Other men literally looked up to him. Geary was also admired because he had brought his wife and family to California. With females and children scarce, deference was paid to men with those rare commodities. Geary, however, sent his family back to Pennsylvania after only a few months citing as his reason the exorbitant cost of living in San Francisco.
Geary became the last alcalde in San Francisco under the old government system. After the establishment of San Francisco’s first City Charter in 1850, he was elected its first mayor. Geary served capably during his tenure as San Francisco’s chief executive by getting the City’s finances in order through increased taxation. Like his predecessors, however, he enriched himself by selling city lots that he had acquired at little or no cost. Geary served a one-year term as mayor, and then rejoined his family in Pennsylvania in 1852. He never returned to San Francisco.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Geary joined the Union Army, was promoted to brigadier general, saw action at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and was wounded several times. He served under General William Tecumseh Sherman on his march through Georgia. After the war, Geary served two terms as Pennsylvania’s governor. There was speculation that Geary might run for president, but just three weeks after retiring as governor, he suddenly dropped dead of an apparent heart attack or stroke. He was 53.
Rand Richards is a historian, author, and lecturer. He has written a number of books including Historic Walks in San Francisco: 18 Trails through the City’s Past and Historic San Francisco: a Concise History and Guide. Read about other early San Franciscans and more on John Geary, including his duties as alcalde and the wealth he amassed in land speculation. Mud, Blood and Gold – San Francisco in 1849 is available in local bookstores.
- Photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Send comments and questions to email@example.com
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.