12 Historical Events That Shaped San Francisco

Looking toward the fire on Sacramento Street @ Public Domain/Arnold Genthe
Looking toward the fire on Sacramento Street @ Public Domain/Arnold Genthe
Photo of Ned Cogswell
20 October 2016

San Francisco’s long and complicated history is as distinct and colorful as its citizens are. From tremendous earthquakes to devastating world wars, San Francisco has long remained one of the most important cities along the Pacific coast. In this short list you will travel through time and look at the twelve most important events that helped make San Francisco the city it is today.

Ohlone dancers at Mission San José @ Public Domain/Mission San Juan Capistrano: A Pocket History and Tour Guide

Original Settlers

Although there isn’t an exact date to cite, it would be almost criminal to start this list without a mention of the Yelamu tribe of the larger Ohlone people, the original founders of the San Francisco bay. From archeological evidence you can see that the first settlers came to San Francisco around 3000-8000 B.C. and that the area was used as a major place of hunting and settlement. It is hard to give exact facts about these people because very little records have been preserved, but we do know these people were the rightful owners of the greater San Francisco area.

Fun Fact: The five Yelamu tribes recorded by the Spanish were Amuctac (near present day Visitacion Valley), Chutchui (near the site of the present day Mission Dolores in San Francisco), Petlenuc (near the Presidio of San Francisco), Sitlintac (in the valley of Mission Creek in San Francisco, and Tubsinta (near present day Visitacion Valley).

Founding of the Presidio and Mission San Francisco De Asis

The first verified Europeans to have visited the San Francisco Bay were the Spanish explorers Don Gaspar de Portolà (Portola neighborhood namesake) and Franciscan missionary Juan Crespi. These two men helped create the military stronghold Presidio and the Mission San Francisco de Asís. This settlement was one of the first major settlements by Europeans on the western coast and signaled the demise of native rule in California. Although the Missions they founded were often centers of knowledge and education, they were sadly built upon the backs of the native California peoples.

Fun Fact: Don Gaspar de Portolà became the founder and first governor of Alta California, a Spanish state incorporating large sections of the western Americas.

View of Presidio of San Francisco circa 1817 @ Public Domain/Louis Choris

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 marked the end of the Mexican American War and gave America ownership of large swathes of land that would eventually become California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. This was a huge blow to the Mexican nation and signified the start of American rule in the West. This was also seen as a direct continuation of Manifest Destiny or the American belief that it was their natural right to expand across the continent. And in 1848 San Francisco officially became an American city (although it was still a relatively small settlement at the time).

Fun Fact: The full title of the treaty is: Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Exchange Copy cover @ Public Domain/National Archives and Records Administration

1848 Gold Rush

The Gold Rush of 1848 is often credited as the single largest event that brought millions of citizens to the western stretches of America. Before this, much of the west coast was still seen as barbaric lands unfit for civilized eastern citizens. But with the opportunity of so called “free wealth”, millions flocked from all over the world to get a piece of their own American dream. San Francisco was heavily affected by this mining craze and in 1849 its population boomed from 1,000 to 25,000. Also, as a result of this boom, there was an increased presence of Chinese workers who were often the ire of many ‘true’ Anglo Saxon Americans.

Fun Fact: Levi Strauss & Co. clothing, Ghirardelli chocolate, and Wells Fargo bank were all founded in the wake of the gold rush.

Chinese Gold Miners @ Public Domain/Roy Daniel

Chinese Exclusion Act

One of the lowest points in American history was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all immigration (excluding children of Chinese Americans) from China. This act is often seen as a direct consequence of mislead anger from working class Americans who feared the Chinese were going to take over the western coast while the Irish would take over the eastern seaboard. This horrendous act essentially froze all communication between Chinese Americans and their families in China. And even worse, this act wasn’t repealed until 1943.

Fun Fact: Because the San Francisco City Hall and Hall of Records was destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake, many Chinese immigrants (known as “paper sons“) who claimed that they had familial ties to resident Chinese-American citizens were denied entry to America. This forced many Chinese Americans to obtain illegal documents so they could immigrate.

A political cartoon from 1882, showing a Chinese man being barred entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty". The caption reads, "We must draw the line somewhere, you know." @ Public Domain/Frank Leslie Illustrated Newspaper

Building of the Golden Gate Park

From the 1860s until the 1890s, San Francisco was transformed into the so-called “Paris of the West.” The government of the city was dead set on changing the image of San Francisco into a respectable avant grade city like New York or Philadelphia. And one of the major events that marked this transformation was the building of the Golden Gate Park in 1887. Designed primarily by William Hammond Hall, the three mile long park attempted to beatify the city and be a western rival to Central Park.

Fun Fact: Golden Gate’s own Conservatory of Flowers was founded in 1879 and is the oldest building in the entire park. It houses 1,700 species of tropical, rare and aquatic plants and was inspired by the Kew Gardens in London.

The ‘living’ roof of the California Academy of Sciences @ Public Domain/Leonard G.

The Graft Trials

The infamous Graft Trials were a series of attempts from 1905 to 1908 to prosecute and convict members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for bribery. The so-called ‘big four’ prosecutors of the cases were Frances J. Heney, William J. Burns, Fremont Older and Rudolph Spreckels. These four men attempted to clean up the open corruption that plagued San Francisco government at time but of the two major targets, San Francisco Mayor Eugene Schmitz and attorney Abe Ruef, only Ruef served four years in jail.

Fun Fact: A rejected juror shot Heney in the face (although he survived) and was found dead in his jail cell the next morning. Many commonly believe that Ruef had the juror killed after pushing him to shoot Heney.

The ‘Big Four’ graft prosecutors (left to right) Frances J. Heney, William J. Burns, Fremont Older and Rudolph Spreckels @ Public Domain/Unknown

1906 Earthquake and Fire

The event that had the most drastic effect on San Francisco’s physical landscape was the 1906 Earthquake and resulting fire, which killed over 3,000 people and destroyed nearly 80% of the city. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake stuck early in the morning at 5:12 AM before most people were out of bed. As powerful as the earthquake was, it was believed that the ensuing blaze destroyed far more than the earthquake. This single event completely changed San Francisco’s history and drastically altered the appearance of the city.

Fun Fact: The death toll from the two combined events is still the greatest loss of life from natural events in California’s history.

Looking toward the fire on Sacramento Street @ Public Domain/Arnold Genthe

Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066

Pearl Harbor changed everything. The first major attack on American soil since the Mexican-American war, Pearl Harbor was a dark day for most Americans as their national security was now threatened on both seaboards. This event forced San Francisco into overdrive and made it into one of the largest ports used by the American military service. As well as bringing in new workers (mostly black Americans from the South), it also heralded the rise of xenophobic sentiment. And on February 19th, 1942, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Order 9066 which detained people of Japanese descent, regardless if they were naturalized citizens or born in America.

Fun Fact: At Hunters Point in 1945, major parts of the first atomic bomb were transported onto the USS Indianapolis for shipment to Tinian.

A Japanese American unfurled this banner the day after the Pearl Harbor attack @ Public Domain/Dorothea Lange

Summer of Love

After one of the largest conflicts in recorded history, war seemed like the last thing on most American minds. But with the escalation of the Vietnam War, a large group of American society rejected that decision and came together in the storied 1967 ‘Summer of Love’. Over 100,000 people were reported to have traveled to San Francisco’s own Haight-Ashbury district to celebrate free love and peace in the world. This artistic, musical, and cultural movement spurred sister movements across the globe and spawned an era of political resistance that dared to defy jingoistic American politics and ideas.

Fun Fact: Ken Kesey, author of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and major figurehead of the hippie movement, was partially inspired to write his book while working in a mental hospital and participating in the illegal CIA-funded LSD/Mind control experiment called Program MKUltra.

Mounted policemen watch a protest march in San Francisco on April 15, 1967, the San Francisco City Hall is in the background @ George Louis

Election of Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk shocked the world when he was elected to public office as the first openly gay man in 1978. Although he is oftentimes remembered for his violent death, Milk strived to break grounds for LGBT people and helped to destigmatize LGBT citizens to the average American. His life was tragically cut short but he heralded in a new area of queer positive associations with San Francisco. And to this day, the Castro district can still see the positive influences that Milk brought.

Fun Fact: Milk served in the United States Navy during the Korean War on the USS Kittiwake (ASR-13).

Personal Belongings of Harvey Milk @ Gerard Koskovich

Election of Edwin Lee

Like Harvey Milk, Edwin Lee is often seen as a symbolic figure that shows how drastically a city can change. Elected as the first Asian-American mayor in a city where Asian Americans have constantly fought persecution and racism, Edwin Lee is a shining example of progress and forward thinking. Although there is much to do in San Francisco, Lee’s appointment showcases how things slowly are progressing in the right direction. Whether or not you agree with Lee’s politics, his tenure of office has showed the world the kind of city that San Francisco so desperately wants to be.

Fun Fact: Edwin Lee is the 43rd mayor of San Francisco.

Mayor Edwin Lee @ TechCrunch

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