Learn about the History of San Francisco


When you think of the United States, you may conjure up images of either New York or San Francisco. Indeed, as one of the most popular destinations in the country especially for immigrants, the California city is rich in beautiful sights such as the Golden Gate Bridge, diversified cultures, and of course its history.

Early conquerors and settlers

About 8,000 years ago, the place that what is known today as San Francisco was inhabited by Ohlone Indians. In 1579, Sir Francis Drake sailed past to the San Francisco Bay but never thought of conquering the land. Instead, he named the area “Nova Albion” and sailed away.

In 1769, a Spaniard by the name of Don Gaspar de Portola and his expedition team came to the San Francisco Bay shores. The Spanish established a military base called the Presidio of San Francisco and started to build military and religious posts in the area, known as missions. The Ohlone Indians were captured and enslaved by the conquistadores.

When the area became independent from Spain in 1821, Mexico took what is now San Francisco, automatically bringing to an end of the Spanish mission system. With a new plan for future settlements, the area was named Yerba Buena. In 1846, the United States claimed California at the heat of the Mexican-American War, and the area was renamed San Francisco.

California Gold Rush and the silver rush

The California Gold Rush brought in a deluge of prospectors to the area all hoping to strike a golden fortune. This also led to an increase in San Francisco’s population. In less than a year, it had 50,000 people residing in it. San Francisco’s state, California, became a US state in 1850.

When the Gold Rush ended in 1855, San Francisco (as well as another state, Nevada), had struck another shining fortune: silver. In 1858, the silver ore was discovered at Comstock Lode, further fuelling a flood of fortune-seekers. San Francisco, with its population multiplied, was profiting greatly from the silver discovery. Suburbs began to sprawl, and cable cars were installed, and the beautiful Victorian-era houses began to dot the city. Businesses were booming and some of the world’s most well-known corporations and brands — such as Wells Fargo, Levi Strauss and Ghirardelli — began their own trade there.

Major earthquake in 1906 and eventual overhaul and infrastructure

San Francisco was hit by a major earthquake on April 18, 1906, which left the majority of the city in terrible ruins. A total of 498 people were claimed by the disaster, while hundreds of thousands were rendered homeless.

But the city recovered rapidly, leading to the establishment of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association in 1910. This association is devoted to the quality of housing in quake-prone areas. The city underwent a major overhaul and infrastructure, including the construction of the Stockton Street Tunnel, the San Francisco Municipal Railway and the Twin Peaks Reservoir.

The rise of San Francisco

In another effort to showcase California to the world after experiencing the 1906 great earthquake, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held. The world fair featured the best of architecture, locomotive engineering, construction, and many other technologies. There were temporary buildings like the majestic Tower of Jewels, which was demolished immediately after the exhibit. One of the best legacies still standing today is the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts, which is one of the only few remnants from the exposition.

Many other constructions followed that have become San Francisco’s landmarks such as the infamous Alcatraz prison in 1934 and the famous Golden Gate Bridge which was erected a year earlier.

After the Second World War ended, significant and widespread urban projects were underway, such as the construction of the new neighborhoods and new freeways. Containerization replaced the obsolete piers along the Pacific Coast, with the major cargo activity now moved to the Port of Oakland. An influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia led to the county’s rapid and diversified population.

San Francisco’s counterculture movement in the 1960s; the 1989 earthquake

Along with the new development also came the counterculture revolution in the 1960s led by the Beatniks — a wave of nonconventional thinkers, poets, and writers who were disillusioned by the American way of life and values. It evolved into the “hippie” movement that promoted the revolution of peace, love and psychedelia. The hippie generation flourished and thrived at the districts such as Haight-Ashbury and lingered at the Golden Gate Park.

Eighty-three years after the last major earthquake, another tremor devastated the city again. Caused by the shift from the San Andreas Fault, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake leveled many parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and destroyed many buildings and bridges. More than fifty people were killed and 3,757 people were injured. Despite the city’s almost-critical state, it quickly and miraculously rebounded.

A new phenomenon: the Cyberculture

Long gone are the days of the Gold Rush and the Counterculture era. The 1990s ushered in a different kind of phenomenon called the Cyber culture, where Beatniks and hippies were replaced by the entrepreneurs and computer geeks.

The onset of the dotcom boom was like the Gold Rush of the digital age, with modern-age prospectors hoping to strike a fortune. Along with the tech bubble there came the new demand for office space as well as residential buildings, and the population of San Francisco multiplied anew.

Unlike the gold and the silver rush, or the counterculture era, it looks like the cyber culture will remain for some time. Particularly with the advent of new technology and the benefits it offers to millions of San Francisco’s inhabitants, it seems that the cyber culture is here to stay.

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