san francisco history guide

Native Americans inhabited the San Francisco Bay area between ten to twenty thousand years before European contact. In the sixteenth century, British explorer Sir Francis Drake bypassed San Francisco Bay on his way down the Pacific coast of North America, potentially not noticing the mouth of the Golden Gate due to the region’s persistent fog. The first Europeans to settle the area were the Spanish, who established Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) in 1775. Soon thereafter they established a military base at the site of today’s Presidio. Along with European settlers, Russian fur traders visited the Bay area. Russian Hill is in fact named for a Russian fur trading post that used to sit atop its crest. The area was a part of independent Mexico from 1821, but a number of English and American settlers moved to the city during the following decades. In 1846, the Americans claimed California during the Mexican-American War, and the new town of San Francisco (formerly Yerba Buena) became American territory at the end of the war in 1848.

That same year, gold was discovered in the region, drawing wealth-seeking migrants from around the world. Between early 1848 and late 1849, the population of San Francisco went from around 1,000 to nearly 25,000, and the rapid pace of growth would continue through the 1850s; San Francisco would retain the title of the largest city west of the Mississippi River until it was taken over by Los Angeles in the 1920s. Many of the businesses that were created to service the booming population, such as Levi Strauss & Co., Ghirardelli Chocolate, and Wells Fargo, still exist today.

The immigration boom brought a number of Chinese workers who sought jobs at first in the gold mines and later on the railroad. This marked the beginning of a vibrant Chinese culture in the city: wholly one-fifth of its population is of Chinese origin, and the city has one of the world’s most vibrant Chinatown districts. However, the xenophobia of some white residents prompted the creation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which limited migration from China to the U.S. The law was not repealed until 1943.

The mid-nineteenth century also saw the establishment of a military base on the rocky island of Alcatraz. This would soon transform into a military prison, and in 1934, into a high-security federal penitentiary, housing some of the nation’s most notorious criminals. Alcatraz continued to operate as a prison until 1963. The island has since seen occupation by various groups of Native American protesters, and has more recently earned a reputation as one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions.

By the early twentieth century, San Francisco’s built form reflected its ramshackle past: the city was composed mostly of hastily-constructed wood-frame buildings, streets were narrow, and service provision was inadequate for its large population. Disaster struck on April 18th, 1906, when a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale struck the peninsula in the early morning hours. The city’s water mains broke, and as a result, fires sparked by things as mundane as fallen lanterns swept through most of the northern peninsula, destroying 80 percent of the built-up city. Over 3,000 people perished due to the event, mostly from the aftermath. The city was resilient, however, and was quickly rebuilt under much more stringent building codes and with new civic amenities, such as subway under Market Street and a new Civic Center. To commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal and to show the world its own successful reconstruction, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in 1915.

The city’s most famous landmark, the orange-coloured Golden Gate Bridge, was opened in 1937, connecting the San Francisco Peninsula with the Marin Headlands and Northern California. The bridge spans a total of 2.7 kilometres and its two towers are nearly 750 feet in height. Its central span remained the longest amongst suspension bridges until 1964.

During the Second World War, San Francisco was the main mainland supply port for the war effort in the Pacific. In 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco was signed at the Fairmont Hotel and officially established peaceful relations between Japan and the United States. A number of American servicemen who fell in love with the city during the war remained after its completion. During the 1950s, the city also attracted artists from across the country, who congregated in the North Beach neighbourhood. The Beat Generation, led by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, was ‘officially’ established in 1956 with the ‘San Francisco Renaissance’. This counter-culture spirit continued into the 1960s, when the growing hippie culture assumed the San Francisco district of Haight-Ashbury as its home base. The 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ brought young people, celebrities, and rock bands from around the world to the city. The same liberal values that attracted these people made San Francisco especially welcoming to the gay community, and the city became the nexus for the Gay Liberation movement.

The 1990s saw the revival of San Francisco as one of the country’s business leaders with the successes of the high-tech industries in Silicon Valley at the south end of the Bay. A number of entrepreneurs and software professionals moved into the city, and many more minds were recruited from the area’s prestigious universities. Although the dot-com bust of early this century had an impact on many of the new businesses who had established headquarters in the popular SoMa (South of Market) district, Silicon Valley continues to be the high-tech capital of the world.