The Monkeys and Parrots Caught Up in the California Gold Rush | Science

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Exotic animals including parrots and monkeys served as pets and entertainment in California in the 1850s.
Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz

In March 1853, after sailing seven weeks straight from Nicaragua, 5 monkeys and 50 parrots reached San Francisco. Caged on the wharf, chattering and squawking, the animals likely drew a crowd. Perhaps some onlookers gathered to admire the parrots’ plumage, which added flashes of scarlet and lime-green to this spring day. Other folks may have expected the monkeys to put on a show, like the primates they knew from childhood circuses and stories.

The captive creatures wound up as pets and street attractions, meant to entertain San Francisco’s flood of newcomers, who came hoping to profit from the Gold Rush. Some monkeys sported blazers, cranked hand organs and—as one 19th-century newspaper put it—did “all the usual antics performed by monkeys.” Parrots mainly served as pets, so prized that lost birds were reported in classified ads—like a listing from one Mrs. Ross offering a $50 reward (about $1,900 today) for her missing parrot, Pretty Joey Ross.

New research has uncovered evidence of these animals, which were stolen from their wild habitats and hauled to San Francisco in the 1850s. Details on the importers are sparse, but some probably nabbed the creatures, opportunistically, as their ships ferried U.S. East Coasters around the southern landmasses, en route to San Francisco. Other enterprising merchants made trips especially for marketable goods—including live fauna—from Central and South America. To shed light on the animal trade, Cyler Conrad, an archaeologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the University of New Mexico, dug through archives of historical documents and archaeological finds. His findings, published in March in Ethnobiology Letters, detailed how city-dwellers used imported monkeys and parrots for amusement.

These unwitting pets now join a growing list of animals affected by the Gold Rush. The list includes Tule elk, a species only found in California that miners hunted from abundance to near extinction. Fewer than 30 elk remained in 1895, and thanks to later laws the population has climbed back to around 5,700 individuals today. Also among the animal causalities, giant tortoises captured live in the Galapagos Islands were shipped to San Francisco and cooked into steaks, stews and pies. At the time, the tortoise numbers were already dangerously low due to whalers’ appetites earlier that century. The Gold Rush demand for tortoise meat pushed the creatures closer to the brink; today they remain on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. By adding these animals to Gold Rush history, Conrad and others are rendering a fuller—and grimmer—picture of both the period’s ethos and its ecological toll.

Drawing of Monkeys and Parrots in San Francisco

An 1856 drawing of the Cobweb Palace in San Francisco. A parrot and monkeys hang out to the left of the crowd.

A Sunday Scene, at Warner’s Cobweb Palace (C023591) courtesy of The Society of California Pioneers

The Gold Rush began in 1848, when a carpenter found gold flakes in a river about 130 miles east of San Francisco. Coincidentally, the discovery occurred just as the Mexican-American War was ending, and a few days later, Mexico ceded territory that included California to the United States.

Rumors of California’s gold spread quickly. With Americans on the East Coast doubting the claims, President James K. Polk sent an officer to investigate. By the year’s end, Polk received the officer’s report and announced in a speech to Congress that “the accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated.”

Starting in 1849, tens of thousands of prospective miners—called 49ers or Argonauts—flocked to northern California. While most of these immigrants hailed from the eastern U.S., others traveled from more distant lands, including China, South America, Australia and Europe. They arrived in San Francisco’s harbor on “a tsunami of ships,” says Allen Pastron, a Bay Area archaeologist who was not involved in the study.

The new wave of American settlers terrorized California’s Indigenous population, who had already suffered violence, murder, disease and relocation under Spanish imperialism. In 1850, California’s first state legislature and governor passed the “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” The law gave white officials the right to take Native American land and children. It also stated that Native testimony couldn’t be used to convict a white man—essentially permitting white 49ers to rape, murder and steal from Native Americans in California. The 49ers committed injustices and atrocities now called genocide by scholars and politicians alike.

“There was wholesale slaughter and murder of Indigenous people,” says Conrad. “It’s a tragic record.” By 1880, the census counted 16,277 Native Americans in California, compared to the 150,000-some living there when the U.S. took over.

Though 49ers came to try their luck in the gold mines, many instead made their fortune in San Francisco, working as merchants or professionals. Within a year, San Francisco spurted from an 800-person hamlet to a city with more than 20,000 residents. The growing population outpaced the construction of buildings, docks and infrastructure. Newcomers lived in tents pitched along hill slopes. Rats ran amok, and fires routinely raged. The city lacked pavement, so the streets became morasses of mud, garbage and rotting animal carcasses.

Accounts from the time say pedestrians sometimes sank chest-deep in the muck, like a woman mentioned in a 1852 Daily Alta California news story: “The lady was bodily imbedded in the mud, but by the kindness of some gentlemen, was fished out. … Great gaping holes, large enough to swallow a small team, are to be seen at every step.”

“It was such a wild, turbulent place,” says Conrad. “It would make for a really wonderful HBO-type series.”

As an archaeologist who studies animal remains, Conrad wanted to know how the 1850s influx of humans impacted the wildlife of northern California. About a decade ago, he began working at Gold Rush-era sites that Pastron was excavating. Analyzing bones, shells and other animal bits, Conrad and Pastron charted city dwellers’ diets across the period in a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

This archaeological evidence agreed with 19th-century historical records: During the 1840s, beef served as the main protein source for the region’s European-descended population. But the cattle stock wasn’t enough to feed Gold Rush settlers, who also turned to wild fish and game. San Francisco markets abounded with “whole cart loads of geese, ducks, quails and other wild fowl, innumerable quarters of bear, elk, antelope, deer and smaller game,” wrote a journalist at the time. Between 1849 and 1851, wild game became a dietary staple and then a rare, luxury food—that’s how quickly the Argonauts discovered and depleted native species.

“It was so exploitative. They came in. They took those lands. Then they started to mine those lands and at the same time essentially kill off anything that they could consume,” says Conrad. For local wildlife, “There doesn’t seem to be an animal that … was not impacted, in one way or another, from this human transformation of western North America.”

And the ecological impact extended beyond California. In a series of papers published between 2015 and 2020, Conrad and colleagues identify imported foods, including turkeys, East Coast oysters and Atlantic cod—the latter sourced through DNA analysis. To survive transport, the seafood was likely dried, salted or canned. Researchers also discovered remains of sea turtles and Galapagos giant tortoises, brought 3,300 miles to feed hungry Argonauts.

In addition to studying animal remains, Conrad searched 19th-century documents to better understand the animal trade. As he dug through the archives, he discovered that some non-local animals arrived for reasons other than food. House cats were imported from Mexico to combat the city’s rats. Ships from Australia brought kangaroo skins—considered a luxury textile—and occasionally live kangaroos. According to newspapers from the time, one kangaroo owner charged customers one “bit per sight,” and a saloon proprietor delighted guests with “a genuine live Kangaroo.”

In his new paper, Conrad reports that monkeys and parrots were captured much like kangaroos. Shipping records he uncovered confirm the species arrived in California on vessels from Central and South America. From descriptions and images, the primates must have been capuchins, howlers or spider monkeys. The parrots likely belonged to several species from the Americas, including scarlet macaws, as well as possibly some birds from Down Under, like the Australian King Parrot.

“The fact that you had these exotic animals in a place where most people have never seen anything like [them] before—and in many cases never heard of them—was just one small facet [of] the unusual and unique dynamism of San Francisco during that era,” says Pastron.

Conrad found a 19th-century cartoon that depicts passersby simultaneously amused and antagonized by monkeys on a roof. Another photograph shows the primates loitering outside a shop next to caged birds. Visitors and residents of Gold Rush San Francisco mentioned parrots and monkeys in their letters, news stories and other writings.

Lured from a bar into the street by “long forgotten, but cherished … dulcet tones,” a traveler was stunned to find a monkey playing a hand organ: “clambering from post to pillar, grinning […] at the numberless presents of fruit or biscuit that he received,” he wrote in 1850. The observer also keyed in on the monkey’s appeal, adding, “The melodious strains of his instrument never failed to arouse the enthusiasm of the homesick, whilst the tricks of the monkey served to amuse the leisure of the rough miners.”

Conrad didn’t find parrot or monkey skeletons in the collections he exhaustively examined for earlier studies. But other archaeologists have identified bones from parrots likely kept as pets at sites in San Francisco dated to the 1870s and 1880s—a couple of decades after the Gold Rush. The only older example of bones from a probable pet parrot in the U.S. comes from an early 19th-century boarding house in Charleston, South Carolina.

Comparing the East Coast and West Coast parrots, “I certainly think it’s the same behavior [of pet-keeping],” says Martha Zierden, the archaeologist who studied the Charleston skeleton. A port city like San Francisco, Charleston was tapped into global trade, and keeping exotic animals may have been a status symbol there. Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum, also discovered a 1789 portrait that strengthens her case. Hung in a historic house of another port city, Annapolis, Maryland, the painting depicts a young girl “with a saucy little parrot standing on the back of her chair.”

Environmental historian Daniel Lewis, who was not involved in Conrad’s study, finds it convincing that monkeys and parrots were brought to 19th-century San Francisco primarily for entertainment and companionship. But he says the new findings raise more questions about the social lives and needs of the city’s residents. “Were they short of entertainment in Gold Rush California?” asks Lewis, a curator at the Huntington, a library, art museum and botanical garden in California. “Why did they make that particular decision to bring those creatures in?”

Conrad thinks the animals were emotional diversions for 49ers, who settled in a new place full of strange sights, smells and experiences. “That sort of environment that they entered in northern California and the rush to find gold and the sheer chaos of it all, … these animals would have fit into that because they were so new, they were so exotic,” he says.

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