News of the gold found at Sutter’s Mill reached the land down under in December 1848. A mere four months later, the first Australian gold seekers arrived in California in search of their fortunes. Two years after gold was discovered, roughly 11,000 Australians, two-thirds from Sydney, had migrated to the Golden State. Many new arrivals clustered in Sydney Valley at the foot of Telegraph Hill, earning the nickname “Sydney Ducks.”
Some Ducks never found their El Dorado. They returned to Australia broke, their pockets empty, but their stories filled with tales of golden ore. Others prospered as miners or merchants, sending money home so their families might join them. History doesn’t recall the Sydney Ducks as these respectable citizens and families. Rather, the moniker quickly became synonymous with gamblers and criminals.
In January 1850, the second fire in as many months torched San Francisco’s tinder-dry downtown. Seventy looters were arrested. Forty-eight of the robbers were Ducks, confirming to many the dubious assertion that all troublemakers were ex-convicts from Australia.
The fires continued. In May 1851, as much as three-quarters of San Francisco’s business district was consumed by flames. Some fires were criminally set as punishment for not paying protection money. Others must have been accidental in a town built of wood, lit by kerosene, and warmed by coal fires. Still, at each new blaze, local wags noted, “the Sydney Ducks are cackling in the pond.”
Police and city officials were unable to stop the arson or were bribed to look the other way. To confront the lawlessness, the doctors, lawyers, and businessmen of the city formed a Committee of Vigilance on June 10, 1851. The committee’s roster included member number 259, Dr. Galen Burdell, the future husband of Augustina Black. During its three-month reign, the Committee of Vigilance arrested ninety-one, hung four (one of them from Sydney), whipped one, and evicted twenty-eight from California.
The Alta California newspaper quickly celebrated the city’s newfound peace, “there has scarce been a robbery since” the committee’s inception. Their work complete, the committee disbanded in September only to rise again five years later in response, not to fire, but to voter fraud. Stay tuned for next month’s blog on the 1856 Committee of Vigilance.
To read more about the 1851 Committee of Vigilance and Dr. Galen Burdell, purchase your copy of Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century California.