The Long History of Alcatraz Island


Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California Bay by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California Bay by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Sitting like a beacon in the middle of the San Francisco Bay of California is Alcatraz Island. Though most prominently known for the years it served as a maximum-security prison, the “Rock’s” history stretches far beyond those infamous days, and its legends and stories continue to find their way into American lore.


Alcatraz Lighthouse by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Alcatraz Lighthouse by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

“Break the rules and you go to prison. Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” — Anonymous


History of Alcatraz

Ohlone Village

Ohlone Village

Long before Alcatraz became home to some of the most notorious outlaws in the country, it was known as a place to be avoided by Native Americans who believed it to contain evil spirits. These Native Americans called the Ohlone (a Miwok Indian word meaning “western people”), often utilized the island as a place of isolation or banishment for members violating tribal laws. Despite the legends of evil spirits, Alcatraz was also used by the Indians as an area for food gathering, especially bird eggs and sea-life.

The first Europeans to visit the island were the Spanish in 1769, who named it “Isla de Los Alcatraces,” or “Island of the Pelicans,” for its large pelican colony. Later the name was shortened to Alcatraz. When the Spanish began to build the many missions of Southern California, many of the native Ohlone utilized the island as a hiding place to escape the “forced” Christianity imposed upon them.

In 1848, after the end of the Mexican-American War, California, along with the island, came under the control of the United States. It wasn’t long before the U.S. Army realized the strategic position of the island as a defensive site for the San Francisco Bay and began the work of building a fortress atop the sandstone outcropping in 1853. Construction began with a temporary wharf, shops, barracks, and offices. Incorporating the ruggedness of the land into the defense plan, the laborers blasted the rock and laid brick and stone to create steep walls around the island. By 1854, the lighthouse was completed and eleven cannons were mounted.

Fort Alcatraz (1850-1907)

Fort Alcatraz

Fort Alcatraz

The rest of the fortress would take years to complete, as most the area laborers were much more interested in prospecting for gold, rather than the back-breaking work of building Fort Alcatraz. Another cause of delay was the lack of quality building materials. While some sandstone was quarried on nearby Angel Island, much of the granite used in the building had to be imported from China.

The first deaths of the island occurred in 1857 when the crew was excavating a roadway between the wharf and the guardhouse. Suddenly, a 7,000 cubic-yard landslide buried several of the laborers and two men were killed.

However, the fortress slowly took shape, as roadways, additional outbuildings and the final defensive position – the Citadel, was built. Completed in 1859, the fortress included a row of enclosed gun positions to protect the dock, a fortified guardhouse to block the entrance road, and the three-story citadel atop the island, that served as an armed barracks and the last line of defense. The only access to the citadel was a drawbridge over a deep dry moat that surrounded the entire building. The structure was designed to hold as many as 200 soldiers with provisions that could withstand a four-month siege.

In December 1859, Captain Joseph Stewart and 86 men of Company H, Third U.S. Artillery, took command of Alcatraz Island. Fort Alcatraz soon took the lead role as the most powerful coastal defense in the west. In addition to its strategic defensive position, the island also took on the additional role of serving as a stockade for enlisted men. Recognizing that the cold water (53° F) and the swift currents surrounding the island made it an ideal site for a prison, eleven of the soldiers who arrived with Captain Stewart were incarcerated in a cell block in the guardhouse basement. Just two months later, another soldier, who was said to have been insane, was jailed with the others. Before long, other forts with less secure garrisons began to send their deserters, escapees, and other prisoners to the island.

In April 1861, Alcatraz took on another role — that of defending the Union state of California from Confederates when the Civil War broke out. As California’s population included both Union and Confederate supporters, tensions ran high on the California coast, and the fort and its men were tasked with calming the threat of local war and protecting the City of San Francisco. Commanding the Department of the Pacific, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston sent 10,000 muskets and 150,000 cartridges of ammunition to Fort Alcatraz and the island became the most powerful fort west of the Mississippi River. The new fortress soon deflated Confederate sympathizers’ hopes that the San Francisco Bay could be taken and California brought into the Confederacy.

“I have heard foolish talk about an attempt to seize the strongholds of government under my charge. Knowing this, I have prepared for emergencies, and will defend the property of the United States with every resource at my command, and with the last drop of blood in my body. Tell that to our Southern friends!”

— Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, Commander of the Department of the Pacific, U.S. Army, 1861

Though no one ever attacked the rugged island during the Civil War, the military personnel on Alcatraz increased to over 350 men.

On August 27, 1861, Alcatraz was officially designated as the military prison for the Department of the Pacific, which covered most of the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. Like most prisons of the time, the conditions in the cell house were terrible, with men sleeping on the stone floors, side-by-side. With no heat, running water or sanitary facilities in the cells, sickness became common among the prisoners.

Approaching Alcatraz Island by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The first Confederate threat to California occurred in March 1863 when the army learned that a group of southern sympathizers planned to overtake San Francisco Bay. Their strategy was to arm a schooner, use it to capture a steamship, blockade the harbor, and attack the fort. However, when the schooner’s captain bragged about the scheme while drinking in a tavern, the news was quickly relayed to Union officials. On the night the schooner was set to sail, the U.S. Navy seized the ship and arrested the crew. When the boat was towed to Alcatraz, the army found cannons, ammunition and 15 more men hidden in the ship.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz’s role as a military prison increased. When the Confederates were arrested from the schooner, they joined numerous other military prisoners and local civilians who had been arrested for treason. Soon the rooms in the guardhouse were filled and a temporary wooden prison was built in 1863 just north of the guardhouse. Later it was replaced with several adjoining structures called the Lower Prison. Built by jailhouse labor, as part of their punishment, the prisoners also constructed additional housing on the island.

Alcatraz Citadel 1908

Alcatraz Citadel 1908

As the Civil War continued on, the U.S. Army devoted more resources to Alcatraz, and in 1864, the first 15-inch Rodman cannons were mounted. Additional “bombproof barracks” were also built. By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, the island contained over one hundred cannons. However, the only time they would be used was during the official mourning salute during San Francisco’s honorary funeral procession for President Lincoln.

After the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers caught celebrating the death of President Lincoln were sent to Alcatraz along with other military convicts and various malcontents of society. It was also after the war that thousands of emigrants began to flood to the west, creating the Indian Wars of the late 1800s. At this time, Indians were often utilized by the cavalry as scouts and those convicted of mutiny or other crimes, were sent to Alcatraz, housed side by side with some of the worst murderers, rapists, and criminals in the West. Other Native Americans who thwarted the U.S. Government were also sent to the “Rock. The first Native American to be sent to Alcatraz was a man named Paiute Tom, who was transferred from Camp McDermit in Nebraska on June 5, 1873. Two days later, he was shot and killed by a guard. The reason for the transfer and the killing have been lost in history.

Later that same year, two Modoc Indians by the names of Barncho and Sloluck were sent to Alcatraz. Arrested for participating in the murder of members of a peace commission during the Modoc Wars of northeastern California, they had been sentenced to hang, along with four other Modoc Indians. Convicted at Fort Klamath, Oregon, President Ulysses S. Grant spared the two because of their youth and sent them to Alcatraz. While at Alcatraz, Barncho died of tuberculosis, but Sloluck was released in February 1878 and joined the remaining members of his tribe exiled in Indian Territory.

Other Native Americans, accused of mutiny, Indian campaigns against the army or escapees from other prisons were also sent to Alcatraz. One such prisoner, Chief Kaetena, a compatriot of Geronimo, was sent to Alcatraz after battling against General George Crook’s army. After having spent two years on the rock, he was released in March of 1886, at which time Crook wrote, “His stay on Alcatraz has worked a complete reformation in his character.”

Alcatraz Indian Inmates

Hopi inmates at Alcatraz Island pictured in front of the original lighthouse.

In January 1895, the largest number of American Indians were sent to Alcatraz from northern Arizona. Nineteen Hopi leaders, who had been involved in land disputes with the government and refused to comply with mandatory government education programs for their children, were severely punished by sending them to the “Rock.” A San Francisco newspaper of the time, The Call, stated the Hopi “have been rudely snatched from the bosom of their families and are prisoners . . . until they have learned to appreciate the advantage of education.” Only after the Hopi had pledged to “cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards,” were they released.

Throughout the late 1800s, the prison complex housed an average of 100 men. During this time, the old cannons were gradually removed and by 1891, only seven remained.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, thousands of troops passed through San Francisco on their way to or returning from the Philippines. Upon their return, many of the soldiers brought back tropical contagious diseases and San Francisco’s hospitals filled. Many of these soldiers returned as prisoners and Alcatraz’s hospital was also packed with men who had contracted diseases, a number of which died of their illnesses. During this time, four prisoners tried to paddle their way to the mainland on a butter vat, only to be returned to the island along the strong currents.

Alcatraz Lower Prison

Alcatraz Lower Prison

By the turn of the century, the prison’s population had swelled to more than 400 and another prison complex was hastily built on the parade ground.

Called the Upper Prison, it consisted of three wooden cell houses with two tiers each, surrounded by a stockade fence. Over the next several years, additional support buildings were added to the Upper Prison and the Lower Prison was converted into workshops for prison labor.

Both the Upper and Lower Prisons were firetraps, and in 1902, an oil lantern fire almost destroyed the Lower Prison. In 1906, when the earthquake hit San Francisco, burning much of the city, officials evacuated 176 city prisoners to Alcatraz for nine days. Recognizing the fire hazards of Alcatraz, new concrete barracks were soon built by prison labor.

Alcatraz Military Prison (1907-1934)


Buildings on Alcatraz Island by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

As the ships of the U.S. military became more and more powerful, the defensive purposes of Alcatraz became obsolete. In 1907, Alcatraz was re-designated as the “Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison” and prison guards replaced infantry soldiers.

New projects soon began to accommodate the many military prisoners and during World War I, the prison housed German prisoners of war. The upper citadel was torn down and a huge cell house was built over the citadel basement and moat. The new cell house, completed in 1912, was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world at the time, containing four cell blocks with a total of 600 cells, each with a toilet and electricity.

In 1915, the island was renamed the “Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks” and a new emphasis was put on education and rehabilitation. Those convicted men with less serious offenses soon began to attend military training, remedial education, and vocational training. The plan was so successful, that many of the soldiers were restored to active duty after their sentences were served. Prisoners with more serious offenses were not given these opportunities and were dishonorably discharged from the Army after having served their terms.

As a disciplinary barracks, Alcatraz was a minimum-security prison and most prisoners were locked in their cells only at night. During the day, they spent their time in classes or work activities. Throughout these years, several inmates tried to escape the island by boarding boats heading to the mainland, swimming or clinging to wooden objects.

Driftwood was used for escape attempts in 1912, 1916, 1927 and a ladder was used during an escape attempt in 1929. Most of those who attempted escape through the water never made it to shore. Of those who tried, some were rescued and returned to the island, but others drowned.

The most successful escape was on November 28, 1918, when four prisoners managed to escape with rafts. The authorities assumed they had drowned in San Francisco Bay, but they later appeared in Sutro Forest. Only one of them was recaptured.

As a Military Prison, there were at least 80 men who attempted to escape in 29 separate attempts. Of those, 62 were captured and returned to the prison, one may have drowned and the fate of 17 others was unknown.

By 1933, the army decided that the island was too expensive to operate. Its location was the biggest problem, with the high costs of importing water, food, and supplies.

At this time, the gangster era was in full swing, brought on by the desperate need of the great depression, combined with Prohibition. The nation’s cities were witnessing terrible violence as shoot-outs and public slayings became frequent when mobsters took control. The ill-equipped law enforcement agencies were often bought off by the gangsters or cowered before the better-armed gangs of nattily dressed men. Simultaneously, the existing prisons were experiencing a number of escapes, rioting and gang-related murders.

Alcatraz was the ideal solution to the problem and J. Edgar Hoover jumped on the opportunity to create a “super-prison” that would instill fear in the minds of would-be criminals, offered no means of escape, and a place where inmates could be safely controlled. Negotiations soon began and Alcatraz was transferred to the Bureau of Prisons in October 1933.

By the early part of 1934, eighty years of U.S. Army occupation ended. With the exception of 32 hard case prisoners, who were to remain on the island and incarcerated in the “new” prison when it was completed, the others were transferred to Fort LeavenworthKansas and Fort Jay, New Jersey.

Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary (1934 -1963)

Cell block at Alcatraz today, July, 2009, Kathy Weiser

Cellblock at Alcatraz by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

Beginning on January 1, 1934, much to the chagrin of the people of San Francisco, the Bureau of Prisons began the process of selecting a warden and upgrading Alcatraz to an “escape-proof” maximum security prison. Four guard towers were constructed at strategic points around the island and 336 of the cells were reconstructed with tool-proof steel cell fronts and locking devices operated from control boxes. None of the cells adjoined a perimeter wall.

Each and every window in the prison building was also equipped with tool-proof steel window guards and two gun galleries were erected in the cellblock that allowed guards, armed with machine guns, to oversee all inmate activities.

The mess-hall and main entrance were equipped with built-in tear gas canisters in the ceiling that could be remotely activated from both the gun gallery and the outside observation points.

New technology allowed electromagnetic metal detectors to be utilized, positioned outside the mess hall and at the workshop entrances. Electricity and sanitary facilities were upgraded in each cell, and all of the utility tunnels were cemented so that no prisoner could enter or hide in them.

In addition, the barracks buildings were altered to provide comfortable quarters for the prison guards and their families. The living facilities included four wood-frame houses, one duplex, and three apartment buildings. A large house, adjacent to the cell house was designated for the warden, while the duplex was assigned to the Captain and Associate Warden.

The collaborative effort of U.S. Attorney General, Homer Cummings, and Director of the Bureau of Prisons, Sanford Bates, produced a legendary prison that seemed both necessary and appropriate to the times. It was so forbidding that it was eventually nicknamed “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island.”

Appointed as the first warden, James A. Johnston came with more than twelve years of experience in the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin and Folsom Prisons. Johnston had already developed a reputation for strict ideals and a humanistic approach to reform. However, he was also known to be a strict disciplinarian and his rules of conduct were among the most rigid in the California correctional system.

Believing in a system of rewards and consequences, Johnston, along with Federal Prisons Director, Sanford Bates, established the guiding principles under which the prison would operate. He and his hand-picked correctional officers then enforced the guidelines by rewarding inmates with privileges or sentence reductions for hard work, and harshly punishing inmates who defied prison regulations.

One of the regulations that were enacted for the prison was that no prisoner would be directly sentenced to Alcatraz from the courts. Instead, they “earned” their transfer to the island from other prisons by attempting to escape, exhibiting unmanageable behavior, or those that had been receiving special privileges. Therefore, Alcatraz became home to the “worst of the worst” criminal elements in the nation.

On July 1, 1934, the maximum security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, officially received its first prisoners. The 32 hard-case prisoners who had been “left” by the Army were turned over to Alcatraz authorities, the first of which was a man named Frank Bolt, who was serving a five-year sentence for sodomy.

Al Capone

Al Capone

Other inmates in this first group of men had committed such crimes as robbery, assault, rape, and desertion. The next month, 69 more prisoners arrived from the McNeil Island and Atlanta Penitentiaries, the most famous of which, inmate #85, was Al Capone.

Warden Johnston began a custom of meeting the new inmates upon their arrival to Alcatraz. When Capone arrived, Johnston immediately recognized the grinning man who was quietly making smug comments to nearby inmates. When it was Capone’s turn to approach the warden, he attempted to flaunt the power he had enjoyed at the federal pen in Atlanta by asking questions of the warden on the inmate’s behalf.

While in Atlanta, he had been successful in bribing the guards for additional favors such as unlimited visiting privileges, liquor, and uncensored reading materials.

He was so successful in gaining special privileges, that family members had taken up residence at a nearby hotel, through whom, he continued to run his organization in Chicago.

However, Johnston was not to be manipulated and immediately assigned him his prison number and ordered him back in line with the others.

Capone’s arrival at Alcatraz generated more newspaper headlines than the opening of the prison itself, beginning an era of public fascination with the maximum-security prison.

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