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Historical Sketch of San Francisco

By James D. Phelan

San Francisco has been greatly praised for the beauty of its situation, but apart from that, its site was a wind swept and sandy peninsula and it required much labor, not always well directed, to make it a habitable place. James Bryce in his "American Commonwealth," written in 1889, says: "Few cities in the world can vie with San Francisco either in the beauty or in the natural advantages of her situation; indeed there are only two places in Europe— Constantinople and Gibraltar—that combine an equally perfect landscape with what may be called an equally imperial position;" but Don Pedro de Alberni reporting, in July 1796, to the Viceroy of Spain, states that there is little wood on the peninsula of San Francisco, no water nor arable lands, and that, therefore, in his opinion it is the "worst place or situation in California for the establishment of such a villa as is proposed by the Senor Contador, Don Jose M. Beltram." (Dwinelle’s Colonial History. Addenda p.18)

The location of cities is not determined, however, by selection so much as by events. Yerba Buena, the original name of the port of San Francisco, was located in a sheltered cove, between Telegraph and Rincon Hills, with deep water off shore, convenient to the Golden Gate, or narrow entrance from the sea; but the only back country was the stretch of land between the ocean and the bay extending southerly into Santa Clara Valley.

It can be well understood now many pioneer settlers, among them General W. T. Sherman and Thomas O. Larkin, United States Consul at Monterey, believed that the principal city on San Francisco bay would spring up at the head waters of navigation near the confluence of the great rivers of the Sacramento and San Joaquin which debouch into the bay at or near Benicia. Back of Benicia was the richest mining country, and river navigation was the familiar means of transportation.

But Benicia, auspiciously begun, has made no progress in half a century and is still a mere village, while San Francisco is a world city of commanding importance—the chief port of the United States on the greatest of the world’s oceans.

Why the one was preferred over the other shall never be known—sufficient to say, San Francisco found favor in the eyes of the men of commerce and trade before the days of railroads; had, however, the western railroads been under way at that period (they did not come until 1867) there might have been a different story to narrate, for San Francisco, for the most part, is accessible to transcontinental lines from the mainland shore of the bay only by means of ferries—usually an impediment to traffic. But some cities, predestined to greatness, overcome all impediments and so prove their necessity and fitness.

General Sherman tells in his Memoirs (p.55) how Dr. Semple and others, in 1847, believed that the great city of the Bay of San Francisco would rise on Carquinez Straits; how General Vallejo gave them title to a league of land on condition that the city should bear the name of Vallejo’s wife, Francisca; how, soon after the name of Yerba Buena was changed to the City of San Francisco, by Alcalde Bartlett, in order to checkmate the founders of Francisca, thus forcing them to rename their town site, Benicia, the second baptismal name of the Senora Vallejo. Now, this is what General Sherman says: "I am convinced that this little circumstance was big with consequences. That Benicia was the best natural site for a commercial city I am satisfied; and had half the money and half the labor since bestowed of San Francisco been expended at Benicia, we should have at this day a city of palaces on the Carquinez Straits. The name ’San Francisco’ fixed the city where it now is, for every ship in 1848-49, which cleared from any part of the world, knew the name of San Francisco not Yerba Buena or Benicia, and consequently ships consigned to California came pouring in with their contents and were anchored in front of Yerba Buena, the first town."

General Sherman understood surveying and might have attained the first rank as a "builder of cities" if his "bump of location" were more pronounced. He confesses to surveying Colonel J. D. Stevenson’s newly projected city "New York of the Pacific," situated at the mouth of the San Joaquin river, for which he received $500, and ten or fifteen lots, enough of which he sold to make up another $500, and abandoned the balance. This city met the fate of numberless other projects about the bay. (Memoirs p.74)

There must be some magnet in the site of San Francisco. As Bret Harte sang of the metropolis: "Thou drawest all things small or great, To thee beside the western gate." San Francisco (when R. H. Dana, Jr., looked upon it in 1835) was a hilly and barren waste. The pioneer in city building has something to subdue. By him the sand-dunes were dumped into the cove below Battery and Market and Montgomery and Washington streets, making a new shore line, reclaiming many acres of land from the bay and giving deep water for the wharves; but the conspicuous fault of the men of that time was perhaps a lack of esthetic sense, for instead of circling the hills with roads, rectangular blocks were laid out on their slopes. Furthermore, the city suffered from the confusion arising out of land litigation. When California was ceded by Mexico to the United States, existing property rights had to be respected, but these rights were hard to determine. It was the practice of Spain to settle its Pacific colonies by the establishment of missions, representing the religious branch; presidios, the military authority, and pueblos (limited to four square leagues), the town or civil government. The pueblo lands of the city were sacred, and it has been decided that they were "held in trust for the inhabitants," so after squatters and judgment creditors against the city had taken possession of much public property, they were finally compelled to compromise their alleged claims by the assertion of the city’s pueblo rights. (Harte vs. Burnett, 15 Cal. Reports, 1860; U.S. Supreme Court, Townsend vs. Greely, 1866.) In 1856 and in 1865 the city was given the "Van Ness Ordinance" and other municipal enactments by which the public parks, places, school and fire lots and streets were finally confirmed to the people out of the public domain. But first, what is the history of Spanish and Mexican dominion?

After conferring plenary powers on viceroys and "presidents of my royal audiences" to sell uncultivated lands, the Spanish King, in 1754, added this wholesome and provident restriction, to which is due the little that the city inherited in the way of public lands: "But in regard to lands of community, and those granted to towns for pasturage and commons, no change shall be made; the towns shall still be maintained in possession of them." (Wheeler’s Land Titles, p.4). They were inalienable. (Ibid) After the acquisition of California by Mexico in 1821, the ayuntamiento (the council which Spain set up in its municipalities), was authorized by the Territorial Assembly to grant lots 200 varas back from the beach, a restriction designed to save the harbor front for the common benefit.

Jacob P. Leese, who left Los Angeles for better commercial prospects in San Francisco, built in 1836 the first house erected by an American on the west line of the present Dupont street. (An Englishman, W. A. Richardson, however, had preceded him by one year, but had built a mere shanty.) The cove of Yerba Buena had not at that time been surveyed but was used as a landing-place by ships trading in grain, hides and tallow—20,000 hides and 2,000,000 pounds of tallow having been exported in one year. Exclusive of the Indians, there were but sixty persons living at the Mission (founded October 9, 1776) and fifteen soldiers at the Presidio.

This Mission was called San Francisco de Assisi; or, sometimes, de Dolores. The Mission fathers of the Franciscan order, who gave the name of San Francisco to the bay in 1769, which they had discovered from the land, and to which they believed they were led by the patron of their order, St. Francis, converted the native Indians to Christianity. The Indian population in 1802, according to the authority of Humboldt, was, male and female, 814. They were as low as any known race in the scale of humanity, but they were patiently taught useful arts. The Mission accumulated surprisingly large flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, horses and grain. In 1825 it was credited with 76,000 head of cattle and 79,000 sheep, and there was village at the mission which Captain Benjamin Morrell estimated to contain 500 inhabitants. The Indians were dispersed and disappeared after the secularization of the missions by Mexico in 1833, and the lands and property of the fathers were confiscated to regranted to settlers.

In 1837 a law was promulgated for the government of pueblos which remained in force until July 7, 1846, when California was taken by Commodore John D. Sloat. Two days later the American flag was raised in the old plaza of Yerba Buena, now called Portsmouth Square, in honor of the United States ship, then commanded by Captain J. B. Montgomery, the flag-raiser, whose name was given to the principal thoroughfare.

It was as early as the Spring of 1839, however, that Governor Alvarado directed the alcalde, Francisco de Haro, to make a survey of Yerba Buena and in the fall of the same year Juan Vioget, a surveyor, made the first regular survey and plan of what is now San Francisco. That survey merely covered the area between Pacific, Sacramento, Montgomery and Dupont streets. It may be mentioned in passing that in 1835, W. A. Richardson claims to have made a rough plan of a small area by official authority. (The United States vs. Jose Y. Limantour. Transcript of record p.21 et seq.) But it is gratifying to note, even at this period, in the midst of confusion, that the germ of artistic planning was not foreign to the minds of the founders, although it did not bear abundant fruit. In making grants of house lots, it was ordered that "they shall be in as good order and arrangement as possible, and as the situation of the place may require, in order that the streets and plazas which may be formed may have, from the beginning, proper uniformity and harmony."

The wagon-road to Yerba Buena from the Mission was built in 1838. Then the village slumbered until awakened by the guns saluting the flag and, a little later, by the clarion cry of "Eureka!"

In March, 1847, nine months before the discovery of gold, General S. W. Kearny, after whom Kearny street is named, then Military Governor of California, ordered the sale at auction of beach and water lots, excepting those reserved by the Federal Government, "for the benefit of the town of San Francisco." Jaspar O’Farrell, a surveyor, was employed to lay them out which he did to the number of 444, between Rincon and Telegraph Hill, in size 45 feet 10 inches by 137 feet 6 inches. These lots were designated on the official map made by Wm. M. Eddy, city surveyor. Another survey was subsequently made of 328 more lots by O’Farrell, who in trying to reconcile his work with that of Vioget experienced considerable difficulty. Vioget’s lots had angles, obtuse and acute, which had to be brought into the uniform plan so that streets would cross each other at right angles. O’Farrell proposed to widen Dupont and Kearny streets, laid out by Vioget, but the expense was considered too great. Many years later these streets were widened at a large cost, the burden falling on the property one-half block distant east and west from the line of the improved street. Kearny street was widened from 45 to 75 feet, the 30 feet having been taken from the west side at a cost of $579,000. Damages and benefits were assessed by a commission. Dupont street was widened in 1878 in the same manner and renamed Grant avenue. Montgomery street was opened to Howard street, and Montgomery avenue, a great diagonal thoroughfare, was cut from Montgomery and Washington streets northwesterly to the bay— the cost of which has never been met on account of fundamental irregularity in the issuance of the bonds. None of these expenses were assumed by the city but were expressly made a district charge and the property of the district was made liable, under a prescribed procedure. It is unjust to put the whole burden of such improvements on a small district where the city is also a large beneficiary. The scandal arising out of the Dupont street and Montgomery avenue widening and extension bonds has been an injury to the city’s credit, and yet the city is not responsible, and before the bonds were issued it expressly disavowed responsibility. The bond buyers were obliged to look to the regularity of the proceedings of the commissioners charged with the duty of issuing the indebtedness.

Jaspar O’Farrell also delineated Market street— an avenue which is unique among city streets in that it seems, like a great river, whose flow is augmented by many tributaries, to drain all other streets. It was given its direction by the respective locations of the town and the Mission, which it practically connected. The survey made south of Market street bore but little relation to that on the north. The historian, John S. Hittell, says that "O’Farrell correctly appreciated the importance of making the main streets in the southern part of the town agree in general direction with a route followed by people going from Yerba Buena Cove to the Mission." That was well enough, no doubt, for his period, but since then the south side has developed on independent lines, irrespective of the Mission, and it is necessary to connect it more intimately with the north side by opening new streets and diagonals.

At the period of the O’Farrell surveys the population of San Francisco was shown by a census to be four hundred and fifty-nine. This number did not include soldiers nor the inhabitants of the Mission-village of Dolores.

Then came the discovery of gold in January, 1848. The population increased by leaps and bounds. O’Farrell’s lots were all sold, and, in October, 1849, the ayuntamiento ordered Eddy to extend the survey to Larkin street north of Post street to Leavenworth and Eighth Streets. One hundred-vara lots sold for $500, and fifty-vara [a vara = 33 inches] lots for $200.

In 1850 a franchise was granted for a plank wagon-road from California and Kearny to Fifteenth street, by way of Mission street to the Mission Dolores. Mission was favored over Market street because the latter from Second to Fifth street was covered by a high ridge of sand. There was a deep cut in the sand hills at Kearny and Post streets where tolls were collected. This road did not become free until 1858.

In 1851, Congress created the land commission to settle land claims in California. In taking the country, Commodore Sloat had proclaimed that persons in peaceable possession under "color of right" should be protected in their holdings. This promise was ignored by the Act and the result was that squatters entered upon lands in and about the city and became a political power. The native California rancheros lost half their holdings to the lawyers and the other half in living during the litigation, and awaiting for a patent to issue— and so the Noe, Bernal, de Haro and other grants in or near San Francisco were dissipated. Just as the time limit set for the filing of claims before the commission was about to expire, in March, 1853, the Limantour, Santillan and Sherrebeck claims were filed for nearly all the property south of California street and west of Second, which ultimately was invalidated by the courts in so far as it affected pueblo lands; but other properties were confirmed to him.

The boundary line of the City of San Francisco, as fixed by the act of the Legislature, approved April 15, 1851, reincorporating the city, was as follows: distant, in a southerly direction, from the center of Portsmouth square, on the west by a line parallel with Kearny street, two miles distant, in a westerly direction, from the center of Portsmouth square. Its northern and eastern boundaries shall be coincident with those of the County of San Francisco (i.e. the bay).

The westerly boundary line so fixed coincided, nearly, with what is now Divisadero street, and the southerly line with Twenty-first street.

By an act of the Legislature, passed March 11, 1858, Ordinance No. 822, passed by the Common Council of the City of San Francisco, June 20, 1855, was ratified and confirmed. By this ordinance the city relinquished all claims to lands west of Larkin and Johnston (Ninth) streets, and within the boundary line, as fixed by the act of 1851, to those persons, and their successors, who had been in actual possession thereof from January 1st, 1855, to June 30, 1855, and as to those lands lying east of said streets and above high-water mark, to those persons who deraigned title from grants made by the alcaldes of municipal authorities of the former pueblo.

By section 5 of the ordinance the city reserved the right to select and reserve such parts of the lands lying west of Larkin and Ninth streets, and within said boundary line, as might be necessary for public purposes, such as school houses, engine houses and squares, and in pursuance of such plan another ordinance, No. 845, was passed September 27, 1855, and likewise ratified by said legislative act, providing for a commission to prepare a plan of streets, squares and public building lots within this portion of the city.

Such a map was accordingly prepared (since known as the Van Ness map), and by another ordinance, No. 846, passed October 15, 1856, likewise ratified by said legislative act, it was "declared to be the plan of the city, in respect to the location and establishment of streets and avenues, and the reservation of squares and lots for public purposes in that portion of the city lying west of Larkin street and southwest of Johnston (Ninth) street," as defined by the charter of 1851.

By an act of Congress, approved July 1, 1864, such ordinances, and the act of the Legislature ratifying them, were referred to and approved, and the United States relinquished all claims to the lands delineated on said map for the uses therein respectively designated.

The rights of the city to its public reservations thereby became fixed and determined, so far as that portion of the city lying east of Divisadero and north of Twenty-first street), no action was taken by the city in the matter of confirming the title of private persons or making reservations of land for public purposes until 1868, when ordinance No. 800, approved January 14, 1868, was passed by the supervisors. This ordinance, which was confirmed by an act of the Legislature approved March 27, 1868, provided that the supervisors should immediately proceed to subdivide into blocks such portions of the city and county lying outside of the charter line of 1851 as they might deem expedient, and to make necessary reservations of lands for public building sites, squares and a park. In pursuance of this plan, the Committee on Outside Lands of the Supervisors caused to be prepared a map of that portion of said lands lying north of the Rancho Laguna de la Merced and the San Miguel rancho and of Islais creek not reserved by the United States, whereon were delineated streets, and reservations for school houses, engine houses, a cemetery, public squares, a city and county hospital and Golden Gate Park. Such map, so prepared, was finally approved and adopted by the supervisors as the city map by ordinance No. 823, approved July 24th, 1868, and has since been know as the Humphreys map.

By said ordinance No. 800 the title of the city to lands outside the charter line of 1851, and not embraced in Spanish grants, such as the San Miguel rancho, nor reserved by the United States, nor by the city for public use, was relinquished to such persons who were in actual possession thereof on March 8, 1866, and had paid taxes thereon for five years next preceding July 1, 1866.

The title to this territory was thereby settled and fixed, and the right of the city to public property lying therein determined.

All of the other lands lying outside of the charter line of 1851 are embraced within what were originally Spanish ranchos, the title to which was derived directly by grant from the Spanish or Mexican governments, namely, the Rancho Laguna de la Merced, San Miguel Rancho, Rancho Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo, and the Rancho Canada Guadalupe Rodeo Viejo y Visitacion. Various persons and corporations deraigning title through these different grants at different times filed and recorded maps of tracts lying within their boundaries, whereby the streets thereon delineated were dedicated to the city, the most prominent of these being the Horner’s addition, O’Neil and Haley tract, and the South San Francisco Homestead Association.

IN: Report on a Plan for San Francisco / by Daniel H. Burnham ; assisted by Edward H. Bennett ; presented to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors by the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco ; edited by Edward F. O’Day ; September MCMV. [San Francisco] : Published by the city, [1905] (San Francisco : Sunset Press)