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A man of firsts

John White Geary’s pioneering legacy

By George Rathmell

You are likely familiar with Geary Boulevard, the one San Francisco thoroughfare that runs from Market Street to the Great Highway. From the Palace Hotel to the Cliff House, it extends through the city’s main shopping area, the theater district, the Western Addition, and the Inner and Outer Richmond. It’s the east–west spine of the city and the name of one of its busiest bus lines. But do you know who Geary was?

Big Man

If you had been in the city in 1849 and encountered John White Geary on the street, you would have been impressed. At 6 feet 5½ inches tall and 260 pounds, Geary had an impressive (and imposing) appearance that proclaimed authority. Although he was only 30 years old at the time, Geary already had a solid reputation as a leader.

As an adolescent, he had been active in the Pennsylvania militia. When the Mexican–American war broke out in 1846, he was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel. He was wounded in battle on five different occasions, including the one in which he led his troops to capture the city of Chapultepec. His courage, skill and competence were obvious and he was appointed military governor of Mexico City at the end of the war.

That experience qualified him for a civil service position, and in 1848, President James Polk named him postmaster of San Francisco and mail agent for the Pacific Coast. Polk entrusted him with 5,000 letters for Americans who had flocked to California during the gold rush; Geary’s task was to take the letters and establish a post office. Upon accepting the position, Geary departed from Washington, D.C., with his wife and three-year-old son. They sailed to Nicaragua, crossed the isthmus of Panama, and then took another ship to San Francisco. When he arrived, Geary could find no building suitable for a post office, so he rented an 8-by-10-foot room at the corner of Washington and Montgomery streets and chalked 26 squares on its floor. Each square bore a letter of the alphabet, and he used the squares to sort by hand the 5,000 letters he had brought.

In January 1850, Geary was elected as the city’s alcade, the leading civil officer of local government in a Mexican municipality; and after California became a U.S. state in September of that year, he was elected San Francisco’s first mayor. The transition from Mexican to American government was not an easy one, but Geary had studied law in his youth and was able to fulfill his duties effectively.

During his term in office, he was able to set up a governmental system and establish a firm financial foundation for the city. After one term as mayor, Geary opened a law firm in partnership with Henry H. Haight, who later became governor of California. Speculating in real estate, Geary prospered through the sale of plots of land he had acquired at low prices.

His wife’s failing health required him to return to Pennsylvania in 1852; after her death, he was appointed governor of the Kansas Territory by President Franklin Pierce. As governor, Geary tried vainly to halt the warring between Kansas Abolitionists and Pro-Slavery factions. When Pierce was replaced by James Buchanan, Geary lost his position and moved to Washington, D.C.

Return to Arms

When the Civil War began, Geary raised two Pennsylvania infantry regiments and was activated as a colonel commanding the upper Potomac River district. He was wounded and captured at Leesburg, Virginia, but was exchanged and returned to duty. Promoted to brigadier general, he sustained his seventh serious combat injury. His courage — and his size — was responsible for his many wounds: He was a very large target. When he recovered, he returned to his division in time to participate in the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Later, in Tennessee, Geary took part in the Battle of Wauhatchie, where his son, Edward, was mortally wounded and later died in his father’s arms. Geary distinguished himself in the Battle of Lookout Mountain and in Sherman’s March to the Sea. He oversaw the surrender of Savannah, Georgia, and served as the city’s military governor, where he was breveted major general.

After the war, Geary served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania, combating the influence of the railroad barons and other special interest groups. He died just three weeks after completing his gubernatorial terms, at the age of 53.

Legacy

At the insistence of its citizens, Davis County, Pennsylvania (named for Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy) was renamed, Geary County in honor of the former governor. So why was a major San Francisco boulevard named for a man who spent only three years in the city? Aside from the fact that he was the city’s last alcade and its first mayor, there was also the gift he made to San Francisco, a large block of land that is known today as Union Square. 

George Rathmell is a feature writer for the Nob Hill Gazette.

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