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Were S.F. Streets Named After Gold Rush-Era Sex Workers?

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Street sign reads Clementina with tall glass building in background.
Clementina street south of market is only a few blocks long. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli/KQED)

Bay Curious gets a lot of questions about why various landmarks and streets are named the way they are. Recent renaming of streets and controversies over school names have shown us, there’s a lot wrapped up in a name.

Ron Hewlett lives in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood and wondered about a rumor he’s heard about a cluster of streets nearby that feature women’s names: Could it be that some of the alleys like Natoma and Clementina are named for Gold Rush-era sex workers?

Ron isn’t the only one who’s heard this story.

“It’s hard to pin down the origin of why we want to believe in a romantic myth that early San Francisco lives on through its debauchery,” says LisaRuth Elliott, co-director of Shaping San Francisco, a community history project.

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She understands the appeal of the sex worker theory — she even believed it herself for the first decade and a half she lived in San Francisco — but then she started asking where the myth originated and why it has persisted. If these women were that popular, she figured there would be more stories about them in the historical record. But there really aren’t.

In reality, Elliott says, the Barbary Coast, which holds romantic appeal in the modern day, was dirty and unsafe for most citizens. While the early days of San Francisco life did include many saloons and brothels, she thinks it’s unlikely that the city’s founders would memorialize that aspect of life in its formal names.

LisaRuth Elliott, co-director of Shaping San Francisco, points out large areas of San Francisco that used to be marshy waterways before being filled with landfill. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli)

There are three main reasons Elliott suspects the “ladies of the night” theory is wrong. First, San Francisco in the 1840s and 1850s was a transient place. People were coming in and out of the city all the time and it’s unlikely that any one woman would have been around long enough to gain the notoriety required for a street to be named after her. Second, many of the names in question appear to be first names, an odd choice at any time. Most eponymous places and things are given the last names of people. Third, and most compelling to Elliott, is that when San Francisco first began booming, the entire city would have been oriented toward shipping.

Black and white photo of old shipbuilding operation and San Francisco Bay.
View from Steamboat Point in 1870, looking north. Tichenor’s Shipway, erected in 1859, at what is now 2nd + King Streets. (Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

“There’s a lot of ships coming into Yerba Buena Cove and a lot of ship traffic and trade,” Elliott says.

In fact, there may have been more ships than women in San Francisco in the mid-1840s. That got Elliott thinking about the fact that boats are often given women’s first names. It’s common even now. So she started looking at old newspaper records, searching for names like “Jessie” and “Clementina,” two names often cited as potential sex workers. She didn’t find every name, but about 90% of the female first names on the South of Market streets seemed to be associated with ships.

For example, in 1851 the Daily Alta California published this announcement: “Starkey Brothers and Co., offer for sale the entire cargo of the ship Jessie, from Liverpool, in lots to suit purchasers.”

Old timey newspaper announcement of the ship Jesse and her cargo.
Screenshot of the Daily Alta California from March 14, 1851 that proclaims the goods for sale on the ship “Jesse.”

“And what was also common in my research among the ship names that matched the street names is that they all came in around the same time,” Elliott says. One of the earliest records was from 1847, and the later ones she found came from around 1851.

“So they were all centered in the time period when shipbuilding was the main industry of South of Market, when it drove industry around that area, when people would have been thinking very regularly about ships as ways to get in and out of the city, as ways to procure what they needed within the city, as the places they were working themselves,” she said.

It’s also about the time period when city founders were naming streets.

LisaRuth Elliott shows Katrina Schwartz a public art installation on King Street across from Oracle Park. The bronze line in the sidewalk shows where the shoreline used to be when this area was dedicated to shipbuilding before the bay was filled in to create more land. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli)

Elliott is careful to say that hers is just a theory, not proven fact, but she thinks there’s far more evidence to support the idea that SOMA’s alleys are named for ships than that they were named for sex workers. Efforts to corroborate the sex worker theory fall short, she says, because they rely on photographic evidence from the 1870s, which would have been long after these streets were named.

Some of the earliest maps of this part of the city were made in 1854, and street names like “Jessie,” “Minna,” “Tehama” and “Clementina” already appear on them. That makes the ship narrative a compelling alternative theory based on what life really would have been like in San Francisco at the time.

“People are so interested in getting into the fabric, the texture of how life was. And I think that this story really does that,” Elliott says. “Beyond that Barbary Coast nostalgia, you really get a sense of what it would have been like if ships were our main source of transportation, and our main source of news and goods.”

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