Happy Birthday To San Francisco

Two hundred forty 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 240th 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

A Super VOTING Tuesday

For many of the United States of America, today is a voting day. As is the case with every Election Day, it represents an occasion to have important impact upon the future, and there is so much more at stake than just the immensely high-profile upcoming presidential race. Having that impact, of course, is only available to those who vote.

While the United States was still in the throes of the ferocious fighting of the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt took to the radio on 5 October 1944 to address a nation about the need and the obligation to vote:

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves, and the only way they could do that is by not voting at all.

The continuing health and vigor of our democratic system depends upon the public spirit and devotion of its citizens which find expression in the ballot box.

Every woman and every man in this nation, regardless of party, who have the right to register and to vote, and the opportunity to register and to vote, have also the sacred obligation to register and to vote. For the free and secret ballot is the real keystone of our American constitutional system.

The American Government has survived and prospered for more than a century and a half, and it is now at the highest peak of its vitality. This is primarily because when the American people want a change of Government, even when they merely want “new faces,” they can raise the old electioneering battle cry of “throw the rascals out.”

Roosevelt also frankly acknowledged the serious defects which then plagued America’s voting rights then, saying:

It is true that there are many undemocratic defects in voting laws in the various States, almost forty-eight different kinds of defects, and some of these produce injustices which, prevent a full and free expression of public opinion.

The right to vote must be open to our citizens irrespective of race, color or creed, without tax or artificial restriction of any kind. The sooner we get to that basis of political equality, the better it will be for the country as a whole.

Two decades would pass before Roosevelt’s ambition for equal access to voting would be made into law. For many Americans today, access to voting may be more difficult than it should be. Polling places are often fairly distant, lines will likely be quite long, and even registered voters may be challenged. But exercising one’s right to vote is a very worthwhile thing, and worthwhile things do not always come easily.

I have heard from many folks that they either have already voted, taking advantage of early voting options, or that they surely intend to do so today. I have also heard from a variety of folks who tell me that they have been praying and plan to pray about this election. That sounds like a good idea.

This conflation of voting and praying is wholly apt, as it turns out, at least from the etymology and origins of the word “vote.”

Our English word “vote” derives from the Latin VOTVM, which means a prayer, a wish, or a promise to God (this last is reflected in our words such as “devotion” and “votive” offerings.) The word VOTVM is in turn derived from the verb VOVERE meaning to pray, wish or to vow.

When we vote, then, we express our wish. Perhaps we avow our preference. Possibly we pray. And maybe – just maybe – our prayers will be answered.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:

1, To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy:

2, To speak no evil of the person they voted against: and,

3, to take care their spirits were not sharpened against those who voted on the other side.

– John Wesley

From The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A. M., Volume IV, 3rd edition, London: John Mason, 1829, entry from Thursday, October 6, 1774: