Professional Gamblers as Legitimate Businessmen
With society loosely knit, and with fortune making and chance taking so highly regarded, gambling flourished.
The pastime took hold in old Mexican communities like Monterey, in new mountain towns like Mariposa, and in growing cities like Sacramento.
Professional sharps not only followed prospectors to each new settlement on the Mother Lode, but also gathered in central urban districts where Argonauts consistently sought them out.
At the time of its admission to the Union in 1850, California licensed gambling and assessed quarterly fees for every table.
The state government, followed in turn by towns like San Jose which needed to finance municipal debt, thus recognized the public's general approval of gaming.
Among the many vices peculiar to California, gambling stood first and foremost.
Although gamblers often administered to the needs of their fellow countrymen first, there was much intermixture around gaming tables as bettors tried out the new games, introduced to the West from afar.
No matter what their country of origin, dealers in Gold Rush California found a surfeit of customers around gaming tables, and players found plenty of dealers.
The great influx of gamblers made the class a prominent one in the state, and no place had more resident sharps than San Francisco.
John W. Audubon, writing from 'this pandemonium of a city' in late 1849, found gamblers so prevalent that he compared the Gold Rush metropolis unfavorably to the old Southwest.
In San Francisco, Audubon had discovered the center of early California gambling, the site where westering American practiced gaming on a scale grander than in the old Southwest, and promoted new styles of betting vigorously.
Since the beginning of the Gold Rush, the city had served as the funnel through which poured thousands upon thousands of migrants intent upon taking risks in order to make easy money.
Populated by citizens, eager to turn a quick fortune, San Francisco was renamed 'San Fastopolis' by a clergyman who lamented the sinfulness and 'sharp practice' of frontier urbanities.
The city easily lived up to its reputation, for it contained both hundreds of establishments devoted to the various forms of gambling, and thousands of residents who, one reformed gambler recalled, would 'bet on anything, from a dogfight in the street, to a presidential election'.
Perhaps because it seemed so inevitable in early California, San Franciscans embraced gambling without hesitation during the community's rapid growth.
Instead of outlawing the practice, they initially looked to it as a source of income for a municipality that thrived on speculation and risk.
Why struggle in vain to eliminate betting, asked alcalde, and first mayor John W. Geary in 1849, when the city can license, regulate, and tax gaming?
So until 1855, San Francisco permitted licensed gambling and took a percentage of the money wagered. Even when citizens became less tolerant of betting, they continued to permit it because they appreciated the revenues that it generated.