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"Chilecito," or San Francisco's Little Chile

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Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed highlights a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

Chilecito commemorative plaque in the sidewalk on Kearny near Columbus Street [Photo: Kevin Collins]

San Francisco has lots of areas defined by their history of ethnic settlement, like Chinatown and Little Italy, with some dating back to the city's earliest days. Many have long since disappeared, like Chilecito, or "Little Chile," the settlement of Chilean miners during the Gold Rush when San Francisco was nothing more than a new-born town.

When gold was first discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills, some of the first miners to arrive in California to test their luck were from Chile. News of the discovery hit the Chilean port city of Valparaiso in August of 1948, and within six months thousands of Chileans had left for San Francisco. The first wave included savvy merchants who knew the coming influx of people would need supplies, so they brought their families along and set up shops. Next came the experienced miners who bought their own tickets or hired themselves out to rich entrepreneurs. They brought with them vast mining knowledge, more than any men in California possessed, and these "48ers" taught later arrivals how to dig shafts, pan for gold, and find the best locations. Later in the year, people of all walks of life arrived from Chile, including many prostitutes who were welcomed by the overwhelmingly male population. Ships that landed in San Francisco ports were soon deserted, as their crews abandoned them for the mines.

Abandoned ships in San Francisco harbor, 1849 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Due to their closer geographical proximity and their mining experience, Chileans were one of the first nationalities to immigrate to California during the Gold Rush. Most settled in a ravine by Telegraph Hill, in a square that today is bound by Montgomery, Pacific, Jackson and Kearny Streets. A report from 1881 described the Little Chile area as "a hollow filled with little wooden huts" where women worked doing the washing, and men were "either on their way or just returned from the mines." Some remained in the city, where they worked as bricklayers, bakers, or dock workers.

The settlement was attacked and robbed on July 15, 1849 by the Hounds, a self-appointed militia group from New York. When a Chilean merchant refused to give them money, they robbed the settlement and set fire to the tents. The event sparked a response in the town's population, and the Hounds were arrested and convicted by a jury of five town leaders. Since there was no prison, they were detained on a ship anchored in the bay.

In 2003, the Chilean Consulate laid the commemorative plaque on Kearny Street near Columbus (in front of Cafe Zoetrope).
· Chilenos in the California Gold Rush, 1848-49 [Historical Text Archive]
· San Francisco at Statehood [Virtual Museum of San Francisco]
· The Chilean Crusade for El Dorado [Legends of America]