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Founding of San Francisco

If you look at a map of the West Coast of the U.S. it seems logical that there would be a port in the Bay Area. It’s far and away the best natural harbor between San Diego and Seattle, so it seems entirely natural – almost ordained really – that San Francisco exists. However, like many things in life, the fact that San Francisco is where it is and is what it is, entirely comes down to chance. From the moment of the founding of San Francisco it has been at the mercy of fortune (quite literally) and without that it would never have become the pre-eminent city that it has and would almost certainly have another name.

First Americans in the Bay Area

The Bay Area is estimated to have been settled by humans around 4,000 BCE and two distinct waves of migration have been identified in the following millennia. By the end of the eighteenth century the First American people known as the Ohlone had been living in an area roughly stretching from the top of the Bay Area to the Big Sur for a thousand years before the founding of San Francisco.

The Ohlone had about fifty settlements, of around fifty to two hundred residents each, scattered throughout their territory and didn’t consider themselves as a unitary group or nation. It’s hard to know exactly how many they numbered, but most experts believe that there were at least 20,000 Ohlone and in fact Northern California was one of the most densely populated parts of North America at the time.

The Ohlone lifestyle was a semi-nomadic one, dominated by harvesting of seasonal wild crops, such as berries and nuts, and fishing and hunting. The lands and waters of the Bay Area were incredibly rich in food and they lived a good life of seasonal dances and rituals, dominated by the sweat lodge. Their diet consisted of mussels and abalone from the Bay, salmon and perch from the rivers and elk and deer from the hills and valleys. They also hunted ducks, geese and quail, using nets, decoys and traps. 

Exploration of California

However, the tectonic plates of the geo-political map were shifting in ways that the Ohlone could not possibly imagine and their peaceful days of plenty were coming to an end. After Hernan Cortes captured what’s now Mexico for the Spanish King, in 1522, there was a lot of interest in exploring and claiming more land, slaves and treasure and arrangements were made to send a naval expedition up the West Coast of North America.

In 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led a flotilla of ships up the coast as far as today’s Russian River and he named the land he saw California, after a novel that had come out in Spain a few years earlier called Las Sergas de Esplandián or The Exploits of Esplandián. The novel was a King Arthur style adventure yarn in which the hero, Esplandián, finds an enchanted island populated by beautiful female Amazonian warriors. Cabrillo, lacking access to Google Maps, almost certainly believed that Baja California was an island and, therefore, fitted the description:

Know then, that on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise, and it was peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons. They were of strong and hardy bodies, of ardent courage and great force.

Their island was the strongest in all the world, with its steep cliffs and rocky shores. Their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode. For, in the whole island, there was no metal but gold.

Las Sergas de Esplandián, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, 1510

In the book the inhabitants of California live in a city of gold, where they’re ruled by Queen Calafia, and any sailors that are shipwrecked on the island would immediately be seized by the warriors and forced to make love to them – before being executed (one has to admit that if there were no men on the island the poor women would have had to make the most of the opportunity).

When you think about how many people have come here searching for beautiful women and gold it seems totally appropriate that California is named for a kingdom that was full of them. Scholars have pointed out that the name is almost certainly Arabic in origin, deriving from the word caliph, or ruler.

However, Cabrillo did not discover San Francisco Bay, sailing right past and putting in at what’s now known as Drake’s Bay, just north of the Golden Gate. This was a pretty big miss, bearing in mind that the Spanish were particularly interested in establishing a safe port in Northern California to service the Manila Galleons, Spanish ships that carried rich cargoes from the newly conquered Philippines.

In fact the Bay concealed itself for more than two centuries as explorers such as Sir Francis Drake (for whom Drake’s Bay is named), Sebastiano Cermeo and Sebastian Vizcaino, as well as some two hundred other ships, all managed to not spot it.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising when you consider that the ships of that era had to maintain a good distance from the shore, lest they be driven onto the rocks by prevailing winds, that the Golden Gate is often obscured by fog and that from a distance Alcatraz and Angel Islands can make the coastline look contiguous.

Nevertheless, one thing Cermeo did manage to do was to name Drake’s Bay La Bahia de San Francisco, after Saint Francis of Assisi. In time this name would come to be bestowed on the vastly bigger harbor nearby, and then on the city that sprang up next to it. That would be crucial to the founding of San Francisco.

Spanish Colonization

As the years passed the major colonizing efforts of the Spanish became focused on South America, where they captured the Inca Empire and the Philippine trade routes waned in importance.

However, by the late eighteenth century there was a renewed interest in California on the part of the Spanish Monarchy, mainly due to the efforts of the Russians in colonizing Alaska (from where they were already launching hunting expeditions into California) and the French in establishing its vast territory of Louisiana. An exploratory operation, that became known as the Portolá Expedition after its commander, Gaspar de Portolá, was ordered by Charles III to strike North from Sonora and establish a series of missions, settlements and Presidios (forts) along the coast.

In early 1769 the expedition set off and by the end of September had reached Monterey Bay. At this point there was something of a mix-up. Unbeknownst to the Spanish Vizcaino had totally exaggerated the size and features of Monterey Bay in his report and the expedition didn’t believe that they had already found it, so they headed further North to see if they could discover the magnificent bay that he had described in 1602.

On October 31 the expedition reached the top of Sweeney’s Ridge and spotted Drake’s Bay – which they immediately decided must be the Monterey Bay for which they were looking. In the meantime some members of the group headed off to hunt for food and it was this party that finally stumbled on San Francisco Bay. The Spanish had their port on the West Coast at last, except that nobody on the expedition seems to have realized the significance of their discovery at all. In Portolá’s memoir, written only four years later, he barely mentions San Francisco Bay and even then only to say:

I did not linger there, nor did I see anything worthy of description there, save only a labyrinth of bays and channels which inundate the territory.

Evidently the founding of San Francisco would have to wait a little longer.

Settlement of San Francisco

In spite of the confusion over which bay was which, it nevertheless gradually dawned on the Spanish that here was a magnificent port, which they would now at least be able to deny the British or Russians. Accordingly plans were laid to establish a Presidio at the mouth of the Bay and a mission nearby.

On March 28, 1776 a site was selected for the Presidio to guard the straits and a few days later the mission was established three miles to the Southeast in a warmer, sheltered spot, that was watered by a stream that ran into a lagoon. The lake was named Laguna de los Dolores, as it was the Friday of Sorrows, and the mission was named Mission San Francisco de Asís, although it’s often known as Mission Dolores.

June 29, 1776 is generally considered the date of San Francisco’s founding, as that was the day that the Spanish flag was officially raised at the Presidio and the first mass was celebrated at the mission.

Early Years of San Francisco’s Founding

The opening of the mission was the keystone in the building up of Spanish power in the region. The leader of the 1776 expedition, which established the settlements at San Francisco was Juan Bautista de Anza and he brought with him over two hundred people and cattle as well as horses and mules. Not a lot to establish a new city, but the whole point of the missions was to convert the First Americans to Catholicism, so that they could be made to work for the padres.

Quite a mythology has grown around the California Missions, much of it due to the Mission Revival movement that developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the publishing of the novel Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson in 1886. A picture of idyllic old missions basking in the warm Southern Californian sun, peopled by happy Indians and gruff, but kind, priests.

This was a complete fabrication that was heavily promoted by the Automobile Association of Southern California in the 1920’s, as part of an advertising push to get people driving around the state. Drivers were told to visit the old missions, which were apparently each just a day’s horse-ride from the next on the old Camino Real. Except the missions weren’t so helpfully and evenly spread out and the Camino Real as such didn’t exist – every road in the Spanish Empire was a royal one. And the missions were the equivalent of Southern Plantations.

The truly idyllic lifestyle – although it sounds almost impossibly so now – was the one of the First Americans. They had a harmonious relationship with nature, viewing time as cyclical and based on the rhythm of the passing of the seasons. The rich natural environment of this part of California meant that Ohlone people spent an average of only ten to fifteen hours a week hunting, fishing and gathering supplies. They had a high protein diet of fresh fish, game, nuts, seeds and roots and starvation was unknown.

One Ohlone woman described their approach thus:

When we Indians kill meat we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don’t chop down trees. We only use dead wood.

This ran in direct contrast to the concept of the missions, which were designed to be worked as commercial operations, in order to create surpluses to trade and sell. The padres used all means at their disposal to encourage the Ohlone to convert, often creating theatrical shows and other events, but when that didn’t provide enough recruits they would use trickery and force to increase baptisms.

Once a First American was baptized they effectively belonged to the Church and could be made to work for nothing, if they escaped they would be brought back in chains by soldiers. 

For the Ohlone this was obviously devastating, they didn’t even castigate their children – now adults were being chained and whipped. Men and women were forced to live separately. Julio Cesar, a neophyte (newly converted First American) later recalled: 

When I was a boy the treatment given to the Indians at the mission was not good at all. They did not pay us anything, but merely gave us food, a loincloth and blanket, besides flogging for any fault, however slight. We were at the mercy of the administrator, who ordered us to be flogged whenever and however he took notion.

An 1806 measles epidemic at the mission killed at least a quarter of the Ohlone there and in fact disease and a low birth-rate meant that Spanish colonization was a slow death sentence for them anyway.

The height of the California missions was probably the 1810’s when each one had over a thousand First Americans working a million acres. This life only came to an end with the Secularization of the Missions in 1834, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and California got a new owner. Now there isn’t a single place-name in San Francisco that’s taken from the Ohlone languages.

Establishment of Yerba Buena

The Spanish Crown had wanted San Francisco as a harbor, especially since the Quechan People, near Yuma, cut the main overland highway between Mexico and Alta California (as the Spanish called California), but the Government of Mexico didn’t have geo-political ambitions of empire and so the settlements around the Bay gently declined after Mexican Independence. 

However, more change was presaged for the small communities surrounding the Bay Area when a Londoner, by the name of William Richardson arrived at the Presidio in August 1822. Richardson was the twenty-seven year old first mate of the British whaling-ship Orion, which had put into the Bay looking for fresh water and food.

The comandante of the garrison, Ignacio Martinez, offered help to Richardson – and invited him to a fiesta due to take place that night. As the young sailor danced the night away it was noticed by several revelers that he had formed an attachment to Martinez’s eldest daughter, Maria.

Sure enough Richardson left the sea and, in 1825, he married Maria, settling down near the Presidio. He rapidly put his seafaring knowledge to gain, becoming an important intermediary between merchant ships coming to California to buy agricultural products for the U.S. and other countries.

Yerba Buena Cove
Yerba Buena Cove, 1848

Accordingly, in 1835, he officially became Captain of the Port of San Francisco, which came with a land grant at Yerba Buena Cove, where he was to build an adobe house for his family. It’s considered the first house in the city and therefore crucial to the founding of San Francisco.

His then nine-year old daughter, Mariana provides a window on what the area was like then:

Father, immediately upon arriving at Yerba Buena, pitched his tent and made us as comfortable as possible. Yerba Buena at that time was nothing but sand dunes, covered with shrubbery and trees. Most of the trees were what we call the Christmas berry.

Wild animals were very numerous, such as bears, wolves, coyotes. I remember before my father constructed his adobe house, while we were still occupying the tent, one night a bear put his paw under the tent and carried off a screeching rooster

Richardson was joined by other settlers and the tiny port, while remaining small, grew to more than a couple of hundred souls over the following few years. The name Yerba Buena comes from a local plant (clinopodium douglasii) which grows plentifully in the area. The fragrant perennial is a member of the mint family of herbs, and its flowers can be used to make a nice infusion tea.

Soon the Hudson Bay Company opened a small warehouse at the cove and trade rapidly developed, as is made clear by Richardson’s reports to his superiors in Mexico City for the year 1837.

25 ships entered the port: 10 from the United States, 5 from Mexico, 5 from the United Kingdom, 2 from Russia, 2 from Ecuador and 1 from Hawaii.

California products exported: 15,928 hides; 12,494 cow horns; 302,654 pounds of suet (interior beef tallow); 13,038 pounds of lard; 70,714 pounds of dried meat; 21,714 pounds of potatoes; 14,510 pounds of flour; 11,364 pounds of wool; 2,579 pounds of otter pelts; 270 deerskins; 400 calabashes; 54 live cattle; 100 sheep; wheat valued at $4,792; seeds worth $348; maize worth $198; oats worth $35 and $11 worth of beans. 

Total declared value of goods exported from San Francisco Bay in 1837: $75,711.

Salidas de buques del puerto de San Francisco, 1837-38, William A. Richardson

At that time physical currency was relatively rare in California and people mostly employed a barter system. As a result animal hides became known as ‘leather dollars’ or ‘California Bank Notes’, generally valued at between $1-2 each. This gives a good idea of the importance of Richardson’s job.

However, in 1841, in a decision he would later regret, Richardson, having purchased a large ranch in Sausalito on the other side of the bay, moved there, leaving Yerba Buena behind just as it was about to become the biggest boomtown in history.

He died just a few years later, after several other similarly ill-starred business decisions, in 1856, leaving San Francisco in the same way he arrived – landless and penniless. There is though a very small plaque at 823 Grant Avenue, the site of Richardson’s adobe, that celebrates its construction as “the birthplace of a great city”. For someone so instrumental to the founding of San Francisco, it doesn’t seem like much.

Arrival of the U.S.

On May 13, 1846 Congress declared war on Mexico and – with Manifest Destiny and all – the U.S. had its sights set firmly on California. Washington only had a small force in California but, crucially, it was bigger than Mexico’s. The main highway into Alta California was still closed at Yuma, so the only supply lines were by sea and Mexico didn’t have a Pacific Navy, whereas the U.S. was able to reinforce their small squadron and attack.

Commander John Montgomery sailed into San Francisco Bay, in command of the USS Portsmouth, and triumphed in the Battle of Yerba Buena on July 9, capturing the port for his country. However, this wasn’t some heroic, against the odds, brilliant attack. The tiny Mexican Garrison, with an artillery battery of just three cannon (the youngest of which dated back to 1692), very sensibly surrendered without a shot being, well, shot. The only time the American guns fired was for the formal twenty-one gun salute to celebrate the town’s capture.

Shortly after that Captain John Frémont arrived at the head of an armed “geographic” expedition, helpfully pre-organized by the U.S. government before the war, and in an incredibly prescient move, he named the one-mile strait at the mouth of the bay ‘Chrysopylae’ – from the Greek for Golden Gate. Frémont, like other expansionist Americans at the time, desired the vast bay for the U.S. and could see it becoming a rich entrepot, like the Golden Horn of Istanbul (he obviously knew nothing about the Gold Rush, which was still to come).

Something else that, in retrospect, was crucial to the founding of San Francisco and its future development happened the following year when, on January 30 1847, the U.S. military-appointed mayor, Lieutenant Washington Bartlett, renamed the small town. That he did so was mainly because a tiny settlement in the North of the Bay had applied to name itself ‘Francisca’ and Bartlett, as a former surveyor, felt that since Yerba Buena was the main settlement in the Bay Area it made sense that it would be named after the bay itself. So, the other town became Benicia and Yerba Buena became San Francisco.

Once gold was discovered in the High Sierra in January 1848, in the last week of the war, word gradually spread, leading to a huge influx of people to California in the ensuing Gold Rush. Over the following three years it’s estimated that well over 100,000 prospectors arrived in San Francisco and the city exploded in size, going from around 800 residents to 25,000 in just eight months

Reasons for Founding of San Francisco

But why did San Francisco become the main transit point for forty-niners heading to the goldfields, instead of another part of the Bay Area? There were many factors against it. The Yerba Buena Cove was relatively small and surrounded by hills, with little level ground, timber or water. The weather in this part of the bay is less clement – colder, windier and foggier – perhaps not major issues now, but very significant then.

Benicia was much closer to the gold mines and offered easy transfer to smaller boats for the journey up the Sacramento River. Even Oakland, in the East Bay, would have been a better location.

In fact, if the British or French had colonized California the main urban center of the Bay Area would probably be Benicia. The British particularly would most likely have developed a port there, precisely for the reasons mentioned above and there would have been no founding of San Francisco.

Even if the U.S. had had possession of the West Coast for longer that may have been the case, but the fact that the Gold Rush happened so soon after the war means we’ll never know. San Francisco today could have looked like Marin County, mostly given over to parkland. It’s an interesting thought.

However, the earlier siting of the Presidio at the mouth of the Golden Gate and the establishment of a U.S. garrison there in 1846 ensured that San Francisco had crucial governmental patronage. The decision of Richardson to create his port headquarters there several years earlier and the subsequent growth of the town which, while still small, was far and away the largest in the Bay Area, ensured that San Francisco became the place for the Argonauts to land when reaching the region. 

The vast majority of sailors that were navigating to the bay had never been here before, so when they first entered it they would have looked around, seen the stars and stripes hanging over the buildings at Yerba Buena Cove and just assumed they were in the right place.

Within a matter of hours of dropping anchor the crew would have deserted and the ships were stuck where they were. Within weeks the original benefit of Yerba Buena Cove, its sheltered anchorage, had disappeared as it was filled with abandoned ships, but by then San Francisco was the dominant city.

How rapid was that change? Consider that in 1837 only twenty-five ships entered the bay – just twelve years later, in 1849, nearly six hundred arrived. Like it or not, a new chapter in San Francisco’s history was beginning. The Mexican era was over, the lifestyle that First Americans in the state had followed for countless generations was coming an end and San Francisco’s development was about to be turbo-charged, setting it on the path to becoming the mega-city that it is today.

And old Richardson must have been watching developments from across the bay, shaking his head and wishing that he’d held onto that adobe of his.

founding of San Francisco
Mission San Francisco de Asis today

Our SF in a Day, Half Day SF City Highlights and SF: Food + History + Art tours all focus on the founding of San Francisco and its history, as well as visiting many of its most historic sights.

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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