The history of San Francisco, California, a beloved seaport of dreams and disaster, is rich with the virtues of vices of generations, making San Francisco's history as vibrant as the characters that have colored its foggy hills and valleys.
Like a phoenix across centuries, San Francisco falls to earthquakes, fires and economic busts and always rises anew, brighter and reinvigorated. The history of San Francisco, California, a beloved seaport of dreams and disaster, is rich with the virtues of vices of generations, making San Francisco's history as vibrant as the characters that have colored its foggy hills and valleys.
San Francisco Early History
Around 10,000 years ago, before the Pacific waters had breached the span now covered by the Golden Gate Bridge, the history of the Ohlone people native to San Francisco had already begun. Complex chiefdoms arose and fell, the scarce remnants of which are the infamous "shellmounds," large heaps of piled shells and other artifacts on the Bay Area's shores. San Francisco history continued untouched by Europeans until 1579 when Sir Francis Drake, the decorated English looter of Spanish galleons sailed past the entrance to the San Francisco Bay (locals now know how damp and dense the fog can be on Ocean Beach in June), dubbed a stretch of Marin "Nova Albion" and sailed away.
San Francisco Spanish History
San Francisco history remained devoid of Europeans until 1775, when the Spanish, long having a stronghold in Southern California, ventured north on a "Sacred Expedition" led by Gaspar de Portola. In 1776, the Spanish founded the Presidio Army Base and the Catholic Church commenced capturing and enslaving the San Francisco Ohlone population. Later, ranchers grazed San Francisco's green hills with cattle and continued until an upstart nation to the east, the United Stated of America, set her sights westward to the Pacific's shining seas.
Gold Rush: San Francisco 49ers History
Just before the San Francisco 49ers history began, the United Stated made one of its luckiest aqcuisistions. On July 9, 1846, a small outpost of wood shacks, Yerba Buena, founded by an eager Mormon priest, Samuel Brannan, became an official part of the United States. Three years later in 1849, James Marshall discovered gold dust in a Sierra saw mill and San Francisco became the entrance port to the famed "El Dorado," the legendary land of gold in the West.
Brannan publicized the new gold discovery and soon San Francisco (later renamed San Francisco after the Bay) was overrun with "Gold Fever." In less than a year, over 50,000 people came to San Francisco looking for fortune. An outlandish circus of discovery and building, San Francisco grew up lawless and exuberant. Goods and investment poured in from the East; the history of San Francisco 49ers is the beginning of San Francisco's modern history.
San Francisco Chinatown History
The history of Chinatown begins with the history of the 49ers and the Transcontinental railroad. Chinese males looking for fortune and a new future poured into San Francisco's Angel Island (where many were cruelly detained) and settled in what is today's Chinatown. Discriminatory immigration acts, both national and city decrees, aimed at containing Chinese immigration limited Chinatown's growth until they were repealed in the 1950s. Today, San Francisco's Chinese population is an integral and important element of San Francisco's unique culture.
"The Paris of the West": Victorians and Cable Cars
Just as the Gold boom busted, San Francisco history, in true San Francisco form, provided a new fire to fuel the world's dreamers—silver. The Comstock Lode was discovered in 1858 and San Francisco continued to reap the benefits of California's ore wealth.
William Ralston, the Samuel Brannan of his age, envisioned an elite building worthy of San Francisco's new status and built the opulent Palace Hotel, the country's biggest hotel in 1875.
Today, San Francisco Victorian houses are beloved as treasures, but when they were originally built as San Francisco began to move from chaos to order after the Gold Rush, San Francisco Victorians were the late-1800s version of suburban sprawl. Today, these historical San Francisco homes are painted in every shade of the rainbow and stand as testaments to San Francisco's unique history.
San Francisco grew and beautified. San Francisco's cable cars changed San Francisco history, displacing the many poorer inhabitants of Russian Hill and the Financial District hills with the "Nabobs," extremely wealthy San Franciscans who could now scale and conquer the steep hills with ease.
Golden Gate Park History
This era saw San Francisco transform sand dunes into Golden Gate Park, San Francisco's verdant urban paradise. Legend has it that William Hammond Hall, the field engineer credited with developing Golden Gate Park, was riding his horse across the dunes to the sea. The horse, while eating barley, dropped some into the sand and it took root. Layer after layer of vegetation later and San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, watered by windmills and shielded from sand blasts by a six-foot sea wall, began to thrive.
San Francisco Earthquake History: April 18, 1906, 5:12am and October 17, 1989, 5:05pm
Just as San Francisco was beginning to settle down from the booms and busts of the Ore Rushes, the San Andreas Fault shrugged her shoulders. In the early hours of April 18, 1906, a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco, leveling the area South of Market and rattling the rockier parts of San Francisco.
Fires quickly started and within days, the whole city was in flames. There was not enough water to effectively fight the fire. As the flames enveloped the city, hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes, looting began and the Mayor briefly enacted Marshall Law.
While the ashes were still warm, San Francisco began to rebuild. To keep investments in the city secure, a media blitz downplayed the effect of the earthquake and demonized the fire as the destroyer of San Francisco.
Eighty-three years later, the sleeping San Andreas Fault again dealt San Francisco a crushing earthquake, which again leveled parts of San Francisco and cracked bridges. San Francisco learned from earthquake history when reacting to this second devastating earthquake. History taught San Francisco that quickly quelling fire damage after an earthquake is critical to earthquake emergency response.
San Francisco 20th Century History: The City Builds
Recovering from the jolt of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, San Francisco continued to grow.
The Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 conferred upon San Francisco the Marina District (newly filled land) and the beloved Palace of Fine Arts, a recreation of ancient ruins that architect Bernard Maybeck envisioned as a building to evoke "sadness modified by the feeling that beauty has a soothing influence."
Also in 1915, San Francisco's gilded City Hall, with its signature dome, was completely replaced after the San Francisco 1906 earthquake.
Alcatraz Island Prison and the Hetch Hetchy Dam (a flooded sister to Yosemite Valley that supplies San Francisco's water) became forever linked with San Francisco history in 1934. The Golden Gate Bridge's awe-inspiring expanse and distinctive ruddy shade of International Orange was born in 1933.
World War II brought a flood of ship building to the Bay and by 1980, San Francisco had the landmark Transamerica Pyramid, the Yerba Buena Gardens and the Davies Symphony Hall.
San Francisco Counterculture: Beatnik 1950s and Psychedelic 1960s
The new developments in San Francisco's infrastructure came alongside a radical development in San Francisco's culture.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist coined the phrase "Beatnik" to describe the wave of poets, thinkers and writers sharing a common disenchantment with American values and the established order that flourished in San Francisco's cafes, fueled by espressos in havens such as North Beach's City Lights.
In the 1960s, the disenchantment espoused by the Beatniks evolved into a truly San Franciscan historical phenomenon: the Hippie Generation. Peace, love and psychic expansion through psychedelics thrived in the Haight Ashbury and the peaceful greens of Golden Gate Park. Today, the Haight and Ashbury cross street is sacred ground for those who remember the days when optimism and wonder filled San Francisco's consciousness.
San Francisco Tech Boom
If 1950s and 1960s San Francisco was the decade of Counterculture, San Francisco in the 1990s rushed in the era of Cyberculture. Seemingly overnight, San Francisco bustled with digital-age miners looking to strike it rich on technology's vast frontier. The city swelled with money, restaurants and bars overflowed with "yuppies" living in swank new lofts and high rent apartments (the byproduct of mass evictions and displacements), while the fat of venture capital fueled spending and digital dreams. The tech bubble burst in 2001, and San Francisco, just as soon as it had filled, drained in months.
San Francisco Today
Today, San Francisco is again leading the way in new technologies, this time in green energy and stem cell research. New developments in sustainable sources of energy are making San Francisco a magnet for investment, in addition to California laws promoting stem cell research and development.
San Francisco History of Tomorrow
San Francisco has always been a dreamer's city; a far-flung city perched on the edge of the sea where far-fetched fantasies have a way of catching hold and hatching into reality.