Old Custom House; Preparing tortillas.
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U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island

San Francisco Bay, California

Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay

Angel Island
in the San Francisco Bay
Courtesy of Franco Folini, Flickr’s Creative Commons

Located near Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island is the largest island in San Francisco Bay. The 740-acre island, which offers expansive views of the San Francisco skyline, the Marin County Headlands, and Mount Tamalpais, is alive with history. American Indians, Spanish explorers, Russian sea otter hunters, British sailors, a Mexican rancher, and United States military and customs officials have all made use of the island. Today, visitors to Angel Island State Park can explore the diverse human history of this island, while enjoying its natural resources.

Beginning nearly 3,000 years ago, the Coastal Miwok Indians used the island for fishing and hunting. The Miwoks reached the island using boats made from tule reeds. Once on the island, the Miwoks established temporary camps at places now known as Ayala Cove, Camp Reynolds, Fort McDowell, and the Immigration Station. They hunted deer, seals, sea lions, and ducks and fished for salmon. They also collected shellfish, acorns, buckeyes, root vegetables, and other plants. The tribe used the plants for medicinal and other purposes such as toothpaste and substances similar to chewing tobacco. By the early 1800s, the Miwok Indians likely no longer utilized the island because the Spanish drew them to Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores in San Francisco), or they were driven from the region.

Fisherman - Southern Miwok (1924)

Fisherman - Southern Miwok (1924)
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Photographer Edward S. Curtis

The island came under Spanish rule in 1775 when Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer, sailed the San Carlos into the San Francisco Bay and dropped his anchor in what is now Ayala Cove. One of the first Spanish expeditions to sail directly into the San Francisco Bay, this expedition was to develop an accurate chart and description of the area that future Spanish sailors could rely upon. Ayala’s pilot, Don Jose de Canizares, and his crew explored the area for 40 days and produced the first maps made of the San Francisco Bay. They named the island Isla de Los Angeles, which followed the common practice among Catholic explorers of naming a site based on the religious feast days nearest the time of discovery.

Following the Spanish discovery of the island, the Russians and British briefly utilized the island. Russian sea otter hunting expeditions visited the island and established a storehouse there in 1808; while in 1814, the British anchored in Ayala Cove to make repairs to their 26-gun sloop-of-war, the H.M.S. Raccoon. Damaged off the coast of Oregon, the H.M.S. Raccoon managed to make its way into the San Francisco Bay. The British repaired the ship during March and April of that year, and this brief moment in history gave the deep-water channel between Tiburon and Angel Island its name, Raccoon Strait, in honor of this old British sailing ship.

By 1837, during Mexico’s rule of California (1821-1848), a Californio man (California-born Mexican), Antonio Maria Osio, asked the governor of California to grant him Angel Island to use as a ranch. Osio had previously worked in Los Angeles as a town councilman, in San Francisco as a customs official, and in Monterey as a collector of customs and a judge in the Tribunal Superior Court. Governor Alvarado approved Osio’s grant in 1839, with the provision set forth by General Vallejo, the military commander of the frontier north of San Francisco, that part of the island be set aside for use as a fort. Upon receiving the grant, Osio quickly established his ranch.

Antonio Maria Osio, c. 1850

Antonio Maria Osio, c. 1850
Public Domain Image

Osio raised cattle on Angel Island and sold beef in San Francisco. He stocked the island with 54 horned cattle in 1839, and by 1846, he had up to 500 heads. Although Osio himself never lived on Angel Island, he built four houses there for his herders and other attendants to use. He also constructed a dam and a reservoir to provide water for the cattle. Throughout other parts of the island, Osio cultivated corns, beans, potatoes, pumpkins, and other vegetables. The success of his first ranch and the generous land grant policy of Governor Alvarado and his successor Manuel Micheltorena permitted Osio to expand his landholdings from the original land grant of 740 acres for Angel Island to over 50,000 acres in land grants throughout the San Francisco/Monterey area. In five short years, Osio had become one of the largest landholders in Alta California.

Osio’s life changed drastically in 1846, when the Bear Flag revolt erupted, followed by the Mexican-American War. Warned by the U.S. vice-consul that he was in danger of being arrested, Osio fled with his family south and then to Hawaii. During the war, the U.S. Navy occupied Angel Island and decimated Osio’s entire herd of cattle. At the end of the war in 1848, California became part of the United States. Osio returned to California in 1849, only to face major land disputes for the next 11 years.

Beginning in 1849, the United States government challenged Osio’s claim to Angel Island. In 1860, after years of legal battles, the government ultimately decided that Osio’s claim to the land was invalid. The government argued that even though Governor Alvarado had issued him the original land grant, it did not have the approval of the Departmental Assembly, the seven-man body that along with the governor ruled Alta California before 1846, and therefore Osio’s grant was void. Angel Island had a new owner, the United States government. Osio lived the rest of his life in Baja California, where he died at the age of 78 in 1878, outliving at least nine of his seventeen children.

Aerial view of Angel Island’s Fort McDowell, 1926.

Aerial view of Angel Island’s Fort McDowell, 1926.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

When ownership of Angel Island shifted to the United States government, it became the home to several Federal facilities. In 1850, President Fillmore declared Angel Island a military reserve. During the Civil War, Camp Reynolds, later called West Garrison, on Angel Island was fortified with cannons to defend San Francisco Bay from potential attacks by Confederate ships. After the Civil War, Camp Reynolds became an infantry camp, serving as a training base for U.S. soldiers serving in campaigns against the Apache, Sioux, Modoc, and other American Indian tribes. Also on the island is Fort McDowell, later called East Garrison. Constructed beginning in 1899, Fort McDowell served as a very important military base and point of embarkation – handling the transfer, induction, detainment, and discharge of thousands of men during the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.

In 1905, the War Department transferred 20 acres of land on the island to the Department of Commerce and Labor for the establishment of an immigration station at China Cove, also called Winslow Cove and the North Garrison. As the major west coast immigration center between 1910 and 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed a majority of the Asian immigrants seeking new lives in the United States. The Angel Island Immigration Station detained an estimated 175,000 Chinese and 60,000 Japanese immigrants under adverse and oppressive conditions while they awaited permission to enter the United States and to begin their new lives.

The immigration station relocated to San Francisco when a fire destroyed the Angel Island Immigration Station’s administration building in August 1940. The Angel Island Immigration Station reverted to military use in February 1941. During 1942 and 1946, the immigration station’s rehabilitated barracks and hospital held Japanese and German prisoners of war and members of the Italian Service Units. A National Historical Landmark, Angel Island’s U.S. Immigration Station is open for guided and self-guided tours from Wednesday through Sunday.

In July 1946, after serving the military for a variety of purposes, the Army declared Angel Island surplus and eventually transferred ownership to the State of California for park, recreational, and historical purposes. Today, visitors to Angel Island State Park can explore the history of Angel Island by taking various trails and roads. Guided segway and tram tours, as well as interpretive signage, enhance visitors’ experience of this historically diverse island.
Plan your visit

Angel Island is located in the San Francisco Bay, CA and accessible by ferry from San Francisco or Tiburon. The U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island is a National Historic Landmark. Click here to view the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. Angel Island State Park is open from 8:00 am until sunset. Tram and segway tours of the island are available from the Angel Island Company. For more information, visit the California State Park’s Angel Island website, the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation website, or call 415- 435-5390.

The U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island is featured in the National Park Service World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area Travel Itinerary. The U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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