Long before the first tourists crossed San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge, this part of the world was inhabited by Native Americans, known as Ohlone. Historians estimate that the first people to occupy what’s now the San Francisco Bay Area, on the west coast of the US state of California, arrived in around 3000 BC. They established small villages in the area, fished in the waters of San Francisco Bay, and traded with Native American tribes in other parts of California, and beyond.
Then, on 2 November, 1769, a group of Spanish explorers became the first known Europeans to arrive in San Francisco. Their arrival precipitated a series of major changes to the lives of the Ohlone people and to the area where they had lived for thousands of years. The group, led from Mexico by Spanish military officer Gaspar de Portolá and Spanish Franciscan missionary Juan Crespí, claimed the area for Spain.
Seven years later, other Spanish colonists arrived, and San Francisco was officially founded on 29 June, 1776, with the establishment that same year of a military fort, called the Presidio of San Francisco, and a Spanish mission, called Mission San Francisco de Asís; you can visit both of these sites today. Mission San Francisco de Asís was one of twenty-one Spanish missions in California whose role was to convert native inhabitants into devoted Christians and Spanish citizens, and it is credited with the conversion of thousands of the Ohlone people.
The role of the missions declined after 1821, when Mexico won its independence from Spain. San Francisco became part of Mexico, and then in 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it became part of the US. That same year, one of the area’s most significant historical events, the California Gold Rush, began in Northern California. People arrived from all over the world in the hope of finding gold, and they became known as “forty-niners”, after the year 1849.
Because of the gold rush, between January 1848 and 1849, the population of San Francisco increased from one thousand to 25,000, and it continued to increase from then on. Many of the people who arrived, first to mine for gold and later to work on the Central Pacific Railroad —which would complete the western part of North America’s first transcontinental railroad, which opened in 1869— were from China. This Chinese population went on to establish the first Chinatown in the US, in San Francisco. This is still one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia, and a major tourist attraction.
A devastating earthquake
As the city’s population continued to expand, so too did its geographical location. This was largely thanks to the introduction of a cable car system in the 1870s, which made its steephills more accessible. By the early 1900s, San Francisco was a major commercial, naval, and financial centre, and the most important city in the American West —and then disaster struck. At 5.12am on 18 April, 1906, a violent earthquake, later estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale, struck the coast of Northern California. It caused fires throughout San Francisco that raged for four days, killing about three thousand people and destroying over 80 per cent of the city. Today, this is considered one of the worst and deadliest earthquakes in US history.
Incredibly, the city was quickly rebuilt, and after World War Two, it became the centre of a counterculture movement, particularly the sexual revolution, the peace movement, and the gay rights movement. In the 1950s, City Lights Bookstore, which you can still visit today, became an important publisher of what’s known as Beat Generation literature, exploring and influencing American culture and politics in the post-war era. A decade later, the city’s Haight-Ashbury district became one of the centers of the hippie movement, particularly in 1967, aka the Summer of Love. And by then, the city’s Castro District has become known as a largely gay neighbourhood.
Present-day San Francisco retains a strong sense of its past, and continues to be considered not only a city of major importance, in part because of its proximity to Silicon Valley, but also a centre of liberal politics, alternative lifestyles, and global activism.
Mission San Francisco de Asís
Constructed between 1776 and 1791, the Mission San Francisco de Asís is the oldest surviving structure in the city of San Francisco. It was officially founded on October 9th 1776 and named after the founder of the Franciscan Order, St. Francis of Assisi. However, it also became known as Mission Dolores, because of its proximity to a creek called Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, meaning “Our Lady of Sorrows Creek.”
The founders of the mission were responsible for converting the indigenous Ohlone people to Christianity. By the early 1800s, the mission was home to more than a thousand Ohlone people, and thousands of Ohlone people are buried in its cemetery, along with many of the mission’s first founders and members. Today, you can visit the mission, as well as its cemetery and gardens, to learn about its historic, religious, and architectural significance.
The Golden Gate
Connecting San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean is the one-mile-wide strait Golden Gate. After European discovery, this ancient body of water was known as “Boca del Puerto de San Francisco,” meaning “Mouth of the Port of San Francisco.” However, in 1846, American explorer John C. Frémont renamed it “Golden Gate,” writing that it was “a golden gate to trade with the Orient.” Today, the Golden Gate is synonymous with the famous structure that spans it, the Golden Gate Bridge. Declared one of the Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, this suspension bridge was the world’s longest and tallest when it was completed in 1937, at 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) long and 746 feet (227 meters) high. It connects San Francisco to Marin County and is the city’s most iconic structure, attracting more than ten million visitors a year.