San Francisco Guide
by Stephanie Gold
A Short History
European Discovery & Development
In the 1500s, San Francisco was just a stretch of sandy, wind-blown hills and dunes, and the magnificent San Francisco Bay was shrouded from casual view by the frequently fog-bound peninsular arms of the Golden Gate, the narrow entrance from the Pacific Ocean to the bay. Spain was the dominant world power and her imperial exploration was going strong, but it took a while for the San Francisco Bay to be “discovered,” and hstorians debate just who found it first.
Father Pedro Font, who first set up the Mission on March 28, 1776, said: “Indeed, although in my travels I saw very good sites and beautiful country, I saw none which pleased me so much as this. And I think that if it could be well settled like Europe there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world, for it has the best advantages for founding in it a most beautiful city...” Once discovered by Europeans, the area developed rapidly.
In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed north from Mexico, the first European to explore the California coast in search of harbors (since Spain took the Philippines in 1565, the trade ships needed safe ports). He found San Diego, Monterey and Point Reyes harbors, but the San Francisco Bay’s narrow opening (the Golden Gate of repute) was not readily evident from his safe sailing course off the coast. Sir Francis Drake is reputed to be the first European to enter the Golden Gate, but when in 1579 Sir Francis Drake sailed the Pacific coast in his Golden Hinde, weighted down with 30 tons of Spanish booty and in need of repairs, it’s likely that he missed the Golden Gate and probably put in at a cove by Point Reyes (named Drake's Bay in 1792). He claimed the region for England and called it Nova Albion, but neither the name nor the nationality ever took.
In 1595, Point Reyes got another European visitor, and its present name. Sebastián Cermeño, a Portuguese captain doing reconnaissance for Spain, hit bad weather and put into Drake's Bay for repairs. The ship was sunk by another winter storm and the crew managed, amazingly, to make it back to the Philippines in a small launch, but before he left, Cermeño renamed the land (dubbed Cabo de Piños by Cabrillo) as Punta de los Reyes (King’s Point), which has since been shortened and partially anglicized to Point Reyes. By the 1600s, the trade between Mexico and the Philippines was down to one ship a year, and Spain’s empire was on the decline. Spain decided to focus on their South and Central American colonies and leave Alta California (San Diego and north) to the elements and the Indians.
By the 18th century, the Russians were doing some exploration and colonization of their own in Alaska and northern California, sparking Spain’s renewed interest in California. It wasn’t until 1769 that Captain Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Baja and Alta California, took another exploratory jaunt north, and, since he wasn’t impressed with the large, open harbor off Monterey, and pushed on up north to what is now San Francisco. Part of his expedition was aimed at establishing reliable harbors, but another task commissioned by King Don Carlos III was to set up new missions in Alta California (and replace the Baja Californian Jesuits with Franciscan friars). Since Portolá traveled by land, he and Sergeant José Francisco de Ortega were able to find the bay behind the Golden Gate, but he was disappointed anyway, because he had been looking for Drake’s Bay, and the darned estuaries and inlets of San Francisco Bay kept interfering.
In August 1775, Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala became the first European to sail through what is now the Golden Gate. He mapped the area and supplied numerous place names, such as Angel Island (Isla de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles), Alcatraz (Isla de Los Alcatraces, i.e. Pelican Island), and Sausalito (Saucelito, i.e. Little Thicket of Willows). Isla de Los Alcatraces, incidentally, is what Ayala named the island we now know as Yerba Buena, but an English map-maker in 1826 erred and tagged the name on the rocky outcrop we recognize today as Alcatraz. Names aside, Ayala’s reports showed San Francisco Bay as a sheltered, large harbor, and put San Francisco on the map.
Scouting and mapping are just research arms of colonization, and in September of 1775 Captain Juan Bautista de Anza responded to the English and Russian threat to Alta California with an overland party of 250 men and women, plus the essential herd of cattle. They traveled north from Arizona and arrived in San Francisco March 28, 1776. Anza chose Fort Point (for its strategic bay views) for the military outpost (or Presidio) and Franciscan priest Pedro Font set up the Mission (now known as Mission Dolores) in the more sheltered, fertile valley of today’s Mission district by the stream they dubbed Arroyo de Nuestra Senora de Los Dolores (it being the Friday before Palm Sunday, Viernes de Dolores in Spanish) as a center for religion and trade. Three months later, Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga (Anza’s second-in-command) and Father Junipero Serra led the settlers in, and Father Palou celebrated the Mission’s first Mass on June 29, 1776 (five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence some 3,000 miles to the east).
The missions controlled a lot of land. Depending on Indian labor, they began to produce large quantities of cattle hides and tallow (the area’s chief exports at the time), as well as fruits and vegetables. The Indians living at the missions were forced to work hard and received few economic rewards; as recompense, they were given instruction in Christianity, and were taught some new skills. On the formal dedication day of Mission San Francisco de Asis on October 9th, the new settlers had a big party. Father Palou noted in his diary, “The day has been a joyful one for all. Only the savages did not enjoy themselves on this happy day.”
Colonization and development inched along, with a ranch here, a saloon there, a more permanent chapel (it’s still there today, dating from 1791), and a hide and tallow export business that kept the settlement afloat. The Spanish would have liked greater control of their settlements, but they refused to actually arm and man their presidios. In 1792 the English navigator George Vancouver laughed at San Francisco’s paltry Presidio, manned by 35 soldiers and one brass cannon (the other having exploded during a practice firing). Don Luis Antonio Arguello was Presidio Commander from 1787-1806, and did the best he could considering the dire lack of Spanish material and financial support. Munitions were so low that in 1806 when a Russian ship visited and fired a friendly salute, the Presidio men had to row out to the Russians and borrow some powder to return the greeting.
By 1810, Mexico was fighting for independence and Spain had her hands full, so San Francisco was left to its own devices and decline. In 1812, the Russians established themselves at Fort Ross (up the northern coast, near the mouth of the Russian River), operating a trading and fur-trapping center, which they maintained until 1841. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and California (known as Alta California) became a province of the new Mexican nation (though they didn’t get the good word till 1822). At that time about 3,500 Europeans had settled in Alta California, but the native Indian population was declining fast, thanks to Spanish enslavement, forced labor, measles, and general changes imposed on their traditional life-styles.
Nikolai & concepcion
In 1834, Mexico passed the Secularization Act. The Franciscans lost control of the missions and their enormous land holdings, while the Indians, released from missionary control, returned to the wilderness or hired on as laborers at nearby ranchos. Francisco de Haro became the first alcalde (mayor) of Yerba Buena (the civilian pueblo that developed separately from the Presidio and Mission), the hide and tallow trade took off, and Yankee trade ships began anchoring regularly at Yerba Buena cove.
Foreign seal hunters and whalers were welcomed, as was Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, the Russian chamberlain. He persistently saught Arguello’s assistance (in the form of spare provisions for the Russian colony at Sitka), and also pursued the heart of Concepcion, Arguello’s 15-year-old daughter. While his motivations (romantic, self-serving, or otherwise) aren’t known, the indisputable results were that Nikolai left San Francisco, heaped with the supplies he came for and Dona Concepcion’s affections as well.
The notorious affair sparked some literary endeavors. Gertrude Atherton wrote a novel about it and Bret Harte wrote a poem detailing their romance. They tell how Nikolai and Concepcion got engaged, but the marriage had to wait for Nikolai to travel to Moscow and get the Czar’s permission for him (a Russian Orthodox) to marry a Spanish Catholic. Forty years went by, and the wilting Concepcion still had no word. Then, one night, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company visited for dinner. He told a story he'd heard of a Russian chamberlain who fell in love with a Catholic señorita, and in search of the Czar’s nod, rode across the Russian taiga, was thrown from his horse, and died. It made a swell dinner story, but was a painful way for Concepcion to learn of her beau's tragic end.