The Long History of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Indian Occupation

Alcatraz Indian Occupation, photo by Ilka Hartman, courtesy California State University

During this time, many non-Indians also began to take up residence on the island, including the homeless and many from the San Francisco hippie and drug culture.

Organization virtually fell apart when Richard Oake’s 13-year-old stepdaughter fell three floors down a stairwell to her death. Following her death, Oakes left the island, leaving it without a strong leader. The two competing groups then began to maneuver back and forth for leadership.

The Indians also found themselves faced with the same problems that had hindered both the military and prison administrations – the lack of natural resources and the requirement that all supplies, food, and water be ferried by boat. The process was not only exhausting but also extremely expensive.

Despite the prohibition of drugs and alcohol by the Indians, the contraband soon began to be brought onto the island by the many non-Native Americans who had also encamped upon Alcatraz. Without strong leadership, the situation quickly became unmanageable and the organization of the community fell apart. Daily reports from the government caretaker on the island, as well as complaints from the remaining original occupants, described the open use of drugs, destruction of property including graffiti and vandalism, and the general disarray of leadership.

Without the equalitarian form of government that was supposed to prevail, there was no one with whom the government could negotiate.

In response, the government, in an attempt to evacuate the island, shut off all electrical power and removed the water barge which provided fresh water for those occupying the island. Three days after the removal of the water barge, on June 1, 1970, a fire was accidentally started and raged through several of the buildings. When the blaze finally died out, the Warden’s home, the lighthouse keeper’s residence, and the Officers’ Club were burned to the ground. Also severely damaged was the historic lighthouse built in 1854.

Alcatraz Fire

Fire during the Occupation of Alcatraz.

The Native Americans were soon forced to resort to drastic measures in order to survive and began to strip copper wiring and tubing from the buildings to sell as scrap metal. Three of the occupiers were arrested and found guilty of selling some 600 pounds of copper. This story, along with other news of the events taking place on the island began to be told in the press. Before long, little support could be found for the Indians’ occupation.

In January 1971, when two oil tankers collided in the San Francisco Bay, it pushed the federal government into action. Though no blame was held against the occupiers of the island, a removal plan began to be developed. Designed to take place with as little force as possible and at a time that the smallest number of people were on the island, the forced removal took place on June 10, 1971.

On that date, the occupation ended when 20 armed federal marshals, assisted by the Coast Guard, swarmed the island, removing five women, four children, and six unarmed Indian men.

Though the specific demands for the island itself were not realized, the initial underlying goals of the first occupants were to awaken the American public to the reality of the Native American plight. As a result, the official government policy of termination of Indians tribes was ended and a new policy of Indian self-determination was recognized.

The occupation also resulted in the return of Blue Lake and some 48,000 acres of land to the Taos Indians, a Native American University near Davis, California, and hiring of Native Americans to the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C.

The occupation was the longest of any federal facility by Native Americans to this day.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Golden Gate-Fort Point

Fort Point and Golden Gate today, by Jon Sullivan.

On October 12, 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the island became part of the National Park Service. After some slight modifications to the facility to make it safe for the public and razing of the guard’s residences that were deteriorated beyond repair, the park opened in the fall of 1973. Since that time, it has become one the most popular of the Park Service sites, with more than a million visitors every year.

Along with its rich history and the prison itself, visitors also marvel at the wildlife, expansive gardens and dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, and Treasure Island.

As one looks east towards the San Francisco Bay, it is easy to imagine the island as the location of a luxurious resort. But as visitors continue their tour, the reality of the cell house, solitary confinement cells, and the pitch-black “hole” quickly brings back the reality of the Island and its past.

The “thrill” of Alcatraz has been portrayed in a number of Hollywood movies over the years, such as 1962’s “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Clint Eastwood’s popular 1979 film, “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Murder in the First” in 1995, and “The Rock” in 1996. Though none of these movies are completely accurate in their historic details, they have provided a glimpse at prison life upon the “Rock.”

Many former inmates of the prison that are still alive today find it extremely hard to grasp the idea of why so many people would want to visit a place that represented to them only anguish and despair. To them, the term “recreation area” is an oxymoron in the extreme.

Alcatraz Administration Building, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

But, visit we do, so much so that if you are planning a trip to the island, reservations are recommended days in advance as the tours fill up fast. The tour provides a brief orientation from a park ranger, a ranger-led or self-guided tour, and an orientation film. An audio tour is also available for a couple of extra dollars that is well worth it, as guards and former prisoners share their experiences of the prison.

Today, the military base barracks, prison cell house, the oldest lighthouse on the west coast, and several other buildings remain.

But, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is much more than just Alcatraz Island, it also is one of the largest urban parks in the world, with acreage spanning 2 ½ half times the size of San Francisco County.

Not one situated in one continuous location, the numerous sites of the park that contains 739 historic structures, including 5 National Historic Landmarks and 12 National Register Properties, stretches from northern San Mateo County to southern Marin County and includes several areas of San Francisco. Encompassing 69 miles of bay and ocean shoreline, the park features military fortifications that span centuries of California history, various cultural landscapes, numerous archeological sites, the homeland of the Coastal Miwok and Ohlone people, and displays collections of more than 3 million historic objects, documents, images, and specimens.

Point Bonita Lighthouse, by Dave Alexander.

North of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, the park includes Bolinas Ridge, Forts Baker, Barry, and Cronkhite; Gerbode Valley, Kirby Cove, Marin Headlands, Muir Woods National Monument, Beach and Overlook, the Nike Missile Site, Olema Valley, Point Bonita Lighthouse, Stinson Beach, and Tennessee Valley.

South of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco County, are the sites of Alcatraz Island, Baker Beach, Battery Chamberlin, China Beach, the Cliff House & Sutro Baths, Crissy Airfield, Beach and Field Center; Forts Funston, Mason, and Point; Lands End, Ocean Beach, the Pacific West Regional Information Center, Sutro Historic District, and the Presidio of San Francisco.

South of San Francisco, in San Mateo County, the park includes Milagra Ridge, Mori Point, the Phleger Estate, and Sweeney Ridge.

Contact Information:

Alcatraz Island National Park Service
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Fort Mason, Building 201
San FranciscoCalifornia  94123
Visitor Information – 415-561-4900
Reservations – 415- 705-5555

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

See our Alcatraz Photo Gallery HERE

Also See:

Fort Baker – Protecting the California Coast

Fort Point – Standing Guard at the Golden Gate

Presidio of San Francisco – Serving for Two Centuries

San Francisco History

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