San Francisco History

San Francisco History


Before the peninsula was claimed for Spain, San Francisco Bay was occupied by California native people. Three thousand years ago the Ohlone settled the marshlands around the bay. These nomadic tribes erected temporary villages, sustaining themselves by hunting for their staple, acorns, plus a diet containing mussels, rabbit, shark, and grizzly bear.

San Francisco Bay was not explored until 1775 when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in his ship, the San Carlos, found it. (Nearly two hundred years before, in 1579, Sir Francis Drake claimed the Northern California coast for Queen Elizabeth I and although he was the first European to set foot in California, he never made it farther north than Point Reyes.)

A year later, in 1776, thirty families marched from Sonora, Mexico, lead by Juan Bautista de Anza, to settle the northern-most coast of the peninsula. The settlers promptly “enlisted” the docile Ohlone as laborers to build the Presidio and Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra’s Mission San Francisco de Asis. The Ohlone did not adjust to the hard labor demanded of them or to being confined and many of them escaped. They did not escape the diseases that the Spanish introduced. A familiar side-story in the advance of western civilization, within 50 years the native Indians’ numbers were decimated. And despite the success of other California missions, the San Francisco mission did not flourish. The Spaniards were not able to grow crops in the sandy soil and nothing approaching a pueblo was established.

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1806 and California became a territory of the Republic of Mexico. Now free from Spanish trade restrictions, San Francisco became a trading post for hides and tallow. Unlike the previous Spanish attempt at colonization, in 1835 homes were built at what is now the downtown financial district. Yerba Buena Cove, Spanish for “good herb,” was, officially named “San Francisco,” after an American flag was raised in Portsmouth Square and California became an American territory.

The real turning point for San Francisco was in 1848 when word leaked out of nearby Coloma that gold was found at John Sutter’s mill. Would-be millionaires rushed to San Francisco to buy supplies and to find their fortunes. Most found only back-breaking work and pockets picked by merchants who sold over-priced supplies to the hoards of newly arrived prospectors.

San Francisco emerged from the gold rush as a commercial and banking center. In 1850, California became a state. The surface gold had played out for the miners. The immigrant Chinese who arrived in San Francisco by the thousands, stayed to lay tracks for the transcontinental railroad. The boom had ended for the gold seekers but the profits lingered for capitalists like the “Big Four” railroad barons, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford, bankers and San Francisco Stock Exchange speculators. Their mansions dotted Nob Hill. By the turn of the twentieth century, San Francisco had grown into a thriving city of 400,000. At the beginning of the 1848 gold rush, the city had lass than 1000 inhabitants. The city fathers were making plans for a new opera house, a grand public library and new streets to address neglected areas of the city and to make San Francisco a more elegant and cosmopolitan destination. Those plans were finalized in April 1906. Days later, however, disaster struck and altered the course of history for the city of San Francisco and its residents.

For 47 seconds on the morning of April 18, 1906, what is now estimated to be an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck and shook San Francisco into rubble. What the quake itself did not destroy, fires claimed. For three days and two nights, fires burned and blackened the skies over the city and the bay. The houses of the great and small lay in ruins. 100,000 were homeless and as many as 3000 were dead. The city rushed to rebuild at an astounding pace. An estimated 15 buildings rose every day to replace the 28,000 that were destroyed.

By 1915, San Francisco had recovered enough to play host to 18 million visitors to the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, a world’s fair to commemorate the building of the Panama Canal.

During the Great Depression, San Francisco thrived, building the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, in 1936 and 1937 respectively. Through the Works Progress Administration projects, artists, like Diego Rivera, were employed to paint murals in public spaces. His work appears in locations like City College and the Embarcadero’s Rincon Center.

The Second World War brought many changes to San Francisco. Workers from across the country, especially from Southern states, were drawn by jobs in shipyards building the vessels that became part of the Pacific fleet. Servicemen disembarked from San Francisco for war duty and after they returned, many of them stayed on in the city. In fact, the roots of the gay community began with servicemen discharged from the military for being gay and remaining in San Francisco.

San Francisco became world renowned for the poetry and writings of a group of writers who based themselves in the bohemian cafes of North Beach. The San Francisco Shakespeare of these so-called “Beats,” or beatniks, was Allen Ginsberg, whose public recitation of his epic poem, “Howl,” in October 1955, caused a sensation and became a landmark court case for free speech, when it was found to have “redeeming social value,” and not obscene. Writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded and still operates the City Lights Booksellers, and Publishers at 261 Columbus Avenue. City Lights was the first exclusively paperbacks only bookstore in the U.S. and today still features poetry readings and a great selection of poetry and political books. The other touchstone of the Beats was Jack Kerouac’s epistle on personal freedom, “On the Road,” a book that paved the way for the ‘60’s anti-establishment hippie culture.

Although Woodstock was the great peace, love and music festival of the 1960’s, it took place in New York. While Andy Warhol was holding court in New York City for the “beautiful people,” San Francisco became the magnet for the disaffected, flower-power generation. The city became identified with hippies and thousands of young people hitchhiked to Haight Ashbury and went to the “be-in,” at Golden Gate Park to hear the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The Summer of Love in 1967 was the pinnacle of the movement, which deteriorated with the proliferation of drugs, “free love” turning into sexual violence and peace in the Haight being replaced with runaways and crime.

AIDS hit the city’s gay community hard after political battles in the 1970’s resulted in the expansion of their rights and gave them more say in the laws and government of San Francisco. The city’s first openly gay official, Harvey Milk, was killed in his office at city hall in 1978 along with the mayor, George Moscone.

Since the turn of the last century, San Francisco has had to battle bigotry, two massive earthquakes (in 1906 and 1989’s 7.1 magnitude temblor), a gold rush, a dot.com bust, and a recession. It may be shaken occasionally but San Francisco is a city whose core values remain steady.



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