The Ducks are Cackling in the Pond

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.” 

View of San Francisco from Western Hill at the Foot of Telegraph Hill (1850-1860) Library of Congress

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.”

Great fire in San Francisco from a view on the waterfront (1851)

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.

Published by Jo Haraf

Jo’s poetry and fiction have been published in the California Writers Club Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Ragnarok. She edited and co-authored "Journal Across the Plains - 1852" (Fonthill 2020). "Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteen Century California" will be published in the fall of 2021. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. A popular speaker on the craft of writing, Jo is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Biographers International, and the California Writers Club. She lives on Florida's Suncoast with her husband and a scruffy terrier whose adoration sustains her through revisions and rejections.

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