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American Latino Heritage
San Francisco, California
From the Presidio’s original construction in 1776, to its ultimate de-militarization in 1994, the site has accumulated a many layered, multi-era story of significance. The Presidio played a critical role in not only Spanish exploration and frontier expansion, but also in all major North American military conflicts from the Mexican-American War through World War II and Vietnam. As one of California’s most historic sites, the Presidio has witnessed the transferring of the West Coast from nation to nation, the effects of the California Gold Rush, military aviation, World Fairs, the devastation of earthquakes, and a vast evolution of architectural theory and design.
Today visitors flock to the site, a 1,491-acre National Historic Landmark District located within the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The park is flush with opportunities to explore centuries of historic architecture, the San Francisco National Cemetery, hundreds of significant military buildings, and over 25 miles of trails through beautiful forests and beaches. A visit to the Presidio of San Francisco is sure to inspire with its wide breadth of intact historic resources and an intricately woven quilt of heritage sites that link today’s American National Park to the nation’s Spanish and Mexican past.
The Presidio of San Francisco tells a complex story from its earliest incarnation as a Spanish military fort, through its present use as a national public park and historic site. The Presidio’s nine separate periods of significance include Spanish-Mexican Settlement (1776-1846), Early United States Occupation (1846-1860), the Civil War (1861-1865), Indian and Military Affairs (1866-1890), Nationalistic Expansion (1891-1914), World War I (1915-1918), Military Affairs between Wars (1919-1940), World War II (1941-1945), and the present (1945-today). For a detailed exploration of each, see the Presidio’s National Historic Landmark registration documentation.
EARLY HISTORY: SPANISH AND MEXICAN OCCUPATION
Before the arrival of the Europeans, indigenous tribes – largely the Ohlone/Costanoan people and Coastal Miwok -- occupied the California coast. In 1769, when Spanish explorer, Captain Juan Gaspar de Portola came over Sweeney Ridge and sighted the San Francisco Peninsula, he likely encountered small villages of native fisher-folk living among the fertile land’s low hills and coastal valleys. Several years later in 1776, Spanish occupation of the region began, led by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza who recognized the strategic location of the site at the mouth of the wide bay. Anza climbed to one of the highest points in the area, the Punta del Cantil Blanco, and with a single white cross in the earth, claimed the land for Spain. (For more information about Spanish exploration throughout California, visit the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail website.)
Immediate construction of the Presidio and the nearby Mission San Francisco de Asis (today known as Mission Dolores) began. Each was critical in supporting the new population – approximately 190 soldiers and their families from the colony of New Spain (northern Mexico.)
Designed for Spanish defense of California’s largest bay, the original Presidio consisted of a heavily armed fortification (El Castillo de San Joaquin) and the Presidio of San Francisco, proper, which included administration, training, and housing structures. The single-story adobe buildings stood in a quadrangle within a large defensive wall. The entire complex evolved over time and was extensively rebuilt and expanded after the great earthquake of 1812. The Mesa and de Anza rooms of today’s Presidio Officers' Club probably date from this rebuilding. (The Officers’ Club is the oldest intact building still standing in the Presidio – for more information about its evolution, click here.)
In 1821, Mexico declared its independence from Spain, which soon brought about changes for the Presidio. The Mexicans secularized the former Spanish missions, and the tight knit relationship between Mission Delores and the Presidio vanished. The mission-owned land surrounding the fort was divided into farms and ranchos and the former military importance of the site diminished. In 1835, General Mariano Vallejo shifted his Mexican forces further north to the plaza at Sonoma, and the Presidio was largely abandoned.
REVIVAL: UNITED STATES OCCUPATION
In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, U.S. military forces seized California. A year later, the American Army arrived at the deserted Presidio and over the next decade transformed it into a large 19th century military reservation – the first in the American West. The American military demolished and heavily altered the buildings from the Spanish/Mexican era to meet more modern needs – most notably, leveling the large Castillo to build an entirely new brick fort – Fort Point, which still stands today. More durable wooden barracks largely replaced the crumbling adobe buildings, and by the Civil War Era (post-1861), new brick barracks began to dot the expanding architectural landscape.
Today the “Main Post” section of the Presidio features several remaining buildings from the Civil War period including the oldest standing row of brick officers’ quarters, the Old Post Hospital, the Garrison Chapel and an old schoolhouse. The Main Post is the most historic section of the area and represents the original heart of the Spanish, Mexican, and early U.S. military establishment.
After the Civil War, the Presidio continued to expand as the United States flexed its military muscle in the West. When the reservation opened to public visitation in 1874, major changes to the landscape ensued to help beautify the site. The lush forest first created in the 1880s remains to tempt visitors today. In 1884, the Presidio’s small burial grounds became a National Cemetery – the first on the West Coast. The cemetery is now one of the most popular parts of the park for visitors. More information about the cemetery is available in the National Park Service’s travel itinerary, Civil War Era Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served.
By the turn of the 20th century, the formerly crumbling, abandoned Presidio had become a strong and beautiful American military facility. Its selection as the site for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 further heightened the Presidio’s prestige and beauty. It soon developed into the most important Army post on the Pacific Coast, eventually managing a California defense system that included Alcatraz and Angel Islands as well as posts from the North Marin Headlands to Fort Funston in the southern part of the State.
The Presidio played a key role in both World Wars (with another burst of expansion caused in the mid-1940s by WWII) as well as the Vietnam War. Throughout the 20th century it remained a critical link in the chain of American military power into the Pacific Basin and further west onto the mainland of Asia. By the early 1990s, the military no longer needed the post, however, and in 1994, it was transferred to the National Park Service to be a part of the previously established Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
THE PRESIDIO TODAY
The San Francisco Presidio is one of the city’s most famous and highly regarded attractions. At the height of its military life, the Presidio consisted of five distinct posts: the Main Post, Fort Point, Letterman Hospital, Fort Winfield Scott, and Crissy Army Air Field. Structures from each of these remain today, as well as many buildings from earlier eras. Walking through the Presidio is thus a trip through one of the nation’s largest and best-preserved collections of military buildings. The National Park Service and The Presidio Trust jointly manage the Presidio.
The Presidio is an open-air architectural museum with over 700 historic buildings, ranging in style from early Italianate and Greek Revival, to later Mission Revival and World War II designs. (For more information, check out the Presidio Trust’s Guide to Architectural Styles.) In addition to historic architecture, the vast landscape features of the Presidio offer an abundance of outdoor opportunities including 25 miles of forested hiking trails, paved bicycle paths, athletics on Crissy Field, a golf course, and incredible scenic views of the both the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Multiple visitor centers and museum displays exist within the park (including one at Fort Point, the only brick and mortar Civil War-era fort remaining on the West Coast). The centers provide an array of interpretive and recreational activities from indoor events and lecture series to audio-guided walking tours and history brochures. Check out the Presidio Trust’s visitor center page or the Things to Do section of the National Park Service’s web-guide to the park. A free Presidio shuttle travels throughout the site daily and visitors are encouraged to use this environmentally conscious option, rather than drive themselves in cars.
The Presidio not only offers a window looking in on America’s entire military past, but also on the broader themes of American history: advances in medicine, the role of women in the armed forces, racial integration, and evolution in architectural style and design. Moreover, the Presidio brings to light the strong Spanish and Mexican foundation on which the West was built, and the earliest beginnings of one of the nation’s most fascinating cities, San Francisco.