The Grub Stake

The last time we checked, Samuel Penfield Taylor was sitting on the dock of the bay contemplating his future. His trip from New York had taken a lot longer than expected and he didn’t have enough money to go prospecting.  He also found that life in 1850 San Francisco was as dangerous and chaotic as it was exciting. In just over a year it had gone from being a sleepy port town to the largest town west of the Mississippi River and the 5th largest in the United States. The harbor was so full of vessels there was no place for arriving ships, as upon entering the bay most of the crews immediately jumped overboard, swam to shore and went looking for gold. This left the ships marooned and unable to leave since they didn’t have a crew. The captains took to kidnapping (shanghaiing) able bodied men and forcing them into their service.

Along with tens of thousands of prospectors, came the gamblers, outlaws, murderers and politicians who took full advantage of the situation.  Crime and corruption were rampant.  As there was no meaningful law enforcement, Committees of Vigilance were formed to deal with the situation. This private militia lynched at least a dozen people, kidnapped hundreds of Irishmen and members of the government militia and forced numerous elected officials to resign.  The Committee of Vigilance was popular with the public, especially when they turned their attention to the Chinese immigrants which sparked several race riots.  Contempt for the Chinese increased even more when one of the ships from China arrived carrying cholera.  With no proper health care facilities, the epidemic was devastating to the growing San Francisco population.

As most everything had to come by ship and much of the world’s available fleet (over 500 ships) was stranded in the bay with no crew, prices for everything from shovels to mules skyrocketed.  Compared to the eastern part of the United States, food sold for as much as two thousand times more in San Francisco.  A slice of bread sold for a dollar – if it had butter, two dollars.  If someone was lucky enough to have an egg they could demand almost any price, which brings us back to Samuel seeing something bobbing up and down in the Pacific Ocean.

Samuel retrieved the hogshead (a crate equaling about 1-1/2 barrels) and found it was full of eggs. Most likely it had fallen off one of the ships in the harbor.  With the last of his money, he purchased a side of bacon and opened an outdoor restaurant that consisted of a couple of planks laid on some discarded wooden boxes. Over an open campfire, Samuel cooked the eggs and bacon for a crowd of hungry prospectors that had been attracted to the smell. By the time the last meal was served, Samuel had his grub stake and headed for the hills – his dream of fortune still alive.