San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

El Paraje de Yerba Buena, 1792-1839

Amidst the hills near the financial center of the present city of San Francisco, there was a little space free from brushwood, called El Paraje de Yerba Buena (the Place of Mint). It fronted on a little cove of about half a mile indentation with five-sixths of a mile space between the outer points. The only practical landing for small boats at low tide was at the northerly point where the shoulder of a high hill (Loma Alta) came down abruptly to the water. The cove was protected on the south by another range of hills from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet in height, running out into the bay and forming the southerly point of the cove at a height of thirty or forty feet. The inside of the cove was shallow and the ebb tide uncovered a quarter of a mile of mud flats. Beyond that the water deepened to five or six fathoms and continued from six to twenty-two fathoms to a little island fronting the cove about a mile distant, also called Yerba Buena. The northerly point was called Punta del Embarcadero, later known as Clark's Point, and the southerly, Punta del Rincon, and still called Rincon Point. The bottom was mud and sand and was excellent holding ground, and at high tide boats could land at the beach. Beginning at the water's edge about where Sacramento street reached the shore and running thence beyond Washington street on the north a steep bank rose from the beach to a height of ten feet at Clay street diminishing in both directions until it disappeared; the flat below was about one hundred feet wide at Clay street where the bank touched the line of Montgomery street. This cantil shows on Richardson's map.

On the night of November 14, 1792, Captain George Vancouver in command of H. B. M. sloop-of-war Discovery sailed into the port of San Francisco. As he passed the Punta del Cantil Blanco (Fort Point) he was saluted by two guns, to which he replied. As night closed in a fire was lighted on the beach before the presidio and other guns were fired; but as he did not understand their meaning he continued up the port under easy sail, taking soundings. He proceeded along the southern coast in constant expectation of seeing the lights of the town, off which he proposed to anchor. As these did not appear, he found himself at eight o'clock in a snug cove with six fathoms of water and a clear bottom, and he dropped his anchor to await the return of day. In the morning he discovered his anchorage to be in a most excellent small bay, three quarters of a mile from the nearest shore. The cattle and sheep grazing on the surrounding hills awakened in the sea-farers the most pleasing recollections, but they could perceive neither habitations nor inhabitants. Shortly after sunrise a party of horsemen were seen coming over the hills down to the beach and on sending a boat to the shore Vancouver was favored with the good company of a priest of the order of Franciscans and a sergeant in the Spanish army for breakfast. The priest expressed his pleasure at the arrival of the English captain and assured him he would confer special obligations upon them by commanding any refreshment or service he or his mission could bestow. The sergeant informed Vancouver that in the absence of the commandant, he was directed to render him every accommodation the settlement could afford. Attending his visitors ashore after breakfast Vancouver was presented with a fat ox, a sheep, and some vegetables. With permission of the sergeant Vancouver erected a tent for the accommodation of his men engaged in procuring wood and water; this being, I presume, the first structure of any kind erected on the site of modern San Francisco. The English officers amused themselves with shooting quail and in the afternoon the boat brought off Father Antonio Dantí, principal of the San Francisco mission, and Don Hermenegildo Sal, ensign in the Spanish army and comandante of the post. Sal suggested that Vancouver move his ship to the presidio anchorage as being more convenient and accessible. This was done on the following day and the Englishmen were entertained with the greatest courtesy and hospitality. Vancouver's descriptions of the country, the bay, the presidio, and the garrison are most interesting. His entertainment included a trip to Santa Clara on horseback and so pleased and appreciative was he at the courtesy shown him that although treated with such cold and distant formality on the occasion of his second visit in 1793 that he left California in disgust, he named the point below San Luis Obispo Point Sal in honor of his San Francisco host. [1]

In a letter to the governor advising him of the Englishman's visit, Sal says that Vancouver entered in the night and passed down the bay and anchored about a league below the presidio in a place they called Yerba Buena. [2] That is the first reference we have to the name of the little cove where forty-three years later Richardson's tent marked the beginning of the modern city. Vancouver's map, which is here reproduced, shows the anchorage in Yerba Buena cove, in other words, off the foot of Market street. In this cove of Yerba Buena the Predpriatie a Russian frigate, under command of Otto von Kotzebue, dropped her anchor October 8, 1824, "in the little bay surrounded by a romantic landscape where Vancouver formerly lay." In 1825 Captain Benjamin Morrell in the American schooner Tartar anchored in Yerba Buena cove, and November 6, 1826, Captain Frederick William Beechey, R. N., in H. M. S. Blossom entered the port and dropped his anchor "in the spot where Vancouver had moored his ship thirty-three years before." Auguste Duhaut-Cilly in the French ship Le Héros anchored here January 27, 1827. In fact so well was this anchorage becoming known that on November 14, 1827, Governor Echeandía gave orders for the erection of a guard house on the beach to be occupied by a corporal and three soldiers. If this was done, all trace of it had disappeared before December 4, 1835, when Richard Henry Dana in the ship Alert anchored in Yerba Buena cove. Around him was a solitude. The only other vessel in the cove was a Russian brig which had come down from Sitka to winter and take back a cargo of grain and tallow. On rising ground above the beach an enterprising Yankee, he says, years in advance of his time, had put up a shanty of rough boards where he carried on a very small retail trade between the hide ships and the Indians. This enterprising "Yankee" was William A. Richardson, an Englishman, and the structure was simply a canvas tent stretched on pine posts. This stood on what was later Dupont street, on the block bounded by Dupont, Stockton, Clay and Washington streets. On the site of this tent Richardson built in 1837 the adobe "Casa Grande" which up to 1848 was one of the largest and most pretentious buildings in town. This was the "Casa Fundadora" of the Limantour diseño. The house which escaped the fires that repeatedly destroyed San Francisco was taken down in 1852, and its site was afterward occupied by the Adelphi Theatre.

In February 1834 the comandante of San Francisco, Ensign M. G. Vallejo, wrote to Governor Figueroa complaining that the Villa de Branciforte which, until 1828, had reported the padrones (census lists) to the comandancia of San Francisco, now refused to do so and he asked to be informed what were the limits of his domain. After some correspondence the governor advised the comandante that his jurisdiction comprised all the territory north of the Las Pulgas rancho and of a line parallel with the boundaries of the ranchos of Castro and Peralta; that is, all the northern frontier and down to San Mateo on the peninsula and Alvarado and Niles on the contra costa. All the functions of local government—executive, judicial, and economical—were exercised by the comandante. On the 4th of November Governor Figueroa addressed a letter to Vallejo stating that the territorial diputacion had on the previous day ordered the formation of a civil government for the partido of San Francisco by the election of an ayuntamiento consisting of one alcalde, two regidores, and a sindico-produrador,  saying, "I also notify you that the ayuntamiento, when installed, will exercise the political functions with which you have been charged; and the alcalde, the judicial functions which the laws, for want of a juez de letrado confer on him; you remaining restricted to the military command alone; and receiving, in anticipation, the thanks due for the prudence and exactness with which you have carried on the political government of that demarcation." On the same day he addressed Vallejo another letter as follows:

"Political Government of Alta California.
General Comandancia of Alta California.

"This government, satisfied of the zeal and activity which characterize you, as well as the patriotism which animate you, sees in your note of the 24th of October ultimo, a new proof of your desire for progress, and of your untiring efforts for the enlightenment of your country and of your fellow citizens.

"In consideration of this, it takes pleasure in making known to you that, with the consent of the Most Excellent Territorial Diputacion, it has adopted entire the plan you have presented in your note referred to, with respect to the pueblo of San Francisco, declaring its boundary to be the same which you describe in said note; that is, commencing from the little cove (caleta) to the east of the fort, following the line drawn by you to the beach, leaving to the north the casamata and fortress; thence following the shore line of said beach to Point Lobos on its southern part; thence following a right line to the summit of El Divisadero, continuing said line towards the east to La Punta del Rincon including the Canutales and El Gentil; said line will terminate in the Bay of the Mission of Dolores.

"This government, as a proof of the confidence with which your services inspire it, has directed that you should have the honor of installing the first ayuntamiento in that pueblo of San Francisco, for which you have already done so much.

"In consequence, you will proceed in the time and manner prescribed by law, in the election of the municipal authorities, in order that they may be installed the first day of January of the coming year, 1835, designating for town houses the buildings which you deem most fit.

God and Liberty,
José Figueroa.

"Monterey, November 4, 1834.
Don Mariano G. Vallejo,
Comandante Militar of San Francisco.
A true copy

The above described line, commonly called the Vallejo line, was adopted by the United States board of land commissioners as the southern boundary of the pueblo of San Francisco, and may be indicated by a line drawn from Steamboat Point on the south side of Rincon Point (Fourth and Berry streets) to the Divisadero (Lone Mountain); thence to the south side of Point Lobos. The validity of this document was hotly contested by the attorneys for the United States in the Pueblo Lands case, but its authenticity was sworn to by Vallejo and accepted by the land commission.

The official returns show that an election was held at the presidio in the comandante's house on the 7th day of December 1834, at which eleven electors were chosen; and that these electors met on the following Sunday and chose the members of the ayuntamiento of the new pueblo who were to enter upon the duties of their respective offices on the first of January 1835. This was the first election in San Francisco, and the highest number of votes cast on December 7th was twenty-seven. Francisco de Haro was elected alcalde and Francisco Sanchez, secretary. Francisco de Haro had come in 1819 as sub-lieutenant of the San Blas infantry at the time of the Bouchard attack. He took part in various military expeditions and in 1822-3, was secretary of the newly created territorial diputacion. On May 12, 1837, he bought from José Antonio Galindo the Rancho Laguna de la Merced (San Francisco and San Mateo counties) for a consideration of one hundred cows and twenty-five dollars in goods. His wife was Josefa, daughter of José Sanchez, and his twin sons, Francisco and Ramon, were grantees in 184, of the Potrero de San Francisco, later known as the Potrero Nuevo. These two young men, with their uncle, José Reyes Berreyesa, were among the first victims in California of the American conquest, being slain by Frémont's men at San Rafael in June 1846. The death of his sons was a terrible blow to De Haro. He would brood over their murder for days at a time and he never recovered from it. He died November 28, 1849. Francisco Sanchez was a grandson of a soldier of Anza's company of founders and his father came with the expedition. He served in the presidial company and was appointed captain of the militia company organized in 1837 for the defense of San Francisco. He was captain of the port in 1845, and acting comandante of San Francisco at the time of its occupation by Montgomery.

The growing importance of San Francisco bay and the increasing number of ships coming for hides and tallow determined Governor Figueroa to establish in Yerba Buena cove a commercial town or trading post. The cove was two and a half miles from the presidio and about the same distance from the mission. It was small and well protected and had the best anchorage in the bay. Under the instructions and guidance of the priests and after plans drawn by them, the Indians at the missions around the bay built schooners or launches in which the missions sent down their produce to the vessels in Yerba Buena cove and brought back the goods received in exchange. Captain William A. Richardson, who may be considered the first inhabitant of Yerba Buena, obtained two schooners from the missions of Santa Clara and Dolores which he manned with Indian crews and employed in collecting and bringing to the ships produce from the missions and farms around the bay. He charged as freight twelve cents a hide and one dollar a bag for tallow. The tallow was melted and run into hide bags of five hundred pounds each. For grain the freight was twenty cents a fanega.

When Figueroa decided to establish a town in the Paraje de Yerba Buena he withdrew from settlement the land running two hundred varas back from the water front. He also instructed Richardson to draw a plan for the town; this was done and the plan accepted. I reproduce the draft. He made but one street, the "Calle de la Fundacion," upon which he projected the "Solar de Dn. Guillo. Richardson." On September 29, 1835, Figueroa died, leaving a reputation for honesty and ability in the discharge of his duties.

About the middle of 1835 José Joaquin Estudillo applied to the governor for a grant of two hundred varas of land in the place called Yerba Buena. As the application was for a larger amount than that designated for house lots (solares) the matter was referred to the territorial diputacion which decided that the ayuntamiento of San Francisco had power to grant lots of one hundred varas in the place called Yerba Buena, at a distance of two hundred varas from the beach. I find no record of Estudillo's receiving this lot. The first grant on record is that to William A. Richardson, June 2, 1836, and is signed by Estudillo, he having been elected alcalde January 1st. Richardson claimed that he had been granted the lot in 1835. He had probably been permitted to occupy it provisionally in that year, as it was in 1835 that he had put up the structure described by Dana. In 1837 he built the "Casa Grande" on the site of the tent.

In the winter of 1835-6 Jacob Primer Leese, a native of Ohio, then residing in Los Angeles, was advised by some shipowners, trading on the coast to establish a store and commission house in San Francisco. He consulted his friends Nathan Spear and William S. Hinckley of Monterey, and induced them to join in a partnership for establishing a business in that place. Through the favor of Governor Chico he obtained the grant of a one hundred vara lot on what was later the block bounded by Dupont, Stockton, Sacramento, and Clay streets and there built the first house in Yerba Buena. It was completed in time for a celebration of the fourth of July 1836, and the American flag was on that day hoisted for the first time in San Francisco. The celebration was a great event. Leese invited the officers of the frontier garrison, the people of the mission, the officers of the ships in the harbor, and the rancheros of the whole country side. They came from Sausalito, from Cañada del Hambre, from San Antonio, from San Pedro, Las Pulgas, and from far and near. Lieutenant Martinez and his handsome daughters, Susana, Francisca, Rafaela, and Dolores were there; Richardson and his wife—another daughter of Martinez—with their daughter, Mariana; Victor Castro and wife—another daughter of Martinez; José Joaquin Estudillo and wife and daughter Concepcion; Francisco Guerrero and his beautiful wife, Josefa, a daughter of Francisco de Haro; De Haro and his daughters Rosalia and Natividad—all the beauty, wealth, and fashion of northern California graced the festivities, and the feasting, dancing, and other forms of entertainment including a picnic at Rincon Point, were kept up for three days.

Leese's house was used for a store and dwelling, but he found it inconvenient to do business so far from the water. Both Richardson's and Leese's lots, which were adjoining, fronted on Richardson's "Calle de la Fundacion," a road running from northeast to southwest and leading from Yerba Buena to the presidio. Later this portion of the road was swung into its present position as Dupont street, by Jasper O'Farrell. In 1837, or 1838, Leese obtained permission to erect a building on a hundred vara lot near the beach. Here he built a large wooden store and dwelling on what became the westerly line of Montgomery street, between Sacramento and Clay, where he lived and conducted his business until 1841, when he sold the building and the four lots [3] to the Hudson's Bay. [Note 36]

Near the beginning of 1838 Nathan Spear, a native of Boston who came in 1823 via Honolulu, bought of Captain Steele, master of the American bark Kent, a ship's house twelve by eighteen feet, and placed it near the beach on what is now the northwest corner of Clay and Montgomery streets. Spear was permitted to occupy this lot by Governor Alvarado, who was a personal friend. He would not be naturalized and could not, therefore, be granted land. A little later Spear built a wooden store building just north of "Kent Hall," as the ship's house was called, and here he lived and conducted his business until 1846, when he sold out his business and his half of the lot to William H. Davis. In 1838 John Perry, an American merchant, came from Realejo, Nicaragua, and associated himself with Spear in business; Perry became naturalized and Alvarado granted to him the fifty vara lot which Spear occupied and he deeded it to Spear. William S. Hinckley, Spear's partner, owned the north half of the lot.

On the 18th of January 1839 Governor Alvarado addressed an official communication to the alcalde of San Francisco, in which he stated that inasmuch as many individuals had asked for solares for building houses in the lands of Yerba Buena which had previously been withdrawn from settlement, and as he was desirous of advancing the commerce in that recent congregation of settlers, he therefore had decreed that grants for house lots could be made of any part of said prohibited lands.

1. Sal was sharply reprimanded by the governor (Arrillaga) for permitting Vancouver to see the poverty and defenceless state of the California establishments, and particularly for allowing him to visit the Santa Clara mission. [back]
2. Bancroft says, (Hist. Cal. i, 702): "It (the battery on Point San José) was known as the Battery at Yerba Buena designed to command the shore stretching westward to Fort Point and that stretching eastward to what was called later North Point, together with that body of water between that shore and Alcatraz island, already so called, known as the anchorage of Yerba Buena, though it does not appear that any other vessel except that of Vancouver ever anchored there. Thus it will be seen that the name Yerba Buena, while it may have been given in a general way to the whole eastern part of the peninsula from Black Point to Rincon Point, was applied in these early times to the North Beach region and not, as is commonly supposed and as was the case after 1830, to the cove south of Telegraph hill." "Vancouver's anchorage was about midway between Black Point and North Point. Vancouver's Voyage Atlas." Compare Vancouver's map with that of Lieutenant Warner. [back]
3. A one hundred vara lot makes four fifty vara lots. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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