A Sydney Duck Doesn’t Quack

Question: What is a Sydney Duck?

Answer: Someone you wanted to avoid if you lived in San Francisco in the late 1840s.

In 1848, word of the California gold discoveries reached Sydney, Australia, and merchants there, recognizing an opportunity, began loading ships with goods to sell to the booming California population. A voyage took three to four months, which was considered a reasonable length of time to provide a return on their investment—particularly if the stories they heard were true.

The stories were true and by mid-1849 the rush from Sydney to the gold fields of California, to search for gold rather than sell goods, began. By the end of 1849, forty-eight ships had left Sydney for California. The people who traveled to California gold country tended to be older and Irish, and, of course, some were ex-convicts of the Australian penal colonies.

Gold mining, it turned out, was harder work than expected, and many of the Australian immigrants ended up becoming service people or tradesmen, such as dressmakers, washer women, shipwrights, longshoremen, sailors, bartenders or saloon keepers. Others became, or reverted to being, criminals.

Many Australians settled in Sydney Town, at the foot of Telegraph Hill, and the more criminally oriented residents formed a gang known as the Sydney Ducks. The Sydney Ducks specialized in arson and were allegedly responsible for several devastating fires between 1849 and 1851. They would light fires, then loot stores and warehouses while everyone was busy fighting the fire. They organized protection rackets in which business owners paid to not have their store burned or looted. They also engaged in robberies, murder and general mayhem, to the point that law enforcement officials refused to enter Sydney Town. The law-abiding Australian residents resented being linked to The Sydney Ducks by virtue of nationality, but there wasn’t much they—or anyone, it seemed—could do about the lawlessness. The fact that many of the city officials were either corrupt or incompetent did not help matters.

In 1851, that changed. In June of that year, the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed with the specific intention of ending the Sydney Ducks’ reign of terror. The first “victim” of the vigilante committee was a man caught stealing a safe. He was chased down, caught, tried and hung within five hours. The vigilantes continued to conduct secret trials, followed by lynchings, or in some cases, deportations.

Eventually the Sydney Ducks had enough and faded away. There was a new gold rush going on—this one in Australia—and many of the surviving members of the Sydney Ducks returned home. By the 1880’s, Sydney Town had acquired a new name and another fierce reputation—it was now called The Barbary Coast.

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

30 thoughts on “A Sydney Duck Doesn’t Quack”

  1. Wow what a fascinating story.it kind of sounds like today’s Antifa who’s been causing mayhem in our country.
    It’s so hard to phantom those Australian’s sailing across the Pacific to come to America. What a long hard journey they had.
    Thank you for such a great history lesson.

  2. Wow! I’ve never heard of the Sydney Ducks, but the Barbary Coast had a definite reputation! How interesting to know how it got it’s start!

  3. Oh my gosh. I had never heard that history. I lived just south of San Francisco for 20 years. It is a beautiful city but it had to be a hard place to live back they with all the mud in addition to the crime.

  4. I haven’t heard of Sidney Ducks before..real interesting. Perhaps someone will base a story in that time period using the history we just learned about.

  5. Thank you for an interesting article. There is a lot written about the gold Rush in California and other states, but this is something I haven’t heard about. It does make sense, especially since gold mining is definitely a young man’s pursuit. For others, commercial jobs would be easier to handle and crime would be easier still. It would be understandable they would want to return home when circumstances changed. As you said, punishment for crime became swift and harsh and likely a good deterrent. For many, the stain of association with their criminal countrymen likely made it safer to leave and head back home for many of them.
    Hope you are staying cool and having a good summer.

  6. Wow, I had no idea, sounds a lot like what some people are doing in Mexico, so sad. Thank you for this History lesson. Have a great rest of the week and stay safe.

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