Wollenberg, Charles. Golden Gate Metropolis: Perspectives on Bay Area History. Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies, 1985.
First People The Ohlone and the Miwok
At the time of Spanish settlement, there were two major Native American groups in the Bay Area: The Costanoan (or Ohlone) and the Coast Miwok. The Costanoan/Ohlone people, numbering about 10,000 in 1776, occupied the area from central San Francisco Bay south to Monterey Bay, including what is now San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, and much of Contra Costa counties. Because they were a coastal people, the Spaniards called them Costaños, from which “Costanoan” is derived. (Some authorities, however, prefer “Ohlone,” the native name of one of the region’s Indian villages.)
The Coast Miwok, numbering about 3,000, are not to be confused with other Miwok people who lived in interior California. The coastal branch of the Miwok family occupied much of the North Bay, including Marin and parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. In addition to the two major groups, other Indian cultures touched the Bay Area. Thus the Wintun and Yokuts peoples of the Central Valley occupied parts of Solano and eastern Contra Costa counties, and the Wappo and Pomo of the Clear Lake area also ranged into parts of Napa and Sonoma. All told, in 1776 probably 15,000-20,000 native people lived in the nine Bay Area counties. The main Ohlone villages in Oakland were in the area later known as Trestle Glen, which the earliest American settlers called Indian Gulch. Another village was near the redwoods on a site now contained within the campus of Holly Names College. A third was near the present intersection of Claremont and Telegraph avenues.
A Disastrous Clash of Cultures
The very slow pace of change and the fact that California Indian cultures had little understanding of the concept of “progress” is one reason why the state’s native people have so often been described as “primitive.” Certainly the Bay Area Indians were primitives, if by this one means a nonagricultural, hunting and gathering people with no written language or monumental architecture. This definition is based on reasonably precise material criteria. But problems arise when we also assign other values to such words as “primitive,” so that they carry connotations like “backward,” “underdeveloped,” “lowly,” or “inferior.” If “civilized” individuals are supposed to be intelligent, polite and sophisticated, “primitive” people may be considered oafish and crude, and primitive cultures may be thought of as having less worth or virtue than those that are more highly civilized.
These kinds of value-laden, culture-bound, and self-serving assessments of the “primitive” nature of the Bay Area Indians and their way of life are themselves important parts of the region’s history. The Spaniards used such thinking to justify their attempt to destroy native culture and convert Indians to Christianity. The Mexican rancheros used it to justify the employment of forced Indian labor as part of the “civilizing” process. The Anglo-Americans, in turn, used it to rationalize the physical removal of native peoples as an inevitable requirement of “progress.”
But European-style “civilization” and “progress” proved disastrous for the Bay Area’s first people. Entire cultures were destroyed in a remarkably short time. For California as a whole, the Indian population fell from 300,000 in 1776 to only about 20,000 in 1900. The major cause of this devastating decline was not warfare or murder, though these certainly took place. Rather, the effects of European diseases, and the resulting disintegration of traditional native values and institutions, were the principal causes. In the Bay Area the decline of the Indian population was even more drastic than in California as a whole.
In 1850 the United States Indian agent was able to find only one native inhabitant of San Francisco, an old man who explained, “I am all that is left of my people – I am alone.” In other parts of the Bay Area, more people of Ohlone blood survived, and even prospered, but they did not perpetuate the native culture. The last speaker of an Ohlone language died in 1935, and there seem to be only a very few authentic Ohlone baskets left. In the less densely populated areas of the North Bay, however, more of the Indian way of life has survived, particularly among the Pomo people.
In 1769 Captain Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra led a joint military-religious expedition to California, with orders to establish settlements in San Diego and Monterey. After founding a mission and presidio in San Diego, Portola and a small group of men set off on foot to find Monterey. Unfortunately, they walked right past their intended destination, and on November 2, 1769 found themselves on what today is Sweeney Ridge, in Pacifica. When members of the expedition crossed to the eastern slope, to their surprise they saw a vast body of water stretching out below them. By this fortuitous accident, Spaniards “discovered” San Francisco Bay. For more than two centuries before Portola’s expedition European ships had been sailing along the California coast, but with the possible exception of the British pirate and navigator Francis Drake in 1579, apparently none of the sailors had noticed the great estuary. This is not surprising given the seasonal fogs, the configuration of the coastline, and the narrowness of the Golden Gate. But Captain Portola undoubtedly would be the first to testify that San Francisco Bay is mighty hard to miss on foot.
Portola’s accidental find ultimately was also to mark an imperial dead end for Spain in America. The Bay Area was as far north as Spanish settlement ever got in the New World, and just a half century after the Portola expedition Mexico won its independence, ending Spanish rule in California. The history of the first Hispanic settlers around San Francisco Bay is thus little more than a footnote to the three-century epoch of Spanish colonization in the Americas. Nevertheless the Bay Area missions and presidios provide a microcosm of Spanish imperialism, an excellent case study of Spain’s colonial theory and practice.
Spanish colonial concepts differed greatly from those of the English in New England. Spain sent only a small number of colonists to occupy California, whereas tens of thousands of English eventually settled in Massachusetts. New Englanders worked the land themselves, having little use for the native inhabitants, while Spanish colonists expected to be a small master class, living off the labor of a large native workforce. Spain did not intend to wipe out Bay Area Indians or pen them up in reservations. Instead, the success of Spanish colonies would depend on the native people’s fitting into a European economic, social, and political system.
In “civilized” parts of Indian America – e.g., Central Mexico or the highlands of Peru – the Europeanization process was simplified by the fact that the Spanish could establish themselves at the top of a functioning system. Indians were living in agricultural settlements and were already part of complex economic and political structures. By contrast, however, the entire California Indian way of life had to be changed. The Spanish had to transform hunters and gatherers into farmers, herdsmen, and craftsmen. Members of fairly egalitarian tribal societies had to be made into subjects of a vast authoritarian empire.
In California the chief instrument of the transformation was the mission. The religious convictions of most Franciscan friars were undoubtedly sincere, as was their commitment to converting Indians to Christianity. While attempting to convert Indians, however, the friars were also serving the Spanish government’s purpose of transforming native peoples into useful subjects. As part of this process, the missions were political and economic institutions, as well as religious communities. Today, all that is usually left of the missions is the restored church or chapel. But the mission establishments also included dormitories, barns, shops, and stables. At Mission San Jose, for example, such buildings occupied a 50-acre plot adjacent to the chapel. In short, the friars operated institutions that were the economic and political heart of Spanish California, as well as its religious soul.
The presidio was the inevitable companion of the mission. Although Spain established only four formal presidios or forts in California, soldiers always accompanied the friars. Each mission had a small military garrison to protect the community from Indian raids and rebellion, and to enforce the friars’ rule over the mission neophytes. The garrison was under the ultimate command of the nearest presidio. In the Bay Area, this was the San Francisco Presidio. The soldiers had the added duty of defending the colony against foreign enemies, and the military commanders also served as local civil authorities.
The Spanish government had used the mission-presidio combination to pacify and Hispanicize several Latin American frontiers, and the system was two centuries old by the time it reached the Bay Area. In theory, the system would eventually self-destruct, for at some point the native population would become indistinguishable from the other lower-class Spanish imperial subjects, and the colony would no longer need the special talents of mission friars and presidio soldiers. In California, the Spanish government intended for this to occur after only 10 years, but in fact, the mission-presidio system was still going strong at the time of Mexican independence in 1821.
Exploration and Settlement
Portola’s successor as military commander in California, Pedro Fages, twice explored the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, in 1770 and 1772. In 1775, Juan Manuel Ayala sailed the first Spanish ship through the Golden Gate and made an extensive survey of the estuary. Reports of the expeditions impressed the viceroy in Mexico City. Juan Bautista de Anza, a frontier military officer, was then preparing to lead about 240 colonists and assorted livestock and supplies on a remarkable trek from northwestern Mexico to California. The viceroy ordered Anza to establish settlements around the bay. He finished his 1,500-mile trip in 1776 and, leaving most of the settlers in southern California and Monterey, proceeded to San Francisco Bay. As a soldier, Anza first sought a strategic location for defending the bay from foreign attack. One logical place was a mesa on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula, commanding the entrance to the estuary. This was where Anza founded the San Francisco Presidio in June 1776, and it has remained on the site ever since.
With the presidio located on the west side of the bay, it made sense for the first mission in the region to be nearby. Anza picked a site about three miles south of the presidio, along the banks of a creek called Arroyo de Dolores. The soil and climate were better than those at the presidio, and the creek and a nearby lagoon provided adequate fresh water for the mission’s needs. Father Serra formally named the new mission after St. Francis of Assisi, but from the beginning it was popularly known as Mission Dolores. In 1777, the governor at Monterey chose sites for Mission Santa Clara and for the pueblo or civil town of San Jose at the south end of the bay. Both settlements experienced minor location changes due to flooding, but they eventually prospered in the Santa Clara Valley’s fertile soil and pleasant climate. In the 1790s, Indians from the mission linked the two settlements with a tree-lined road that still is known as the Alameda.
Not until 1797 did colonial authorities establish a settlement on the eastern shore of the bay. This was Mission San Jose, located in what is now the city of Fremont. It eventually became the most successful of the Bay Area missions, but at the time it was founded, the east side of the bay was already called Contra Costa, a term meaning “opposite” or “other” shore. Use of the term implied that the western side of the bay was the shore, the place of greatest significance and prestige. In a sense the East Bay has suffered form a “contra costa” syndrome ever since, and relations between residents of the two sides of the bay are still affected by settlement patterns and images dating from two centuries ago.
The governor at Monterey did not recognize the need to settle the north shore of the bay until after 1812, when the Russian American Fur Company established settlements at Fort Ross and Bodega Bay, along the Sonoma County coastline. The Russian colony was primarily a business venture rather than a territorial claim, but Hispanic authorities feared a possible Russian advance toward San Francisco Bay. The establishment of Mission San Rafael in 1817, and Mission San Francisco Solano (Sonoma) in 1823, thus in part represented a “defensive expansion” to protect the Bay Area’s northern flank. The friars also intended these missions to serve as hospitals for sick neophytes from Mission Dolores. The San Rafael Mission was the northernmost advance of Spanish-era settlement in the New World, and the Sonoma Mission was the only one established during the Mexican period, which began in 1821.
The Missions and the Indians
By 1823, there were seven Hispanic settlements around the bay, five of them missions. This indicates the missions’ importance in the Spanish colonial scheme, and their key role in establishing and maintaining the Hispanic way of life in the Bay Area. Theoretically, the friars were to persuade Indians to come to the missions, rather than force them. During the early years, at least, the Franciscans acted in accord with this principle, engaging in tremendous recruiting efforts. Gradually the neophyte population grew, and by the early 19th century, five or six thousand Indians lived and worked in Bay Area missions. Once an Indian was baptized and took up residence, all pretense of voluntarism ceased. The missions were designed as authoritarian institutions where friars gave orders and Indians obeyed. If necessary, soldiers enforced the friars’ authority.
Inevitably, some of the neophytes rebelled, and running away was the most common form of protest. Garrison soldiers spent a good deal of time tracking down escapees, as the friars wanted to avoid a precedent of easy escape, and because runaways were sometimes the most dangerous Indians. They had learned European ways, including a taste for beef and a desire for other Spanish products. Sometimes they also adopted “civilized” methods of warfare, including use of horses and firearms. The most famous Bay Area Indian rebel was Estanislao, a runaway from Mission San Jose. In the 1820s his band of men carried out a number of daring raids on Bay Area missions and ranchos, before finally being subdued by a force led by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Stanislaus County and the Stanislaus River are both named for this mission-Indian rebel. Whether seen as a brave freedom fighter or as a cruel bandido, he was by no means unique as an Indian who resisted Hispanic rule.
In addition to Indian resistance, there was also Indian compliance and cooperation, without which the missions would not have survived. At a typical mission, two friars and perhaps a half-dozen soldiers were in charge of 1,000 or more Indians. The friars created a force of Indian middle managers, overseers, and foremen, who directly supervised mission activities and communicated the friars’ orders to the neophytes. (Estanislao occupied such a position before leaving the flock, so the friars may sometimes have promoted leadership potential that came back to haunt them.) In any event the loyal Indian overseers were essential to the missions’ success, and many of the neophytes developed affection for the friars and became devout Christians.
Indian rebelliousness seemed to increase as the Indian population declined. As disease reduced the mission Indian population, the workload of the remaining neophytes inevitably increased. Perhaps this led to greater dissatisfaction and a greater likelihood of rebellion. While the Spanish certainly did not wish to decimate the Bay Area natives, European diseases took a terrible toll, as happened everywhere in the Americas. The friars may have increased the effect of the diseases by gathering Indians into close proximity with whites, interfering with traditional Indian sanitary practices such as daily bathing, and enforcing other drastic cultural changes that may have reduced the will to live.
Mission Dolores was a particularly disease-ridden community. In 1816 a measles epidemic killed 234 neophytes, and a similar outbreak in 1824 caused even more deaths. The Indians also suffered greatly from smallpox and venereal disease. In 1818 the mission had 1,500 neophytes; five years later the number was down to 230. As we have seen, San Rafael and Sonoma were established as hospital missions for sick Indians from San Francisco, and in those sunnier and more fertile locations the death rate seems to have been lower. But inept administration of the Sonoma Mission produced an Indian uprising in 1826.
As noted earlier, the most successful Bay Area mission was San Jose, in present-day Fremont. During its 37 years of operation it achieved over 8,000 conversions, the second highest total of all 21 California missions. It led northern California missions in the production of wheat, corn, beans, and fruit, and by the 1820s, ran more than 20,000 head of livestock. For most of its history, Father Narciso Duran, ablest of Bay Area friars, administered Mission San Jose. Duran not only supervised the economic and religious life of the community, but also wrote church music and conducted an Indian orchestra, some of whose instruments were made in the mission shops. Yet even Mission San Jose suffered from outbreaks of disease, and Estanislao was Duran’s most famous neophyte.
Despite their problems, and the tragic decimation of the Indians, the Bay Area missions effectively played their assigned role in the Spanish colonial plan. In a remarkably short time, thousands of hunting and gathering people were transformed into agricultural workers, herdsmen, and, in some cases, people who were adept at skilled European crafts. Their labor formed the basis of the colonial economy and allowed California to become a self-sufficient unit within the Spanish Empire.
The End of Spanish Rule
The presidios were also successful in their assigned role. The soldiers effectively enforced discipline at the missions, and were able to control if not prevent raids on Spanish settlements. The presidios also proved effective deterrents to European invasion, although their actual ability to resist such attack was minimal at best. In 1806, for example, when a Russian ship entered the bay and fired a friendly salute, the Presidio soldiers had to row out to the ship to borrow the powder needed to fire a polite reply. Despite this evidence of Spanish California’s military limitations, the Russian settlements established five years later were carefully located north of the line of actual Spanish occupation. The Presidio’s presence meant that foreign settlement on the bay itself would involve an exchange of shots, and thus an act of war that could activate vast alliance systems. The San Francisco Presidio was thus a trip-wire to general European war, and foreign powers did not consider the region worth the risk of such an eventuality.
Spanish rule was ended not by foreign invasion or Indian revolt, but by the Age of Revolution that swept the Western world in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The United States declared its independence the same year that Juan Bautista de Anza established the San Francisco presidio and mission. Thirteen years later an even greater revolution erupted in France. Another decade later the Napoleonic Wars began, and by 1810 Latin America’s wars for independence were under way. In 1821, after a decade of civil strife, Mexico declared its freedom from Spain, ending the Spanish ear in Bay Area history.
The Spanish era may seem unimpressive from the perspective of the late 20th century. Spanish settlements in the Bay Area consisted of only four missions, one presidio, one pueblo, a few hundred Spanish-speaking residents, and a few thousand mission Indians. But the influence was profound. Spanish imperialism in the Bay Area meant the introduction of agriculture, livestock, the use of metals, woven cloth, sail power, and the wheel. It also brought European religion, language, philosophy, and worldview. Finally, it began the very rapid decline and extinction of thousands of years of Bay Area Indian life. While the Spanish fully intended to destroy Indian religion and culture, the missions and presidios also brought about an unintended, precipitous decline of the native population – in effect, the virtual destruction of the Indians themselves. Those tiny Spanish settlements caused the most drastic change in the human history of the Bay Area.