On this day in 1846, USN Capt. John Montgomery anchored within an obscure bay in California and led a party of marines and sailors ashore. They met no resistance and claimed the settlement for the United States, raising the American flag in the central plaza over Yerba Buena, known thereafter as San Francisco.
An oddity of history, the site of San Francisco was first explored by land rather than from the sea, as San Francisco Bay is one of the most splendid natural harbors of the world. Yet great captains and explorers, including Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (1542–43), Sir Francis Drake (1579), and Sebastián Vizcaíno (1602), sailed unheeding past the entrance. In 1769 a landed scouting party from an expedition led by the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá looked down from a hilltop onto a broad body of water; they were the first Europeans known to have seen San Francisco Bay.
It was not until August 5, 1775, that the first Spanish ship, the San Carlos, commanded by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, turned eastward between the headlands, breasted the ebbing tide, and dropped anchor just inside the harbor mouth. It is possible that Drake may have entered the bay, but most evidence suggests otherwise.
Settlers from Monterey, under Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and the Reverend Francisco Palóu, established themselves at the tip of the San Francisco peninsula the following year. The military post, which remained in service as the Presidio of San Francisco until 1994, was founded in September 1776, and the Mission San Francisco de Asis, popularly called the Mission Dolores, was opened in October.
Almost half a century later, a village sprang up on the shore of Yerba Buena Cove, 2 miles east of the mission. The pioneer settler was an Englishman, Captain William Anthony Richardson, who in 1835 cleared a plot of land and erected San Francisco’s first dwelling, a tent made of four pieces of redwood and a ship’s foresail. In the same year, the United States tried unsuccessfully to buy San Francisco Bay from the Mexican government, having heard reports from whalers and captains in the hide-and-tallow trade that the great harbor held bright commercial possibilities. Richard Henry Dana, whose ship entered the bay in 1835, wrote in Two Years Before the Mast (1840) that “If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”
The Americans had to wait only another 11 years. After fighting began along the Rio Grande, Capt. Montgomery famously sailed the sloop of war Portsmouth into the bay on June 3, 1846, anchored in Yerba Buena Cove, and later went ashore with a party of sailors and marines to raise the U.S. flag in the plaza. On January 30, 1847, Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco, which was regarded as a more propitious name.
The permanent European population of Yerba Buena in 1844 did not exceed 50 persons. By 1846 the settlement had a population of 375, in addition to 83 African Americans, Native Americans, and Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians). Two years later, just before the discovery of gold on the American River, the town had grown to about 200 shacks and adobes inhabited by about 800 settlers. After the strike of the Mother Lode, the population shot up near to one-hundred thousand and 800 ships rode at anchor in the bay area.
Today, with the word Google on their lips rather than gold, the bay area is home to over 7 million souls paying the most astronomical rent in the Republic. And it is here our tale of perhaps America’s single most beautiful city endeth.