San Francisco

Northern California’s major port city, San Francisco, has been a reception center and place of settlement for many immigrant groups since the mid-nineteenth century. Its rapid growth during the years before the U.S. Civil War was a direct result of California’s gold rush, but its status as one of the best natural harbors on the Pacific Coast ensured that it would continue to attract immigrants long after the gold rush ended.

California became a U.S. territory after the United States won the Mexican War of 1846-1848, and it became a state in 1850. California gold rush;and San Francisco[San Francisco]At the time gold was discovered near Sacramento in 1848, San Francisco was little more than a sleepy waterfront village with about 800 mostly Spanish-speaking inhabitants. By the end of 1849, it had become a city with 30,000 residents from all over the United States and the world. Between 1849 and 1860, another 40,000 people arrived in San Francisco by sea. By 1880, the city had 100,000 residents, about 45 percent of whom were foreign born.San FranciscoCalifornia;San FranciscoSan FranciscoCalifornia;San Francisco[cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;San Francisco

Asian Immigrants

In 1877, five years before passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Harper’s Weekly published this cover, which gives the impression that an unending stream of Chinese are pouring into San Francisco.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1849, a few hundred Chinese men arrived in San Francisco hoping to work in the gold fields; another thousand arrived the following year. In 1860, official U.S. Census records showed that 2,719 Chinese were living in the city; that figure rose to 12,022 in 1870, 21,745 in 1880, 25,833 in 1890, and 13,954 in 1900. Through those years, thousands more Chinese passed through the city on their way to jobs in the gold fields, on railroads, and in other industries. Records of the city’s customs office show that 233,136 Chinese arrived in San Francisco between 1848 and 1876 alone; 93,273 of these immigrants later returned to China. The overwhelming majority of these early Chinese immigrants were men from the Pearl River Delta region of China that includes Canton, MacaoMacao, and Hong Kong immigrantsHong Kong.

Most of the Chinese who remained in San Francisco lived within the fifteen-square-block area that became known as Chinatowns;New York CityChinatown. The city’s Chinese worked primarily in service industries, such asChinese laundrieslaundries and domestic service. Chinese women were few, and many of them were Prostitution;and Chinese immigrants[Chinese immigrants]prostitutes who serviced the large number of single men. Most of the prostitutes came from the lower classes in China and had been sold into the sex trade involuntarily or had been tricked into coming to America.

During the 1880’s, Japanese immigrants;San FranciscoJapanese immigrants, mostly students, began arriving in San Francisco. By 1900, the city had more than 1,700 Japanese residents, but these immigrants did not congregate in any one neighborhood.

European Immigrants

During the 1850’s, Italian immigrants;San FranciscoLittle Italies;San FranciscoItalians began settling in an area next to Chinatown known variously as the North Shore, the Italian Section, and Little Italy. Many were fishermen from Liguria, the northwest region of Italy that includes Genoa. These immigrants dominated the San Francisco Bay Area’s important Fishing industry;in California[California]fishing industry for many years, and strong Italian influences can still be seen in the city’s Fisherman’s Wharf area, a popular tourist site.

California’s American development began at the same time Irish immigrants;San FranciscoIrish immigrants were starting to immigrate to the United States in massive numbers. As early as 1852, 4,200 Irish were living in San Francisco, accounting for 9 percent of the city’s entire population. By 1880, the Irish accounted for 37 percent of the residents, but that figure had dropped to 25 percent by 1900. Many Irish immigrants congregated in the area that became known as Irish Hill during the 1880’s so that they could be close to the factories in which they worked. Irish men also constituted about 90 percent of the city’s small police force during this time.

The 1906 Earthquake and Its Aftermath

In Earthquake, San Franciscoearly 1906, San Francisco suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes that any American city has ever experienced. Later estimated to have been as strong as 8.4 on the modern Richter scale, the quake flattened much of the city and was then followed by an equally destructive fire. Because of the cataclysmic impact of the earthquake, standard histories of San Francisco divide their narratives into two parts: before and after the quake.

San Francisco was completely rebuilt by the time of American’s entry into World War I in 1917, but by then significant changes had occurred. The city’s JapantownsSan Francisco;JapantownJapantown was established, but one-third of its residents would choose not to return after they were interned during World War II. An attempt had been made to dismantle Chinatowns;San FranciscoSan Francisco;ChinatownChinatown, but its residents successfully rebuilt the enclave using Chinese architectural designs. Although San Francisco’s Chinese population fell to 11,000 by 1920, Chinatown became a major tourist destination after government authorities closed its brothels and suppressed the criminal gangs known as Tongstongs. Meanwhile, the city’s Irish residents had become so thoroughly assimilated that there were few traces of distinctly Irish neighborhoods.

During the second half of the twentieth century, San Francisco’s population remained relatively stable, and most people who immigrated to the city came for lifestyle reasons, to enjoy its picturesque setting, cultural attractions, and tolerance of all kinds of diversity. During the 1970’s, the city became a magnet for gay and lesbian people.

As with the United States as a whole, San Francisco began experiencing a large influx of Asian and Latin American immigration after the 1960’s. By the early twenty-first century, about 35 percent of its residents were foreign born. In 2007, residents of Asian descent constituted about 33 percent of the city’s estimated population of 800,000. and Hispanics constituted about 14 percent.San FranciscoCalifornia;San Francisco

Further Reading

  • Brook, James, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy Joyce Peters, eds. Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998. Collection of essays on San Francisco.
  • Chen, Yong. Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Comprehensive history of Chinese immigration to San Francisco from the time of the gold rush to the year in which the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was finally repealed.
  • Cinel, Dino. From Italy to San Francisco: The Immigrant Experience. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1982. Thorough history of Italian immigration to San Francisco.
  • Dillon, Richard H. Hatchet Men: The Story of the Tong Wars in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Fairfield, Calif.: James Stevenson, 2005. History of organized crime in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
  • Garvey, John, and Karen Hanning. Irish San Francisco. Mount Pleasant, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. History of Irish immigration to San Francisco.

Angel Island Immigration Station

Anti-Chinese movement

Asian immigrants


California gold rush


Chinese immigrants

I Remember Mama

Mexican immigrants

Paper sons

Spanish immigrants

“Yellow peril” campaign