San Francisco is one of the most famous cities in the world. When people think of the city, it’s often of well-known landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge, or its diverse and bohemian culture. What one may not recognize are the important contributions this city has made to the history of California and the United States. Understanding its history is one of the best ways to appreciate its journey to becoming the San Francisco of today.
Before the Spanish Came
Archaeological evidence shows that there were Native Americans belonging to the Ohlone people inhabiting the land that’s currently San Francisco as far back as 740 B.C.E. On the San Francisco Peninsula, the original people living in the region, who are now called the Ramaytush Ohlone, lived in around ten smaller tribal groups known as tribelets. By 1769, the indigenous inhabitants of the area totaled about 1,500 people.
- Indigenous Periods
- The Ramaytush Ohlone
- The Ramaytush Oholone: Lessons on Stewardship From the Ancestral Stewards of the Peninsula
The European Arrival
In 1769, Captain Juan Gaspar de Portola and his expedition team were the first European people to discover the San Francisco Bay. On orders from Spain, Portola was to explore the northern region of California and set up settlements there. This was prompted by a fear that Russian fur traders in Alaska were planning to expand into California. Traveling by land, Portola and his team would unknowingly discover the San Francisco Bay from the top of a ridge that is now a national historic landmark, aptly named the San Francisco Bay Discovery Site. They did not, however, realize the importance of what they had seen.
The first European settlement in what would become San Francisco wasn’t until 1776. In October 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition of soldiers and 240 settlers from New Spain to California. After arriving in Monterey in March 1776, de Anza, the chaplain, and several soldiers went ahead to San Francisco, where they located the sites for a mission and a presidio, or fortified settlement. But it would be de Anza’s second in command, Lt. Jose Joaquin Moraga, who would escort the settlers to their new home in June 1776. The mission, called San Francisco de Asis, was dedicated in October 1776, a month after the dedication of the presidio, which would be Spain’s northernmost military outpost.
San Francisco Under Mexican Rule
In 1821, California became a part of the Republic of Mexico courtesy of the Mexican War of Independence. This period saw the decline of missions and an increase in hostility toward the native people, including the spread of disease and forced servitude.
Former military officers were given large land grants, as were wealthy or prominent individuals, resulting in an increase in the number of ranchos (or ranches). Because of a change in Spain’s law forbidding trade with foreign vessels, ranchers started trading their goods, particularly hide and tallow, with vessels from the East Coast and around the world. In San Francisco, then known as Yerba Buena, the opening of the San Francisco Bay and the resulting commerce helped facilitate the area’s growth.
The Mexican-American War and San Francisco
The United States found itself at war with Mexico in 1846 over a land dispute regarding Texas. The war came quickly to San Francisco when Captain John Montgomery sailed into the San Francisco Bay. But his arrival was uneventful, as the people of Yerba Buena laid down their arms and did not resist. Montgomery walked unhindered to the central plaza, raised the American flag, and claimed Yerba Buena for the U.S. In 1847, Yerba Buena officially became San Francisco. A year later, California was ceded to the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The Gold Rush
The year 1848 proved to be an immensely eventful one with the discovery of gold in Coloma. As word of the discovery spread, San Francisco underwent a population boom, going from 1,000 people to 25,000 within a year. Gold-seekers came from the East Coast and locations around the world, including Africa, Asia, and Europe. This influx of people transformed San Francisco into a booming hub of activity. With this growth came gambling halls, stores, and saloons. But it was difficult for builders to keep up with the influx of new residents, which resulted in the erection of shanties and tent-houses that served as accommodations for many.
By 1870, the population of San Francisco had reached approximately 150,000 people. A part of this growth was because of the 1859 discovery of silver in Nevada, known as the Comstock Lode. As the gold rush waned, the prosperity and financial gain that it brought to San Francisco dwindled, but the Comstock Lode was a financial boon to San Francisco, courtesy of banks and wealthy investors. It was pivotal in turning the city into a major metropolis, speeding up its growth and leading to the construction of new buildings and neighborhoods.
The Bubonic Plague
In 1900, San Francisco became the site of the first reported case of bubonic plague in the continental U.S. Because the deaths were largely in Chinese communities, many blamed immigrants from Asia for the outbreak. Despite some claiming that reports of the disease were false, the city put Chinatown under quarantine for a brief period. Although the quarantine did not last, it was replaced by forced inspections of homes in Chinese neighborhoods. The increasing cases came with financial losses, as some states feared doing business with not only San Francisco but the state as a whole. It would later be determined that rats from a ship were the source of the plague.
1906 Earthquake and Fire
One of the most well-known and destructive earthquakes in U.S. history took place at 5:30 a.m. on April 18, 1906, in San Francisco. Lasting only 45 to 60 seconds, shaking from the 7.9-magnitude earthquake caused significant damage and injury. The quake led to massive fires that burned almost 500 city blocks over the course of three days. The combination of the fires and earthquake killed 3,000 people. The disaster also left half of the city’s residents homeless and sleeping in tents.
- Timeline of the San Francisco Earthquake, April 18-23, 1906
- Today in Earthquake History: San Francisco, 1906
With the 1930s came the construction of many new, and now famous, structures. In 1933, the 210-foot Coit Tower, which is also known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, was built in the city’s Pioneer Park. Construction of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge would also begin that year. Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began in 1934 and would take three years to complete. In 1936, the Bay Bridge opened to traffic, while the Golden Gate Bridge opened in May 1937. And while it wasn’t built in the 1930s, Alcatraz, a former military prison, became a maximum-security prison for civilians in 1934.
World War II
San Francisco played an important role in World War II. The government built up the city’s coastal defenses to protect the Golden Gate and the harbor from attack. San Francisco had become an important source of ships and tanks needed for war, making it a potential target for attack. The shipyards were crucial in the construction and repair of ships used in the war and typically produced a vessel a day.
Not all events during this time are a source of pride. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the city’s Japanese residents and many others in California were forcefully removed from their homes and put into internment camps. These residents were overwhelmingly American citizens, and they were given very little time to make arrangements for their property, leading many to lose their homes, businesses, and other belongings forever.
As World War II came to a close in 1945, San Francisco was the site of the San Francisco Conference, which is also known as the United Nations Conference on International Organization (UNCIO). Delegates from 50 nations met at the conference, which took place from April 25 to June 26. Its purpose was to facilitate peace and prevent further wars. Ultimately, the delegates would draft the United Nations Charter.
The Summer of Love
In the 1960s, San Francisco was at the center of a counterculture movement. Known for war protests, free love, music, and psychedelic drugs, the counterculture movement of the 1960s would peak during the so-called Summer of Love in 1967. Around 100,000 people traveled from across the country to the city’s Haight-Ashbury District, including students and musicians.
San Francisco and the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake
On Oct. 17, 1989, a devastating 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck San Francisco. The epicenter of the quake, which occurred during the evening rush hour, was 50 miles from the city’s downtown, near Loma Prieta Peak. While the quake lasted only 15 seconds, it came at a heavy cost. A portion of the San-Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge’s upper deck fell onto its busy lower deck. The city’s Marina District suffered major damage, as buildings were destroyed either by the quake itself or by fire. While not in San Francisco, the collapse of the double-decker Cypress Freeway also had a tremendous impact on the city and the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole.