San Francisco History

San Francisco and Thereabout
 by Charles Keeler
The California Promotion Committee of San Francisco, Publisher, 1902


         In these days of steam and electriciy, when news is thrilling back and forth over the wire nerves of the land, and trains are coursing like arterial blood from shore to shore, it is hard to realize that in the memorable year of 1776, while our own ancestors were making the immortal declaration which gave birth to the American nation, the Spanish padres, knowing nothing of the momentous conflict across the land, fraught with such deep meaning both for America and Spain, were establishing the humble mission of San Francisco for the conversion of a few Indian souls.  To understand the motives which inspired the little bank of zealots in wandering thus to the outer rim of the western world, and to learn their means of establishing themselves there, a swift backward glance is necessary.

        During those far away times when Protestant Elizabeth jealously watched the doing of Catholic Philip, a lonely galleon sailed from the Philippine Islands to the Mexican port of Acapulco.  It was laden with spice and the treasure of the Orient destined for Seville.  English buccaneers lurked in the bays of the west coast of the Americas waiting to plunder the treasure ship, or, failing in capturing this prize, to loot the Spanish towns of Central snd South America.  Foremost of these daring pirates was Francis Drake, who followed up the coast of North America and passed San Francisco Harbor without discovering it.  It was in the year 1579 that he landed in the bay which today bears his name and took possession of the territory, calling it New Albion, and holding there, before a wondering band of Indians, the first Portestant service on the Pacific shore.  A stone cross has recently been erected in Golden Gate Park to commemorate this event.

         Even before this time, California had been named and its coast superficially inspected by the Spaniards.  Cortez and the explorers in his service had sailed about the end of Lower California, which they supposed to be an island.  They had read the popular romance, Sergas of Esplandian, wherein is described a fabulous race of Amazons, decked in armor and precious gems, who lived on an island to the right of the Indies, and half hoping no doubt to prove the fiction real, had called their discovery after the mythical land of the Amazons, California.*  Barren and unpromising the region proved to be.  Cabrillo in 1542 sailed along the coast and in 1603 Viscaino explored it, mapping the bays of San Diego and Montery, but adding little else of value to the knowledge of the region.  He noted, however, that as he proceeded northward, the country became greener and more inviting in appearance.

        Not until the year 1768 was there any serious thought of settling the region which today is known as California.  Baja or Lower California was occupied by Jesuits until the hostility of the government drove them from the land.  Their missions were taken by the Dominicans and the way was at last open for the Franciscans to undertake the settlement of the practically unknown wilderness of Alta or Upper California.  Junípero Serra, a fervid enthusiast, was chosen as leader of the movement, and he lost no time in setting out, with three little vessels and two land parties, for San Diego, where he proposed to locate the first of the new establishments.  According to the plan of the governor-general, Galvez, three missions were to be founded, at San Diego, Monterey and at a point midway between the two, to be called San Buenaventura.  When the devoted Junípero Serra heard of this, he asked if Saint Francis, the founder of their order, was to have no mission dedicated to him.  Galvez answered discreetly that if Saint Francis wished a mission he could show them the port where it was to be located.

        Shortly after reaching San Diego, despite the exhausted condition of many of the party, despite the numerous deaths from scurvey of those who had come by sea, and the loss of one ship with all on board, despite the hostility of the Indians and the uncertainty of the way, a detachment was sent forward to find the bay of Montery, known only from the rude chart of Viscaino, and to locate there the second mission.  It was this party that missed their objective point and discovered instead one of the world's most wonderful harbors, a hundred miles and more beyond.

        The party, commanded by Governor Portalá, included Captain Moncade, Lieutenant Fages, Engineer Costanso, Sergeant Ortega and two priests, Padre Crespi and Padre Gomez, together with thirty-five soldiers, a number of muleteers and some Mission Indians from Baja California.  Can we not conjure up a picture of them as they climbed the sage-brush mountains, forded the rivers and looked on the beauty of the live-oak glades, or penetrated the mysterious solitudes of the redwood forests?  There were the two friars in their coarse gray cowled robes, Governor Portalá and his officers in gay costumes, with short velvet jackets and wide slashed breeches trimmed with gold lace, bright sashes and plumed hats;  the soldiers with loose leather coats hanging to their knees, and leather breeches;  the muleteers in serapes and sombreros, and the scantily clad Indian followers.  Afflicted with scurvey, many of the party had to be carried on litters by their able-bodied fellows.  Still they pressed on, they knew not why nor whither.  On November first, discouraged and exhausted, they climbed the heights near the ocean and saw the wide coast bight formed by Point Reyes to the northward and sheltered by the Farrallones de los Freyres, a group of rocky islets off shore.  Most of the party were satisfied that they had overshot their mark, but as some uncertainty still existed, Sergeant Ortega was sent forward with a party to explore.  Some of the soldiers left behind in camp went hunting in the hills to the eastward, and on returning told their companions of a great arm of the ocean which they had seen to the north of them.  When the explorers came back they reported that Indians, met on the way, told them of a harbor two days' journey ahead, where a ship lay at anchor.  With renewed hopes of finding Monterey, Portalá pressed forward with his flagging band.  After traveling well to the north he climbed the hills in an easterly direction and from their crest looked down upon the splendid reaches of San Francisco Bay.  What thought he as he scanned that vision of land-locked tide--of misty miles of hill-encircled bay with silver bars of sunlight flung across the gray-blue expanse from the cloudy sky?  Not of marts and emporiums for the commerce of the world was his vision, but simply of a new site for a mission and a new center for spreading the gospel and maintaining the prestige of the King of Spain.

        He found that the report of a ship was false and that in truth he was looking upon a hitherto unknown country.  Accordingly, after a few days of further exploration along the hill crests in view of the splendid bay, he recalled the words of Galvez and was convinced that the explorers had been miraculously led by Saint Francis to the spot where he wished his mission to be established.  Some six years intervened before this could be accomplished although the devoted leader never lost sight of it as the objective point in his work.  Meanwhile Monterey was re-discovered and settled, and after it San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo and San Juan Capistrano.

        Three years after the first expedition in search of Monterey, Father Serra persuaded Lieutenant Fages to further explore the Bay of San Francisco with a view to locating a mission.  A third party continued this work in the fall of 1774, and at Point Lobos on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate and the Seal Rocks, set up a cross to commemorate their work.  The next year, when the San Carlos sailed into Monterey Bay with supplies for the mission, it brought the welcome news that orders had been given to send a party of settlers from Mexico to estabish [sic.] the new presidio of San Francisco.  Ayala, the commander of the little vessel, had also been instructed to make a survey of the harbor by boat, which he at once proceeded to undertake.  On the fifth day of August, 1775, he sailed through the strait and anchored in the bay of San Francisco, the first navigator to penetrate to its majestic waters.  He selected an island for his headquarters, naming it in the deliberate Spanish fashion, Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, the same that has since been curtailed and Anglicized into Angel Island.  From this rendezvous the bay was explored in small boats as far as the mouth of the Sacramento River.

        The first party of emigrants for San Francisco started at about this time from Sinaloa and Sonora in Mexico on the long and weary march over a region without roads.  Two hundred strong they set forth--soldiers and settlers with their wives and children, driving herds of cattle before them.  At San Gabriel and again at Monterey they had long, vexatious delays.  Finally a small advance guard pushed on to their destination and selected the spot now known as Fort Point for the presidio or fort.  For a mission they chose a more sheltered valley some two or three miles removed and midway betwixt ocean and bay.  Not until June, 1776, did the main party, much depleted in numbers, finally leave Monterey for San Francisco.  Two missionaries, Francisco Palou and Pedro Benito Cambon accompanied them.  Under the leadership of Jose Moraga they set forth--a sergeant, two corporals, sixteen soldiers, seven pobladores or settlers, muleteers, vaqueros, servants and Indians, together with their wives and children.  Many of them were mounted, while a pack train and a herd of about three hundred cattle were driven before them.  Shortly after their departure, the San Carlos sailed with a load of freight for the settlers.  Father Serra took leave of the emigrants and bade them God speed, loath to see them go without him.

        A ten days' march brought the party to the San Francisco peninsula, where, near the present site of Dolores Mission they set up their tents.  Their first task was to erect a rude hut to serve as chapel, where the mass could be celebrated.  They then made further inspection of the country, and ere long, leaving the missionaries with a few soldiers and the cattle, moved out upon the hills flanking the Golden Gate, where they set about building rude temporary dwellings and a chapel which they deemed of more immediate importance than a fort.

        When the San Carlos, after much delay by head winds, lagged into port, the presidio was more carefully planned in the usual Spanish style, with a plaza in the center.  The carpenters were assisted by the sailors, and ere long the combined force had contrived to build a cluster of low houses of poles coated with mud and roofed with tule thatch.  After lending a hand at this enterprise, the willing sailors gave their services to the friars at the mission station, and put up a small church and house adjoining it.  Thus was built the first settlement of San Francisco!

        On September the seventeenth of this same memorable year, 1776, the first celebration was held, the ceremony of taking formal possession of the presidio for King Charles III.  Imagine that picturesque gathering by the Golden Gate!  Comandante Moraga in all the splendor of a Spanish officer's costume;  Commander Quiros of the San Carlos, also gaily attired;  the tonsured Gray Friars;  the soldiers, sailors, settler and servants, all decked in festal garb!  The mission bells were rung;  the two clumsy cannon were fired;  there were volleys of musketry and singing of hymns.  The royal standard floated in the fresh breeze sweeping in from the sea.  A cross was reared and a high mass celebrated.  Following this came the barbecue with an abundance of joints of roasted steer, tortillas and frijoles seasoned with red peppers, and no doubt some good Spanish wine to wash them down.  San Francisco had been founded to extend the dominion of the king of Spain, and the spiritual influence of Saint Francis.

        Early in October followed a second celebration to mark the founding of the mission, San Francisco de Assisi.  Padre Palou officiated, while the same little band of officers, soldiers, and sailors took part in the solemnity.  Work was forthwith commenced on the church, but the task of making Indian converts was beset with unusual difficulties.  The Padres must have been reminded of the old receipt [sic.] for cooking a hare, which runs:  First catch your hare, etc.

        A fight between two tribes had left the country practically depopulated, the survivors having fled on rafts to the opposite shores of the bay.  Later on, when the panic subsided, they returned to harass the missionaries, and open hostilities were only averted by flogging and subsequently by shooting one or two of the recalcitrant natives.  In this discouraging fashion the work among the Indians commenced.  Nevertheless, one by one they were taken into the fold, until, when some five years later Padre Junípero Serra came up from Monterey, sixty-nine natives were laboring at the mission and ready for confirmation.

        The spiritual training of the Indians was a sort that taxed but little the intellectual powers of the unsophisticated people.  Certain rites and ceremonies they soon learned to imitate, coupled with the recitation of a few Spanish or Latin hymns and prayers.  The application of the lash served to increase the devotion of the inattentive and a strict discipline enforced by rigorous punishment made all the mission Indians regular church goers.  Food of the simplest character was served them, barley and maize with peas and beans constituting the staples.

        Some of the men toiled in the grain fileds and learned the simple art of letting the wind winnow their wheat;  others became expert vaqueros, riding after cattle, throwing the reata and rounding up the herd;  still others were trained as boatmen and handled big barges on the treacherous waters of the bay.  The women spun the wool which the men sheared, and wove blankets and fabrics.  They sewed garments and were busied in making drawn-work alter cloths and doing other handiwork.

        Thus all were kept employed from early mass to vespers.  With the help of the Indians, low mission building of adobe, covered over with plaster and roofed with tile, were constructed about the church to serve as workships and dwellings.  The simplest of clothes were provided for the people.  When a girl was considered of a marriageable age she was allowed to choose one of a number of the young men and they were straigtway mated.

        A flourishing trade in hides and tallow grew up between the padres and the Yankee skippers from around the Horn, and this, together with contributions from the Pious Fund made the mission prosper.  In 1825 the establishment was reputed to own seventy-nine thousand sheep, a thousand tame horses and twice as many breeding mares, as well as hogs, working oxen and a large store of wheat, merchandise, and some twenty-five thousand dollars in hard cash.  Such was the prosperity of the mission of San Francisco at the time when Mexico gained her independence from Spain, but all this temporal power of the Franciscans proved but a passing phase in the working  out of a greater destiny for the city by the Golden Gate.

*An attempt has been made to find the derivation of California in two Spanish words, caliente fornalla, a hot furnace, bur this origin is generally discredited.



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