Monkeys and parrots are involved in the California Gold Rush by Laura Cleaver

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Monkeys and parrots are involved in the California Gold Rush by Laura Cleaver

In March 1853, five monkeys and 50 parrots arrived in San Francisco after a direct voyage from Nicaragua seven weeks later. The animals were kept on the dock, chirping, most likely attracting a crowd. Perhaps some onlookers gather to admire the feathers of the parrots, which add bright red and lime sparkles to this spring day. Others may think that monkeys perform, like primates they know from childhood circuses and stories.

The captive animals were used as pets and street attractions to entertain San Francisco's influx of newcomers hoping to profit from the gold rush. Some monkeys wore sweatshirts and twisted their hand organs — as one 19th-century newspaper put it — to do "all the antics that monkeys usually do." Parrots are mainly used as pets, and they are so precious that lost parrots appear in classified ads — like a Mrs. Ross offering a $50 ($1,900 today) reward for her lost parrot — the pretty Joey Rose.

New research has found evidence of the animals, which were stolen from their wild habitat and towed to San Francisco in the 1950s. There are few details about these importers, but some may have caught the creature on their ships carrying people from the East Coast of the United States around the southern mainland to San Francisco. There were also daunting merchants who sought out goods of market value, including live animals, from Central and South America. To shed light on the animal trade, Los Alamos National Laboratory and University of New Mexico archaeologist Cylor Conrad excavated archives of historical documents and archaeological finds. His findings, published in March in Ethnobiology Letters, detail how city dwellers use imported monkeys and parrots for entertainment.

These unwitting pets are now joining the ranks of animals affected by the gold rush. Among them is the Thule elk, a species found only in California that miners hunted to near extinction. In 1895, there were fewer than 30 elk left, and thanks to later laws, the elk population has risen to around 5,700 today. Among the animal casualties, giant tortoises captured in the Galapagos Islands were transported to San Francisco to be made into steaks, stews and pies. At that time, turtle populations were dangerously low due to the appetite of whalers in the early 20th century. The demand for turtle meat during the Gold Rush pushed the creature to the brink of extinction; Today, they remain on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. By adding these animals to the history of the Gold Rush, Conrad and others paint a fuller, more grim picture of the period's psyche and ecological losses.

Monkeys and parrots are involved in the California Gold Rush by Laura Cleaver

The gold rush began in 1848 when a carpenter found gold flakes in a river about 130 miles east of San Francisco. Coincidentally, this discovery occurred at the end of the Mexican-American War, and a few days later, Mexico ceded its territory, including California, to the United States.

Rumors about California gold quickly spread. Because Americans on the East Coast were skeptical of those claims, President James K. Polk sent an official to investigate. At the end of the year, Polk received a report from officials and announced in a congressional speech that "claims about the abundance of gold in that land are so staggering that if not confirmed, it is hardly to be believed." ”

Beginning in 1849, thousands of potential miners — known as the "49s" or "Argonauts" — flocked to Northern California. While most of these migrants came from the eastern United States, some came from more distant places, including China, South America, Australia and Europe. Alan Pastrom, a San Francisco Bay Area archaeologist who was not involved in the study, said they arrived at the port of San Francisco on a "tsunami-like ship."

A new wave of American immigration terrifies California's indigenous population, who have already suffered violence, murder, disease, and migration under Spanish imperialism. In 1850, California's first state legislature and governor passed the Protect the Indians Act. The law gave white officials the right to expropriate Indian lands and children. It also noted that Native testimony could not be used to convict whites — effectively allowing white 49 to rape, murder and steal Indians in California. The injustices and atrocities committed by the 49ers are now called genocide by scholars and politicians.

"Mass killings and murders of indigenous people were committed," Conrad said. "It's a tragic record." By 1880, the census showed that there were 16,277 Indians in California, compared with only about 150,000 when the United States took over California.

While 49-year-olds came here to try their luck in the gold mines, many became businessmen or professionals in San Francisco. Within a year, San Francisco had grown rapidly from a small village of 800 people to a city of more than 20,000 residents. Population growth is outpacing the construction of buildings, docks and infrastructure. The newcomers live in tents set up along the hillside. Rats are rampant, and fires often rage. The city lacks sidewalks, so the streets are littered with mud, garbage and rotting animal carcasses.

According to records at the time, pedestrians sometimes got bogged down in chest-deep mud, as in one woman mentioned in an 1852 news report in the California Daily News: "The lady's body was buried in the mud, but thanks to the kindness of some gentlemen, she was fished out." ...... With each step, you can see a large hole, big enough to swallow a small group of people. ”

"It was a wild, turbulent place," Conrad said. "It's going to be a great HBO-style series."

As an archaeologist who studies animal remains, Conrad wondered how the influx of humans in the '50s affected Northern California's wildlife. About a decade ago, he began working on the gold rush-era site excavated in Pastrom. Conrad and Pastrom analyzed bones, shells and other animal remains to map the diets of city dwellers during this period in a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology.

This archaeological evidence is consistent with historical records from the 19th century: in the 40s of the 19th century, beef was the main source of protein for European descendants in the region. But cattle stocks were not enough to feed the settlers of the Gold Rush, who also turned to wild fish and game. San Francisco markets are filled with "truckloads of geese, ducks, quail and other wild fowl, countless bears, elk, antelopes, deer and other small animals," one journalist wrote at the time. Between 1849 and 1851, wildlife became a staple food and then a rare luxury food — such was how fast the Argo discovered and consumed native species.

"It's so exploitative. They came in. They occupied those lands. Then they started mining on those lands while essentially wiping out anything they could consume," Conrad said. For local wildlife, "there doesn't seem to be an animal ... Not affected in one way or another by the human transformation of the western North America. ”

The ecological impact extends beyond California. In a series of papers published between 2015 and 2020, Conrad and colleagues identified imported foods, including turkey, East Coast oysters and Atlantic cod — the latter obtained through DNA analysis. To survive transit, these seafood may be dried, salted, or canned. Researchers also found the remains of sea turtles and Galapagos giant tortoises that were taken 3,300 miles away to feed hungry Argo heroes.

In addition to studying animal remains, Conrad scoured 19th-century literature to better understand the animal trade. As he delved deeper into the archives, he discovered that some exotic animals did not arrive for food reasons. Domestic cats were imported from Mexico to deal with rats in the city. Ships from Australia brought kangaroo skins that were considered luxury textiles, and occasionally live kangaroos. According to newspapers at the time, a kangaroo owner charged customers "for every glance," and a tavern owner delighted guests with "a real live kangaroo."

In his new paper, Conrad reports that monkeys and parrots are captured in a similar way to kangaroos. Shipping records he found confirm that the species arrived in California from ships from Central and South America. From the description and images, these primates must be capuchins, howling monkeys, or spider monkeys. These parrots may belong to several species from the Americas, including the scarlet macaw, and some birds that may have come from Australia, such as the Australian King Parrot.

"In a place where most people have never seen anything before, you can see these exotic animals and in many cases never even hear of them, which is just one small aspect of the unusual and unique vibrancy of San Francisco in that era," Paston said.

Conrad found a 19th-century cartoon in which passers-by were amused and amused by monkeys on the roof. Another photo shows the primates wandering outside a store, next to birds in cages. Visitors and residents of San Francisco during the Gold Rush mentioned parrots and monkeys in letters, news stories, and other works.

One traveler was "long forgotten but beloved... The pleasant tone "led from a bar into the street, and he was surprised to find a monkey playing the accordion": "Climbing from pillar to pillar, grinning at the countless fruits or biscuits he received," he wrote in 1850. Observers also noted the monkey's appeal, adding: "The melodious tune of his instrument always evokes the enthusiasm of the homesick, and the monkey's tricks are used to entertain the leisure of the boorish miners."

Conrad's exhaustive examination for earlier research did not reveal the bones of parrots or monkeys. But other archaeologists have found parrot bones at sites in San Francisco that were likely pets from the '70s and '80s, decades after the Gold Rush. The only U.S. example of possibly a pet parrot's bones being older comes from an early 19th-century apartment in Charleston, South Carolina.

Comparing parrots on the East and West Coasts, "I certainly think it's the same behavior (keeping pets)," said Martha Zildon, an archaeologist who studied the Charleston skeleton. Port cities like San Francisco, Charleston is immersed in global trade, where keeping exotic animals can be a status symbol. Zildon, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum, also found a 1789 portrait, which reinforced her point. The painting, which hangs in a historic house in another port city, Annapolis, Maryland, depicts a young girl "a playful little parrot standing on the back of her chair."

Daniel Lewis, an environmental historian not involved in Conrad's research, argues convincingly that monkeys and parrots were brought to 19th-century San Francisco primarily for entertainment and companionship. But he said the new findings raise more questions about the social lives and needs of city dwellers. "In Gold Rush California, do they lack entertainment?" Lewis, the director of the Huntington Library, asked. The Huntington Library is a library, art museum, and botanical garden in California. "Why did they make this particular decision to bring these creatures in?"

Conrad believes the animals are an emotional pastime for 49-year-olds who have settled in a new place full of strange landscapes, smells and experiences. "The kind of environment that they came into in Northern California, the gold rush and the sheer chaos ... These animals adapt to this environment because they are too new and too exotic," he said.

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