Happy Birthday, San Francisco!

Two hundred thirty-six years ago on 28 March 1776, the settlement that would one day become the great city of San Francisco was founded. While the British-dominated eastern shore of North America was in political ferment and rebellion that would result in the world’s first colonial declaration of independence, the Spanish-dominated western shore was being settled to make a reality Spain’s longstanding claim to the potentially valuable territory. Spain had started to settle California with the establishment of a small military garrison and a religious mission on San Diego Bay in 1769.

That same year, the impressive, accommodating, and strategically important San Francisco Bay had been discovered. Though the California coast had been frequently explored in the preceding 250 years, the Spanish despaired of finding a decent natural port. Unlike the East Coast of North America whose many rivers formed navigable tidal estuaries and bays at regular intervals along the coastline, the West Coast of North America was almost completely devoid of natural harbors. Until the discovery of San Francisco Bay, the best harbor that had been found was at the Monterey Peninsula, and that was not a particularly sheltered locale.

Why did it take so long to find San Francisco Bay? Well, those who have been there surely know: it is often foggy there. Very foggy. So foggy, in fact, that the narrow opening of the Bay, the Golden Gate, often disappears from view, either from inside the Bay or from outside. Though many expeditions had sailed very close to the Golden Gate – Sir Francis Drake is thought to have sailed within four miles of it – not a one saw the wonderful gap in the coastline that opened into a splendid natural port. It seems somehow typical of San Francisco – doing the exact opposite of what is usually expected – that the famous Bay was first discovered from the land! Yes, it was Gaspar de Portola’s 1769 overland expedition that made first sighting of the glorious natural harbor that would later become so important.

So it was on this day, 28 March in that fraught and momentous year of 1776, that the first settlers under Juan Bautista de Anza reached the site that was to become San Francisco. It was first established as a military garrison – in Spanish Presidio; it was a military facility for Spain, Mexico, and the United States. The United States Army maintained that Post until the site was incorporated into the Golden Gate national recreation area in 1994, and “The Presidio” proudly bore its founding date, 1776, upon its entrance gates. The very next order of business was the founding of a religious mission. The ancient adobe mission building, dedicated to the patron of the Franciscan friars who built the California missions, San Francisco de Asis, still stands, having withstood nine major earthquakes and five major fires unscathed. And finally established was a small town known, in honor of the healing herb that grew on the site, as Yerba Buena, Good Herb.

The actual city of San Francisco would not exist until the first American governor of California granted a charter to the former Yerba Buena in 1847. This governor, John C. Frémont, was a renowned geographer who had mapped a great deal of the far West for the United States Army – he also coined the name “Golden Gate” for the entrance to San Francisco Bay (in 1846, before gold had been discovered) but his coining did not stick in its original form: drawing on his mastery of Classical Greek, Frémont had dubbed the breathtaking entry Chrysopylae, “Golden Gate.” (I am glad that the English form won out!) Frémont also established a bit of a tradition of Californian unorthodoxy: an Army officer, Colonel Frémont had been appointed governor by Commodore Stockton after the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War. General Kearny felt this was an unacceptable slight – he outranked Frémont, after all! Kearny therefore arrested Frémont and sent him to Washington, D.C. charged with mutiny!

Frémont was convicted and almost immediately pardoned by President Polk. The whole affair convinced many of the former Mexican citizens who now found themselves under American rule that the Yanquis were as unstable as the Spanish Grandees who had been so intolerable. (All the principals have streets named after them in San Francisco!)

San Francisco, as this brief account illustrates, was unusual and unorthodox from its very founding. And California has often had a rough time with its governors! But in any case, a Happy 236th birthday to one of our nation’s – indeed, one of the world’s – most interesting and delightful cities!

Downtown San Francisco looking eastward from UCSF Medical Center. This is an unorthodox view, most SF cityscapes looking westward. 06SEP08.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.

— Oscar Wilde

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