San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


"Bells of the Past, whose long forgotten music
Still fills the wide expanse,
Tingeing the sober twilight of the Present
With the color of romance."

The years following the discovery of America witnessed scenes of marvellous adventure and the new continent became a region of wonder and mystery. No tale was too extravagant for belief and by every ship from the New World the store of marvels was increased. The lure of gold and the glories of conquest drew adventurers from all quarters of the kingdom of Spain. The needy gentleman relied on his sword to carve out for him a fortune, if not a principality, and his humble follower saw opportunity open before him and the possibility of his being made a gentleman. Ponce de Leon gave his life to the search for gold and for the fountain of youth. The exploits of Cortés filled Spain with amazement. Pánfilo de Narvaez perished miserably in an endeavor to conquer Florida, and the waters of the Mississippi closed over the ambitions and hopes of De Soto.

The bull of Pope Alexander VI. divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, giving to Spain all west of a line drawn, by agreement between the two powers, from north to south three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde islands—about longitude 43? 15' west from Greenwich. The English claimed the right to trade with all the Spanish possessions by virtue of a treaty of trade and amity made in the reign of Charles V., but Spain disputed this interpretation of the treaty and maintained that there was "no peace beyond the line"; i. e. the line of Pope Alexander, a maxim which the English freebooters turned against the Spaniards and preyed upon and plundered their ships and their possessions in the West Indies.

For more than two hundred years California remained unexplored. It did not hold out the promise of glory and riches such as fired the imagination of the adventurers of the sixteenth century and it was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century that the king of Spain, warned by the openly expressed hostility of the English cabinet towards the Bourbons as well as by the steady advance of the Russians on the Northwestern coast of America, realized that military necessity demanded the occupation of long neglected California and the establishment of an outpost to show to the world that Spain would protect her domain from invasion and insult. Though in her decadence Spain still commanded the services of warriors and statesmen.

This work is not a history of California, but in accounting for the existence of San Francisco it has been found necessary to give some brief statements concerning the settlement of the country, the character of its people, and the occurrences which preceded and led to the rise of the modern city. The romance with which California history abounds adds much to its attractiveness, but however pleasing tales of wonders and of marvelous adventure may be to those Californians whose state pride is gratified by having an interesting and romantic past added to the glories of climate, scenery, and other attractions, such tales should not be permitted to usurp the place or exclude matter of historical importance. The romance of California history has been somewhat overdone by writers who, in their pursuit of striking and romantic incident, have failed to understand and appreciate the true significance of events, and have, in consequence, spread before the people a vast amount of misinformation and have raised to the rank of heroes men of very ordinary attainments, or those whose service to the state was of doubtful honor, while overlooking men whose character and achievement entitle them to the highest place in the respect and esteem of the people. It will be my duty and pleasure to remedy this misconception of history so far as lies in my power. This work is the result of a study of original documents and the statements of contemporary writers and of actors in the events described; and it is none the less interesting because true.

The passing of the great Spanish families closes a period of California history. The Spanish era is a memory of the past. Travelers tell us of a people of Arcadian simplicity, of grace and dignity, who received the stranger with courtesy and entertained him with a hospitality that knew no bounds. Of these people, who came into an untamed country and conquered it for civilization, the California of to-day knows but little. Few are the citizens of San Francisco who have even heard the name of Juan Bautista de Anza, its founder. Yet he was a gallant soldier and he executed with courage, energy, and fidelity the difficult task entrusted to him by his king, of bringing across deserts and over high sierras the settlers for a city whose destiny neither king nor captain could imagine. In making my countrymen acquainted with this accomplished soldier and gentleman I feel that I am doing them a service.

After the American occupation San Francisco grew  rapidly, and with the immigration following the gold discovery it suddenly became a large city, with all a city's needs and perplexities. The thousands thus thrown together had no thought for charters or constitutions. They came only for gold, and then for a quick return home. The disorders to be looked for in such a community, formed of people gathered from all parts of the world, made necessary some form of organization for the protection of life and property. The Americans were largely in the majority and with their executive instinct for self-government, order was gradually evolved from chaos.

Had Anza been gifted with prophetic vision as he stood on the summit of the presidio hills, what a strange sight would meet his eyes! He would see spread before him, to the east and south, a great and beautiful city; under the shelter of the hills he would see a great military camp, and floating above it a strange flag,—the flag of a nation he knew not of: a nation which at the time of his journey was in the throes of parturition; beyond, he would see upon the waters of the bay the traffic of a great seaport, while upon the contra costa he would see other cities lining the shores for many miles. A mighty change has taken place since he looked upon the solitude of San Francisco bay. Plumed cavalier and barefooted friar are alike gone. The power of Spain has departed and the youngest of the great nations of the earth possesses the land.

San Francisco,
December 8, 1911.

Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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