El Presidio de San Francisco, 1776-1846

Artist rendering of the Presidio in 1790
Artist conception of the Presidio in the 1790s.

NPS photo


In 1776 the Spanish formally took possession of the area presently know as the Golden Gate. Under the command of Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish moved quickly to fortify the area, and by the winter of 1776, a military camp located in a sheltered vale inland from the headlands was completed. The new outpost was named the Presidio of San Francisco (in honor of St. Francis of Assisi). Once completed, Spain sent a garrison of troops to protect the outpost and the surrounding area. The duties of the garrison included guarding the nearby Mission, which was later known as Mission Dolores; and "controlling" the Indians of the area. Its commandant also received instructions to regulate the coming and going of foreign ships, whether they were British, French, Russian, or American.1

The Presidio marked the northernmost advance of Spain's empire in North America at a time of intense international rivalry among western powers in the North Pacific. But the Presidio was more of a village than a fortification, although the buildings were arranged defensively. With only two cannons supplied to the garrison, the initial defenses of the Bay offered nothing more than a facade of strength. One cannon exploded in a training exercise, and the remaining cannon lacked adequate gunpowder to defend against a sustained attack. When Captain George Vancouver, of the British Frigate H.M.S. Discovery, entered the gate in 1792, he fired his cannon to salute the Spanish flag, but there was no response from the Spanish garrison at the Presidio. This breach of etiquette caused confusion among the crew of the Discovery, until a soldier from the Presidio rowed out to the ship and requested gun powder to return the salute. When Spanish officials heard of this show of weakness, artillery and new fortifications were quickly ordered for the area. Several bronze guns were sent to the Presidio, six of which remain at the Presidio today.2

The first sea coast fortification on the Pacific Coast began in 1793, when Governor Jose Joaquin Arrillaga ordered the construction of Castillo de San Joaquin, about a mile and a half from the Presidio. The specific location for construction was at the northernmost headland that had been named Punta del Cantil Blanco (White Cliff Point), which the Americans would later call Fort Point. The fort was completed on December 8, 1794, at a cost of more than 6,000 pesos. The importance of the San Francisco Bay to the Spanish is underscored by this new fortification, since the Spanish viceroy considered its cost quite a large sum. 1

Artist rendering of early Presidio
"Original pencil sketch of the fort and port of San Francisco in California" by G. M. Waseurtz af Sandels, a Swedish visitor in 1843.

Illustration courtesy of Society of California Pioneers


In the years that followed, winter storms and earthquakes battered the Presidio and Castillo forts, which were constructed primarily from adobe. The small garrison force and Indian laborers made repairs when funds became available, but the outposts were severely neglected by the Spanish crown and the viceroy of New Spain, who had other problems in Europe and the Americas. The Presidio of San Francisco fell into severe disrepair after 1810, despite the expansion of the quadrangle around 1815; The east wing (the Mesa Room) and the west wing (the de Anza Room) of today's "Officers' Club" were probably constructed between 1812 and 1815. The quadrangle shares the distinction of being one of the two oldest adobe buildings in San Francisco, along with Mission Dolores.1 The foundation of the quadrangle has been partially excavated and can be seen in front of the Officers' Club at the Presidio today.1

With the collapse of Spain's colonial efforts in Mexico in 1821, officials in Alta California changed their allegiance to the new Mexican government. However, the new government paid as little attention to the welfare of the northern colonies as had the Spanish viceroy. Largely as a result of the derelict adobe structures at the Presidio, Comandante General Mariano Vallejo moved the garrison north to Sonoma in 1835, leaving only a small care-taking detachment at the Presidio.3

1. Thompson, Erwin N. Defenders of the Gate: A History from 1846 to 1995. California: National Park Service, 1997.

2. Barker, Blind, and Bernaal. El Presidio de San Francisco Archaeological Site Tour. California: National Park Service, 2001.

3. History of the Presidio Officers’ Club, Presidio Trust,2001. http://www.atthepresidio.org/spotlight/oclubhistory.asp

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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