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Historic Background

In 1579, before Jamestown, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or New Amsterdam were settled, Sir Francis Drake, British explorer, careened and repaired his ship, the Golden Hind, on the shore of what is now Drake's Bay, an indentation on the California coast just north of the Golden Gate. This was nearly two hundred years before Padre Junipero Serra led his band of zealots and soldiers up out of New Spain into Alta California.

At Drake's Bay the chaplain of the Golden Hind held the first religious service in the English language on the American continent - a service that is commemorated by a Celtic cross set up on a hill in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Though close by, Drake did not find the Bay and site of San Francisco.

It was not until October 31, 1769, that the peninsula and Bay of San Francisco were discovered by an expedition headed by Don Gaspar de Portola, Governor of Baja or Lower California. This expedition had set out overland from San Diego for the purpose of locating Monterey Bay, discovered in 1603 by Sebastian Vizcaino, Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain.

Six years after the Portola discovery, Don Juan Manuel Ayala sailed the first vessel, the San Carlos, through the Golden Gate. The following year the first permanent settlement by white men on the site of San Francisco was made when Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza established a military post at the Presidio beside the Golden Gate. In this same month, July, 1776, the Liberty Bell was ringing in Philadelphia. But there was no thought then that the embattled farmers of the Atlantic coast should inherit before many years this potential Spanish settlement on the Pacific.

In October, 1776, Padre Junipero Serra founded the Mission Dolores, the third of the chain of missions extending from San Diego. Subsequently a settlement was made at Yerba Buena Cove, and there was established the pueblo of Yerba Buena which has grown into the city of San Francisco.

Things moved slowly in those days - so slowly that in 1784 the pueblo had but fourteen houses and sixty inhabitants.

Let us turn back the hands of the clock to the time when the pueblo straggled over the sand hills which faced the water of the bay of Saint Francis, under the shadow of Loma Alta. What do we see? Where today the Merchants Exchange Building, central office of San Francisco's commercial life, heaves its bulk into the air was the cabin of Jacob Leese, trader. Houses were few and far between, and business was something to be done when there was nothing else to do.

From the Plaza, then but a block or so from the waterside, two main roads trailed off through the sand dunes. One went to the southwest, winding among the hills toward the Mission Dolores, and the other in a generally northwesterly direction out past the lagoon of the washerwomen to the Presidio of San Francisco, the seat of the military government. Sleepy, content to bask in the sunshine that flooded its sand hills and kept back the banks of fog that loomed above the higher eminence's separating the cove from the ocean, Yerba Buena dreamed, not of the future in store for it, but of the next fiesta, of the coming barbecue at Miguel Noe's rancho, or of the projected cock fight on Sunday at the Mission Dolores.

To this port came occasionally a Yankee whale ship for fresh water, or some enterprising trader with shawls and combs and trinkets for the women, to barter for hides and tallow with the dons from the south and the great interior ranchos.

Up the coast some Russians had established a settlement, much to the disquiet of the authorities, who looked upon this as an encroachment of barbarians menacing Spanish power. Rezanov, plenipotentiary of the Czar, was a man of charming personality, however, and was able to lull the suspicions of the indolent Spanish officials and lay his plans for a coup that never took place. From afar Britain looked with interest upon this strip of coast with its matchless harbor, and regretted that Drake had not discovered it when he wintered his ship close by in 1579. Thus Yerba Buena sprawled and dreamed in the sunshine, unmindful of the web of destiny being woven about it.

Followed then the war with Mexico and the occupation by the officers and men of the United States sloop-of-war Portsmouth under Commodore John Montgomery, who broke the American flag to the breeze in the Plaza.

In 1848 gold was discovered by James W. Marshall in the tail-race of General Sutter's mill, El Dorado county, and almost overnight San Francisco was transformed from a hamlet into a pulsing city, overcome with the rush of newcomers, the population in two years growing almost to twenty thousand.

California became a state in 1850 without ever having gone through a probationary period as a territory. In the late sixties the great Comstock Lode, in Nevada, poured a flood of wealth into San Francisco, and in 1869, one hundred years after the first white man looked upon San Francisco Bay, came the railroad, bringing an increasing influx of people from the East. The opening of the markets of China and Japan led to the establishment of a trade that has made San Francisco the focal port of the West.

These were the beginnings of San Francisco. Burned to the ground three times in the early years of its existence, the city displayed an invincible fortitude and each time capitalized disaster to build anew with larger faith in its destiny. When again, in 1906, earthquake and fire devastated the city its phoenix spirit came to life. The Argonauts lived once more, magnificent in their resolution. The renaissance was a prodigy that made onlookers exclamatory. Jules Jusserand, Ambassador of France to the United States, phrased the wonder of it in majestic prose:

"The page written by the inhabitants of San Francisco on the moving ashes of their city is not one that any wind will ever blow away."

Portsmouth Square

Portsmouth Square
A fountain "remembers" Robert Louis Stevenson's presence here

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