The San Carlos

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park


Hi! I’m Sabrina Oliveros. I’m a park guide here at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

You may already know our park for its fleet of historic ships on Hyde Street Pier, which is right behind me. There’s a square-rigger, a ferryboat, two schooners, and two tugboats. Each is at least a hundred years old, and each is among the last of their kind.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many vessels like these filled the bay – and there were many other vessels besides. But today, I want to talk to you about one kind of ship that isn’t like any of the ships on Hyde Street Pier. In fact, it doesn’t even represent the eras that our parks ships represent.

The ship I’m talking about is the Spanish galleon San Carlos - the one commemorated by this historical marker over here. It is the first known European ship to ever sail into San Francisco Bay. Without this ship, it’s possible that there wouldn’t be a city called San Francisco. And because it helped usher an era of colonization, it’s possible that, without it, a very different kind of city and culture would be flourishing here now.

The eight short lines here aren’t enough. To begin telling a larger story about San Carlos, we’ll need to explore other resources around the park. And that’s the great thing about San Francisco Maritime – there are different jumping points for piecing together the past.

One way to start piecing together the past is to visit the park’s research facility. We’re here now to look at a few pieces from San Francisco Maritime’s art collection.

This painting right here was made by the renowned marine artist William A. Coulter, and it imagines the moment San Carlos first enters the bay in 1775. Here, the San Carlos seems to be approaching present-day Fort Point. That’s that piece of land jutting out there – and you might recognize it now as the side of the Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco is on. The islands in the distance seem to be Angel Island, Alcatraz, and Yerba Buena. Now, notice how William Coulter renders this scene a fairly clear day. Clouds frame the ship, but they don’t fill the sky – which, you might think is a little strange if you’re familiar with the San Francisco fog. But maybe it’s more a compositional choice than anything. Or, it could also be a nod to the symbolic parting of the clouds as the San Carlos finally found the entrance of the bay.

See, Spanish ships – especially those on the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade – had been traveling along the California coast since the late 1500s. They knew of present-day Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands, which are about 30 miles from the Golden Gate. And yet, the bay and its entrance were virtually unknown to them. One reason is something we can picture thanks to this painting.

Look at that narrow strait the ship is entering; at its widest, it’s only three miles wide. Now, pay attention to the islands and the mountains in the distance. Then, imagine all the famous fog coming into the picture. Would you even imagine there was a narrow strait? Especially if you had no idea that there was a bay nearby?

Spanish explorers, in fact, only saw the bay in 1769 – that’s 200 years after the galleon trade began. And when they did so, they only did so from land. But once they saw it, it became a special mission to find its entrance. San Carlos turned out to be the ship for the job.

There’s a lot of twisty backstory - and after-story - to the San Carlos. But for today, we’ll just look at its most famous moment. The San Carlos was a small supply ship built in 1767 at the naval base in San Blas, Mexico. In March 1775, it received two assignments: deliver supplies to Monterey, California and, from there, find the elusive strait. On the morning of August 5, 1775, San Carlos finally did.

What happened next is the moment likely depicted in this other painting – a more recent one by the artist William Gilkerson. After dropping anchor at the mouth of the bay, the captain, Juan Manuel de Ayala, ordered a reconnaissance mission. This was to make sure the ship could sail safely into the strait. The sailing master, Juan de Canizares, took on that mission, and led out a longboat.

By sundown, when the longboat had not returned, Ayala decided to follow it in. So, the San Carlos sailed into the bay not on a clear day, but under the light of the moon! So, there’s a little lesson in using paintings to visualize a historical moment: they can be helpful in getting a sense of the past, but, at the same time, we have to question their depiction of it. And, we must also consider where the moment they depict falls within a much larger picture.

This mural, at the park’s Visitor Center, reminds us why. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, before any ship like the San Carlos came anywhere near San Francisco, native peoples around the bay and California – like the Ohlone or the Miwok for example – had been making boats for rivers, the bay, or the coast. The ones you see in the mural are Ohlone canoes made of Tule reed. One has been recreated for this nearby exhibit.

So, do you remember Juan de Canizares, who first led a longboat into the bay? He came back to the San Carlos a day later and had this to say about the Ohlone canoes - the quote in fact is right here on this panel beside me - He said that they were “so well-constructed and woven that they caused me great admiration.” And in fact, canoes like these are still built today.

The San Carlos stayed in the bay from August 5 to September 7, 1775. During that time, Jose de Canizares continued to survey its waters. And, he went on to produce the first known map of San Francisco Bay – part of which you can see over here.

During that time, the ship stayed anchored mostly off of a large island that the captain, Juan Manuel de Ayala, called Santa Maria de los Angeles - or what we now know as Angel Island. He also named one of the smaller islands the Island of the Pelicans – or La Isla de los Alcatraces. It really could have been any of the two small islands in the bay, but, either way, the name has lived on. And, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about it, because there’s one island that we now know as Alcatraz.

Some two-hundred and forty-five years later, many vessels of all kinds still sail in and out of San Francisco Bay. Many of these modern vessels, and the historic ships on Hyde Street Pier, easily dwarf the San Carlos. But while that galleon is small, it’s legacy looms large, and it looms long.

One year after that expedition found the entrance to the bay, Spanish colonists came back and founded a settlement that we now know as the Presidio. Nearby, they also founded the Misión San Francisco de Asís. The history since then has been long and complicated, but it still remains the cornerstone of what we now know as San Francisco today.

That’s it for today. Thank you for joining me for this short video. There’s so much more to learn about history, and I hope we can all do it together through San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. Keep an eye out for our next videos, and I hope to see you soon.


Discover the complex legacy of the San Carlos - a Spanish ship that sailed into San Francisco Bay on August 5, 1775, leaving the names for Angel Island and Alcatraz, the first European map of the Bay, and a path for colonists who would help establish the city we know today.


9 minutes, 20 seconds


Sabrina Oliveros

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