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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

(Presidio of San Francisco)

Location: San Francisco County, south side of Golden Gate, San Francisco; address, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Fort Mason, Building 201, San Francisco, CA 94123-0022.

Significance. This presidio, which guarded the finest harbor on the Pacific coast, figured prominently in the extension of Spanish settlement into northern California and was the northernmost bastion of the Spanish New World Empire and the chief barrier against British, Russian, and American expansion in California. Under its aegis, between 1776 and 1821, the Spaniards established four missions, two pueblos, a royal rancho, and an asistencia. In 1817 and 1821, Spanish exploring expeditions that penetrated the interior and the area above San Francisco Bay also used the presidio as a base. Between 1821 and 1836, under Mexican rule, the presidio continued to be the main military base in northern California.

In 1776, 7 years after the discovery of San Francisco Bay, Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza, from Tubac, selected the site for the presidio. Lt. José Joaquín Moraga supervised construction, which he initiated on a temporary basis. The buildings were primitive structures—palisaded walls and flat roofs covered with sod or tules. The military reservation of the presidio consisted of 1,564 acres. Construction was slow, however. In 1792, or 16 years after the establishment of the post, only three of the four exterior walls had been completed. Year after year, from 1776 to 1835, under both Spanish and Mexican administrations, adobe buildings that had replaced the original log buildings were constructed or repaired in the dry season, only to be damaged during the rainy season. A church, commandant's house, guardhouse, barracks, and warehouses were constructed over the years. Whether because of lack of suitable alternative building materials, lack of familiarity with other methods, binding instructions from officials in distant places—or a combination of all these reasons—presidial commanders continued to use building methods not suited to the climate. Earthquakes also caused damage.

Commandant's House
Commandant's House, erected in the period 1776-78 at the presidio of San Francisco, now serves as an officers' club. It has been considerably altered throughout the years, but its front facade incorporates a large part of the original adobe walls.

Capt. George Vancouver, who visited San Francisco Bay in 1792, observed that the presidio—equipped as it was with only two cannons, one mounted on a carriage and the other on a log—was practically defenseless. His visit and other developments in the Pacific area led the Spanish to strengthen San Francisco's defenses by bringing in additional troops and weapons.

In 1793, the Spanish began to construct a new fort, Castillo de San Joaquín, located about 1-1/3 miles northwest of the presidio on Punta del Cantíl (now called Fort Point). They completed the castillo in 1794, but its exact shape and dimensions are not known because it was apparently modified appreciably during later repairs and alterations. Upon its 10-foot-thick walls were mounted 12 cannons. In the center was a one-story barracks, built of adobe and roofed with tules, which contained two rooms. In 1796, about 225 persons, including families of soldiers, were reportedly living at the presidio.

In 1797, the troops erected the battery at Yerba Buena, located at Point San José (later called Black Point and then Fort Mason), to protect the anchorage at Yerba Buena Cove. Hastily thrown together of brushwood, fascines, and earthworks, it had eight embrasures and mounted five cannon. A sentinel daily visited the battery, which was not permanently garrisoned. When the battery was completed, the third fortification on the bay, San Francisco was the strongest military post in Spanish California. From an original population of 63, by 1820 the San Francisco District had grown to 670 Spaniards and 5,400 mission Indians. At the close of the Spanish period, the next year, 134 soldiers and 20 guns defended the presidio. Its strength declined during the Mexican period. In 1836, the year after the government transferred the military headquarters of northern California to Sonoma, it withdrew all the soldiers from the presidio. Most of the remaining buildings disintegrated rapidly; only one has survived, and that only partially.

Yerba Buena Pueblo, which grew into the modern city of San Francisco, was established in 1835, not far from the presidio, by the Mexican Government.

Present Appearance. The site of the 1776 Presidio of San Francisco forms the southern portion of the present U.S. Presidio parade ground, and is situated on Moraga Avenue, between Graham and Mesa Streets. Except for the commandant's house, no surface remains are extant. The site is open and free of intrusions. Four Spanish cannon are on the parade ground, and two more are at Fort Mason. The presidio still includes about 1,460 acres of the original Spanish reservation.

aerial view of San Francisco
Aerial view of San Francisco. The Spanish presidio was located in the left foreground. Between the years 1776 and 1822, it served as a base for Spanish exploration and settlement of northern California. (Courtesy, U.S. Army.)

Though the commandant's house survives, it has been extensively altered since the original construction during the period 1776-78. This one-story adobe structure, on the south side of Moraga Avenue opposite the intersection with Graham Street, is now used as an officers' club. Its front section still incorporates about 75 percent of the original adobe walls.

Castillo de San Joaquín was located at the site now occupied by Fort Point. All traces of the castillo were destroyed in 1853, when the cliff on which it stood was lowered by some 90 feet and Fort Point erected. The present Fort Mason includes the site of the former battery at Yerba Buena. Nothing remains of the battery, but its site is identified by a historical marker in the small park north of the loop on the north end of Sheridan Road. [8]

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005