The Presidio of San Francisco

Fort Scott and the Golden Gate
Fort Scott and the Golden Gate

Land in hand with the Military went the Church during Spain’s days of dominion in the New World. Where the soldier walked, there too, came the priest. At first when all of the New World was new, when the hold of the Old World was insecure, it was the soldier who pointed the path, but when Spain’s hand had a firm grasp upon her possessions it was the priest who took the lead. The records of Spain on the east coast of America are records of bloodiness and cruel oppression. On the west coast where the friar led the way we find deeds of gentleness and love. Where Florida reveals a memory of hate in two old bastioned fortresses Marion and San Carlos with dingy dungeons and rusty chains, California shows its missions with their silvery chimes and its presidios, the two institutions being bound together. Four presidios were established by Spain in old California to guard its missions; the first, at San Diego; the second, at Monterey; the third, at San Francisco; and the fourth, at Santa Barbara. It is the third, which bespeaks our interest in this chapter, owing to its importance in the present day as well as to its historic and natural charm.

The presidio at San Francisco was established in 1776 by an expedition which set out in two parts in June of that year from Monterey; one part to go by land, the other by water. The objective point of the two was a bay, which had been discovered in 1769 by an expedition from San Diego. It was named in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, hence, San Francisco. The land expedition included Friars Palou and Cambon, a few married settlers with large families, and seventeen dragoons under the command of Don Jose Moraga, who was to be the commandant of the new post. It carried garden seed, agricultural implements, horses, mules and sheep. This party reached the neighborhood of the Golden Gate on June 27 and, without waiting for the detachment, which was coming by sea, chose a site for the presidio and began work upon the modest buildings of that station. The seed was placed in the ground, the cattle and sheep put out to graze and the horses and mules set to labor. All was activity.

The first part of September saw the buildings of the post substantially complete and on September 17, the feast of the Stigmata of Saint Francis, solemn possession of the Presidio, in the name of the King of Spain, was taken by the grizzled soldier Moraga, while a mass was celebrated by Palou. A Te Deum was sung, a cross was planted and salutes were fired over land and water. Thus was the presidio of San Francisco founded.

It is a far cry from 1776 to the present day (though not so long as from 1776 back to the first day of Spanish settlement in the future United States ) , but, while the immediate aspect of the country round about Spain’s presidio of 1776 at San Francisco has changed, the situation of the post has remained the same; and the view of land and water here is just as entrancing today as it was on that day in 1769 when the expedition from San Diego saw the far famed Golden Gate.

The Presidio of San Francisco, the most important military station of the Pacific coast, is situated on the northwest rim of the city, north of Golden Gate Park (and north of the exposition grounds of 1915) and connected with that park by a beautiful boulevard one mile long. The grounds comprise more than fifteen hundred acres, developed for military purposes in the most modern fashion. From almost any part of the grounds or the approach thereto enchanting views of the wonderful bay of San Francisco are to be obtained.

A description of the view of the presidio as you approach the place on the boulevard from Golden Gate Park has been given by Ernest Peixotto in his “Romantic California,” which may well be repeated here:

In the meantime the city boasts one splendid driveway that, with a connecting link completed, will rank with the famous roadways of the Old World.

Only a decade or two ago the Presidio (it still bears its Spanish appellation) was an isolated military post separated from the city by several miles of barren, sandy thoroughfares.

Now some of the handsomest homes crown the hill tops about it, and owe their chief attraction to the glorious views of bay and shore that they command. To start some fine afternoon toward sunset from one of these homes and take a drive around the cliffs is an experience not soon to be forgotten.

A few blocks run brings you to a stone gateway, its posts topped with eagles; you turn sharply to the right through a grove of eucalypti, swing round a curve and then you stop the motor. From the red Macadam roadway upon which you stand, the hills fall gently in a broad amphitheatre to the barracks and parade grounds laid out symmetrically along the shore, and teeming with soldier life. Beyond, the waters of the bay mirror the azure of the sky a blue, tinged with green, like those half dead turquoises that they sell in the marts of Tunis. The North Beach hills, thick studded with the modest homes of the city’s alien population, gleam white against the Contra Costa Mountains verdant in winter, tawny and dry in summer with the lumpy silhouette of the Monte Diablo, the Devil’s Mountain, poking over the shoulder as if it, too, wished a peep at so fair a prospect.

Across the stretch of intervening water, stern wheeled river steamers ply northward to San Pablo Bay; on through the Carquinez Straits and up the Sacramento River, their silhouettes varied once in a while by some grim battleship or cruiser steaming to the Navy Yard at Mare Island, headquarters, home and hospital for all our ships in the Pacific. Anchored in the middle of the bay, Alcatraz lies terraced with batteries, low, forbidding, while to the north rise the hills of Marin County bathed in purple shadows and clustered around the base of Tamalpais. The whole scene is suffused with the rosy flush of the westering sun that gilds the islands, warms the greens of the eastern sky, and blushes the hills with its ardent glances.

One turns from the picture with regret, only to follow on to new vistas. You wind through groves of evergreens and eucalypti out into the open meadows, a riot of flowers in springtime that top the cliffs above the Golden Gate. The famous straits lie just below. Fort’s Point antiquated bastions on their hither shore fronting the whitewashed walls of the harbor light on the Point Bonita bluffs opposite.

To take up the thread of our historical narrative, the presidio remained a possession of Spain’s until 1824 when Mexico finally became free from its mother country and the flag of Mexico took the place of the banner of Castile and Aragon at the Golden Gate.

In 1846 the American flag was raised in all of the presidios of California, an interesting chapter of national expansion far too large for abridgment here. In 1849 commenced the era of San Francisco’s prosperity and presidio’s importance with the discovery of gold in California and the onset of the hordes of gold seekers who came through the Golden Gate.

The presidio was visited by Richard H. Dana in 1859 and is described by him:

I took a California horse of old style and visited the Presidio. The walls stand as they did, with some changes made to accommodate a small garrison of United States troops. It has a noble situation and I saw from it a clipper ship of the very largest class coming through the Gate under her fore and aft sails. Thence I rode to the fort, now nearly finished, on the southern shore of the Gate, and made an inspection of it. It is very expensive and of the latest style. One of the engineers is Custis Lee, who has just left West Point at the head of his class, a son of Colonel Robert E. Lee who distinguished himself in the Mexican war.

The fort with the “expensive equipment” to which he refers is Fort Winfield Scott, which was seven years building and cost $2,000,000. It is now out of date, but is a picturesque feature of the harbor and is of service to the presidio authorities of the present in various minor capacities.

Opposite Fort Winfield Scott, across the Golden Gate, which is here at its narrowest width of one mile, can be seen the white buildings of Fort Baker. Other defenses of San Francisco, visible from the presidio, include Fort Miley, on Point Bonita; Point Lobos, and Alcatraz Island, a picturesque body of land whose Spanish name memorializes the pelicans, which once made the place their home.

During the Spanish American War the presidio was a scene of activity as the point of departure of our soldiers for the Philippines. The national cemetery for the burial of soldiers who have died on duty in the Philippines is situated here, too, and each returning transport brings back its sad burden, far lighter now than in the days when the islands were first feeling the weight of American rule.

Connected with the history of the presidio is a pretty story, which Bret Harte has woven into a familiar one of his poems. It concerns the pathetic love of Dona Concepcion Arguello, daughter of the Spanish Commandant Don Luis Arguello, for Rezanov, chamberlain of the Russian emperor, who came, during the days of Spain’s possession of this land, to negotiate for Russian settlements in California. Rezanov won the heart of his host’s daughter and sailed away to gain the consent of his emperor to marriage with her. Years passed and no word came from Rezanov. At length Sir George Simpson, the Englishman, in his trip around the world, brought word that Rezanov had been killed by a fall from his horse while crossing Siberia on his homeward journey. Dona Concepcion, who had faithfully waited his return, became a nun and when she died was buried near the old Mission church in the Presidio grounds.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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