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.