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American Latino Heritage
Fort Point National Historic Site
San Francisco, California
Across the centuries, the sheltered waters of San Francisco Bay and the rich, fertile lands that surround it have attracted people of different nations. Fort Point National Historic Site reflects the strategic importance of the area. In 1776, the Spanish established the Presidio of San Francisco to protect Spain’s interests in the San Francisco Bay area. After Mexico became independent from Spain in 1821, it too recognized the importance of fortifying San Francisco against enemy attack. Once the United States gained control of California, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the fort that stands today at Fort Point National Historic Site. Constructed between 1853 and 1861 as part of a defense system to protect San Francisco Bay and its important commercial and military installations against foreign attack, this fort has stood guard at the narrows of the Golden Gate for over 150 years.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to set foot where Fort Point National Historic Site is today. In 1776, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza forged an overland route into the area and recognized the strategic location of the site at the mouth of the wide bay. Anza climbed to one of the highest points surrounding the bay, 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.
The Punta del Cantil Blanco was an ideal spot for a defensive fortification. In 1793, the Spanish began work on El Castillo de San Joaquin, a heavily armed land battery. Completed in 1794, El Castillo de San Joaquin was the first fort constructed on the west coast of North America. The Spanish altered and expanded its thick-walled adobe buildings over time to create a large, impressive complex. By the time Mexico gained its independence from Spain and took control of California in 1821, El Castillo was in disrepair. The Mexicans used the fort but by 1835, because of its poor condition, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo relocated his troops north to a new garrison in Sonoma.
After the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, U.S. General John C. Fremont and his battalion arrived at San Francisco Bay to claim the territory as American soil. They found the old Castillo mostly abandoned and quietly overtook it. Within the year, the Mexican-American War ended, and California became part of the United States and the former fort and complex an American military reservation – the first on the West Coast. Today the remains of the Spanish/Mexican fort lay buried beneath the San Francisco Presidio’s grounds awaiting further archeological exploration.
The United States replaced the decrepit installation with an impressive stronghold. In 1851, the U.S. War Department established a Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast, which recommended building a new fort on the site the Spanish had recognized as strategically important nearly a century before. In 1853, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on the new fort using the “Third System” fort design that had become the standard in 1820. “Third System” forts featured thick, smooth masonry walls, iron shutters, and multiple tiers of heavy artillery, including many cannons mounted at ocean-level to attack enemy ships at their waterline. Completed in 1861, Fort Point was the only Third System fort ever constructed west of the Mississippi River.
Built during the height of the California Gold Rush and just before the Civil War, Fort Point is a powerful representation of American military prowess during the first years after the United States gained control of its western territory. Although it never experienced an attack or fired a single shot in its defense, Fort Point remained a formidable deterrent. Its size and layout became obsolete by the close of the Civil War era, however, as new advancements in military construction emerged, but the military intermittently used the fort as army barracks in the early 20th century and during World War II.
The plans for the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s called for its demolition. Fortunately, the Chief Engineer on the project, Joseph Strauss, recognized Fort Point’s historic significance and redesigned the bridge’s southern footing to arch gracefully over the fort. The only battle ever fought at Fort Point was the one to preserve it after demolition threatened it again during the 1940s and '50s. A group of retired military officers and engineers joined to save the fort and its setting. The officers formed the Fort Point Museum Association and lobbied successfully for its preservation. On October 16, 1970, Fort Point became a National Historic Site. Today the fort is a popular tourist attraction within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which celebrates the entire history of the San Francisco Bay area.
Fort Point houses a history museum that touches on many themes such as the early Spanish history of the area, 19th-century weapons and the life of the soldiers, construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the experiences of women and African Americans in the military. Several exhibits feature award-winning video documentaries and historic footage of both the fort and the Golden Gate Bridge. Visitors are welcome to browse the museum by themselves with a self-led audio tour, or take a tour of the site with a trained historian. A popular interactive cannon-loading demonstration takes place regularly throughout the day. All activities at the museum are available to the public free of charge. The fort sits within the expansive Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the nation’s greatest collections of historic military structures from Spain’s rule through today.