California: Presidio of San Francisco Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Presidio was a military base from 1776 to 1994 under three different national governments. Now a National Historic Park, it contains a number of architecturally important buildings.

Site Office

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Building 201, Fort Mason

San Francisco, CA 94123

ph.: (415) 561-4323; TDD (415) 561-4313

Web site: www.nps.gov/prsf/

The Presidio of San Francisco has a rich history stretching back more than a thousand years. Once a military outpost, it is now a National Historic Park.

Native American settlements in the region of the Presidio date to the early eighth century. The Ohlone (or Costanoan) people inhabited the San Francisco region south to Monterey. Archaeological evidence places the Ohlone at the Presidio site by at least 740 c.e.

The Spanish Period

In 1776, the Spanish arrived at the peninsula, which they renamed San Francisco in honor of Saint Francis. By 1810, the introduction of exotic diseases and forced labor to the missions established by the Spanish led to the destruction of Ohlone society. The Spaniards’ settlement of the region was part of a larger movement. While Spanish sailors had explored the coast of what would come to be called Baja and Alta California since the early seventeenth century, serious settlement efforts did not begin until the later eighteenth century. In 1769, expeditions set out to build settlements in San Diego and Monterey.

After seven years and many abortive attempts to extend their reach into the San Francisco region, the Spanish arrived at the spurs of land called the Golden Gate on August 4, 1775. In July of 1776, a party settled in a clearing overlooking the bay.

By this point, the settlement of San Francisco followed a pattern that had developed for two centuries. Upon moving into a new area for colonization, the Spanish would establish three interdependent institutions–the pueblo, the mission, and the presidio. The pueblo was a civilian settlement whose goal was to establish as quickly as possible a Spanish population base. It was also to provide food, something that the mission, a religious settlement of Franciscan monks, assisted in by Christianizing the native Ohlone and forcing them to work.

The presidio, its name derived from the Latin term presidium (garrisoned fort), was the military part of the colonization effort. In addition to its military functions, the presidio also furnished governmental leadership for the region.

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Spanish enlarged their presence in San Francisco, although “enlarged” was a relative term. When the captain of the American frigate Hazard sailed into the San Francisco Bay in 1804 requesting repairs from winter storms, the garrison numbered only eight soldiers who were occupied primarily with keeping the Spanish peace in the surrounding settlements, including putting down Native American uprisings around other nearby missions.

The Mexican Period

The Spanish presence in the Presidio of San Francisco came to an end in 1821. The colonial government in Mexico, taking advantage of the increased weakness of the Spanish empire, declared its independence and took possession of all Spanish lands in North America, including the Presidio of San Francisco.

Unfortunately for the San Francisco Presidio, the neglect with which the Spanish had treated it continued under the new regime, primarily due to the instability of the new government. Physically and conceptually, San Francisco was a long way away from Mexico City.

From the 1820’s through the 1840’s, various European powers eyed San Francisco and dreamed of the natural harbor and riches the Presidio guarded. The weak grip of the Mexican government inspired dreams of empire in other nations, but it was the Americans, under the influence of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, who posed the greatest threat to Mexico’s governance. Briefly, Manifest Destiny held that it was the special mission of white Americans to settle North America from coast to coast, and to that end, an increasing number of Americans settled in Alta California.

For its part, the Presidio of San Francisco suffered continuing neglect, and by 1835, it was no longer a militarily important garrison. Although it continued what operations it could, the Presidio was virtually abandoned by the Mexican government.

The Americans, however, had taken note of it. In 1835, the American president Andrew Jackson offered the Mexican government five million dollars for the San Francisco area. After some consideration, Mexico refused the offer. Despite the obvious interest of Americans, the Mexican government did not change its policies of neglect. The Presidio was without troops or even basic resources. By 1846, most of its structures had fallen into disrepair.

The American Period

Conditions for the Presidio were to change, however. In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico, and American naval forces under Captain John C. Frémont occupied the Presidio. On July 9, 1846, the Mexican flag was lowered for the last time, and the flag of the United States was raised over the Presidio. The neglected fort’s fortunes were to change dramatically in the coming years.

Volunteers repaired the Presidio within a year of its possession. With the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the Presidio went from being a scruffy garrison on the edge of the American empire to the gateway to untold riches as the world rushed in to take advantage of the discovery. In 1850, realizing the strategic value of the San Francisco Bay area, President Millard Fillmore reserved the Presidio to the United States government for military use. Beginning with the Civil War of 1861-1865, the importance of not only California with its untapped resources but also the Presidio to national security and prosperity became increasingly obvious. Wars against Native Americans throughout the later nineteenth century emphasized this, and soldiers stationed in San Francisco saw combat against the Modocs in Northern California, as well as the Apache of the Southwest.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States was entering its Gilded Age, an era of both urbanization and industrialization on one hand and conservation on the other. As the Western frontier shrank, an increasing number of people worried that open space would vanish forever. The soldiers of the United States cavalry at the Presidio were given another task, and that was to protect the new national parks in the Sierra Nevada. Soldiers from the San Francisco Presidio patrolled Yosemite, Sequoia, and other parks during the summer months until the start of World War I in 1914. In 1916, the federal government created the National Park Service.

The military role of the Presidio was enhanced as well. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, thousands of troops camped at the Presidio awaiting deployment to the Philippines. Wounded soldiers returned to the Army’s first permanent general hospital. During the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Army supported the civilian government of the shattered city with protection, food, shelter, and clothing. During World War I, troops under General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, left the Presidio for Europe.

The view of the Presidio changed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was still an active military base, but many urban reformers advocated the idea of the Presidio as a public park. Many parts of the military reservation had already become favored weekend and holiday spots. By the turn of the century, reformers, who felt that open space and fresh air were absolutely necessary to life in a city, embarked on a movement to have part of the Presidio set aside. While this plan to set aside four hundred acres died in the Senate, Golden Gate Park was established elsewhere in the city. Even so, the Presidio itself was improved, not only with fortifications but also with trees. Yet the idea was there that the Presidio might one day become a park. When the Golden Gate Bridge was built between 1933 and 1937, civilian use of the Presidio increased.

1941-1994

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Presidio’s military role increased. The Presidio became the Western Defense Command Center, and soldiers dug foxholes on the beaches of San Francisco. During World War II, over 1.5 million soldiers and 23 million tons of war material passed through the Presidio.

From the time of the Spanish settlement, San Franciscans considered the Presidio an open post, and this attitude lasted through the early part of the war. Yet fears of submarine attack prompted the Army command to close the base for the first time in its history. There were barbed wire and antiaircraft batteries on the golf course and the beaches.

Despite these changes, however, the Presidio played a much less important role than it had during World War I. It had become clear that the post was no longer critical to the United States military. Great changes awaited the Presidio in the postwar years.

Despite protests on the part of the Sixth Army, it was increasingly clear that the Presidio’s days as a military establishment were numbered. In 1962, San Francisco prevented an attempt to develop part of the Presidio, and the Department of the Interior was prevailed upon to declare it a National Historic Landmark in 1963, which indeed it was, with over 350 buildings of historic value. The military presence declined noticeably between 1945 and 1970.

In 1972, the Presidio was designated part of the new Golden Gate National Recreation Area, should the military ever close the base. During the rounds of base closures in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, that eventuality occurred, and in 1994, the Presidio changed hands once again.

1994 to the Present

On October 1, 1994, the Presidio of San Francisco was transferred to the National Park Service. When it closed, the Presidio was the oldest military base in continuing operation in the country. It became a National Historical Landmark, with hundreds of buildings having historic value.

In 1996, Congress created the Presidio Trust to turn the former post into a self-sufficient park by 2013 while preserving its wealth of scenic and historic resources. While this type of park management had not yet been tried, it was deemed the only way to generate the vast sums of money needed to maintain the historic post.

The Presidio is open to visitors year-round, although the William Penn Mott, Jr., Visitors Center and the Presidio Museum maintain different hours. The museum contains images and exhibits representing the Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and American eras of use. While rangers and docents give a variety of programs on most weekdays, visitors can also explore the Presidio on their own on eleven miles of hiking and fourteen miles of bicycle trails.

In addition to having over two hundred years of military history, the Presidio is an architecturally rich location that features buildings from the Spanish to the modern eras of its occupation. These buildings, embodying a variety of styles, range from bunkers and ordnance storage to housing for troops and officers. These buildings include the Fort Point National Historic Site, the San Francisco National Cemetery, Crissy Field, and Baker Beach.

For Further Information
  • Benton, Lisa M. The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park. York, Pa.: Northeastern University Press, 1998. Cultural-historical study of the Presidio and its various uses. Particularly informative as to the transfer of the base to the National Park Service.
  • Duffus, James, III. Transfer of the Presidio from the Army to the National Park Service. Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, 1993. Contains the statement of the Director of National Resource Management Issues before a congressional committee about the transfer of the post.
  • Langellier, John Philip, and Daniel B. Rosen. El Presidio de San Francisco: A History Under Spain and Mexico, 1776-1846. Los Angeles: Los Angeles Corral of Westerners, 1996. Explores the early history of the Presidio with an emphasis on the people who were important to its founding and settlement.
  • “Presidio National Trust.” www.presidiotrust.gov Web site of organization responsible for maintaining the Presidio. Contains a number of useful links with pictures and history of the post.
  • Presidio of San Francisco National Historic Landmark District: Historic American Buildings Survey Report. San Francisco: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service and Department of Defense, Department of the Army, 1985. History of the Presidio with an emphasis on its changing architecture; contains a number of photographs and maps.
  • Thompson, Erwin N., and Sally B. Woodbridge. Special History Study of the Presidio of San Francisco: An Outline of Its Evolution as a U.S. Army Post, 1847-1990. Denver: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1992. Easy-to-read survey of the American period to 1990.
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