“I have seen purer liquors, better segars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier courtesans here in San Francisco than in any other place I have ever visited; and it is my unbiased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are available in America.”
— Hinton Helper, 19th Century Author
San Francisco, California, the cultural, commercial, and financial center of Central California today, has a long history characterized by rapid economic change and cultural diversity.
Archaeological evidence shows that this region was first inhabited in about 3,000 BC. When the first Europeans arrived, the Ohlone-speaking Yelamu tribe lived in many small villages in the area.
The first explorer in the area was English sea captain Sir Francis Drake, who anchored his ship off Point Reyes in 1579. Though he did not discover San Francisco Bay, he claimed California for the English. The area would not be seen again by Europeans for almost two centuries.
In November 1769, Gaspar de Portola led a Spanish expedition overland from Mexico and was the first documented European visit to San Francisco Bay. The Spanish returned in March 1776 when an expedition of settlers, led by Juan Bautista de Anza, arrived. This group soon established the Presidio of San Francisco. In 1797, Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores) was built to convert the Ohlone people to Christianity.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, California became part of Mexico. Under Mexican rule, the mission system gradually ended, and its lands became privatized.
In 1835, Englishman William Richardson erected the first significant homestead outside the immediate vicinity of the Mission Dolores. Along with Mission Alcalde Francisco de Haro, he laid out a street plan for a town named Yerba Buena, named for an herb that grew in abundance there. Soon, new settlers came to the area, building around a plaza called Portsmouth Square.
During the Mexican-American War, Yerba Buena was claimed by U.S. Navy Captain John B. Montgomery in July 1846. At that time, a flag was raised over the town plaza, and US Marine Second Lieutenant Henry Bulls Watson was placed in command of the garrison there. The town was renamed San Francisco in January 1847.
Despite its attractive location as a port and a naval base, San Francisco remained a small settlement until the California Gold Rush began in 1848. The following year, the gold rush brought rapid growth to San Francisco, and its population increased from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December 1849, making the city the largest on the west coast.
However, these early years were difficult as San Francisco lacked water and firewood at the tip of a windswept peninsula. These natural disadvantages forced the town’s residents to bring water, fuel, and food to the site. Further, land was limited, so the citizens filled in the marshlands of Yerba Buena Cove, where much of present-day downtown stands today.
During the height of the California Gold Rush, between December 1849 and June 1851, the city also suffered seven devastating fires. The worst occurred on the night of May 3, 1851, when a blaze broke out in a paint and upholstery store on the south side of Portsmouth Square. Fueled by high winds, the fire quickly spread through the downtown area and was visible for miles out to sea. The flames continued to devour the town for 18 blocks before it reached the waterfront. The fire claimed several lives when it was over, and the damage was estimated at $10-12 million. Still, people stayed and continued to come, rebuilding the town.
At the same time, violence and crime were often commonplace, and Vigilante Committees were formed in 1851 and again in 1856 in response to crime and government corruption. This militia movement lynched 12 people, kidnapped others, and forced several elected officials to resign in an attempt to “clean up” the city.
In 1853, the California Gold Rush was ending, but San Francisco was well established and would continue to grow. That year, the U.S. Military began to build Fort Point at the Golden Gate and to fortify Alcatraz Island to secure the San Francisco Bay.
Silver discoveries in the west, including the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859, brought more people to the port of San Francisco. As these many people came, lawlessness was common, and the Barbary Coast section of town gained notoriety as a haven for criminals, prostitution, and gambling.
But in the following decades, San Francisco would begin its transformation into a major metropolitan city as new neighborhoods were developed in all directions. One of these neighborhoods that grew rapidly was Chinatown, which today continues to have one of the largest concentrations of Chinese outside of China.
Many businesses founded during this time continue to exist today, including Levi Strauss & Co. clothing, Ghirardelli Chocolate, and Wells Fargo Bank. Also established were several mansions in the Nob Hill neighborhood, some of which now serve as famous and expensive hotels, including the Mark Hopkins Hotel and the Huntington Hotel. This rapid growth complicated city planning efforts, leaving a legacy of narrow streets that still cause unique traffic problems today.
In 1864 Hugh H. Toland, a South Carolina surgeon, founded the Toland Medical College, which later developed into the University of California – San Francisco.
In 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, and soon, the San Francisco Bay area became a center for trade. By 1870 the city’s population reached 150,000. The first cable cars began to operate in 1873, and soon Victorian houses lined the streets, as well as other significant commercial buildings, including churches, schools, and theaters.
Golden Gate Park was established in 1887. By 1890, San Francisco’s population approached 300,000, making it the eighth-largest city in the United States at the time. San Francisco’s status as the West Coast’s largest city peaked between 1870 and 1900 when around 25% of California’s population resided in the city.
San Francisco was known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, large mansions, and a thriving arts and cultural scene by the turn of the century. However, the first decade of the 21st century would not fare well for its residents.
In 1900, an epidemic of bubonic plague began after a ship brought rats infected with the disease with it. The area most affected was San Francisco’s Chinatown. Though medical authorities recognized the epidemic in March 1900, California’s Governor Henry Gage denied its existence for more than two years. This denial was made to protect the reputations of San Francisco and California and to prevent the loss of revenue due to quarantine. In 1902, Gage lost re-election, and the new Governor George Pardee implemented medical solutions, and the epidemic was stopped in 1904. During these two years, there were 121 cases identified, 119 of whom lost their lives.
On April 18, 1906, a major earthquake struck San Francisco and northern California in the early morning hours. As numerous buildings collapsed, gas lines were ruptured, which started a great fire across the city which burned out of control for several days. Though the Presidio Artillery Corps attempted to contain the blaze by dynamiting blocks of buildings to create firebreaks, more than 75% of the city was in ruins before the fire was contained. In the wake of this disaster, as many as 3,000 people died, more than 200,000 were injured, more than half of the city’s population of 400,000 were left homeless, and the estimated damage was about $400 million. The death toll from this event is the highest from a natural disaster in California history.
The process of rebuilding began immediately, but it would take several years. In the meantime, trade, industry, and people were diverted south to Los Angeles. While the city was still rebuilding, a second epidemic of bubonic plague hit in the summer of 1908. This time, 160 cases were identified in all areas of the city, but due to the quick actions of the authorities, the mortality rate was lower this time, with 78 people dying of the disease.
In 1915, the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair, was held in San Francisco from February 20 to December 4, 1915. Though the purpose of the exposition was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, it was widely seen as San Francisco’s opportunity to showcase its recovery from the 1906 earthquake. The fair was built on a 636-acre site along the northern shore, between the Presidio and Fort Mason.
During the Great Depression, not a single San Francisco-based bank failed. In fact, the city took on several large engineering projects, including the construction of the Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, which were completed in 1936 and 1937, respectively. During this period, Alcatraz, a former military stockade, began its service as a federal maximum-security prison.
San Francisco held another world fair in 1939 and 1940. The Golden Gate Exposition celebrated the city’s two newly built bridges. To accommodate the fair, Treasure Island was built near where the Oakland span and the San Francisco span of the Bay Bridge join. Dredging for the flat, geometrically-shaped artificial island began in February 1936, and 19 million cubic yards of fill were required for the 385-acre site. Afterward, the island was taken over by the U.S. Navy from 1941 to 1997.
During World War II, San Francisco’s military defense properties were hubs of activity. Fort Mason became the primary port of embarkation for service members shipping out to the Pacific Theater. This created numerous jobs in the area bringing in yet more people.
After the war, returning servicemen and significant immigration increased the city’s population again. San Francisco became a magnet for America’s counterculture in the following decades with the rise of “hippies,” the Sexual Revolution, the Peace Movement growing from opposition to United States involvement in the Vietnam War, and the Gay Rights Movement. These activities cemented San Francisco as a center of liberal activism in the United States.
Later came the boom of the dot-com industry in the late 1990s as startup companies, entrepreneurs, and computer experts moved into the city.
Today, San Francisco is the 13th-most populous city in the United States, and the fourth-most populous in California, with nearly 900,000 residents. The high demand for housing, driven by its proximity to Silicon Valley and the low supply of available housing, has led to the city being one of America’s most expensive places to live.