The California Gold Rush brought more than just people from all over the world in search of gold—it brought hope, it brought violence, and it also brought vigilante justice. In San Francisco, the population ballooned from 1,000 to nearly 36,000 people over a two year stretch starting in 1849, and the city was nowhere near prepared for the influx of treasure seekers ready to do anything to make a fortune. The Sydney Ducks were a gang of Australian immigrants, mostly former convicts, that rose to power in that chaos.
Many Sydney Ducks facts have been debated over the years, but historians can usually agree that they were, for the most part, just as bad as the rumors. The gang's territory was a hotbed for criminal activity, and the Ducks terrorized the growing city by robbing rich visitors and setting the town ablaze repeatedly just to loot buildings.
Their reign of violence got so out of hand that the law-abiding citizens of San Francisco had to form a vigilante gang of their own to end the Ducks by force. The Australian outlaws were broken up and killed just two years after they arrived, but they managed to leave their mark on Wild West history, even if their story has faded slightly with time.
The Australian gang set up shop in wild and infamous Barbary Coast district, the epicenter of debauchery in San Francisco. The area borrowed its nickname from the region along the northern coast of Africa where pirates and slave traders terrorized southern Europe, but the moniker wouldn't become prominent for several years after the Ducks' reign. The Aussies carved out their own neighborhood called Sydney Town, adding to the already overflowing scene of bars, brothels, gambling parlors, and dance halls. Rumors alleged that the Ducks would set up hotels for the express purpose of luring in wealthy individuals that the gang would then rob over the course of their stay.
San Francisco caught fire six times in a span of 18 months and at least two of those instances have been directly attributed to the Sydney Ducks. The Ducks used the fires as a chaotic diversion to cover murders and looting. Although some people believed that the Australians had been discriminated against and wrongly accused, the numbers didn't lie. After one of the fires, more than two-thirds of the looters arrested turned out to be Ducks.
The Sydney Ducks may have been a feared and powerful gang, but they were also short-lived. The Ducks were active from 1849 to 1851, right around the time when San Francisco was starting to grow exponentially. In the space of only two years, the gold rush had increased the population of the city from 200 to 10,000. Since it was nearly impossible for the government to keep up with policing the huge influx of people, the new arrivals from Australia saw their chance to make their fortune through illegal activity. But it was over quickly—the citizens of San Francisco were not willing to put up with the gang activity for very long.
The Ducks made their home in the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco, which was the ultimate example of the Wild West. It was filled with brothels, dance halls, sex shows, drug dens, saloons, and gambling halls. It crammed debauchery of every type into a few city blocks to entertain individuals of questionable moral character with freshly mined gold to spend. Averaging almost one murder per night, it became so lawless and dangerous that women were not allowed into the district, unless they were working as a "pretty waiter girl" or prostitute.