El Presidio of San Francisco

Thursday, Oct 28, 2021 Category History
El Presidio de San Francisco illustration
An artist’s conception of El Presidio de San Francisco as it might have appeared in 1792, looking south toward Inspiration Point. Drawing by Steve Patricia, courtesy National Park Service.

El Presidio de San Francisco was first established in 1776 as a fort at the northernmost outpost of colonial New Spain. From the beginning, the main purpose of El Presidio was that it would act as a defensive check against British, Russian, and French incursions into California, protecting the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. During the original colonizing expedition, the value of the bay was immediately recognized. On that expedition, Father Font described a stretch of land “so commanding that with muskets it can defend the entrance.” This stretch of land was selected for establishing El Presidio.

El Presidio drawing from 1806
The earliest known drawing of El Presidio, as seen in 1806 from the Russian American Company ship “Juno.” Drawing by Wilhelm Gottlief Tilesius von Tilenau, courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

“Although in my travels I saw very good sites and beautiful country, I saw none that pleased me so much as this. And I think that if it could be well settled like Europe there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world, for it has the best advantages for founding a most beautiful city.”

Father Pedro Font, 1776

Lithograph of El Presidio in 1815
A lithograph of El Presidio in 1815 from Louis Choris’ book, Voyage pittoresque autour du monde. Choris was the artist for the Russian exploring expedition on board the Rurik, which spent a month at San Francisco that year. Image courtesy the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

El Presidio's settler colonists didn’t actually come from Spain. Rather, they came from a region of the Americas in what is now northern Mexico. Soldiers with families were the premium recruits for this expedition, and the women and children they brought with them comprised the majority of the colonial party who trekked from Mexico northward.

When they first arrived, the settler colonists laid out a fortified quadrangle. Their construction plan conformed to royal regulations and included soldiers' and settlers' quarters, warehouses, a guardhouse, powder magazine, and a chapel. So far, Archaeological excavations have not clearly defined the outline of this first iteration of El Presidio. However, archaeologists from Cabrillo College worked for several field seasons to slowly uncover the remains of the first chapel at El Presidio.

Watercolor of Mexican El Presidio in 1826
A watercolor of the Mexican El Presidio in 1826 by British artist Richard Brydges Beechey, who was serving on his brother Frederick’s exploring expedition on board the H.M.S. Blossom. Courtesy of the Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Dakin Collection

From the time the settlers first constructed the fort, the conditions at El Presidio began to gradually deteriorate over time, culminating in 1792 when Commandant Hermenegildo Sal submitted a report documenting the situation and indicted the negligence could be blamed on his superiors. That same year, British Captain George Vancouver visited El Presidio and noted that it was “ill accorded with the ideas we had conceived of the sumptuous manner in which the Spaniards live on this side of the globe.”

Archaeological dig site of El Presidio
The archaeological dig site along the western portion of El Presidio being prepared for a new season. Image by Dan Friedman, Presidio Trust volunteer.

In 1815, the quadrangle was rebuilt to be two times its original size. This addition is the area that the Presidio’s archaeological team is currently in the process of uncovering. So far, they’ve discovered the well-preserved remains of officers’ quarters from Spanish and Mexican periods. They continue to look for evidence of colonial life with a special focus on the social lives of the women, children, and indigenous laborers who lived at the fort and whose stories are not captured in the traditional historical record.