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Perched atop hills and filled-in marshland at the entrance to one of the Pacific’s largest natural harbors, San Francisco has had an outsized influence on the history of California and the United States. Originally a Spanish (later Mexican) mission and pueblo, it was conquered by the United States in 1846 and by an invading army of prospectors following the 1848 discovery of gold in its hinterland. The Gold Rush made San Francisco a cosmopolitan metropolis with a frontier edge. The great 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed much of the city but barely slowed its momentum; San Francisco barreled through the 20th century as a center of wealth, military power, progressive culture and high technology.
San Francisco: Prehistory and Founding
The first inhabitants of the San Francisco area arrived around 3000 B.C. By the 16th century, when the first Europeans sailed along the California coast (always missing the Golden Gate due to fog), the area was inhabited by the Ohlone-speaking Yelamu tribe. The first westerners to see the bay were members of the 1769 Portola expedition. Seven years later, Juan Bautiza de Anza marched north from San Diego with a settlement party to establish a Spanish presidio and mission. By 1808 Mission San Francisco de Asis was the center of spiritual and material life for more than 1,000 neophytes drawn from local tribes.
San Francisco: Mexican Rule, American Takeover
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, cementing the decline of the mission era. In 1835 an American, William Richardson, became the first permanent resident of Yerba Buena. By the 1840s dozens more Americans came to Alta California and began agitating for independence. After a briefly declared “California Republic,” they welcomed the arrival of James B. Montgomery, a U.S. Navy captain who came ashore on July 9, 1846, to raise the U.S. flag in Yerba Buena’s plaza (today’s Portsmouth Square).
San Francisco: Gold Rush and Rapid Growth
On January 24, 1848, the first gold was found at Sutter’s Fort, in the California foothills. Within months, San Francisco (renamed from Yerba Buena in 1847) became the central port and depot of the frenzied Gold Rush. Over the next year, arriving “forty-niners” increased the city’s population from 1,000 to 25,000
The city was lawless and wild, its Barbary Coast district full of prostitution and gambling. Six major fires broke out between 1849 and 1851. In 1859 the silver boom of Nevada’s Comstock Lode again filled the city’s docks and lined its pockets. Construction of the Central Pacific Railroad—funded by the “Big Four” businessmen Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford—drew thousands of laborers from China. Although many were later forced to leave by exclusionary U.S. policies, San Francisco’s thriving Chinatown quickly became the largest Chinese settlement outside of Asia.
The city expanded as cable cars enabled the city’s grid to spread over its steepest hills. In 1887 planners carved out 1,000 acres on the Pacific side of the peninsula for Golden Gate Park.
San Francisco: Earthquake, Fire and Recovery
On April 18, 1906, the San Andreas Fault slipped more than 10 feet, unleashing a massive earthquake later estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale. The tremors broke water mains and triggered fires that raged for four days, killing 3,000 people, destroying 25,000 buildings and leaving 250,000 homeless. The city rebuilt quickly with an improved city center and hosted the lavish Panama International Exposition just nine years later.
The 1930s saw growth both in the city and its outlying communities, and the construction of the iconic Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay Bridges.
San Francisco: World War II and the Cold War
San Francisco was the main point of embarkation for World War II’s Pacific theater, and the region became a major arms production center. After Pearl Harbor, the city’s Japanese residents were forced into internment camps far inland. Their abandoned neighborhood was soon filled by African-Americans arriving from the South to work in the war industries.
The city also played a key role in the transition from World War II to the Cold War, hosting the 1945 conference at which the U.N. Charter was drafted and continuing to draw workers to develop technologies for the nuclear age.
San Francisco: Counterculture
San Francisco has maintained its reputation as a center of cultural bohemianism. In earlier years it had drawn writers from Mark Twain to Jack London, and it became a center for the 1950s beat poets and for the Haight-Ashbury hippie counterculture that peaked with the 1967 “Summer of Love.”
Long a hotbed of environmental, labor and women’s rights activism, the city gained a reputation for welcoming gays and lesbians. Its Castro District was a center of the gay rights movement. In the 1980s the city worked to respond to the challenges of chronic homelessness and the AIDS epidemic.
On October 17, 1989, another large earthquake hit the city, damaging buildings, collapsing freeways and killing 67. A decade later, a boom centered on Internet technology began, drawing entrepreneurs to the city and raising rents, respectability and resentment in its rougher neighborhoods. The crowded city’s population, steady for decades, began to rise again.
History of San Francisco, California
The San Francisco area was settled in 1776 by the Spanish officer Juan Bautista de Anza. The original reason for settling there was the construction of a Presidio (fort) designed to guard the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. The fort was a large structure designed to intimidate incoming belligerants. Housing was needed for soldiers stationed at the fort. Father Junipero Serra was assigned to provide a portion of its housing. He was successful in finding a suitable area for a new complex and named it Misión San Francisco de Asís. The area is now called Mission Dolores. Nearly 75 years after the fort was built, the United States seized control of the area in 1846. It was not long after the U.S. takeover that prospectors came to the area. In 1848, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains about 100 miles to the east. The ensuing gold rush became a major part of the San Francisco economy over the next few years. People arrived from throughout the country to try their luck at making it rich. Two people of note in San Francisco history are Levi Strauss, inventor of denim blue jeans and the sculptor Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano. San Francisco also is blessed with historic places that define its uniqueness. They include, but are not limited to:
San Francisco boasts numerous historic artistic venues and contributors:
Other venues of historic significance are the San Francisco City Hall, George R. Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco Chinatown, Granite Lady, Fisherman's Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and the Transamerica Pyramid. Higher education has played a significant role in San Francisco history. Institutions of high learning include, but are not limited to, the New College of California, Academy of Art College, Golden Gate University, University of California - San Francisco, University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and University of California Hastings College of Law. Two tests of San Francisco’s civic resolve can be seen in the wakes of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Loma Prieta, the 1989 earthquake. Though some said it could not be done, San Francisco's ingenuity triumphed when the imposing San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge was built.
What Did San Francisco Look Like in the Mid-1800s?
The following map comes from the David Rumsey Map Collection. We recently asked David Rumsey, a map expert who has been collecting maps since the 1980s, to describe the nature of the map to us. His personal map collection currently contains more than 150,000 maps and is one of the largest private collections in the United States.
This 1859 map of San Francisco was extremely utilitarian. The map is a chart, used primarily by sailors and those looking to navigate their way to the city on the bay.. “How did you get to San Francisco in 1859? You got there by boat, so charts were incredibly important,” Rumsey explains. The US Coast Survey drew the chart, perhaps as one of their earliest projects. “The US Coast Survey was a very young organization in 1859, but they spent a lot of time making charts of San Francisco,” Rumsey says.
As with other maps, this old view of San Francisco shows how much the city expanded the area of Mission Bay on the map that clearly marks a literal bay is a fully developed neighborhood today. “That’s one of the major land changes that’s shown on the map,” Rumsey says. “You can see vast areas of swamp, all that is built up now.” But expanding into the bay had its unique difficulties, as San Francisco’s location along the San Andreas Fault makes it a prime candidate for devastating earthquakes. Because the soil lacks rock, during an earthquake, something called liquefaction occurs, causing the soil to become completely liquefied. “When you build there you have to put piles down to bedrock, which is about 100-200 feet down,” Rumsey explains, noting that this unique feature made expansion harder – though clearly not impossible – for San Francisco.
San Francisco Gold Rush
During the early 1800s, the area around San Francisco exported tallow and hides, which attracted trade and newcomers. One of the newcomers to the area, an Englishman named William Richardson, saw potential for a true city, and in 1822, he founded the site for modern-day San Francisco. About 25 years later, the famous California Gold Rush brought significant interest to the new California Territory, and it marks a major turning point in San Francisco history. One of the more interesting San Francisco facts has to do with the population explosion that followed the Gold Rush. In 1848, the city was only home to around 900 people. Once the Gold Rush started that year, the population of the city increased from around 900 to around 26,000 in just six months. Some of the newcomers brought sourdough bread with them, and to this day, this bread is a local favorite. One of the top things to do in San Francisco is head to Fisherman's Wharf to enjoy some clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.
San Francisco Map
During the California Gold Rush, entrepreneurs in San Francisco sought ways to capitalize on the wealth that was being generated. In 1852, Wells Fargo was founded, and this bank and financial services company helped the city to grow. The Wells Fargo headquarters can be found in town, and anyone who is interested in learning more about the history of San Francisco can visit its small museum. The development of the Port of San Francisco in the 1800's saw increased activity of all kinds, and Levi Strauss started making his now famous blue jeans in 1853. One year prior to that, Domingo Ghirardelli established his famous chocolate factory, which gave rise to Ghirardelli Square. The original factory can still be visited at Ghirardelli Square, and it anchors what is today a shopping and upscale living complex.
San Francisco truly began to thrive in the latter half of the 1800s, and during this period, Chinatown was created and the city's famous cable cars started carrying passengers up Clay Street. This was the era that also saw the building of scores of Victorian houses, which are dazzling architectural pieces. While many of the San Francisco Victorian houses either fell victim to the earthquake of 1906 or were subsequently demolished for certain reasons, many remain. Known as Painted Ladies, these historic homes figure among the top attractions in the city.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake history is a huge part of the overall history of the city. This devastating earthquake caused buildings to collapse and led to a fire that ravaged 75 percent of the city. For many people, the 1906 earthquake is the most interesting occurrence in the history of San Francisco, and photos of the fateful disaster show just how devastating it actually was. San Francisco would be rebuilt in rapid form, however, and it again started to thrive, becoming a financial capital of sorts.
One of the more interesting San Francisco facts has to do with the 1960's hippie movement. The city's Haight Ashbury district was the center of this movement, and to this day it maintains a decidedly eclectic and bohemian appeal. It was in the 1980's that extensive high-rise development hit downtown San Francisco, and the dot-com boom of the 1990's was an especially good time for many residents. While the bottom dropped for many of the city's technological companies in the following decade, technology and entrepreneurship are still very much mainstays of the city's economy. Tourism is also a mainstay of the San Francisco economy, and few cities in the country offer as much for the traveler.
Tuesday, June 29, 2021, 7 p.m. via Zoom: "The Castle on Telegraph Hill" with guest speaker: Catherine Accardi
Historian and native San Franciscan Catherine Accardi shares more than 50 historical images as part of the fascinating story of Julius' Castle. Designated San Francisco Landmark No. 121, Julius' Castle has perched itself on one of the City&rsquos most iconic precipices for over nine decades. Julius' Castle is the subject of one of her most widely published articles and is definitely her favorite San Francisco landmark.
Catherine Accardi was born on Telegraph Hill. She is the author of San Francisco Landmarks , North Beach & Telegraph Hill , and recently, San Francisco Through Time . She remembers, "My first encounter with the castle must have been around 1955, at the young age of six. My mother and I would regularly walk around our Telegraph Hill neighborhood, pausing to enjoy the spectacular view of the city by the bay from various locations on The Hill. One of our stops would be near the Greenwich Steps to gaze up at, what seemed to me at the time, a wondrous sight called Julius' Castle. I had no idea who Julius was and no idea why this building looked like something out of a fairy tale. Decades later, it's still a wondrous sight &mdash and now I know all about it!"
San Francisco - HISTORY
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The MEMORIES PAST AND PRESENT will be a e-mail resource of the Museum of the City of San Francisco. We are looking for interesting narratives and materials on the history in the Bay Area. Modern day and past memories will become our history in the future. We welcome tourist and locals to input their views. Leave a memory today with [email protected]
For over fifty years, the staff of the Museum of the City of San Francisco has labored--with your help--to compile the first-ever register of those who died in San Francisco's Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. With your assistance, however, today we can at last honor the lost citizenry, and recognize all of the victims of the 1906 calamity.
The City of San Francisco's official count of the dead was 478. The count is now over 3,000 and counting. See if your family members are recognized, and watch for the next updated Great Register List at the end of 2021. The 1906 Great Register Dead Study has been online since 1990. Gladys Hansen(1925-2017) my mother started this project in the early 1960’s. The search continues. For over fifty years, the staff of the Museum of the City of San Francisco has labored--with your help--to compile the first-ever register of those who died in San Francisco's Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. With your assistance, however, today we can at last honor the lost citizenry, and recognize all of the victims of the 1906 calamity.
Richard Hansen, Founder and Director
The Museum of the City of San Francisco. E-mail us at [email protected]
Quotable San Francisco: Historic Moments in Memorable Words
By Terry Hamburg, Richard Hansen, Foreword by Carl Nolte
San Francisco surged from hamlet to boomtown overnight--the most meteoric "instant city" in history. From the Gold Rush to the Tech Rush, it's been the site of daring innovations, counterculture upheavals and social rebellions that shaped generations. Over the decades, residents have offered unique perspectives through journals, letters and newspapers, their words bringing another time to life. Discover San Francisco through the eyes of miners and "ladies of the night." Relive the experiences of robber barons and beatniks who flourished in a tiny corner of the world with fewer than one million souls. With commentary, background and extraordinary images, historians Terry Hamburg and Richard Hansen guide you through these colorful quotes, showing the city as it once was and what it aspired to be.
We hope you will enjoy our question and answer game Slivers of History. Please let us know Click Here
Historical Research Guide
Welcome to Heritage’s guide to performing historic property research in the City of San Francisco! While these resources were compiled with San Francisco in mind, some may also include useful information or tips about research in surrounding Bay Area cities. Please continue to check back as this section grows.
San Francisco History Center
The San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library created a detailed online guide to researching local buildings. The guide is divided into six sections based on the following essential research questions:
San Francisco Planning Department
The San Francisco Planning Department also provides online access to a number of resources and publications. The SF Property Information Map is an extensive public database that includes zoning information, preservation planning, and access to building permits. The department has also compiled a list of consultants and technical documents that can aid in the process of research and environmental review.
The Internet Archive
The Internet Archive was founded in 1996 in San Francisco to provide permanent access to digital collections. The website has grown since its inception to include texts, audio, moving images, and software. Among the holdings related to architectural history are:
David Rumsey Map Collection
The David Rumsey Map Collection contains more than 150,000 maps spanning the globe. Of particular interest to San Francisco Researchers is the rare six-volume 1905 San Francisco Sanborn Insurance Atlas, which depicts the city in the months leading up to the earthquake and fire of 1906. The maps are housed at the San Francisco History Center, but newly available color digital copies are available online.
Old SF provides an alternate way of exploring the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection using geocoding, which links the images to points on a map. Approximately 13,000 photographs have been added so far.
OpenSFHistory Historical Images of San Francisco
The majority of photographs at OpenSFHistory were taken by commercial and amateur photographers, and the collection provides a comprehensive overview of San Francisco, its residents, and environs from the 1850s through the 1970s. Content includes infrastructural improvements as documented by the Department of Public Works, the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority residential and commercial architecture (existing and demolished), including amusement parks like Playland at the Beach pivotal events in San Francisco history, such as the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition prominent San Franciscans, such as Adolph Sutro and John McLaren as well as informal street scenes, snapshots of daily life. All images are linked to points on a map. Over 40,000 photographs from a private collection of over 100,000 have been added so far.
San Francisco Heritage Archive
Heritage maintains a significant collection of materials related to San Francisco history and architecture, including some unique resources not found elsewhere. Access is available to Heritage members. For more information, please contact Bill Beutner.
Winter in San Francisco is rainy and mild, spring sunny and temperate, summer foggy and cool, and autumn sunny and warm. The average minimum temperature is 51 °F (11 °C), and the average maximum is 63 °F (17 °C). The mean rainfall, almost all of which occurs between November and April, is about 21 inches (533 mm). There is sunshine during two-thirds of the possible daylight hours. The most characteristic feature of the weather, however, is the summer fog, which lies low over the city until midday, creating consternation among shivering tourists. This fog is a phenomenon of temperature contrasts, created when warm, moist ocean air comes in contact with cold water welling up from the ocean bottom along the coast.
San Francisco - HISTORY
A Timeline of San Francisco History - 1900-1950 Pre 1900 : 1950+ : San Francisco History Index
Japanese Town - Nihonjin-Machi - 1905-1935 images from The Japanese American History Archives
City College of San Francsico, a public two-year college, was established in 1935 as an integral part of the San Francisco Unified School District. --History of CCSF
The Bridge was completed and opened to pedestrian traffic on May 27, 1937. The following day it was opened to vehicular traffic. First proposed in 1869 by town eccentric "Emperor Norton" groundbreaking in 1933.
World War 2 was the most destructive war in human history. It began in Asia with the Japanese invasion of China that led to the outbreak of war between the two nations in 1937 and ended with the US dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. In Europe the Nazi troops blitzkrieged into Poland in 1939 and took over most of Europe, except for England and the Soviet Union. During the war in which 40,000,000 people died, Hitler sent 6,000,000 European Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust. The untold suffering caused by the German and Japanese war machines was ended by the brave resistance of people around the globe. --Links to internet sites that tell of the global struggle for liberation during World War II.
Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers and Broadcasters of World War II (Library of Congress exhibit)
March 2, 1942 General DeWitt issued Public Proclamation No. 1, creating military areas in Washington, Oregon, California, and parts of Arizona and declaring the right to remove German, Italian, and Japanese aliens and anyone of "Japanese Ancestry" living in Military Areas No. 1 and 2 should it become necessary. --Timeline
Two and a half months after Pearl Harbor, 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, were evacuated from their homes and relocated in a series of inland U.S. concentration camps. The episode was called by the ACLU "the worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of Americans citizens in our history." --The Japanese American Internment
The most serious discrimination during World War II was the decision to evacuate Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent from the West Coast and send them to internment camps. Because the FBI had arrested the individuals whom it considered security threats, FBI Director Hoover took the position that confining others was unnecessary. The President and Attorney General, however, chose to support the military assessment that evacuation and internment were imperative. Ultimately, the FBI became responsible for arresting curfew and evacuation violators. --A Short History of the FBI
We think of the Beat Generation as a phenomenon of the 50's, but the term was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948. The phrase was then introduced to the general public in 1952 when Kerouac's friend John Clellon Holmes wrote an article, 'This is the Beat Generation,' for the New York Times Magazine --The Beat Generation
A brief history of Black San Francisco
San Francisco's reputation as one of America's most ethnically diverse cities is in question as its African Americans population erodes. In 1990, 11% of city residents were Black. Now that number is just 6% and is expected to drop below 4% by 2020.
Black San Francisco's numbers were low until the early 1940s, when workers began coming to work in the city's shipyards from places like Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. Before the 1940s surge, Black San Francisco's numbers were so low that there was a running joke that if you were Black, you probably knew all the Black folks in the city.
Newcomers from the South replaced Japanese Americans who were forcibly interned during World War II. After the war ended, the city's Black population continued to climb as workers remained in the city and developed roots. But the city's newcomers were limited in where they could live due to discriminatory housing policy and restrictive covenants written into property titles that did not allow African Americans the chance to live in other parts of the city.
The Fillmore District became Black San Francisco's cultural and economic heart. It became known as the "Harlem of the West," as all of the era's major artists performed in the neighborhood's venues. The list includes Count Basie, Etta James, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. But the Fillmore began changing after the war ended as federal redevelopment projects demolished many of the neighborhood's homes and businesses. Many residents relocated to Bayview and Hunters Point.
Restrictive covenants were outlawed under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but by this point there were few incentives for Black Americans to stick around San Francisco, and many moved out to Oakland where a Black middle class came to flourish.
Some of those who stayed in San Francisco fought for better living and employment standards. An important group of activists during this period was the Big Five: five women activists who demanded more resources for Bayview and Hunters Point from city officials. One member of the group was Eloise Westbrook.
"We do feel like we've been an island," she said in a 1969 interview. "In Hunters Point, we're not only trying to build better housing, we're also trying to build a better image."
Westbrook spoke of an optimistic vision of the future: "The people who live in Hunters Point, who have lived there for numerous years, at one time had lost all hope, all faith," she said. "But we do feel like with the construction of new houses that hope is began to come back up again."
Today's Black San Franciscans are still fighting for many of the things Eloise Westbrook and the Big Five battled for. But if demographic trends continue, San Francisco's Black population will soon start to resemble Salt Lake City, rather than more racially diverse cities like New York or Los Angeles.