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8. History

San Francisco’s History

- 22 Oct 2009

Until the 18th century, California was mostly inhabited by Native American tribes. They lived off hunting, fishing and gathering acorns, nuts, and berries. The first documented visit by a European to northern California was by the Portuguese explorer João Cabrilho, in 1542. He was followed more than 40 later by the English explorer Sir Francis Drake, who landed on the northern California coast in 1579, stopping for a while to repair his ship and claim the territory for Queen Elizabeth I of England.

For more than 2 centuries, the San Francisco bay has remained completely unnoticed by European explorers. Being almost permanently enshrouded in fog, the bay was almost impossible to spot from the open ocean. In 1769, a Spanish expedition led by Gaspar de Portolà accidentally stumbled upon the bay. Colonisation soon followed: the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1776 and built a church that became the first of five missions later developed around the edges of the San Francisco bay. Their headquarter was an adobe fortress, the presidio, built on the site of the park of the same name. The settler’s church, officially known as Nuestra Señora de Dolores, was dedicated to St. Francis de Assisi and nicknamed San Francisco by the Franciscan priests. Later, the nickname was applied to the entire bay.


In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain and California came under Mexican rule. In 1835, an English sailor, William Richardson, settled in what is now Downtown San Francisco and established a colony, named Yerba Buena, that would soon become a thriving trading post. Six years later, in 1841, he established a ranch north of San Francisco and named it Sausalito.

Lured by rumors of unexploited lands available, American settlers flooded into California. They were tolerated by the Mexican government, but were not allowed to own properties. In May 1846, war was declared between Mexico and the United States: two months later, Mexico lost the battle of Monterey and California became an American State in 1850.

In 1848, an event radically changed the history of San Francisco: small particles of gold were discovered at a sawmill owned by John Sutter, and although Sutter tried to keep the discovery quiet, word of the discovery leaked and reached the ears of a Mormon preacher, Sam Brannan. He set up a shop of shovels, pickaxes, and canned food, and ran through the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Gold! Gold in the American River!”

In a blink of an eye, San Francisco became a ghost town, shop owners hung “Gone to the Diggings” in their window, and sailors abandoned their ship to join the flow of gold diggers. The gold rush was on. Soon, the news spread and flotillas of ships set sail from China, Europe, Australia, and South America, and in one year, the population of San Francisco jumped from less than 1000 inhabitants to more than 25 000.

The period following the gold discovery was chaotic: San Francisco was little more than a slum where lawlessness reigned, and although some miners did find gold, only the merchants were actually able to build a fortune. Demand for goods and services skyrocketed, prices soared, and miners were barely able to make a profit after expenses. Most prospectors never found anything at all; many died of hardship or committed suicide. Despite all the vice and tragedies associated with the gold rush, San Francisco was transformed in mere months from a quiet Spanish settlement into a roaring boomtown.

Meanwhile, investments began to flood into the city, most notably in the Financial District where investors sponsored the gold mining. When gold began to dry up in the 1860s, the construction of railroads took over, building colossal fortunes and developing the city even further.

In 1869, the transcontinental railway linking the east coast to the west coast was completed. Low-paid Chinese workers, who arrived at San Francisco ports in overcrowded ships, did most of the labor. They were very cheap and very effective, ensuring the success of the project. The economic growth that followed the completion of the transcontinental railway led to the rise of a new class of wealthy citizens, who built mansions on Nob Hill and Russian Hill, moving away from ordinary folks on the plains.

In the 1870s, a combination of falling profits from Comstock Lode in western Nevada, repeated droughts and competition from East Coast and Midwest factories led to social unrest and racial tensions. Discontented workers often blamed Chinese workers for their woes, and this led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which virtually stopped immigration from China and limited the rights of Chinese people living in the United States until it was repealed in 1943.

At the turn of the century, San Francisco was at the height of its glory, but nature decided otherwise: in April 18th 1906, around 5 a.m., an earthquake hit the city at 8.1 on the Richter scale and caused gas pipes to rupture, starting a chain of fires that fused into a gigantic conflagration. For three days, the city burned. Fire Brigades were finally able to stop the flames by dynamiting entire blocks, but not before 28 000 buildings lay in ruins. “San Francisco is no more”, wrote Jack London.

Reconstruction quickly followed, and a bigger, healthier, and more beautiful city rose from the ashes. A few years later, San Francisco was restored to its full glory, and in 1915, the city hosted the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, a world’s fair that exposed hundreds of thousands of visitors to the town’s unique charm. It was, in other words, business as usual.

Meanwhile, agriculture developed in the region, and California became the first supplier of food and agriculture commodities in the United States. During the years the Great Depression, thousands of people fled misery in the East and the Midwest and headed to the fields of California. In 1933, when the Prohibition was repealed, California became the first wine producer in America.

When the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States mobilized a massive war machine, and many shipyards along the Pacific Coastline were used to build warships. Workers from the countryside came to San Francisco in massive numbers to work in the city’s shipyards, forcing an enormous housing boom. After the hostilities ended, San Francisco entered into an era of prosperity, enabling massive enlargements of the city, housing developments, a thriving financial district, and the birth of counterculture movements such as the beatniks, gays, and hippies.

In the 1950s, a group of young writers, philosophers, and poets challenged the materialism and conformity of American society by embracing anarchy and Eastern philosophy, expressing their notions in poetry. They called themselves beats, and hung out in North Beach where rents were low and cheap wine was plentiful. Later, a San Francisco Chronicle columnist dubbed them beatniks. Writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are emblematic figures of the Beat Generation. Howl, Ginsberg’s controversial book, was deemed obscene by American censors, but was published nonetheless in 1956. A trial against Ginsberg and the editor followed, but the charges were later dropped under popular pressure.

This major victory over American censors was a mini-revolution for the younger generation. Freedom of speech became their rally cry, and in the 1960s, a new movement emerged: the hippies. Based at Haight-Ashbury, the hippies challenged every aspect of American society, like materialism, power struggles, and the traditions of older generations. They replaced the beats’ anarchy and alcohol with love, sex, openness, drugs, rock music, and a back-to-nature philosophy. The movement reached its peak during the Summer of Love in 1967, when thousands of young people walked around the city looking for sex, LSD, and marijuana. Soon after, the hippie movement started to decline, leading even to a symbolic burial of the movement in October 1967 by the hippies themselves. Many young people died of overdose, among them Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, others settled down or left San Francisco altogether to pursue their dream.

The end of the hippies gave way to a new movement, the Gay Pride. The gay community of San Francisco developed at the end of the Second World War, when thousands of military personnel were discharged back to the United States, via San Francisco. A significant number of those men were homosexual and decided to stay on in San Francisco.

A gay community developed along Polk Street, and later, in the Castro. Tired of being humiliated by police raids in their neighborhood, a gay political protest movement developed around Harvey Milk in the 1970s. In 1977, Milk was elected Supervisor at the city hall, and became the first gay person to hold a major public office. But in November 1978, a former colleague, Dan White, murdered him and Mayor George Moscone. White was put on trial, but the verdict was considered too soft by the gay community. A riot followed, police cars were overturned and burned in a night of rage.

In the 1980s, a new, deadly disease shifted the emphasis in the gay community: AIDS. The disease struck the community hard and the Castro lost almost a third of its population. The gay community developed organisations to provide informations about the disease, the treatments available, and safe sex.

Today, the gay political movement continue to defend the rights of the community on issues such as gay marriage.

In the 1980, San Francisco became the center of a revolution, the computer technology revolution, which gave a huge boost to the region. A decade later, in the 1990s, a new sector emerged: the Internet industry. In a modern gold fever, engineers, entrepreneurs, and computer technology corporations rushed to the neighboring Silicon Valley to strike it rich: companies were created overnight, and young businessman became millionaires at 25 years old. The speculative machine was on. But in the early 2000s, the Internet bubble burst, former millionaires lost everything and thousands of start-up companies went out of business. Today, activities in the region continue but at a far slower pace.

Meanwhile, Californians came to realize that their energy consumption was unsustainable, and environment became a major issue in California. In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenneger was elected Governor of California, and made curbing Greenhouse gases emissions one of his top priorities. In August 31st 2006, the Global Warming Solutions Acts was voted in the California State Legislature. The bill was aimed at bringing Greenhouse gases emissions at the level of 1990 by the year 2020. It was a major step in a country where the Federal government refused to ratify the Protocol of Kyoto.

For information about stays in SF, visit http://www.san-francisco-hotel-reservations.com.

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