The History of San Francisco
Home to the beloved Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco is one of the most populated cities in the United States, and one of the most famous in the world. The entire city covers only 47 square miles, making it the second most densely populated city in the nation, behind only New York City. So, how did San Francisco become the bustling cultural center it is today? The city has certainly come a long way from its founding in 1776.
Early habitation in the San Francisco area
Of course, the land where the city sits today had its own history before the idea of San Francisco was even conceived. The first recorded human presence in the area now known as San Francisco dates back to 3000 BC, as indicated by archaeological evidence. The Ohlone people, specifically the Yelamu group, lived in small villages in the region when a Spanish expedition, led by Don Gaspar de Portolá, arrived on November 2, 1769, marking the first documented European visit to San Francisco Bay.
The first European ships arrived in the bay on August 5, 1775, when the Spanish vessel San Carlos, commanded by Juan Manuel de Ayala, anchored in the area. A few months later, on March 28, 1776, the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza established the Presidio of San Francisco. On October 9, Mission Dolores, also known as Mission San Francisco de Asís, was founded by Padre Francisco Palóu. The province of Alta California, which included San Francisco, was established in 1804.
Yerba Buena, a trading post with settlements between the Presidio and Mission, developed around the Plaza de Yerba Buena. The plaza was later renamed Portsmouth Square (now located in San Fran’s Chinatown and the Financial District) and was commanded by Captain Mariano G. Vallejo in 1833.
A land survey of Yerba Buena was conducted by Jean Jacques Vioget, a Swiss immigrant, in preparation for a city plan. José Joaquín Estudillo, the second Alcalde and a Californio from a prominent Monterey family, approved the first land grant in Yerba Buena in 1835 to William Richardson, a naturalized Mexican citizen of English birth who arrived in San Francisco on a whaling ship in 1822 and married Maria Antonia Martinez, the eldest daughter of Ygnacio Martínez, in 1825.
In the 19th century, Yerba Buena began to attract European and AMerican settlers. On July 7, 1846, during the Mexican-American war, Commodore John D. Sloat declared California to be a part of the United States, and Captain John B. Montgomery arrived in Yerba Buena two days later to assert American control. Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco on January 30, 1847, and Mexico officially transferred the territory to the United States at the end of the war in 1848. Despite its favorable location as a port and naval base, San Francisco was still a small settlement with challenging geography, and its population in 1847 was estimated to be only 459 people.
The California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century brought a large influx of treasure seekers, known as “forty-niners,” to San Francisco, causing the population to surge to 25,000 by December 1849. The prospect of wealth was so tempting that crew members on arriving ships often deserted and rushed to the gold fields, leaving behind a large number of abandoned ships in the harbor. Some of these ships were repurposed as hotels, storeships, and saloons. By 1851, the harbor had been extended with the construction of wharves, and by 1870, land had been created by filling in Yerba Buena Cove. Buried ships are sometimes discovered when foundations are dug for new buildings.
California gained statehood in 1850, and San Francisco County was one of the 18 original counties in the state. Entrepreneurs seeking to profit from the wealth generated by the Gold Rush, and the discovery of silver deposits, further contributed to the rapid population growth in San Francisco. The city was known for its lawlessness and the Barbary Coast area became infamous for its criminal activity, prostitution, bootlegging, and gambling.
The banking industry thrived with the founding of Wells Fargo in 1852 and the Bank of California in 1864. The development of the Port of San Francisco and the construction of the Pacific Railroad, which provided overland access to the eastern U.S. rail system, made the Bay Area a hub for trade. Levi Strauss opened a dry goods business and Domingo Ghirardelli started manufacturing chocolate to meet the needs and tastes of the growing population.
The city’s Chinatown quarter was established by Chinese immigrants, who made up 9.3% of the population by 1880. The first cable cars began operating on Clay Street in 1873, and the city’s Victorian houses began to dominate the landscape. Civic leaders pushed for the creation of a large public park, leading to the development of plans for Golden Gate Park.
The San Francisco earthquake and recent history
On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 am, a major earthquake struck San Francisco and the surrounding area in northern California. The shaking caused buildings to collapse and ruptured gas lines ignited fires that spread throughout the city and burned uncontrolled for several days. The earthquake and fires left more than three-quarters of the city in ruins, including most of the downtown area. Official accounts at the time reported that 498 people died, though modern estimates suggest that the actual number of fatalities was much higher, potentially in the thousands. The disaster also left over half of the city’s population homeless.
During rebuilding over the next few decades, some of San Francisco’s most important infrastructure was created, including the Twin Peaks Reservoir, the Twin Peaks Tunnel, the Stockton Street Tunnel, and the Auxiliary Water Supply System.
During World War II, the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was a hub of activity, and Fort Mason served as the primary port of departure for military personnel being deployed to the Pacific Theater of Operations. The United Nations Charter, which established the United Nations, was drafted and signed in the city in 1945, and in 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco restored peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied Powers.
San Francisco underwent significant urban planning projects in the 1950s and 1960s, which included the destruction and redevelopment of west-side neighborhoods and the construction of new freeways, though only short segments were built before being halted by citizen opposition. The city’s small piers became obsolete due to the rise of containerization and cargo activity shifted to the larger Port of Oakland.
The city’s population declined by over 10% between 1950 and 1980. During this time, San Francisco became a hub for counterculture and the city was home to the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the hippie movement in the 1960s. The city also became a center for the gay rights movement in the 1970s with the emergence of The Castro as an urban gay village and the election and assassination of Harvey Milk.
The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused widespread damage and loss of life in the Bay Area, including severe damage to structures in the Marina and South of Market districts in San Francisco. The city experienced booms in the internet industry in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, with the rise of startups and the social media boom attracting many tech professionals to the area.