San Francisco: History

Spanish Discover City; Franciscan Friars Build Missions

Because thick fog banks usually obscure the narrow entrance to the bay, the area where San Francisco now stands and the adjacent natural harbor remained undiscovered by seafaring adventurers for more than two hundred years after the original Spanish explorers found California. It was left to an overland expedition of Spanish soldiers from Mexico to stumble upon the bay by accident in 1769 while trying to reach Monterey. In 1776 Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza founded the first European settlement in the Bay Area by establishing a military garrison, or Presidio, on the southern shore of the Golden Gate. That same year the Franciscan Order built Mission Dolores, the sixth Roman Catholic mission in what eventually became a chain of twenty-one missions along the coast of California.

Until the 1830s almost all of the inhabitants were missionaries, trying—without much success—to convert the local Costanoan tribe to Christianity; but eventually a small village was built up around the Presidio and the mission. The village, called Yerba Buena, was mapped out in 1839 by Jean Jaques Vioget, a Swiss surveyor, but it continued to be small and remote throughout most of the 1840s. The quiet town of a few hundred inhabitants was visited infrequently by whaling ships, traders from the East Coast, and frontier hunters and trappers. Farming and a small but steady market in trading cattle hides and tallow were the main sources of commerce.

America Wins California; Gold Discovered

The American flag was raised in the town's central square in 1846, marking the annexation of California by the United States after the war with Mexico; one year later the name of the town was changed to San Francisco. Soon after the annexation, the town's population was nearly doubled by the arrival of a group of 238 Mormon settlers, led by Sam Brannan. It was Brannan who ran through the muddy streets of San Francisco less than two years later shouting "Gold!," thus altering the city's fate. Within a year, more than 40,000 people had journeyed through the area on their way to the gold fields around Sutter's Mill in the Sierra foothills, about 140 miles away. Some 35,000 of those people stayed on to live in San Francisco. The city was incorporated in 1850.

The gold prospectors came from all corners of the globe and tended to settle in areas according to their nationalities, one reason for the distinctive international flavor of modern San Francisco. Demand for food and shelter outstripped the supply, and many people lived in tents, cooking over campfires. Whole crews abandoned their ships in the harbor, leaving hundreds of empty hulls that were brought ashore and used as temporary warehouses, stores, and as the foundations of the town's new buildings. Gambling halls, saloons, hotels, and stores sprang up almost daily, only to be destroyed by frequent fires and then quickly rebuilt. It was a wild and reckless time; rampant lawlessness was common, so much so that in 1851 concerned citizens banded together into vigilante groups and rounded up the worst violators, eventually restoring order to the town.

Gold Boom Goes Bust; Industry, Shipping Thrive

The gold boom declined by the mid-1850s, but the town continued to grow with increases in industry and shipping. The 1859 silver boom in Nevada and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 also contributed their share to the city's prosperity. The downtown area grew full of large stone buildings and warehouses along the docks, and the surrounding hills were filled with impressive residential homes. By the turn of the century, San Francisco was home to a population of more than a third of a million people and was the ninth largest city in the country.

April 18, 1906, brought disaster to the city in the form of a major earthquake and fire that killed more than 500 people, devastated 3,000 acres in the heart of the city, and left almost 1,000 residents homeless. Among the heroes of the day were the U.S. Navy, who stretched a mile-long fire hose from Fisherman's Wharf over Telegraph Hill and down to Jackson Square, saving historic buildings. Before the ashes were cold, the townspeople set out to rebuild the city, and by 1915, when San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in honor of the opening of the Panama Canal, no traces of the fire and earthquake were visible.

Rise of Finance, Commerce, Culture

During the mid-twentieth century, San Francisco secured its position as the financial, commercial, and cultural center of northern California. The completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, after four years of exhausting work, was the major event of the period and a symbol of the city's new-found prominence. Designer Joseph Strauss tried for more than a decade to convince disbelievers that the plans for the construction of the bridge were feasible, and many people still doubted that it could stand for long even after its completion. The structure, the second-longest suspension bridge in the world, is more than three-quarters of a mile in length, supported by two 746-foot towers. It remains one of the outstanding engineering achievements of all time, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

World War II boosted the already strong economy of the city, which became a major supply and troop shipping port for the Pacific fronts and an important area for defense industries. It was also during this time that large numbers of the area's Oriental citizens were interred in work camps in the region. After the war, the city pointed the way to peace when delegates representing almost all of the world's countries gathered in San Francisco to draw up the charter of the United Nations.

The post-war era brought continued growth and prosperity. San Francisco's downtown area began to develop a skyline of high-rise buildings while carefully preserving many of the historical structures and green spaces. A large stretch of high-technology industries eventually built up in the nearby area known as Silicon Valley. The city fought problems of urban blight encountered in the 1960s and 1970s with an extensive urban-renewal program, developing the downtown section and introducing a major Rapid Transit System in 1974 to provide access to the center city. The assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk in November 1978 were a blow to the city's progressive image. The city elected its first woman mayor, Diane Feinstein, in 1979.

Another major earthquake occurred on October 17, 1989, ending decades of tranquility in the San Francisco Bay Area. The region has recovered strongly, showing a spirit of cooperation and determination. Today, San Francisco is considered a "gem" among cities. While other metropolitan areas build freeways to deal with urban sprawl, San Francisco remains a compact city with a flourishing downtown business and retail center, and charming neighborhoods. The city boasts many famous landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, Chinatown, and cable cars.

Historical Information: California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94105; telephone (415)357-1848; fax (415)357-1850. Chinese Historical Society of America, 965 Clay Street, San Francisco, CA 94108; telephone (415)391-1188. San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, Fort Mason Center, Bldg. C, Room 165, San Francisco, CA 94123; telephone (415)441-0640