“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 were living in many small villages in the area.
The first explorer in the area was 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. Seven years later, 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. He along with Mission Alcalde Francisco de Haro 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 which later was called Portsmouth Square.
During the Mexican-American War, Yerba Buena was claimed by US 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 next 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, located at the tip of a windswept peninsula, lacked water and firewood. These natural disadvantages forced the town’s residents to bring in 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. When it was over, the fire claimed several lives and the damage was estimated at about $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 by that time 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 next 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 if 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 a number of 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 continues to 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.
By the turn of the century, San Francisco was known for its flamboyant style, stately hotels, large mansions, and a thriving arts and cultural scene. However, the first decade of the 21st Century would not fare well for its residents.