San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

Exploration of the Bay of San Francisco, 1770-1775

Portolá established the presidio and mission of San Cárlos Borromeo de Monterey, June 3, 1770, and dispatched a messenger to the City of Mexico to the Marques de Croix, Viceroy of New Spain, announcing the addition of a new province to the realms of His Most Catholic Majesty, Don Cárlos III. For more than two hundred years Spain had claimed the Pacific coast of North America up to forty-two degrees but had done nothing to maintain her right by settlement. Now, in the foundation of Monterey, Alta California was brought under the flag of Spain and all nations were notified that she would protect her land from invasion and insult. The news of Portolá's success was received with joy and steps were at once taken to found on the shores of the great bay so recently discovered an establishment which, it was thought, would develop into a great commercial city. Portolá had been ordered to establish three missions: one at San Diego, one at Monterey, and one at some intermediate point, to be named for the good doctor serafico, San Buenaventura. [Note 4] It was now resolved to found five more missions in the new province and the guardian of the college of San Fernando was asked to furnish ten additional missionaries. The five missions proposed were San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Santa Clara.

On November 12, 1770, the viceroy instructed Don Pedro Fages, comandante of California, to explore the port of San Francisco for the purpose of establishing a presidio and mission there, since a place so important ought not to remain exposed to foreign occupation. This order was received by Fages some six months later. Fages had but nineteen men at Monterey, while at San Diego, Rivera had twenty-two. This was the entire military force in California. Two missions: San Diego and Monterey, had been founded, but the establishment of San Buenaventura had been delayed by lack of troops. Rivera was ordered to send a portion of his force to Fages in order that the latter might make the reconnaissance of San Francisco, but the Indians at San Diego were manifesting a hostile disposition and Rivera would not divide his force. So it was not until March 1772 that Fages found himself able to obey the order to explore the port of San Francisco.[1] On the 22d of March 1772, Fages left the presidio of Monterey with a guard of twelve soldiers, Father Juan Crespi, two servants, and a pack train, and taking a northeasterly course camped the first night on the bank of the Salinas river. The next morning they crossed the plains of Santa Delfina (Salinas valley), passed over the Gavilan mountains by the cañon of Gavilan creek, and descended into the San Benito valley, camping on the bank of the Arroyo de San Benito on the 21st, the day of St. Benedict, giving the stream the name it now bears. The beautiful valley they called San Pascual Baílon. The next day they crossed the Pájaro river and entered the San Bernardino valley, naming it for Saint Bernardine of Siena, and camped for the night on an arroyo which they called Las Llagas de Nuestro Padre San Francisco—The Wounds of Our Father St. Francis. Ancient San Bernardino is now a part of the Santa Clara valley, but the Arroyo de Las Llagas still retains the name Fages gave it. The next day they passed into the upper Santa Clara valley, then called the Llano de Los Robles—the Plain of the Oaks—and keeping to the right of the great estero camped on an arroyo near the southeastern point of the bay. On Wednesday March 25th, they camped on San Leandro creek, called by them San Salvador de Horta. Thursday the 26th they were on the site of Alameda, then covered with a forest of oaks, and called the San Antonio creek, Arroyo del Bosque—Creek of the Grove. Looking across to the Golden Gate they named it La Bocana de la Ensenada de los Farallones—The Entrance to the Gulf of the Farallones. On Friday they looked from the Berkeley hills through the Golden Gate to the broad Pacific. The next two days they followed the shore of San Pablo bay, hoping to get to the high sierra they saw to the north of La Bocana and reach Point Reyes near which, they believed, was the real port they were seeking. This they could not do because of an estero, quarter of a league wide, deep, and impassable without boats. To the mountain of the north (Tamalpais) they gave the name La Sierra de Nuestro Padre San Francisco, as it seemed to be the guardian of his port. On the opposite bank of that estero we call Carquines strait, they saw many rancherias whose Indians called to them, and seeing that the strangers were passing on, crossed the strait on their tule rafts and presented the travelers with their wild eatables.

Following up the estero, they camped March 30th on an arroyo near the present Martinez and the next day passed on to the site of Antioch. They tasted the waters of Carquines strait and Suisun bay and found them fresh, then climbing the hills they looked upon the great valley with its rivers dividing themselves into many branches, all of which united to form one great river before entering La Bahia Redonda. To this mighty river “the largest that has been discovered in New Spain" Fages gave the name of San Francisco. Satisfied that it was impossible to reach Point Reyes by this route with his present equipment, Fages returned to Monterey and made his report to the viceroy.[Note 5]

On August 17, 1773, Bucaréli ordered Rivera, who had succeeded Fages, to make a further exploration of the port of San Francisco and of the great river that emptied into it, and on the 23d of November 1774, Rivera with Father Palou and an escort of sixteen soldiers with forty days' provision, left Monterey and took his way to the famous port. Keeping to the west of the bay they found themselves at 11.30 a. m. of November 28th on a deep arroyo through which ran about two bueyes [2] of water, its banks well covered with poplars, willows, laurels, and other trees, while some hundred paces below the ford stood a great redwood (madera colorada), seen for more than a league before reaching the arroyo, and which from a distance looked like a tower. They camped on the north bank of the stream and believing it to be a good place for a mission erected a cross near the ford. Palou writes "In this same place the first expedition (Portolá) arrived, and was the limit it reached, and where it stopped the 7, 8, 9, and 10th days of December, '69, while the explorers were looking for the port of San Francisco." They were on the Arroyo de San Francisco, or as it is now called, the San Francisquito creek, and the great redwood described is the famous palo alto (high tree) of Stanford University.

On March 30th they passed through the Cañada de San Andrés and gave it that name, it being the day of St. Andrew, though it had been previously named by Portolá the Cañada de San Francisco. It now belongs to the Spring Valley Water Company and in it are the company's principal reservoirs. On December 4th, Rivera and Palou planted a cross on Point Lobos at a place "that had not, up to this time, been trodden by Spaniard or other Christian," and where it could be seen from the beach. The weather was bad and Rivera returned to Monterey without further exploration.

In March 1775 an expedition for exploring the northern coast sailed from San Blas under command of Don Bruno de Heceta, consisting of the frigate Santiago in charge of the commander-in-chief, the packet boat San Cárlos under Don Juan Manuel de Ayala, lieutenant of frigate, and the schooner Sonora under Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Cuadra, lieutenant of frigate. To Lieutenant Ayala was assigned the survey of the bay of San Francisco, while the Santiago and Sonora sailed for the north. Bodega discovered the bay that bears his name and Heceta discovered the Columbia river. Sailing with the squadron was a supply ship, the San Antonio, under Lieutenant Fernando Quiros, bound for San Diego.

For forty days Ayala faced contrary winds steadily driven southward to latitude 180? 40', and it was not until June 11th that he reached Cape San Lucas. From now on his progress was steady if slow, and on the 29th he cast anchor in Monterey bay, 101 days from San Blas. Here he unloaded the cargo of stores brought for the Monterey presidio, made some needed repairs, took on ballast and wood and water, and prepared for the expedition to San Francisco bay. He also constructed on the Rio Carmelo, a cayuco—a canoe or dugout—from the trunk of a redwood tree, to assist in the survey.

On July 27th the San Cárlos sailed for San Francisco bay, beginning the voyage with a novena to their seraphic father, Saint Francis. Owing to contrary winds progress was slow and it was not until August 5th that they approached the entrance to the port. At eight in the morning of that day the launch was lowered, and Don José Cañizares, sailing master, with a crew of ten men, was sent in to make a reconnaissance and select an anchorage for the ship. At nine the tide was running out so strongly that the ship was driven to sea, but at eleven o'clock the tide turned and it drew near the coast, the captain approaching the entrance with caution, taking frequent soundings. At sunset the launch was seen coming from the port but the flood tide was too strong and she was forced back. Night was now coming on; an anchorage must be found and the San Cárlos stood in through the unknown passage. Rock cliffs lined the narrow strait and the inrushing tide dashing against rock pinnacles bore the little ship onward. In mid-channel a sixty fathom line with a twenty pound lead failed to find bottom. Swiftly ran the tide and as day darkened into night the San Cárlos sailed through the uncharted narrows, passed its inner portal, and opened the Golden Gate to the commerce of the world. Skirting the northern shore, the first ship cast anchor in the waters of San Francisco bay at half past ten o'clock on the night of August 5, 1775, in twenty-two fathoms, off what is now Sausalito. [Note 6]

At six the next morning the launch came across from the opposite shore and the mate [3] explained his failure to come to the ship when he saw her approaching by saying that the tide was so strong that it drove him back in spite of all his efforts. Richardson's bay was then explored by the mate in the launch, but was not considered safe because of the character of its bottom and the fact that it was exposed to the southeast winds. Ayala named it Ensenada del Carmelita because of a rock in it that resembled a friar of that order. From a ranchería in Richardson's bay the Indians came, and with friendly gestures invited the boat's crew to visit them, but they, having no orders to do so, kept at a distance from the beach, and at nine o'clock returned to the ship. From Belvidere point the Indians cried out to the sailors on the ship who, having no interpreter, could not understand them. At three o'clock in the afternoon an attempt was made to move the vessel to a safer anchorage but the tide was running too swiftly and they anchored off Point Tiburon in fifteen fathoms, dropping two anchors which however did not prevent the ship from drifting.

Meanwhile the Indians on shore near the vessel were keeping up their solicitations and on the seventh the commander sent the chaplain, Fray Vicente Santa María, with the mate and a boat's crew of armed men, in the launch, to pay them a visit. He furnished them with beads and other trinkets for the Indians and charged them to take every precaution against treachery. They were hospitably received by the natives and entertained at their ranchería with pinole, [4] bread made from their corn or seeds, and tomales of the same. They were much pleased with their reception and found that the Indians could repeat the Spanish words with facility.

Explorations by use of the launch were continued and on the twelfth they made an examination of the large island near them which they named Isla de Los Angeles. Here they found good anchorage, and near at hand, wood and water. Another island near by they named Isla de Alcatraces because of the number of pelicans on it. [5]  This was steep and barren and without shelter, even for a launch.

On the thirteenth Ayala moved his ship to the anchorage of Isla de Los Angeles, or Angel island, as it is now called, which I presume was Hospital Cove where the United States Quarantine station now is. Here, protected from the wind and the strong currents, he made his ship secure with anchors fore and aft, lowered the yards and sent down the top masts. This done he sent the launch with Cañizares and an armed force of men and provisions for eight days, to continue the survey into San Pablo and Suisun bays. Cañizares returned on the twenty-first and the launch was sent with fresh men under the second mate, Juan Bautista Aguirre, to look for a party Rivera had promised to send by land from Monterey, and, if he failed to find them, to explore the southeastern portion of the bay. Aguirre did not find the Monterey expedition for the good reason that Rivera had sent none, and when sent again on the thirty-first, with the cayuco, he found neither the Monterey expedition nor that of Colonel Anza, for which Ayala was looking. [6] Meanwhile on the twenty-third fifteen Indians came off to the ship on two of their tule rafts or canoes and were taken on board, entertained and given food. On the twenty-eighth Cañizares resumed his exploration of San Pablo and Suisun bays and returned September 1st. The next few days he spent in surveying the southerly part of San Francisco bay and in making his report to the commander. His descriptions of the bay are excellent and the soundings shown on his map compare with those of the Coast Survey, allowing for the shallowing of the last sixty years. San Pablo bay he calls Bahia Redonda, though he says it is not round but in the shape of an isosceles triangle. This appears on his map as Bahia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. He visited an Indian rancheria at the entrance to Carquines strait and found the natives polite and modest, not disposed to beg although they accepted some presents of beads and old clothes, and responded by giving the Spaniards some excellent fish, pinole, and seeds. These Indians had rafts or canoes made of tule and so well constructed and woven that they won the admiration of the sailing-master. Four men in them with double bladed oars could make greater speed than the launch. Passing through Carquines strait, to which he gives no name, Cañizares describes Southampton bay which he calls Puerto de la Asumpta, having examined it August 15th, the festival day of the Assumption of the Virgin. Suisun bay is described as a large port into which some rivers come and take the saltiness from the water which there becomes sweet as in a lake. [7] One river coming from the east-northeast (east—the San Joaquin) is about two hundred and fifty varas wide; the other, which has many branches, comes from the northeast through tulares and swamps, in very low land, and there are but two fathoms of water in their channels and sand bars with but half a fathom at their mouths.

Cañizares also mentions another island, to which no name is given, about two leagues to the southeast of Angel island. This is Yerba Buena. The tide flats of the Alameda coast with poles driven into the mud for the fishing stations of the Indians; the Presidio anchorage, Yerba Buena cove, Mission bay and Islais creek are all described, as well as the hills and groves of oak and redwood. A ranchería on the Alameda shore, seemed to be a good place for a mission, though he only viewed the site from a distance.

To Point Lobos was given the name Punta del Angel de la Garda. Fort Point was called Punta de San José. Lime Point was Punta de San Cárlos, and Point Benito, Punta de Santiago. Point San Pedro was called Punta de Langosta (Locust Point), Point Richmond, Punta de San Antonio, and Point Avisadero, Punta de Concha. Mission bay was named Ensenada de los Llorones (The Weepers) because, it is said, the sailors saw some Indians weeping on the beach. Islais creek was called Estero Seco; the cove between Tiburon and Belvidere was Ensenada del Santo Evangelio; Mare island, Isla Plana, and Suisun bay Junta de los Quatro Evangelistas—The meeting of the four Evangelists. Of all the names given by Ayala there only remain to us Angel and Alcatraz islands. Point San José transferred its name to the next point east, while the point to which it was originally given became known as the Punta del Cantil Blanco, the name given it by Anza, and is now called Fort Point.

On the 7th of September Ayala had completed his survey and at eight in the morning he weighed anchor and leaving the shelter of Hospital Cove sailed for Monterey, but the wind failing, the current swept him on to a rock near Point Cavallo, injuring his rudder and compelling him to put into Horseshoe bay for repairs. While thus detained he employed the time in examining the entrance to the bay. He sailed on the eighteenth and arrived at Monterey the next day. He had spent forty-four days in the bay of San Francisco.

Meanwhile Don Bruno de Heceta had returned to Monterey from his northern trip August 29th and learning that the land expedition for San Francisco promised by Rivera had not been sent, organized a party to go to the assistance of Ayala and help in the survey of the port. On the 14th of September he set out, with a guard of nine soldiers and accompanied by Fathers Palou and Campa, three sailors, and a carpenter, and carrying on a mule, a small canoe. They followed the route taken by Rivera in 1774, and on the twenty-second arrived at the beach below the Cliff House rocks where they found the wreck of Ayala's cayuco cast ashore. At the foot of the cross erected on the hill at Point Lobos by Rivera in 1774, they found letters from Padre Santa María directing them to go a league inland and light a fire on the beach to attract the notice of the San Cárlos anchored at Angel Island. When this was done and there was no answer to the signal, Heceta retraced his steps as far as Lake Merced where he encamped September 24th, the day of Our Lady of Mercy, and gave to the lake the name it bears to-day: La Laguna de la Merced. Concluding that the San Cárlos had finished her survey, Heceta left for Monterey where he arrived October 1st.

1. Fages had made a brief trip to the bay of San Francisco in November, 1770, and explored the contra Costa to the Carquines straits. [back]
2. A Buey de Agua is the unit of the old Mexican system. It is the amount of water that will pass through an orifice one vara (2.75 ft.) square. I am supplied with this definition by Mr. Charles F. Lummis of Los Angeles. [back]
3. Piloto: sailing master, or mate. [back]
4. Pinole: a meal made from parched corn or acorns. [back]
5. Bancroft says (Hist. Cal. i, p. 702): "The name, 'Isla del Alcatraz' is used by Borica in 1797. I mention this fact because it has often been stated that the original and correct form was Alcatraces, in the plural." Comment is unnecessary. See Ayala's map. [back]
6. Anza did not start from Tubac until October 23d. [back]
7. Font's "Puerto Dulce." [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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