SAN FRANCISCO: 1776–1840
by Gracie Hays
Five days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Spanish colonists held their first mass in San Francisco and marked this day as the official founding of the city. By October the Spaniards had completed the construction of Mission San Francisco De Asis (now known as Mission Dolores) and celebrated with an extravagant feast that, as Father Palou noted in his diary, “[had] been a joyful one for all. Only the savages did not enjoy themselves on this happy day.” The Ohlone and Miwok tribes had thrived in the Bay Area for thousands of years, but must have recognized the dark shadow now looming in their future. It is estimated that in 1776 the Bay Area Coast Miwoks had a population of 3,000 and the Ohlone 10,000. In less than a century, both tribes would be nearly extinct.
The Spaniards steadily expanded their fortification, establishing the Presidio only a month before Mission San Francisco de Asis. By the end of the end of the 18th century they had erected one of their most strategic outposts, Castillo de San Joaquin overlooking the entrance to the bay (located at present-day Fort Point). The start of the 19th century, however, brought turmoil when Mexico began to revolt against Spain in 1810. As Mexico gained momentum, Spain became fully consumed with combatting the rebellion and could no longer afford to aid or supply any of their colonies in remote Alta California. The Spanish colonists in San Francisco were now effectively abandoned. They struggled to maintain their resources, as their dwellings rapidly took on a decrepit state.
After eleven years of war, Mexico gained independence from Spain and San Francisco opened its ports to foreign trade. Before long, the area had become a central trading destination for Bostonians, Russians, and Canadians who were interested in acquiring otter pelts, and later animal tallow and hides. In 1834 the Secularization Act was passed in Mexico, which terminated the Franciscans’ control of the missions and their vast land holdings. With the goal of attracting more residents, the Mexican government began offering generous land grants to foreigners who agreed to become Mexican citizens. During that same year, Mission San Francisco de Asis was closed and made way for a more raucous crowd. For the next 25 years, it would be used as a tavern and dancehall. On multiple occasions, its grounds even staged harrowing bull versus bear contests.
The first permanent housing built by a non-colonial European was erected in 1835 by William A. Richardson, a British sailor who had decided to lay his roots in San Francisco several years earlier after spending the night partying with locals while his ship was anchored for the night. Richardson’s structure (located just east of present-day Montgomery Street) was initially quite rudimentary, consisting only of a ship’s sail stretched over several posts and a nearby wooden shack, though the following year he would replace it with a solid adobe home. After taking Mexican citizenship, Richardson was one of the first to receive a land grant and soon became one of the most powerful ranchers in the area. As more settlers arrived, the area became known as Yerba Buena (“good herb”), after a local mint-flavored plant that was commonly used by the Spanish and Native Americans in teas. In 1839 the Calle de la Fundacion was established as the city’s first official street, roughly where Grant Avenue is located today.
It wouldn’t be until the Mexican-American War ended that the California territory came under control of the United States. Though Yerba Buena was interchangeable with San Francisco because of its close proximity to the Bahia de San Francisco (“San Francisco Bay”), the city was not officially named San Francisco until 1847. With trade booming, Americans thought it necessary to make the city’s name synonymous with the Bay, so as to prevent confusion. Less than a year after this declaration, gold would be discovered at Sutter’s Mill and the city would suddenly become one of the busiest and most fabled ports in the world. San Francisco would never be the same.