This picture is a remarkable document for a couple of reasons. First, it may well be the oldest surviving photograph of San Francisco, as well as the oldest made anywhere in America’s Far West. Second, the historic scene it presents existed for less than three months before it disappeared utterly. The daguerreotype was discovered in November, 1977, among the library possessions of a New Hampshire house, and is now owned by a New York dealer in Americana. After it was called to our attention, our investigation into its antiquity led us to Gladys Hansen, director of special collections at the San Francisco Public Library, and her investigation led her to the following news item in the San Francisco Alta California for March 19,1850:
“ Daguerreotyping —One of the prettiest specimens of the Daguerreotypist’s art which we have seen in this country was exhibited to us on Saturday—the product of the skill of Mr. Pierpont, who has a gallery over W. A. Woodruff’s in Clay Street. It was a view of the plaza [now Portsmouth Square] and eastern side of San Francisco, including the bay with all its shipping, the islands in the harbor, and the faroff snow-capped hills. In the square are seen groups of persons conversing, carts and everything which pertains to every-day life in the Plaza of San Francisco.”
It seems very likely that this newly found daguerreotype is thus Mr. Pierpont’s own, which would date the picture sometime before March 19, 1850. How much before also can be determined with some accuracy. The quite typical collection of Gold Rush hotels, restaurants, and bars that are visible (including Delmonico’s Restaurant on the second floor of the Exchange Building, to the right of the columned structure) were erected, Ms. Hansen tells us, after the great fire of December 24, 1849; most were not complete until the middle of January, 1850. Complete, and ephemeral—for on May 4,1850, a second fire swept through the city, burning everything seen here clean to the ground.
San Francisco built itself up again, as it did after each of the six fires that sent it to ruin during the Gold Rush years (a city built on dreams is difficult to kill). Yet each time it did, it changed, and a little bit of history in the making was lost forever. And that is the ultimate value of this picture; whether or not it is the earliest such scene, the photograph freezes a moment in the life of a changeling city busily striving toward the future.