1906 Earthquake: Law Enforcement

Presidio soldiers in San Francisco, 1906
Amidst the chaos following the 1906 earthquake, Presidio soldiers were deployed in downtown San Francisco.

National Park Service, Golden Gate NRA


As aftershocks jarred and fires spread on the morning of April 18, 1906, an increasingly unnerved population started to panic. Hundreds massed at the Ferry Building in an attempt to escape the city. The tense disarray and lack of order stirred the growing crowds. In anticipation of the looting, violence, and disorder that would come, Brigadier General Frederick Funston, acting commander of the of the Pacific Division, immediately ordered Presidio troops into San Francisco. With this military presence came a bold proclamation from Mayor Eugene Schmitz:

"The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to KILL any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime."

Schmitz's infamous edict authorized the U.S. Army to maintain order in the streets; however, the Mayor was not authorized to permit the shooting of civilians. Nevertheless, army troops worked amidst the chaos to maintain law and order, close saloons, and evacuate residents. By the second day, Army and Navy forces were joined by the police and the California National Guard—as well as bands of armed civilians—in an effort to quell violence in the city. The presence of military within the city both enforced and undermined the city government's authority. Neither Mayor Schmitz nor General Funston advocated martial law, but without an organized center of control, the various groups issued and followed contrasting orders.

Soldiers rest in downtown San Francisco, 1906
Soldiers rest beside their gear in downtown San Francisco, 1906.

Bob Bowen Collection


Three days after the earthquake, General Order No. 12 divided the city into six military districts and stated that all law enforcement divisions were to conduct themselves in "temperate action in dealing with the unfortunate people who are suffering from the awful catastrophe that has befallen them."

This warning came in response to citizen reports of military misconduct; citizens had complained of unnecessary evacuations and, more seriously, implementation of Schmitz's order to shoot looters, or even presumed looters. The reports of citizens shot as a result of the Mayor's Proclamation vary greatly, and range from one dozen up to one hundred. Brigadier General Funston, however, denied involvement of any regular Army troops and his immediate supervisor, Major General Greely, attributed these occurrences to other military units.

In light of the controversy over earlier actions by Funston to mobilize troops, conflicting reports about the behavior of the troops, and the inherent contentiousness of the army's role in the city, Greely advocated a withdrawal. In a request for army responsibilities to be transferred to local civil authorities and the Red Cross, Greely stated: "The spirit of American institutions is obviously adverse to the quartering of troops in times of peace in large cities." He was also very aware that while the soldiers had been reasonably well behaved, on July 1st the city's saloons were to reopen, inviting potential conflict for both military and civilians. On July 2nd, the U. S. Army troops pulled out of the city of San Francisco.



Dillion, Richard. "San Francisco's Occupying Army, 1906" San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle 14 April 1985.

"General Funston Warns Troops - 'No Forces Labor!'" Presidial Weekly Clarion (Presidio of San Francisco) , 27 April 1906, 1.

Hansen, Gladys and Emmet Condon. Denial of Disaster, (San Francisco, Comeron and Company, 1989).

Letter from John to Miss Lucy R. Schaeffer of San Diego. 14 May 1906. (SFHC)

Pond, Commander John E., U.S. Navy (Retired). "The United States Navy and the San Francisco Fire," U.S. Navel Institute Proceedings, September, 1952, Vol 78, no. 9, 985.

Russell Sage Foundation, San Francisco Relief Survey: The Organization and Methods of Relief Used After the Earthquake and Fire of April 18, 1906, (New York: Survey Associates, Inc., 1913).

Strobridge,William. "Soldiers in the Streets, 1906," The Pacific Historian, Spring 1978 (vol. 22, no. 1).

Thomas, Gordon and Max Morgan Witts, The San Francisco Earthquake, (New York: Stein and Day, 1971).

Thompson, Erwin N. Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco, A History from 1846 to 1995, (Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, National Park Service, 1995).

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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