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San Francisco History as Told by San Francisco

Posted in San Francisco on May 16th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off


The Coast Miwoks, Ohlones, and Wintuns were the first people to colonize the Bay Area, establishing small tribal societies near 60,000 years ago. The land we know and love as California was originally home to more than 100 Native American tribes who were descendants of the original Paleo-Siberian immigrants an who made up the densest population north of Mesoamerica.

Despite a lack of written records, anthropological evidence suggests that their social order was stable and successful enough to remain virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

Their spiritual beliefs revolved around animal gods and the natural world. Coyote, his grandson Falcon, and his wife Frog-Woman were the principle deities of the Miwoks.

The Portugese conquistador Estevan Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to sail the west coast of North America and make contact with California tribes in 1542. Cabrillo’s mission – to find the mythical Strait of Anian – was considered a failure even though the exploration party reached as far as the Oregan coast, bringing the unwitting team past San Francisco Bay.

Queen Elizabeth I of England soon sent seadog Sir Francis Drake to raid Spanish galleons on the Pacific Coast. He encountered the Miwoks in 1587 during an emergency landing near present-day San Francisco.

Drake was impressed with the skilled hunters, but not enough so to recognize their right to the land. Always thinking of his queen, Drake claimed the land – which he called ”Nova Albion”.

As is usually the case, European diseases, more so than colonial aggression, turned out to be the California natives’ biggest problem. Between 25% an 50% of California’s native population died from smallpox, tuberculosis, and measles.

Europeans began settling the Bay Area en masse when Spain’s King Charles III ordered colonization in 1769. Coastal cities cropped up alongside Catholic missions which were started by Father Junipero Serra.

In order to fortify these outposts, a Spanish military garrison built near Fort Point went into operation on September 17, 1776. Less than one month later, Father Junipero Serra established La Mision de San Francisco de Asis, named after the holy order that controlled northern California.

The mission’s purpose was to assist in the crusade to ”civilize” and Christianize the indigenous peoples. Over time, the mission became known as Mision Dolores and subjected the tribes to harsh treatment (the Spanish referred to the Native peoples as bestias or beasts), forced labour, and illness. In a few short years an estimated 75% of cultures that has survived for millennia were decimated.


Like something out of a Doomsday prophecy, the 1812 earthquake destroyed many of California’s missions. What’s more, the Spanish met with competition from Russian fur traders who had established themselves as a presence at Fort Ross (1812 – 1841), just north of San Francisco.

Once the Independent Republic of Mexico was declared and the Mexicans no longer feared aggression from the short-lived Russian occupation, the up-and-coming United States decided to get a bit testy and take action.

In 1835, the United States attempted to buy the whole Bay Area from the Mexicans – an offer promptly refused by Mexico. Not long after Mexico won it’s independence, though, the United States annexed the land in 1845 in the name of Manifest Destiny.

The Mexicans were less than pleased, and soon after the Mexican-American War began. In other news, idealist Captain John Fremont convinced a small band of hoodlums to take over San Francisco’s abandoned Presidio in the name of the Bear Flag Republic and declare independence.

Fremont coined the term ”Golden Gate” for the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, after Istanbul’s Golden Horn. Although Fremont’s rule was extremely short-lived, the nickname managed to stick – not because of the Bay’s resemblance to any Turkish harbours, but thanks rather to the discovery of gold only three years later.

Manifest Destiny – the idea that it was necessary and right to expand the US to the continent’s western edge – was all the rage. The acquisition of California was supported by public figures ranging from President Polk to poet Walt Whitman.

Published in the Brooklyn Eagle, Whitman wrote ”Mexico must be thoroughly chastised….Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that….America knows how to crush, as well as how to expand”. Under such secure pressure, Mexico eventually surrendered.

In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, Mexico ceded half of its territory, including California and parts of New Mexico and Texas, to the US. The timing – it turned out – was golden.

While the treaty was being negotiated, the seeds of gold rush were beginning to sprout nearby. When gold was discovered in January 1848 at General John Sutter’s Mill near Coloma by Sutter’s carpenter, James Marshall, the rush was on.

The number of fortune-seekers reached a feverish pitch as bands of men – known collectively as the Forty-Niners – flooded the region.

The massive influx of prospectors caused the non-native population to multiply six-fold within four years. The miners’ demands for food and supplies created an economic boom, and turned San Francisco into an international port.

Within a decade, over 28 million ounces of gold (worth about $10 billion today) had been mined. The journey westward is not to be underestimated, however. Like thousands of would-be settlers looking to the coast, the Donner Party faced hardship because of fierce winter conditions and diminished supplies.

During the winter of 1846 – 1847, they were forced to madness and cannibalism at a snowbound outpost near what is now called Donner Lake in Sierra Nevada.

The Forty-Niners quickly discovered that their thirst for wealth was met not with mountains of gold, but with hardship and skyrocketing prices.

Everyone except miners seemed to be getting rich, especially the merchants who could charge essentially whatever they wanted for goods.

Meanwhile, with only the slightest semblance of governmental order, vigilante justice became the name of the game. In 1856, the Sacramento Union noted that there had been ”some fourteen hundred murders in San Francisco in six years, and only three of the murderers hung, and one of these was a friendless Mexican”.

San Francisco mayor John White Geary tried to crack down on the lawlessness, guns, violence, prostitution, and gambling that had become commonplace, but his crude, extralegal policies were hardly better than the vigilante rule he was combating.

In 1859, the silver Vomstock Lode was discovered in Nebada and helped abate the financial hardships of the late 1850′s. The millions of dollars worth of silver mined from the hills changed the face of the San Francisco citizenry.

Instead of miners, fleecing merchants, and dilapidated shacks, the population was soon typified by bankers, lawyers, and rich speculators who were prepared to transform the town into a thriving metropolis with beautiful hotels, luxurious restaurants, and mansions high atop the city’s hills.

When former outlaws and vagrants got rich, they were not concerned with recreating the east-coast Puritanical, Boston Brahmin mentality. They were hell-bent on glitzy glamor and a good time; opium, loose women, and booze were their self-destructive weapons of choice.

The intoxicating nature of San Francisco led historian-moralist B.E Lloyd to warn parents in 1876 to ”look closer to their daughters, for they know not the many dangers to which they are exposed…and to mildly counsel their sons, for when upon the streets of this gay city they are wandering among many temptations”.

Twenty years later, Rudyard Kipling observed an even wilder metropolis: ”San Francisco is a mad city, inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people”.

Beginning in 1860 – 1861, the riders of the Pony Express carried mail between Missouri and San Francisco in 10-day trips.

By 1861, however, the completion of a transcontinental telegraph system linked California eclectically with the East and sent the ponies out to pasture.

Emerging industrialists twisted their greasy black handlebar moustaches and formed the Central Pacific Railroad – importing and abusing cheap Chinese labor to lay tracks eastward.

The meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads in 1869 formed the Transcontinental Railroad, which transformed travelling cross-country to California from a month-long venture by stagecoach to a quick five-day trip – a viable option for fortune-seekers everywhere.

After its completion, 15,000 luckless Chinese railroad workers found themselves unemployed and were subsequently blamed in the mid-1870′s for causing a nationwide depression.



On the morning of April 18, 1906, the Great Earthquake struck with a vengeance. The San Andreas Fault ripped open the Californian coastline as the quake caused 74 hr. fires that only subsided when a change in wind direction brought a desperately needed rainstorm.

Three days of catastrophe took a high toll on the city: several thousand dead, 750,000 homeless, and 3,500 developed acres reduced to ashes.

At the same time, the largest extortion scandal in the country’s history was exposed and rebuilding was entrusted to reformers. The press surrounding the investigation sparked a state-wide movement for governmental reform.

San Francisco doesn’t corner the market on suffering here – the Great Depression (following the 1929 stock market crash) hit everyone hard, although the Bay area experienced particularly difficult times. The city’s weak spot was its reliance on port business; trade plummeted and 70% of the workforce was laid off.

On May 9, 1934, in response to financial hardship and with the support of other sympathetic unions, the International Longshoremen’s Association went on strike all along the West Coast. The Industrialists attempted to break the picket lines with scab crews, but the results were disastrous.

On July 5th – Bloody Thursday – the docks erupted in violence and the police responded by opening fire on the strikers, killing two and wounding over 25. As a result, the entire labor force went on strike for three days, shuttling the city down completely.

The 1930′s saw the construction of two enormous bridges in the Bay Area: the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Completed in 1936, the Bay Bridge tunnelled through Yerba Buena Island to connect two enormous suspension bridges.

Less than a year later, the gorgeous, deep-orange-coloured Golden Gate Bridge stretched out across the Bay. Other construction accomplishments of the period included the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House – completed in 1932 – which would house the drafting committee for the United Nations Charter thirteen years later.

In addition, a maximum security prison opened on Alcatraz Island in 1933. By the time the Rock shut down in 1963, 36 men had tried to escape form its cells on 14 separate occasions. Of those 36, only five remain unaccounted for.

The bay’s frigid water and notoriously strong currents have led to the official presumption that these men drowned, though one escapee did survive the swim before his recapture.

World War II helped San Francisco prosper, as huge shipyards were built around the bay and war-related industries took off.