Historical Essay

by K. Maldetto



Image: Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA

Colonization* of the Bay was assigned to Juan Batista de Anza, a third-generation frontier soldier, who, in late 1775, led a land party of 240 men, women and children, from Tubac (near present-day Tucson, Arizona) to Mission San Gabriel. Anza arrived at Mission San Gabriel (present-day Los Angeles) on January 4, 1776. After helping Rivera y Moncada, Governor of California, subdue an Indian revolt at San Diego, Anza left most of the party at Monterey and led an advance guard to San Francisco Bay. Apparently Rivera would not allow Anza to bring the settlers along because he did not want to weaken Monterey and because he believed that San Francisco was too foggy (!) to sustain a colony. The small party under Anza's leadership, which included his lieutenant, José Moraga, reached the tip of the San Francisco peninsula on March 28, 1776. At the site now occupied by Fort Point, Anza had a cross planted to mark the location of the future presidio. The site** was of course selected for its strategic position allowing surveillance of the entrance to the bay.

The next day, the party headed south in search of the future site of the mission. Three miles southeast they fell upon a sheltered valley bordered by stream and a lagoon. Here, the climate was much warmer, there was abundant fresh water and the land seemed fertile enough to support a mission. The party set camp here and named the site of the future mission Laguna de los Dolores because it was the Friday of Sorrows.

After having selected the sites for the presidio and mission, Anza then returned to Monterey where, again, he tried unsuccessfully to convince Rivera to settle San Francisco. At this point several soldiers, including Anza, were convinced that Rivera had lost his faculties. In the event that Rivera would go completely insane, Anza, who was returning to New Spain, had instructed lieutenant Moraga to settle San Francisco. In any case, soon thereafter Rivera received a missive from the Viceroy of New Spain to settle San Francisco.

Lieutenant Moraga and Father Palou led the colonists to the San Francisco peninsula in June of 1776. On June 29, 1776, the settlers celebrated a mass at la Laguna de los Dolores. This celebration, held just five days before the Declaration of Independence, is regarded as the official founding of San Francisco. Construction of both the presidio and mission began in July. On October 9, 1776, Father Serra, head of the California missions, officially dedicated Mission San Francisco de Assisi, more commonly known as Mission Dolores, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order. After the official ceremony, the settlers held a feast in celebration of the new mission. The other inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula, perhaps sensing the emergence of a radically different reality, seemed much less enthused about the ceremony as Father Palou noted in his diary: "The day was a joyful one for all. Only the savages did not enjoy themselves on this happy day."

After more than two centuries of exploration, the European settlement of the principal bay of California had finally begun. Looking north in the direction of the San Francisco peninsula, Father Serra remarked: "Thanks be to God that now our father St. Francis with the holy cross of the procession of the missions has reached the last limit of the California continent."

Actually, the founding of San Francisco marked the virtual end*** of the Spanish expansion in California. While today the Spanish influence on the San Francisco area is often perceived as negligible, in fact the founding of San Francisco marked the beginning of the most fundamental shift in the human history of the region. In the words of historian Charles Wollenberg:

"Spanish imperialism in the Bay Area meant the introduction of agriculture, livestock, the use of metals, woven cloth, sail power, and the wheel. It also brought European religion, language, philosophy and world view. Finally, it began the very rapid decline and extinction of thousands of years of Bay Area Indian life. While the Spanish fully intended to destroy Indian religion and culture, the missions and presidios also brought about an unintended, precipitous decline of the native population--in effect, the virtual destruction of the Indians themselves. Those tiny Spanish settlements caused the most drastic change in the human history of the Bay Area."

Further Reading:

Bancroft, Hubert Howe, History of California, Volume I, 1542-1800, Publisher Wallace Hebberd, 1963 (first published 1886).

Bean, Walton and Rawls, James, California: An Interpretive History, 5th ed., McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Chapman, Charles E., History of California: The Spanish Period, MacMillan, 1949 (first published 1921).

Costans, Miguel, The Discovery of San Francisco Bay, The Portol Expedition 1769-70 (Diary of Miguel Costans), Great West Books, 1992.

Lewis, Oscar, San Francisco, Mission to Metropolis, Howell-North Books, Berkeley, 1966.

Charles Wollenberg, Perspectives in Bay Area History, UC Berkeley Press, 1984.


  • The Spanish colonial model was based primarily on the establishment of missions and presidios. The mission was the basic colonial unit: it settled the lands, carried out the conversion of the natives and maintained law and order. The presidios, built only at strategic locations (there were three in California: at San Diego (1769), Monterey (1770) and San Francisco (1776)) were responsible for the military protection of the lands (chiefly the missions) and ensured the enforcement of laws and the punishment of recalcitrant Indians.
    • The site where the presidio was actually built was not the spot selected by Anza but a site a mile to the southeast which was sheltered from the wind and closer to fresh water. The presidio was a square fort built of oak and mud and measuring 250 by 250 yards. The presidio was dedicated on September 17, 1776. Two years later the fort was almost entirely destroyed by a violent rainstorm. A more permanent structure was then built which included a house for the commandante, barracks for the troops and a chapel. While the site offered better protection from the elements, it was of course less than ideal from a military standpoint since it did not allow surveillance of the entrance to the bay.
      • Within 7 years of the Spaniards' first overland expedition into California, settlements had been established throughout California up to the northern limit of San Francisco. Seven decades later, when the United States took control of California, Spanish/Mexican control only extended a few miles north of San Francisco at Sonoma.

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