- Historic Sites
Starting Again In San Francisco
No city has more energetically obliterated the remnants of its past. And yet no city has a greater sense of its history.
April 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 3
On the edge of a pond a few blocks from my home, there is a knee-high chunk of granite with a bronze plate on one side, marking the spot where a band of Spanish soldiers commanded by a captain named Juan Bautista de Anza pitched camp on a March afternoon in 1776. They were scouting the site of what is now San Francisco, and like most San Franciscans ever since, they came here hoping to change their lives.
The itch to move along is a well-known American ailment, going back, I suppose, to the first wanderers from Siberia who decided to cross the strip of tundra that is now submerged by the Bering Strait. Anza and the expedition he was leading suffered the disease so desperately that they trudged all the way up from Mexico, through Arizona and the deserts of California, a ten-month, fifteen-hundred-mile hike, to get to the brackish little lake a few hundred yards from my house. Walking past the relic of their campsite on a misty summer morning, I feel a bond of sympathy with all of them—Don Juan Bautista, his lieutenants, and the company of colonists one of his men brought up later to this desolate peninsula. It was late June when the civilians got here, a damp and foggy month. Low clouds often skulk along the coast, sneaking ashore at night and hanging around till noon. I can imagine the colonists from Sonora shivering in their blankets, praying to God to grant them a fresh start.
That has always been the story in San Francisco: a gathering in of new arrivals, bewildered by the climate, dazzled by dreams, longing for rebirth. Bayard Taylor, sent out by the New York Tribune to cover the gold rush in 1849, reported back, “A man, on coming to California, could no more expect to retain his old nature unchanged than he could retain in his lungs the air he had inhaled on the Atlantic shore.” The prospect of changing your nature while filling your lungs has clearly been irresistible for several dozen generations of Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians, beatniks, hippies, yuppies, revolutionaries, convicts, saints, and suicides.
Nowadays the place where Anza’s soldiers slept is favored by groups in padded jackets and knit caps who stroll the path along the lake with their arms folded, chatting amiably in Cantonese. In the past two decades, uncounted—perhaps uncountable—immigrants from Asia have settled in San Francisco. Nicaraguans and Salvadorans have colonized a neighborhood known as Nicador. Self-service gasoline stations post instructions on the pumps in Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog. The school department, trying to keep track of the proliferation of cultures, has devised a new category for students who do not fit any of the major classifications of San Franciscans. At one high school the list currently includes Cambodians, Ethiopians, Samoans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Yemenis, Palestinians, Koreans, and Fijians. The city is growing in complexity as well as numbers. There are said to be at least a hundred thousand homosexual men in San Francisco. Most of them, too, have come from somewhere else, seeking respect and companionship and the satisfaction of “coming out.”
No other event—not even the Crusades—had ever brought together such a sampling of humanity as the Gold Rush.
The promise of transformation that Bayard Taylor found here depended on the discovery of gold. Anza’s people built a fort, a Catholic mission, and a trading post, but their San Francisco colony, on the outer edge of a declining empire, never developed much allure for immigrants. Northern California was the most isolated province of Mexico, an enormous distance from both God and the United States. It appealed primarily to landless soldiers who wanted free acreage and solitude. A few “blue eyes” from Liverpool, New York, and Boston jumped ship in California, learned Spanish, and set up as traders on the edge of Yerba Buena Cove, but it is not recorded whether they developed a new outlook on life. An American naval commander who visited the village a few years before the United States went to war with Mexico reported that the settlement consisted of a “large frame house occupied by an agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company; a store kept by an American; a billiard room and bar; a poop-cabin of a ship, occupied as a dwelling by an AngloAmerican captain; a blacksmith shop, and some outbuildings.” Among the sand hills were a few corrals for cattle brought in from the nearby ranches and several adobe sheds used for storing salted rawhides, the “California banknotes” of the Cape Horn trade. Most of these municipal improvements and their owners were still around, waiting for the main chance, when a workman named Jim Marshall found gold in John Sutler’s millrace, up in the foothills of the Sierra, in the first month of 1848.
There is a famous photograph that shows what happened to San Francisco after word got around. The cove is filled with ships, their masts so close together that it looks like a burned-out forest. The yardarms are lashed up vertically to keep them from getting tangled in the rigging of other ships. Some of the vessels near the shore have settled in the tidal mud, and the hulls are being used as shops and dormitories.