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San Francisco history and timeline

San Francisco is one of the most famous cities in the United States, and with good reason. This California city has been an important site for human habitation for thousands of years. Ever since the Spanish arrived in the 18th Century, the city has been an important port. Now, San Francisco welcomes millions of tourists every year due to its world-leading museums, art galleries, and sporting franchises.

Let's discover the compelling history of San Francisco.

Pre-Colonial San Francisco

Historians estimate that the San Francisco area has been inhabited by humans since approximately 3000 BC. One of the main reasons for this is the area's geography. Situated on the West Coast of the United States, the San Francisco peninsula is connected to the Pacific Ocean by the iconic Golden Gate.

This immense natural harbor makes the San Francisco region an attractive site for settlements. Early on, the San Francisco area was home to the Ohone peoples; a collection of Native American communities who lived as hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists believed that these indigenous communities called the area “Ahwaste”, which means “place at the bay”.

For years, the region lay undiscovered by European explorers due to huge banks of fog that obscured the Golden Gate from passing ships. However, all that changed on November 2nd, 1769.

Spanish Settlement and American Conquest

After leaving Mexico, a party of Spanish explorers led by Gaspar de Portola became the first Europeans to enter San Francisco Bay. They claimed the region in honor of Spain but didn't establish a lasting settlement. In 1774, a second expedition arrived to mark out suitable sites for colonization.

Two years later, in 1776, the Spanish began to establish a foothold on the peninsula. Juan Bautista de Anza left San Diego with an expeditionary force and arrived in San Francisco. He constructed a fort on the northern edge of the peninsula, known as the Presidio of San Francisco. The Spanish named their settlement Yerba Buena after a herb that grew widely in the area.

Spanish priests also founded the Mission San Francisco de Asis. It was the sixth mission established in California. By 1808, over 1,000 people from local indigenous tribes had joined the mission.

Yerba Buena rapidly became an important trading hub on the West Coast. This made it a desirable settlement for the major European powers. In 1792, George Vancouver – a British naval officer – visited the area to spy on the Spanish. Other visitors to the settlement included Russian fur traders, who were establishing colonies between Alaska and California.

The San Francisco region remained under Spanish control until 1821. Having lost the Mexican War of Independence, Spain ceded control of California and many of its other American territories to the First Mexican Empire. Over the next few decades, the Spanish missions waned in power as large tracts of agricultural land were turned into ranchos.

Settlers from the United States and Canada began to move into California, including the San Francisco area. In 1835, the local magistrate, also known as an Alcalde, authorized the first land grant in Yerba Buena to William Richardson, who constructed a homestead close to the mission.

Richardson was a former English sailor who became one of California's earliest entrepreneurs. Richardson helped the Alcalde, Francisco de Haro, to design a street plan for the town. In 1838, Richardson accumulated more land, including the Rancho Saucelito north of Yerba Buena. He went on to found the city of Saucelito before dying in 1856.

The San Francisco Bay Area was quickly attracting international attention. The British Empire toyed with the idea of offering to buy the region from Mexico to secure “the finest port in the Pacific”. However, the Mexicans would soon lose San Francisco not to the British, but to the Americans.

California was one of the early territorial gains for the Americans during the Mexican-American War. The province was seized by US Navy Commodore John D. Sloat on July 7th, 1846. Two days later, Yerba Buena was taken by the crew of the USS Portsmouth.

In August, Lieutenant Washington A. Bartlett was installed as Alcalde. On January 30th, 1847, Bartlett enacted a historical proclamation; Yerba Buena would be renamed San Francisco. After the war ended in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially confirmed that California was now owned by the United States.

Gold Rush Prosperity and Expansion

In January 1848, gold was discovered in the California foothills. The discovery kickstarted a huge migration of gold prospectors, known as “forty-niners”, into the state, known as the California Gold Rush. San Francisco and its major port quickly became the epicenter of the Gold Rush, driving the city's rapid growth and expansion.

In 1847, it was estimated that San Francisco's population was just over 450 people. In early 1848, that had grown to approximately 1,000 people. But by the end of 1849, the population had ballooned to 25,000. Few could resist the lure of gold, and over 500 ships were simply abandoned in San Francisco's harbor as their crews became prospectors. While some ships continued to be used as hotels, saloons, or storehouses, many sunk to the bottom of the harbor.

The city's rapid growth continued, supplemented further by the discovery of the Comstock Lode in nearby Nevada, adding silver to the flow of commodities passing through San Francisco. Unfortunately, with uncharted growth also came lawlessness. The Barbary Coast district garnered a notorious reputation for gambling, prostitution, and other criminal activities.

San Francisco also attracted people from various countries and races. During the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, thousands of Chinese laborers flooded into the city. The Chinatown area of the city quickly became one of the biggest Chinese enclaves outside of Asia.

During the late 1800s, San Francisco underwent a stunning metamorphosis. Building projects established many of the city's famous landmarks and institutions. Golden Gate Park was opened in 1870. San Francisco's iconic cable cars began to operate in 1873, further connecting the rapidly expanding city. But disaster was just around the corner.

Decades of Disaster and Recovery

The first disaster to strike the city was the San Francisco Plague; an outbreak of bubonic plague from 1900 to 1904. This was the first large-scale pandemic to hit the United States and mainly affected residents of San Francisco's Chinatown. Although the city authorities initially denied the plague's existence, it claimed nearly 120 lives.

No sooner had the city recovered from the outbreak than another major disaster struck; the infamous San Francisco earthquake of 1906. An immense earthquake, measuring an estimated 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck when the San Andreas Fault moved by over 10 feet.

The resulting tremors ransacked the city, killing over 3,000 people and destroying 25,000 buildings – over 80% of the city. Approximately 250,000 people were left homeless. The earthquake also triggered several major fires that burned for four days. Even now, the 1906 earthquake remains one of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of the United States.

After the earthquake, the scale and speed of the rebuilding of San Francisco was truly astonishing. In 1915, less than ten years after the disaster, San Francisco played host to the Panama-Pacific International Expo; an event that celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal. While many of the Expo's structures were demolished soon after, the Palace of Fine Arts remained and is now one of the city's most iconic landmarks.

San Francisco continued to rebuild throughout the following decades. The world-famous Golden Gate Bridge was opened in 1937, while the infamous Alcatraz Island was turned into a maximum-security prison in 1934. Over the years, Alcatraz played host to some of America's most heinous criminals, including gangster Al Capone.

San Francisco in World War Two

After the Japanese decimated the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the United States entered into the Second World War. As a major Pacific port, San Francisco became a key mobilization hub following the attack. While supplies came in, military forces embarked to join the Pacific theater.

However, San Francisco also had a darker legacy during the war following an Executive Order that all civilians of Japanese descent be rounded up and held in internment camps. After the war, the United Nations Charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945. In 1951, the Treaty of San Francisco was signed to rekindle peaceful relations with Japan.

Modern San Francisco

San Francisco has long had a reputation as one of America's most important cultural hubs. During the 1960s, San Francisco became a bastion of American counter-culture, especially for the hippie movement. This culminated in 1967's Summer of Love.

Nowadays, San Francisco is also an important technological and economic center. Silicon Valley sits in the southern region of the San Francisco Bay Area, boasting headquarters for companies like Apple. The city has a population of approximately 815,000 people and remains one of the most iconic cities on the West Coast.

Famous Landmarks

  • Mission San Francisco de Asis – 1776
  • Fort Point – 1861
  • Golden Gate Park – 1870
  • Ferry Building – 1898
  • San Francisco City Hall – 1915
  • Palace of Fine Arts – 1915
  • Alcatraz Prison & Island – 1934
  • Golden Gate Bridge – opened in 1937


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