Drinking and Gambling—When Two Cultures Met

By Doris Berdahl

The following is excerpted from an essay Doris wrote in 2006 for the Sausalito Historical Society newsletter, Moments in Time:

In 1918, William Richardson’s 87-year-old son dictated an oral history of his time in early Sausalito. A persistent theme running through Stephen Richardson's 1918 memoir deals with consequences, good and bad, of the juxtaposition of Anglo and Latin cultures in Alta California in the mid-19th century. A man of fair-mindedness and balance, he faults the Californios for being self-indulgent and careless in their failure to protect the area's abundant resources and its rich and unique culture. At the same time, he's severe with the avarice and arrogance of the newcomers, once gold was found. Some of the gold miners were Asians, Europeans and South Americans, but most were Americans representing the expansionist, entrepreneurial forces from the east — in particular the brash, rapidly developing colossus from beyond the Sierra, the United States.

While Richardson assigns blame fairly even-handedly — pointing to the gullibility of the one group and the greed and opportunism of the other — he's unequivocal in his indictment of John C. Fremont, the American military commander who, in his drive through the North Bay in the 1840s to claim Alta California for the United States, poisoned relations for years to come between the resident population and the Americans.

Two social vices that flowed from these often harsh early contacts were excessive drinking and addictive gambling. Since the Latin people were, Richardson claims, highly susceptible to these temptations, the results were predictable. The more predatory of the newcomers, those who came into the region expressly to exploit the natives, came out winners. And the established Spanish/Mexican community largely came out losers. Many prominent families suffered economic ruin, and the culture in general experienced widespread deterioration.

Richardson was unsparing on the subject of drinking: “I have always had my opinion about the disorder that cropped up in nearly all the centers of the State from the earliest gold days ... It was due to an almost unbelievable use of hard liquor. This was nearly universal and only the strongest constituencies could stand it long ... the sad truth is that most of them died of a hob-nailed liver."

Not that there weren't robust drinking rituals among the Californios before the gold seekers arrived. But the forms it took were relatively benign, meant to promote comradeship and conviviality. According to Richardson: “Every good fellow carried a concealed bottle about his person, equally for his own reflection and to allay the thirst of casual friends. You couldn't enter the best regulated home without having the red liquor poured down your throat."

As for saloons, "It was considered extremely bad form to pass one without entering and having a few. ... I came to consider it rather a noteworthy event when I met anyone cold sober. Men of high position considered it no disgrace to lie in the streets in broad daylight dead drunk."

A large part of the drinking was done on credit. "When a gentleman entered a saloon he very seldom paid in cash. It was looked on as vulgar. It was deemed far more dignified to keep ... the transaction out of sight. There was just a pleasant nod to the bartender and his grateful nod in return, as he recorded the trifling obligation in his book of bills receivable." Such bills were settled monthly, and "... a particular sanctity was attached to the obligation." In short, a gentleman felt obliged to pay his bar bill.

But things changed with the coming of the Americans — a people, in Richardson's view, that "preserved few of the chivalric virtues of the early days." True, cantinas had been common in the pueblos before the Americans came, and drunkenness had become a familiar sight. "But it was as nothing compared with what I might properly call the reign of whiskey from 1840 on."

Richardson's description of the ravages of alcohol among certain nationalities at that time ends with this elegiac conclusion: "All the Latin races—Spanish, French and Italian—are peculiarly susceptible to the toxic effects of strong liquor, and in the prolonged orgy of those years, Californians probably suffered most of all."

Next week, we’ll present Richardson’s view of the gambling mania in those early days.