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The Archaeology of EthnogenesisRace and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco$

Barbara L. Voss

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780813061252

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813061252.001.0001

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Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

(p.41) 2 Spanish-Colonial San Francisco
The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis

Barbara L. Voss

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

The Presidio of San Francisco, a Spanish colonial military settlement, was established on July 26, 1776 by a caravan of 193 men, women, and children who had traveled overland from Tubac, Arizona. In less than one short year, the San Francisco Bay area was transformed from the homeland of the Ohlone Native Californians into a landscape dominated by colonial institutions. The Presidio of San Francisco was the seat of colonial government and military activity. Six religious missions, staffed by Franciscan priests and colonial soldiers, were founded to aggregate Native Californians into centralized settlements and convert them to Christianity. Civilian pueblos served as centers of agricultural and craft production. The small community of military settlers at the Presidio of San Francisco was instrumental in establishing this network of colonial institutions that exerted control over indigenous peoples and their lands.

Keywords:   Spanish colonial, San Francisco, Native Californian, Ohlone, Presidio, Mission, Pueblo, Institutions

On July 26, 1776, a caravan of 193 men, women, and children arrived at a small plateau at the northern edge of the San Francisco peninsula. Defined on its east and west by two valleys containing spring-fed creeks, the plateau was somewhat sheltered by a bank of hills rising sharply to the south. The site commanded an impressive view of the San Francisco Bay and of the Yelamu Ohlone village of Petlenuc,1 which stood on the bayshore only a few minutes’ walk to the north.

The expedition of military settlers had been traveling together for nine months. Some families had been in transit much longer, having first journeyed from their home villages to the expedition’s gathering point at the Presidio of Tubac, in present-day southern Arizona. The most arduous part of the journey was the five-month trek from Tubac to the Presidio of Monterey (map 1). The travelers faced constant pressure to continue moving forward, on horseback and on foot, in order to pass through the Sonoran and Colorado deserts during the cooler winter months. This timing was necessary not only for the safety of the human members of the expedition but also so that their livestock—hundreds of horses and mules and nearly a thousand head of cattle—would have adequate pasturage along the way. Thirst and hunger were not infrequent. Further, the expedition feared being attacked by the native communities whose lands they were traversing. But the military settlers’ encounters with indigenous peoples were peaceful, perhaps because it was clear that the colonists were just passing through. In fact, the travelers rarely stopped to rest, and when they did, (p.42)

Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

Map 1. New Spain, ca. 1776, including the Interior Provinces and the route of the Anza expedition. The lighter shaded area indicates the approximate limit of actual colonial settlement.

Adapted from Mason 1998:19.

it was for only one or two days, primarily when a woman was giving birth. By the time the party reached El Presidio de Monterey on March 10, 1776, it had gained four infant settlers and lost one adult woman in childbirth.

Most of the settlers rested in Monterey for three months, to recover from the journey and pasture their livestock. Meanwhile, the expedition’s leader, Juan Bautista de Anza, formed a scouting party composed of his second-in-command, José Joaquín Moraga; Franciscan priest Pedro Font; eleven soldiers; and seven servants. On March 23, 1776, they left Monterey and traveled north to the San (p.43) Francisco peninsula. Because their primary goal was to choose sites for the Presidio and mission, they traveled widely throughout the area to identify the locations of Native Californian villages and to find sources of timber, firewood, pasturage, and water.

By this point, Native Californians in the San Francisco Bay area were increasingly familiar with the Spanish-colonial soldiers and priests. Between 1769 and 1775, Bay area tribes had encountered four land-based colonial exploration parties: the 1769 Portolá expedition, the 1770 and 1772 Fages parties, and the 1774 Rivera expedition.2 In 1775, the San Carlos had anchored in the bay for forty-four days, while preparing a maritime chart of the region’s waterways. During their stay, the crew of the San Carlos visited several local villages, some of which prepared feasts for the strange newcomers. To reciprocate, the sailors offered gifts and invited some villagers aboard ship. In addition to these early direct encounters, native peoples living around the San Francisco Bay were undoubtedly aware of the 1770 establishment of the Presidio of Monterey and Mission San Carlos in the areas immediately south.

Consequently, when Anza’s scouting party entered the region in March 1776, news of its arrival spread quickly. Some local people sought out the colonial explorers, offering gifts of firewood, food, and water. Others brandished weapons and threatened the colonists but stopped short of directly attacking them. When visiting indigenous communities, the explorers usually distributed gifts of glass beads and cloth and often received gifts of food in return. At times, these early exchanges revealed points of similarity between local villagers and the newcomers. Soldiers described native food in familiar terms—cakes of acorn flour and deer meat resembled tamales, and gruels of ground seeds were similar to the corn-based atole (porridge) that was a staple of the colonial diet. Yet at other times, the cultural differences appeared insurmountable, especially regarding spiritual matters. The colonists’ Catholic prayers and rituals were as incomprehensible to the Native Californians as the Indians’ dances and songs were to the colonists (Milliken 1995:52–59).

Eventually, the expedition reached the Yelamu district (see map 3), which encompassed the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. Covered with sand dunes and grasslands interrupted by small creeks, this was the most arid and windswept part of the San Francisco Bay area. It was also the least populated, with only three communities, totaling approximately 150 to 200 people (Milliken 1995:62; Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005). The scouting party surveyed the region and selected sites for the new mission and Presidio. They returned to Monterey on April 8. Anza and Font departed for Mexico, leaving Lieutenant Moraga in command of the planned Presidio (table 1) and Franciscan priests Francisco Palóu and Pedro Cambon in charge of the effort to establish the mission. (p.44)

Table 1. Commanders of El Presidio de San Francisco, 1776–1846


Term of Service

José Joaquín Moraga

July 1776–July 1785

Diego González

July 1785–February 1787

Hermenegildo Sal (acting)

February 1787–June 1787

José Darío Argüello

June 1787–August 1806

Hemenegildo Sal (acting in Argüello’s absences)

1791–1794; 1795–1796

José Pérez Fernández (acting in Argüello’s absence)


Pedro de Alberni (Catalonian Volunteers)


Manuel Rodríguez

1806–1813 (never present)

Luis Antonio Argüello

August 1806–March 1830

Ignacio Martínez (acting in Argüello’s absences)

1822–1827; 1828–1831

José Antonio Sánchez (acting in Argüello’s absences)


Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo

September 1831–1834 (thereafter commander of both Sonoma and San Francisco)

(Acting in Vallejo’s absences)


   Dámaso Rodríguez

   Francisco Sánchez

   Juan Prado Mesa

Santiago Hernández (caretaker)


Joaquín Peña (caretaker)


SOURCE: Adapted from Langellier and Rosen 1996:189–190, app. A.

On June 17, 1776, the settlers and their livestock left Monterey, arriving in San Francisco ten days later. They brought with them thirteen young Native Californian servants from the Monterey region, who also acted as interpreters (Milliken 1995:62). Palóu writes that the Native Californians they met along the way were surprised to see people of both sexes and all ages, since all of the earlier colonial exploration parties had been composed entirely of adult men (1926:119–120). For the first month, the settlers camped in a valley near the Yelamu village of Chutchui, the site where Mission San Francisco de Asís would (p.45) be established. They were awaiting the supply ship San Carlos, which had been delayed long past its planned arrival date. Weeks passed with no word. On July 26, aware that the settlers needed to shelter themselves before winter arrived, Moraga moved most of the expedition to the site chosen for the new Presidio. The two priests remained at the mission site along with six soldiers who served as the mission escolta (guard).

It is difficult to imagine what it was like for the members of the Anza expedition to leave their homes and families and friends, travel through uncharted lands, and establish new lives in the most remote, isolated frontier of the Spanish-colonial empire. Records of the recruitment drive for the expedition provide glimpses of their motivations and aspirations. Anza recruited most of the military settlers from Culiacán, in Sinaloa, and Fuerte, in Sonora, because these towns were impoverished by crop failures and by ongoing battles between the colonial military and an intertribal alliance of local indigenous communities. The people living in this war-torn region, Anza wrote, were “best suited for the purpose and most easy to obtain without being missed,” for they were “submerged in the greatest poverty and misery” (Bouvier 2001:59). In other words, in the eyes of the colonial government, the members of the expedition were expendable, desperate, and susceptible to promises of future opportunity.

Anza recruited married couples with proven fertility; the families averaged four children per couple (Castañeda 1992:34). They were promised rewards that would lift them and their children out of poverty: livestock, clothing, supplies for the journey ahead, advance pay for the first two years of service, and free rations for the first five years. There was also the nebulous but tantalizing promise of land to be granted in reward for service to the colonial government. In exchange, the recruits pledged the next twenty years of their lives to colonial military service in Alta California.

Arriving on this windy and fog-shrouded promontory overlooking the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, the settlers had finally reached their new home. They began to construct rudimentary shelters. Some soldiers also accompanied Father Palóu in his visits to Yelamu villages, where he distributed presents of beads and cloth and encouraged the Yelamu to visit the new mission settlement (Milliken 1995:63). But on August 12, the villages in the Yelamu district were attacked and burned by the Ssalson, an Ohlone tribe based just south of the Yelamu. With several Yelamu wounded and some dead, and their homes destroyed, the survivors fled across the San Francisco Bay in tule boats to take refuge among the Huimen of present-day Marin County and the Huchiun of present-day Alameda County. As a result, the area selected for the new Presidio and mission settlements was quickly depopulated without any military action on the part of the colonial settlers.3

(p.46) A few days after the Ssalson attack, the delayed San Carlos finally entered the bay, bringing badly needed supplies. From that point forward, construction of the Presidio proceeded in earnest. Moraga and the ship’s pilot, José de Cañizares, laid out the formal quadrangle of the fort. The soldiers and their families continued work on their own dwellings, while the ship’s crew began to build the warehouse, the chapel, and the comandancia (the military and administrative headquarters, which also served as the commanding officer’s residence).

A month later, on September 17, the military settlers, mission priests, and sailors celebrated a high mass and the formal dedication of El Presidio de San Francisco. The settlement would guard the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, one of the world’s best natural harbors and a strategic resource that Spain could not afford to let fall into the hands of another European empire. The colonial settlers would also provide military muscle to the messianic project of Christianizing the area’s indigenous peoples and suppressing native rebellions against colonial rule. Most of all, the settlers’ days would be occupied with the basics of survival: creating shelter and obtaining sustenance in an unfamiliar land. From the beginning, the military settlers knew that they would never return to their former homes in what today is northwest Mexico. Their decisions to emigrate to the northernmost edge of the Spanish empire irrevocably changed their lives and those of their descendants.

Between 1776 and 1834, at least four generations of military settlers called El Presidio de San Francisco their home. They departed for weeks and even months on military expeditions into California’s interior and served tours of guard duty for several years at nearby missions. Some were appointed as colonial officials in civilian pueblos. Most, however, returned to the Presidio when a particular assignment ended. As the center of colonial life in the San Francisco Bay area, the Presidio was the crucible within which colonial identities were melded and formed. It was here that the settlers rejected the racially charged casta terms that had been their primary form of identification and forged new, shared identities as gente de razón, hijos del país, and Californios.

This chapter presents the historical background and the political and cultural context for this study of colonial ethnogenesis. It begins by describing the indigenous cultural landscape that the military settlers entered in 1776. Because of how Native Californian communities were internally organized, California was colonized not through a single battle or treaty but through decades of colonial entanglement involving military battles, voluntary and coerced labor programs, and religious proselytizing. The colonists were profoundly transformed (p.47) by their ongoing interactions with the Native Californians whose homeland they had invaded and appropriated and among whom they were always a small minority. Colonial ethnogenesis can be understood only within this context of intercultural interaction, exploitation, and violence.

The chapter next delves into the institutions that together constituted the colonial province of Alta California. In some other European colonies (and during the later U.S. expansion into western North America), government policies and practices encouraged individual settlers and private companies to pioneer as explorers, prospectors, farmers, land speculators, or entrepreneurs. In contrast, Spanish-colonial Alta California was a rigidly organized society. Military presidios and religious missions dominated colonial life; colonists were not even allowed to travel unescorted without a written pass from the appropriate commanding officer or priest. Only three civilian settlements were established in the entire province, and these were also tightly regulated by the colonial government. As military recruits, the settlers were shaped by these institutional practices, even as they themselves were responsible for implementing and enforcing colonial rules and regulations. Their options were constrained by the government ordinances, military regulations, and religious doctrines that structured every aspect of their daily lives. Nonetheless, within these institutions, the military settlers forged new cultural paths, and their successes in developing new forms of social identification indicate their ability to manipulate policy and procedure to their own ends.

This chapter also situates colonial San Francisco within the context of broader regional and international events. Throughout its colonial history, San Francisco presented a historical paradox. It was profoundly isolated, so much so that news of Mexican independence in 1821 did not reach the settlement until more than a year after Spain had withdrawn from North America. Yet San Francisco was also deeply integrated into the institutional networks of the colonial empire and the economic networks of the emerging capitalist world market. Remote events, such as the Yuma revolt and distant wars among European powers, had profound effects on the colonists’ lives and on the historical trajectory of Spanish colonization in Alta California.

Indigenous Landscapes

The founding of Mission San Francisco de Asís (today known as Mission Dolores) and El Presidio de San Francisco occurred in the midst of a complex indigenous landscape that colonial priests, officers, and military settlers could scarcely comprehend.4 The native cultures of the central California coast were (p.48) unlike any that Spain had previously encountered in the Americas. The structural differences between the state-level organization of Spanish-colonial institutions and the weblike political networks of the San Francisco Bay region’s native peoples profoundly shaped the trajectory of colonization. Spain appropriated Alta California through slow incremental expansion involving decades of colonial entanglement. By the 1810s, at the twilight of Spain’s empire in North America, the military settlers and missionaries had managed to secure only a narrow coastal strip of land as colonized territory.

The Native Californians who lived around the San Francisco Bay are today generally referred to by language group: Ohlone (Costanoan),5 Patwin, Wappo, Bay Miwok, Coast Miwok, Eastern Miwok, Pomo, and Yokuts (map 2). Anthropologists usually describe these historical communities as “complex hunter-gatherers”: largely sedentary peoples who lived not by agriculture but by gathering plants and shellfish, by hunting game, and by fishing. In central California’s relatively mild Mediterranean climate, indigenous communities had developed sophisticated environmental management strategies that maximized wild food yields. Rather than domesticating individual species, they domesticated entire habitats, using controlled burning, erosion control, plant and seed distribution, game management, and selective gathering to maximize the likelihood of sustained, reliable harvests (Blackburn and Anderson 1993). To guard against short-term fluctuations in resource yields, villages stored considerable quantities of dried meats, acorns, and edible seeds in granaries and storage pits; these surpluses were also used to sponsor regional feasts and in intervillage trade.

Native Californians of the central coast lived in small autonomous districts, each measuring eight to twelve miles across, which usually encompassed lands surrounding one or more watersheds running from the mountain crests to bay and ocean shores. This arrangement allowed each community to harvest resources from the full range of ecological niches created by changes in elevation, moisture, and temperature. At the time of Spanish colonization, the San Francisco Bay area was organized into more than sixty of these autonomous districts, whose residents each spoke their own distinctive language or dialect (map 3). Each district was further organized into two to four village communities, which could include anywhere from forty to three hundred people. For example, the Yelamu Ohlone, who lived in an area roughly corresponding to present-day San Francisco, generally resided in three village groups. Petlenuc was a small village on or nearby the bayshore of the Presidio. Another village group lived along Mission Creek, moving seasonally from Sitlintac on the bayshore to Chutchui two or three miles inland. A third group moved between Amuctac and Tubsinte, two village sites in the south-central area of San Francisco (p.49)

Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

Map 2. Native Californian language group areas. Today, many language group names have come to be used as tribal names.

Adapted from Milliken 1995:25.

(Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005:177). This largely sedentary residential pattern, along with intensive management of the environment, supported what may have been one of the highest indigenous population densities in North America (Milliken 1995:19; Milliken, Shoup and Ortiz 2005:72–73).

The political organization of Bay Area native communities is difficult to (p.50)

Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

Map 3. Native Californian districts in the San Francisco Bay area. Each district usually contained one to three permanent villages.

Adapted from Milliken 1995:229 and information provided by Randall Milliken in December 2006.

(p.51) describe in conventional terms. Each district was composed of several interrelated extended families, and its daily affairs were guided by a head-person and by spiritual doctors, moiety leaders, craft specialists, elders, and others who showed talent or insight into particular matters. Researchers are divided regarding the degree to which these leaders constituted a hereditary elite, with some arguing that there was little possibility for social mobility among community members. Others suggest that the family unit, under the leadership of its elders, was the primary center of authority; from this perspective, community leaders coordinated group activities but had little real power or status.6

The small size and political autonomy of these village districts, in comparison with other North American indigenous tribes, initially led anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber (1925, 1955) to conclude that native communities of the San Francisco Bay area were insular, bounded entities. More recent scholarship emphasizes that the political autonomy and territorial integrity of village districts were complemented by a complex web of regional ties formed through intermarriage, military alliances, long-distance trade networks, craft guilds, extended kinship groups, and moiety associations and other religious affiliations (Field et al. 1992; Lightfoot 2005; Milliken 1995; Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005; Yamane 2002). These bonds intertwined districts with each other but did not bring the region under any form of central leadership.

To the missionaries and the military settlers who arrived in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1770s, the gathering and hunting economy of the region’s native peoples and their lack of centralized leadership were antithetical to the colonial view of a proper civilized lifestyle. Settlers found Native Californians’ appearance even more offensive, since most indigenous dress displayed rather than concealed the body. The colonists were also simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by some indigenous sexual practices, which included not only monogamous heterosexual marriage but also polygamy, premarital sex, same-sex sexuality, and transgendered practices (Voss 2000a, 2000b). The perceived savagery of the regions’ inhabitants provided religious justification for initiating the colonial policy of reducción (literally, reduction), through which native peoples were removed from their home villages and aggregated at missions for religious conversion. Further, colonial officials prohibited seasonal burning and allowed their livestock to graze the grassy hills, destroying wild seed crops and introducing exotic weeds that disrupted local ecosystems. Within a few years of the arrival of the Anza party, hunger led many Native Californians to enter the missions out of desperation, to raid colonial settlements, to hire themselves out to colonial settlers as laborers, or to relocate to uncolonized regions to the east and north.

(p.52) Because each village and district was relatively autonomous, the region’s native peoples made no unified response to the arrival of the Anza expedition. Randall Milliken (1995:225) writes that “tribal groups in Central California were never able to forge enduring regional military alliances to oppose the Europeans precisely because they did not consider themselves to be a single people.” Instead, individuals, families, and villages adopted a range of strategies. Initial reactions to the colonial settlements included fear, curiosity, hostility, and friendliness. Some people demonstrated considerable generosity to the colonists, although we will never know whether the gifts of food and firewood were offered in a spirit of hospitality or in hopes of appeasing the strangers. Others sought alliances with the colonial military, hoping to gain advantages in disputes with neighboring villages. Many people took a wait-and-see attitude, keeping their distance while monitoring the situation. Some families hedged their bets by sending one or two relatives to live at the missions while the majority remained in their home villages; others fled the region entirely. The impacts of colonization rippled eastward and northward from the coastal area as refugees swelled the population of inland villages and brought with them livestock, horses, new kinds of material culture, and diseases.

Direct violence between the colonial military and San Francisco indigenous people did not occur until more than six months after the Presidio and mission were founded. We know of this first armed conflict from the memoirs of Father Palóu (1926:135–138), head priest of Mission San Francisco de Asís. Palóu wrote that in the fall of 1776, some Yelamu men and boys began to return periodically to the lagoon near the mission to hunt ducks. Perhaps they were also trying to assess whether it would be possible to return to their homeland. These visits were relatively uneventful, with the Yelamu sometimes presenting the missionaries with some of the ducks and receiving gifts of glass beads and food in return.

But in early December, Palóu began to experience these visits as hostile threats. He wrote that the Yelamu men “began to disgrace themselves, now by thefts, now by firing an arrow close to the corporal of the guard, and again by trying to kiss the wife of a soldier, as well as by threatening to fire an arrow at a neophyte from the mission of Carmelo who was at this mission” (1926:135). Sergeant Juan Grijalva, the second highest ranking officer at the Presidio, was at the mission when the man who had threatened to fire an arrow at the Mission Carmel neophyte—a neofito, as Native Californians who were newly converted to Christianity were called—returned to the area. Grijalva had the man arrested and flogged. Two Yelamu men who were hunting in the lagoon heard the man’s cries and ran toward the mission to try to rescue him, “making ready (p.53) to shoot arrows at the soldiers, who fired two gunshots only to frighten them” (136). The two Yelamu men fled to their campsite at the bayshore.

The next day, Grijalva returned from the Presidio with additional soldiers. It seems from Palóu’s account that Grijalva was determined to make an example of the two men who had challenged colonial authority by attempting to protect their companion. Grijalva and his troops found a group of Yelamu men camping on the beach and asked which of them had fired arrows at the mission. According to Palóu, some of the Yelamu pointed out two of their group, although these men denied the accusation. Grijalva dismounted his horse; the two accused men fled with several soldiers in pursuit. The rest of the Yelamu began to shoot arrows at the soldiers, wounding one man and a horse, “although,” Palóu noted, “they were not seriously hurt” (1926:137).

Grijalva ordered his troops to open fire, and they quickly shot two of the Yelamu men, killing one and severely wounding another. At this, the Yelamu surrendered, throwing their bows and arrows on the ground. Grijalva lowered his musket to the ground to signal acceptance of the truce. Meanwhile, Grijalva’s soldiers captured the two men who had run away when accused of trying to rescue the imprisoned Yelamu man. Grijalva ordered the two men whipped, and he used signs to tell them that he would kill them if they ever threatened the mission again.

We are left to speculate about how the Yelamu viewed these events. Were the “thefts” that Palóu alluded to an attempt to claim compensation for the colonists’ use of Yelamu lands and resources? Did the Yelamu man who attempted to kiss the unnamed colonial woman do so in hopes of forging an alliance through intermarriage? Were the Yelamu who shot arrows at the mission hoping that the colonists would flee the area, just as the Yelamu had done in response to Ssalson aggression? Regardless, at the close of 1776, three Yelamu men had been captured and flogged, a fourth had been shot in the leg, and a fifth killed by musket fire.

If the Yelamu had once envisioned a peaceful return to their homelands, they soon realized that it would be accomplished only through subordination to the new colonial military and religious order. In spring 1777, a small number of Yelamu young men and boys entered Mission San Francisco de Asís and began training in Christian catechism. The first three were baptized on June 24, 1777. By the end of 1777, twenty-eight additional Yelamu had accepted baptism and become members of the mission community (Milliken 1995:68–69; Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005:81–91).

In only one year, the Yelamu district was transformed from a network of interconnected native communities to a landscape dominated by colonial institutions. (p.54) As colonial influence expanded, the process was repeated time and time again in indigenous communities throughout the San Francisco Bay region. By 1793, no native villages remained on the San Francisco peninsula; and by 1810, all but the northernmost extent of the San Francisco Bay area had been emptied (Milliken 1995:1; Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005:81–91).

Colonial Institutions

The colonization of Alta California was a deliberately organized enterprise, one that was centrally planned and directed by high-ranking officers in New Spain’s colonial military. The decision to expand into Alta California was made in 1767, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, which brought increased French, British, Dutch, and Russian activity to the Pacific coast. It soon became clear that Spain needed to physically occupy the territory, or it would lose its claim to possession. Once foreign interests forced Spain’s hand, the colonial government was quick to act. In 1768, Visitador-General José de Gálvez established a shipyard and naval depot at San Blas, a port located just north of present-day Puerto Vallarta, to organize and supply maritime shipments to the new colony. He also ordered the construction of a new military headquarters across the Sea of Cortéz in Baja California so that Alta California could be reached by land.7

Colonization of the new province began in 1769, with the establishment of the San Diego mission and presidio, shortly followed by the 1770 founding of El Presidio de Monterey and its associated mission, San Carlos de Borromeo. In the mid-1770s, Anza forged an overland trail that connected Alta California with the province of Sonora. In 1776, El Presidio de San Francisco was the first settlement established via this new trail, followed by El Presidio de Santa Bárbara in 1782. Each of these military settlements was the headquarters of a presidio district that shared the settlement’s name (map 4). El Presidio de Monterey held the added distinction of being the capital of the province and consequently the residence of the governor, usually a Spaniard appointed to the position by the viceroy of New Spain.

Within each district, colonization followed the tripartite settlement system that had been developed during the previous two centuries of Spanish-colonial expansion in North America (Costello and Hornbeck 1989; Weber 1992). The presidios were the first settlements to be established. In addition to providing military defense, they were the seat of government for each district and oversaw the administrative, judicial, and economic organization of the region. Shortly afterward, religious missions were founded to aggregate and Christianize indigenous peoples. Finally, civilian pueblos were formed to supply agricultural (p.55)

Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

Map 4. Alta California presidio districts.

Adapted from Costello and Hornbeck 1989:311.

products and craft goods to the military outposts. Most of the military settlers who made up Alta California’s colonial population were involved in all three institutions. Many viewed the presidios as their primary residence but also served tours of duty at the missions and pueblos. Understanding this regional network of colonial institutions provides a necessary context for interpreting the archaeological site of El Presidio de San Francisco (map 5). (p.56)

Spanish-Colonial San Francisco

Map 5. Major Spanish-colonial and Russian-colonial settlements, 1776–1845, San Francisco Bay region.

(p.57) El Presidio de San Francisco

Presidios were frontier military institutions that developed through centuries of Spanish military encounters with non-Christian peoples, first during Spain’s imperial expansion into North Africa in the early 1500s, and subsequently in the New World during territorial expansion following the 1521 conquest of the Aztec empire. The Latin term presidium refers to a garrisoned place that is “set before” to create a defense perimeter, an enclave of civilization in a savage land (Moorhead 1975:3; Naylor and Polzer 1986:16). By the 1600s, presidios had become the dominant military institution in the northwest frontier region of New Spain, an area that came to be known as the Provincias Internas, or Interior Provinces. (These provinces encompassed the territory now held by the Mexican states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, Sinaloa, Baja California, and Baja California Sur as well as the U.S. states of Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.) Because presidios were designed to secure and defend Spain’s claim on territory that was occupied primarily by indigenous populations, the development of the forts was influenced more by the conditions of frontier engagement than by contemporary European theories of warfare (Bense 2004; Moorhead 1975; Thomas 1941). In the eighteenth century, the administration of military operations in the Interior Provinces was separated from the rest of the colonial military, and special regulations were issued to govern the presidios’ operations.8

Unlike other frontier presidios, the four in Alta California were intended to secure the new province from both indigenous resistance and maritime attacks by other European powers. Consequently, they were positioned at strategic points along the coastline, especially to guard natural harbors that might be attractive to passing ships (Whitehead 1983). All presidios were governed by the 1772 Reglamento (regulations), which specified the architecture of the fortifications, the composition of the presidio company, the economic system through which goods were distributed and accounted for, and the uniforms, equipment, and livestock that each soldier was required to maintain for his own use (Brinkerhoff and Faulk 1965). (These regulations are discussed at greater length in subsequent chapters.)

As the administrative, judicial, residential, and economic centers of the districts, Alta California’s presidios were villages as well as defensive fortifications. The nucleus of each presidio was its main quadrangle, a compound of buildings around a central rectangular plaza. The quadrangle housed most of the colonists living in each district and also included a guardhouse, a comandancia, a jail, a chapel, storehouses, and craft workshops such as carpentry and blacksmith shops. Presidio quadrangles were compact settlements, usually covering (p.58) only two to six acres. As chapters 6 and 7 discuss, the 1772 Reglamento ordered the fortification of the quadrangle with thick exterior walls, ramparts, and bastions, but these defenses were not always present at El Presidio de San Francisco and at other presidios in Alta California.

Each presidio quadrangle lay in the center of the royal presidio reserve, a large tract of land set aside for the exclusive use of the presidio company. The lands and natural resources on the reserve were developed to support the settlement. Archaeological investigations in the hinterlands surrounding El Presidio de San Francisco’s main quadrangle have uncovered evidence of substantial waterworks, perhaps intended to supply water to the quadrangle and to irrigate the colony’s fields (Voss et al. 2005). San Francisco’s presidio reserve also had a wharf, located on the bayshore immediately north of the main quadrangle. In the 1790s, under growing fears of foreign invasion, two additional fortifications were constructed along the bayshore: El Castillo de San Joaquín, positioned immediately above the narrow mouth of the bay; and La Batería de San José, located about a mile and a half east of the main quadrangle.

With supply ships arriving only once a year at best, each presidio community was expected to produce most of its own foodstuffs and did so by raising livestock and cultivating crops. In addition to the pastures and cultivated fields on its reserve, each presidio company controlled a large expanse of grazing land called ranchos del rey (royal ranchlands). San Francisco’s ranch was located south of the Presidio in the San Bruno Mountains, in what is today San Mateo County. The colonists also relied on the local landscape for raw materials used in construction and craft production. At El Presidio de San Francisco, clay for making adobe bricks, roof tiles, and household ceramics was harvested from large borrow pits surrounding the main quadrangle. Stone for building foundations was quarried from bedrock outcrops only a short distance away. Other resources were harder to obtain: the nearest source of limestone for producing mortar and plaster was more than six leagues (about twenty miles) to the south. Harvesting timber for construction and gathering firewood rapidly deforested the presidio reserve itself; only a few years after the Presidio was established, the military settlers had to venture to the south and even across the bay to obtain lumber (the Marin County suburb of Corte Madera—literally, cut wood—retains its name from Spanish-colonial timber harvests). Hence, while the presidio quadrangle was the center of colonial life in each presidio district, the military settlers’ use of the surrounding landscape extended far beyond the walls of the compound.


Gálvez envisioned California as a military colony, but he lacked the funds and personnel necessary to subdue Alta California’s native populations while simultaneously (p.59) guarding against incursions by other European powers (Campbell 1977). Reluctantly, Gálvez decided to involve Franciscan missionaries because they were “the only group experienced in managing Indians at low cost” (Weber 1992:242). Hence the expeditions that established Alta California’s colonial settlements were jointly headed by military officers and priests—in the case of El Presidio de San Francisco, Anza and Font. Consequently, Alta California’s colonial administration was forged through an uneasy alliance between military tactics and messianic fervor. This tension continued throughout the colonial era, especially after 1790, when missions began to dominate Alta California’s economy. Political debates about the role of religion in colonial government were accompanied by power struggles between church and military regarding the right to control Native Californian labor and the lands reserved for native peoples under colonial policy.

Missions were the most numerous colonial institutions in Alta California, and the most populous. In the end, twenty-one missions were established alongside Alta California’s four presidios and three civilian settlements. Each mission housed two priests, a small guard of four to eight presidio soldiers (and, at times, their families), and anywhere from five hundred to twenty-five hundred Native Californians who had been relocated from their home villages and baptized in the Christian faith. In comparison, the largest colonial settlements never exceeded three hundred in total population.9

Six of the twenty-one missions lay within the San Francisco Presidio district. Mission San Francisco de Asís was founded in 1776, concurrently with the Presidio, and Mission Santa Clara was established the following year. By the 1790s, nearly all Native Californians on the San Francisco peninsula had either entered the missions or fled the region; in that decade, the mission effort expanded to the south and east, with the opening of Mission Santa Cruz in 1791 and Mission San José in 1797. After the Russian-American Company founded Colony Ross on the Sonoma County coast in 1812, the Spanish-colonial government responded by setting up two new missions north of El Presidio de San Francisco: San Rafael in 1817 and San Francisco Solano in 1823. Like the presidios, each mission was a broad complex of interconnected facilities: religious buildings, residential neighborhoods, craft workshops, corrals, pastures, aqueduct systems, and agricultural fields (Costello and Hornbeck 1989). Most missions also maintained one or more asistencias, which functioned primarily as agricultural outposts, similar to the presidios’ ranchos del rey.

The missions are the most studied and the most controversial of Spain’s colonial institutions in Alta California.10 At the core of these debates is the degree to which native peoples were coerced to join and remain at the missions and their subsequent treatment as neophytes. Because of the high mortality rates (p.60) among neophytes, the missions were not self-reproducing and depended on continuously recruiting new members to sustain themselves.

For the San Francisco Bay area, Milliken’s research (1995:29) indicates that in the 1770s and 1780s, most Native Californians entering missions did so voluntarily but under difficult circumstances. The first converts were young, often orphaned, individuals who likely were attracted by the priests’ apparent spiritual power and unusual material technology. Further, indigenous communities on the San Francisco peninsula rapidly underwent population stress as they lost members from new diseases, and their hunting and gathering economy was disrupted by environmental degradation. Increasingly, new converts came to the missions out of desperation, devastated by the recent deaths of their loved ones and weak from lack of food. Entering the mission system was a permanent and irrevocable decision, something that most Native Californians probably did not understand when they agreed to be baptized. Baptized Native Californians were classified as neophytes to the faith and had the legal and spiritual status of children. Missionaries viewed baptism as irreversible; physical confinement and corporal punishment of the worldly body were considered preferable to allowing a soul to be spiritually condemned (Guest 1996).

Presidio soldiers were stationed at the missions as escoltas, charged with enforcing discipline, preventing escapes, and suppressing rebellions among the largely captive population of neophytes. Colonial women, usually wives of the escolta soldiers, worked in the missions as dormitory matrons, labor supervisors, and religious instructors (Castañeda 1992, 1998). Colonists were also called upon to stand as compadres (godparents) for newly baptized converts at the missions; in Spanish-colonial society, these bonds of compadrazgo could be as durable and intimate as familial kinship roles (Haas 1995; Newell 2004).

From the 1790s onward, the process of recruiting new converts became increasingly militarized. By that time, most Native Californians in the San Francisco Bay area who were amenable to mission life had already accepted baptism. Native villages outside the missions became intertribal fugitive communities that provided safe haven for mission runaways; with native food systems disrupted, these communities increasingly survived by raiding colonial settlements. Further, between 1790 and 1810, a series of epidemics caused thousands of deaths among the Native Californians living at the missions. Both the missionaries and the military settlers were anxious to replace this lost population, because the colonists had become dependent on foodstuffs and craft goods produced by neophyte labor.

Presidio soldiers engaged in countless punitive campaigns to subdue Native Californians who had not entered the missions. In the 1790s, military action targeted villages throughout the land south of the San Francisco peninsula and (p.61) in the hills on the east and north sides of the bay (Milliken 1995:190–191). In the early 1800s, battle lines shifted farther east as military expeditions traversed the Diablo Range, the Altamont Hills, and the San Joaquín Valley. To supplement the small numbers of colonial troops, the military recruited and trained mission Indian Auxiliary companies to fight alongside the soldiers. Native Californians captured during these military campaigns were forcibly marched to colonial strongholds; native women and children were usually sent directly to missions, while adult men were taken to the Presidio to serve a term of forced labor. These military campaigns devastated indigenous communities throughout central California. Native Californians were truly caught “between crucifix and lance” (Sandos 1998). “No one,” Milliken (1995:191) writes, “could stay where they were and remain unaffected.”

Pueblos and Villas

With the presidios serving as the military and administrative centers of the districts and the religious missions controlling indigenous land and labor, civilian settlements were few and did not gain prominence until after the 1834 secularization of the missions. Although residents of civilian settlements were under less surveillance than those living at missions and presidios, pueblos and villas were also tightly regulated. Laws dictating the planning and establishment of colonial towns in the Spanish Americas had been in effect since 1573 and were enforced until the end of colonial rule. These edicts stipulated the organization of town governance and the allocation of lands, including specific provisions for plazas, house lots, farming lots, government and church allocations, and grazing commons (Jones 1979:6–11).

El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, founded in 1777, was established by five civilian families and nine soldiers “with some knowledge of farming” (Langellier and Rosen 1996:38) who had been living at El Presidio de San Francisco since their arrival with the Anza party. The Pueblo of San José was intended to supply the Presidio with grains, beans, and fresh produce. Its population grew slowly through the addition of the families of retired and invalided soldiers but remained fewer than one hundred fifty people throughout the Spanish-colonial era (Hornbeck and Fuller 1983:50–51).

The Villa de Branciforte, founded in 1797, was the second civilian settlement in the San Francisco district. Located in what is now Santa Cruz, it was a chartered villa intended to serve as a center of local manufacture, with its citizens forming a militia that would lend support to the Presidio. Initially, the new settlement was populated by about a hundred destitute paupers and convicts from Guadalajara and Guanajuanto who were transported to Alta California by ship. The colonial government hoped that retired soldiers from the San Francisco and (p.62) Monterey presidios would move to the villa, but most chose to live near the presidios or in the more established Pueblo of San José. The population of the villa never rose much above a hundred until the growth of the hide and tallow trade in the 1830s transformed the settlement into a minor regional port (Langellier and Rosen 1996:88–90; Reader 1997).

Yerba Buena, located in the present-day North Beach area of San Francisco, was established after Mexican independence. The settlement began as a small village populated by foreign traders involved in the hide and tallow trade and was officially chartered in 1837. Some military families maintained residences there along with their homes at El Presidio de San Francisco, only a few miles away (Langellier and Rosen 1996:167). Yerba Buena rapidly grew to be the major center of trade and commerce in central California, and the population increased steadily to nearly five hundred people by the end of Mexican rule in California. In 1847, upon the U.S. annexation of California, the mission, Presidio, and pueblo were merged together into the City of San Francisco.

From the beginning, the military settlers garrisoned at El Presidio de San Francisco were intimately involved with these civilian settlements. Many soldiers served in the civilian towns as guards and as comisionados (an appointed military position combining the duties of mayor, magistrate, and city manager), and they were expected to populate the pueblos and villas when they retired from military service. Especially after the expansion of ranching in the 1830s and 1840s, military families often had concurrent residences at the Presidio, at the Pueblo of Yerba Buena or San José, at the family rancho, and sometimes in or near the mission where they worshipped.

The institutions that Spain deployed in its northward colonial expansion structured the lives of both colonists and Native Californians, albeit in very different ways. From 1776 until the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1821, most people in the San Francisco Bay area lived within a matrix of rules and regulations formed through military ordinances and religious doctrines. The spatial organization of their communities, their movements, the architecture of their homes, the work they performed, the objects they used, the food they ate, the clothes they wore—all of these aspects of daily life were informed by secular and sacred directives. In this sense, the San Francisco Bay area—and, indeed, all of Alta California—was strikingly different from many mercantile and agrarian zones of colonization elsewhere in North America. The common perception of the frontier as a lawless place, advanced by rugged and self-reliant individuals living outside of government and society, could not be further from the daily realities of social life in Spanish-colonial California. The military settlers who lived at El Presidio de San Francisco were tightly bound to their government, their church, their commanding officers, and to each other through (p.63) a dense web of legal obligations, religious observances, and social ties. While institutionalization shaped all aspects of daily life, it also enabled certain pathways of action. It was through these institutional channels that Alta California settlers, viewed as expendable by the government that recruited them, claimed land and resources to ensure their own survival.

Emphasizing the institutions that made up Spanish-colonial Alta California does not deny the very real agency that allowed the military colonists to influence the trajectories of their own lives. Indeed, the settlers exercised this capability from the start when they elected to leave their homelands and venture into new occupations, with new people, in a new place. The ethnogenesis of Californio identity is yet another indication of the settlers’ ability to forge new and unanticipated historical pathways. Understanding these institutions foregrounds the ways in which the colonists’ tactics and strategies (de Certeau 1984) were always deployed within and through institutional structures of power and practice.

Isolation and Entanglement: Province to Republic to State

Alta California is often portrayed as one of the most isolated regions of the Spanish-colonial empire in North America; El Presidio de San Francisco, its northernmost outpost, was the most remote corner of this far-flung frontier. Some historians have even attributed the emergence of Californio identity to this isolation, arguing that distance from the rest of New Spain fostered cultural drift and an inward-looking tendency among Alta California’s colonial settlers. While their geographic isolation was tangible, historic events drew Alta California into international contests for empire and the development of global capitalism. The Presidio was located on the front lines of international politics during the age of European expansion into western North America. Additionally, as just outlined, the Presidio was connected to the other institutions of colonization throughout the province. The emergence of Californio identity must be understood within this complex interplay between the global, the regional, and the local.

The Closing of the Anza Trail

Colonial administrators and military strategists anticipated that the Anza Trail, from Sonora to San Francisco, would open a new realm of commerce in the Interior Provinces. They envisioned that the trail would guide caravans of landless peasants to new farmsteads in Alta California, developing the new province into an agricultural stronghold of the empire. Mule trains would bring foodstuffs from Alta California to the arid deserts and mining districts of Sonora and (p.64) Sinaloa and would return to Alta California loaded with cloth, pottery, metal objects, and other commercial goods from the manufactories of central New Spain.

The overland route depended on agreements that Juan Bautista de Anza had reached with Yuma (Quechan) tribal members, who had allowed him to establish a mission and travelers’ waystation near the junction of the Colorado and Gila rivers in return for promises of trade and military protection. However, colonial administrators never fulfilled Anza’s promises to the Yuma. Instead, travelers and missionaries abused the Yuma, demanding food and pasturing their livestock without permission on Yuma lands. In 1781, Olleyquotequiebe, a Yuma leader, led a revolt against the colonial settlement. The uprising permanently closed the trail and ended all plans for further emigration and trade between Sonora and Alta California (Bancroft 1886a:256–271; Forbes 1965; Weber 1992:256–258).

The closure of the Anza Trail had a profound influence on the development of Alta California. Perhaps the chief effect was demographic: until the 1830s, more than 80 percent of the colonial population consisted of those who had migrated before 1782 and their descendants (Mason 1998:44). A second effect was territorial: with no new groups of colonists arriving in the province, Spain’s control never extended far beyond the four presidio districts established along the coastline from San Diego to San Francisco. The isolation of the province also contributed to the economic dominance of Alta California’s missions; with royal support limited to a single supply ship each year, the presidios became dependent on the missions for agricultural supplies (Campbell 1977:63; Weber 1992:264).

The decade following the closure of the Anza Trail was marked by deprivation and shortages (Langellier and Rosen 1996:35–42). In 1785, the Spanish-colonial military sent Captain Nicolás Soler to Alta California to inspect its presidios. Soler found the conditions at San Francisco deplorable and reported that the understaffed and ill-equipped Presidio would be useless in defending the San Francisco Bay against foreign incursion. He advised that El Presidio de San Francisco should be closed and its personnel transferred to El Presidio de Santa Bárbara, which was also understaffed. Soler’s recommendation was denied at the request of local missionaries, who argued that they needed the protection of the Presidio soldiers (Bancroft 1886a:394). Although El Presidio de San Francisco was allowed to remain open, it did not receive any increase in royal support and continued to decline throughout the remainder of the 1780s.

Fears of Foreign Invasion

In the 1790s, El Presidio de San Francisco’s role in Spanish foreign defense took center stage. Spain lost claim to the Pacific Northwest in the Nootka Convention (p.65) of 1790. Concerned that Russian and British imperialist ventures in North America would soon expand to Alta California, Spain’s military strategists focused new attention on El Presidio de San Francisco (Cutter 1990:42–43; Fireman 1977:113; Langellier and Rosen 1996:56).

Their fears of foreign invasion were not unfounded. Ships of unknown nationality frequently appeared outside the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, presumably to assess the Spanish defenses or to engage in smuggling or poaching (Langellier and Rosen 1996:64). In 1792, French and British explorers, including George Vancouver and the H.M.S. Discovery, visited El Presidio de San Francisco. Ostensibly, these expeditions were undertaking scientific studies, but Vancouver also itemized the many shortcomings of the Presidio’s defenses and speculated on the ease with which the bay might be taken (Vancouver 1984). Reports by Spanish military inspectors dispatched to the province in the early 1790s mirrored Vancouver’s accounts (Fireman 1977:93–139; Servín 1970). The Presidio’s weaknesses were corroborated by a damning report submitted in 1792 by its acting commander, Hermenegildo Sal (1976), which described in great detail the poor condition of the Presidio’s buildings and the inadequacy of its defenses.

With the threat of foreign invasion looming, in 1793 Alta California governor José Joaquín de Arrillaga diverted funds to construct an earthenworks battery, El Castillo de San Joaquín, at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. The viceroy of New Spain also dispatched cadres of military engineers, master craftsworkers, and members of a special infantry unit, the Catalonian Volunteers, to Alta California to strengthen the local troops. A company of artillerymen and gunners was also assigned to the Presidio for the express purpose of staffing El Castillo de San Joaquín (Fireman 1977; Langellier and Rosen 1996:77; Schuetz-Miller 1994:18–19).

The outbreak of war between Spain and Great Britain in 1797 ended this period of expansion. A second defenseworks, La Batería de San José, was rapidly constructed along the bayshore to the east of the Presidio. However, the damp fog and winter storms eroded both the castillo and the batería earthworks, so that by 1799 both were essentially useless. The Catalonian Volunteers and the artillerymen and gunners were recalled to other posts (Langellier and Rosen 1996:100–102).

By the end of the eighteenth century, conditions at the Presidio were little better than those described in 1792. Absorbed in its war with Britain, the Spanish crown reduced its expenditures on its American colonies. Among Native Californians, resistance was increasing, in response to the 1797 founding of Mission San José; and the hostile interactions between indigenous resistance groups and the Presidio soldiers began to take the form of battles lasting several (p.66) days, in contrast to the shorter skirmishes of earlier years. As the nineteenth century began, the soldiers of El Presidio de San Francisco turned away from the problems of foreign defense to engage in protracted punitive campaigns against unbaptized and runaway Indians (Phillips 1993).

The Hidalgo Revolt, Russian Incursions, and Mexican Independence

The Hidalgo Revolt of 1810 marked the beginning of the eleven-year Mexican War for Independence. Alta California saw almost no military action connected with this war; the only incident occurred in 1818, when Argentinean insurgent Hipólito Bouchard led an attack on El Presidio de Monterey, looting and then burning the Monterey Presidio and destroying its cannons.11 In response, the Spanish-colonial military dispatched soldiers from the San Blas infantry to Alta California’s presidios; San Francisco received forty foot soldiers, most of whom left the settlement shortly after Mexican independence. Otherwise, the effects of the war were largely economic: insurgents captured supplies and equipment destined for Alta California; San Francisco’s soldiers received little pay; and the Presidio had to rely even more heavily on missions and illicit foreign trade for food and other necessary goods.

In the midst of this renewed isolation, El Presidio de San Francisco became the front line of territorial defense against Russian incursions into Alta California.12 As early as 1803, ships affiliated with the mercantile Russian-American Company had sailed along the Alta California coast, establishing a seasonal camp at Bodega Bay for hunting fur-bearing sea mammals such as otters. In 1812, Russia established Colony Ross, a permanent, year-round base for its operations in California waters, which was located only sixty miles north of El Presidio de San Francisco. Unequipped to battle the Russian settlers, Commander Luis Antonio Argüello instead sent official requests warning the Russian-American Company to stand down and withdraw from Alta California. He also ordered his troops to harass the Native Alaskan kayakers who had been pressed into service by the Russians to hunt marine mammals.

Despite these official diplomatic tensions and small-scale hostilities, the Russian colony was an economic and social boon to the Presidio colonists. The two settlements became trading partners, and it was not unusual for officers of both settlements to host parties for each other.13 Amid this friendly relationship, the Presidio responded to Russian territorial incursion with new colonial expansion north of San Francisco. Mission San Rafael and Mission San Francisco Solano were founded in an attempt to keep Native Californians in the northern regions of the bay from developing alliances with the Russian settlement.

On February 24, 1821, Agustín de Iturbide declared Mexico’s independence, (p.67) ending Spain’s imperial holdings in North America. It is perhaps a mark of the deterioration of the frontier’s infrastructure that the news of independence did not arrive in Alta California until more than a year later, on April 11, 1822 (Fink 1972:53; Weber 1992:301). After twelve years of self-sufficiency and growing interactions with foreign merchants, the community of military settlers at El Presidio de San Francisco found little economic relief in the establishment of the Mexican Republic. However, Alta California’s growing self-rule, which had been a de facto effect of the eleven-year insurgency, was formalized under the new federalist policies of the Mexican Republic. Additionally, Mexican economic liberalization lifted prohibitions against foreign trade. Alta California legally entered the capitalist world market, trading hides and tallow for European-manufactured goods. During the next two decades, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the members of the Anza expedition left service as colonial soldiers to find new opportunities in ranching and commodity trading.

From Mexican Province to American State

This study’s focus on San Francisco’s forty-five years as a Spanish-colonial outpost (1776–1821) is deliberate: after Mexican independence, the military declined in importance, and the Presidio eventually ceased to be the center of colonial life in the San Francisco district. This change was spurred both by economic necessities and economic opportunities. The Mexican government increased the practice of giving land grants to retired and active soldiers and their families. With soldiers’ salaries often in arrears, many seized the opportunity to leave the military and establish ranchos of their own, most raising cattle for the hide and tallow trade. This shift was accelerated by the 1834 secularization of Alta California’s missions, which increased the amount of agricultural land available to former soldiers and their families. Secularization also reduced most of the missions’ Native Californian residents to landless paupers, and the rancheros (ranch owners) quickly rounded up many of them as laborers in their agricultural enterprises (Costello 1989b; Costello and Hornbeck 1989;Frierman 1992; Greenwood 1989; Silliman 2004a, 2004b). El Presidio de San Francisco’s importance declined; travelers visiting the Presidio in the 1830s often described it as a nearly deserted “formless pile of half-ruined dwellings” (Kotzebue 1830:86; see also Beechey 1941; Robinson 1970).

The decline of the Presidio’s military importance was cemented by a strategic realignment of defensive forces: Mexico had recognized that the primary threat to Alta California was no longer from foreign maritime attack but from land-based Russian and U.S. territorial expansion. In the early 1830s, Mission Santa Cruz and the Villa de Branciforte were reassigned to the Monterey presidio district so that San Francisco’s troops could further dedicate their resources (p.68) to stemming Russian incursions. In 1834, San Francisco commander Mariano G. Vallejo transferred most of El Presidio de San Francisco’s troops to the Sonoma Barracks, a military facility adjacent to Mission San Francisco Solano (Davis 1889; Langellier and Rosen 1996:165).

Mexican governance of Alta California lasted only twenty-five years. Beginning in the 1830s, the United States had viewed Alta California as a key component in its strategy of manifest destiny. After Mexico refused U.S. offers to purchase the property, the U.S. Army developed a plan to take Alta California by force. U.S. Army officer John C. Frémont arrived in Alta California in 1845 with a band of civilian “explorers.” In cooperation with some Californios, he fomented the Bear Flag Revolt, which declared Alta California’s independence from Mexico in June 1846. On July 1, Frémont and his crew took control of El Presidio de San Francisco, disabling the Presidio’s cannons and raising the U.S. flag over the main quadrangle. U.S. forces entered the San Francisco Bay area a few days later and garrisoned their troops in the Presidio’s adobe buildings. They were joined by the New York Volunteers in 1847 (Langellier and Rosen 1996:175–182). The Presidio became a U.S. Army post and remained so until it was transferred to the National Park Service in 1994 under the Base Realignment and Closure Act.

Between 1846 and 1848, battles throughout Alta California between loyalists and U.S. troops and sympathizers eroded Mexican governance of the province. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceding Alta California to the United States was ratified in 1848; a constitutional convention for the new state was convened in 1849; and California became a state in 1850 (Harlow 1982). Concurrent with this transition in governance, the famed 1849 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill drew an avalanche of settlers and immigrants seeking quick wealth in the mines or employment by farmers, ranchers, railroads, or timber companies. In 1845, the nonnative population of California numbered 5,600 people; within only five years, by 1850, it had surged to 93,000, and it reached 380,000 in 1860 (Hornbeck and Fuller 1983:51, 68).

Both Native Californians and Californios were rapidly outnumbered by the newcomers. Rancheros lost their landholdings to squatters or through costly court cases. Native Californians, who, with the exception of coastal tribes, had retained control of their tribal territories throughout the Spanish and Mexican periods, were also displaced. Landless, stripped of political influence, and stigmatized by U.S. racial politics, by the 1860s most Native Californians and Californios ended up working as agricultural laborers and in other low-pay and low-status occupations.14 Though Californio identity had been forged through the military settlers’ role as an occupying colonial force, within less than half a century, they themselves were disenfranchised and displaced through the U.S. conquest (p.69) of the very lands that the Californios had come to identify as their patria and birthright.

In the years between the Anza expedition’s overland journey and the dawn of Mexican independence, the small community of military settlers at El Presidio de San Francisco was instrumental in establishing a network of colonial institutions that exerted control over indigenous peoples and their lands. They also deterred other European powers from claiming the harbor. Even Russian expansion into Alta California was confined to northern regions, stopping short of directly challenging the Presidio’s military control of the bay and surrounding lands.

The Presidio soldiers and their families were transformed through their entanglements with Native Californians, with colonial institutions, and with Russian and other European explorers and merchants. Once members of colonized populations, they emerged as colonial agents of the Spanish crown. This book considers how material practices participated in the military settlers’ transition from colonized to colonizer. In particular, it examines how the settlers came to develop a shared identity that reinforced their new status as colonizers yet simultaneously challenged the race-based regulations and practices of the colonial institutions within which they lived and worked. However, before turning to the findings of archaeological investigations, it is important to look more closely at the demographic composition of the colonial and indigenous populations that resided at El Presidio de San Francisco and the documentary records of the colonists’ repudiation of the sistema de castas in favor of a shared identity. These aspects of San Francisco’s history are taken up in chapters 3 and 4, with chapter 5 introducing the archaeological investigations.


(1.) Petlenuc is a Yelamu Ohlone place-name that refers generally to the north-west tip of the San Francisco peninsula—a region encompassing approximately four miles of bay and ocean shoreline—and the coastal villages that once stood there. It also seems to have been used specifically to refer to the Yelamu bayshore village located at what today is Crissy Field in the Presidio of San Francisco and the adjacent Palace of Fine Arts lagoon. The historical indigenous village shifted locations over the centuries to accommodate changes in the bayshore and estuarine marshes. Archaeological investigations have located three shellmound sites (SFR-7, SFR-9, and SFR-129) along the bayshore in this region; the earliest archaeologically known occupation date for the area known as Petlenuc is ad 740, with the most recent location occupied from ca. ad 1350 until colonization (Clark 2001; Gambastiani and Fitzgerald 2001; Milliken 1995; Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005; Moratto 1984; Palóu 1926; Rudo 1982; Stewart 2003).

(2.) European explorers first encountered California in the 1530s, when Spanish ships made landfall on what is now known as the southern Baja California peninsula. The term “California” came to refer to the entire North American Pacific coastline, from present-day Cabo San Lucas to Alaska. Spain claimed the western North American coast in its entirety in 1542, in a maritime voyage headed by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. An expedition led by English explorer Sir (p.328) Francis Drake made landfall in California shortly afterward, in or near the San Francisco Bay.

(3.) Milliken observes that the Ssalson attack raises many unanswerable questions. The Ssalson may have attacked the Yelamu because of an ongoing inter-tribal dispute, or the violence might have been a response to the establishment of the mission and the Presidio. Perhaps, Milliken speculates, the Ssalson were removing an impediment to their own access to the colonial settlements, or they might have been trying to develop an alliance with the colonists by helping them to secure complete control of Yelamu lands (1995:63).

(4.) Much of what is known about precontact native cultures in California is based on “salvage ethnographies” conducted in the early 1900s by Alfred Kroeber (1925) and his colleagues, more than one hundred years after Spanish colonization. More recent scholarship (e.g., Lightfoot 2005; Milliken 1995) has challenged many of the assumptions of these early anthropological studies. This section draws heavily on Milliken’s research as well as on archaeological studies, oral histories, colonial documents, indigenous scholarship and writings, and my own conversations with present-day Native Californians (Bean 1976, 1994; Bickel 1976; Blackburn and Anderson 1993; Castillo 1989, 1991; Chartkoff and Chartkoff 1984; Cook 1943, 1976; Costanso 1992; Field et al. 1992; Heizer 1978a, 1991; Heizer and Elsasser 1980; Hurtado 1988, 1992; Kroeber 1925; La Pérouse 1989; Levy 1978; Margolin 1978, 1981; Milliken, Shoup, and Ortiz 2005; Moratto 1984; Sandos 1998; Vancouver 1984; Yamane 2002).

(5.) Costeños (coast-dwellers, later anglicized as Costanoan) was the term used by Spanish explorers and colonists to refer to native communities living in and around the Monterey and San Francisco Bay regions. Most descendants prefer to be described as “Ohlone,” and I use that term throughout this book.

(6.) For a synthesis of this debate, see Lightfoot 2005:44–48.

(7.) For more detailed accounts of the founding of Alta California and the related development of San Blas, see Bancroft 1886a; Barker, Allen, and Costello 1995; Brinkerhoff and Faulk 1965; Chapman 1916; Costello and Hornbeck 1989; Fireman 1977; Navarro García 1964, 1979; Thurman 1967; and Weber 1992.

(8.) Major historical and archaeological studies of the Spanish-colonial presidio military system include Bense 2004; Campbell 1977; Faulk 1969, 1971; Gerald 1968; Langellier and Peterson 1981; Moorhead 1969, 1975; Navarro García 1964; Naylor and Polzer 1986, 1988; Polzer and Sheridan 1997; and Williams 2004. see Barker, Allen, and Costello 1995; Dobyns 1980; Gilmore 1995; Jones 1979; Levine 1995; and Weber 1992 for more general accounts of the role of presidios in the colonization of New Spain’s northern frontier. On the relationship of presidios to the colonial military, see Archer 1977 and Fireman 1977. For translations and historical analyses of the military regulations that governed the operation of frontier presidios, see Brinkerhoff and Faulk 1965; Croix 1941; (p.329) Gálvez 1951; Kinnaird 1958; Naylor and Polzer 1988; Oconór 1994; and Thomas 1941.

(10.) For reviews and new perspectives on mission research in Alta California, see Barker, Allen, and Costello 1995; Costello and Hornbeck 1989; Dartt-New-ton and Erlandson 2006; Graham 1998; Lightfoot 2005; and Silliman 2001b.

(11.) Bouchard’s ships, the Argentina and the Santa Rosa, entered Monterey Bay in October 1818 and launched a full-scale attack. His ships left the next day and sailed south; they attacked Mission San Juan Capistrano and a rancho near Santa Bárbara before leaving the coast (Bancroft 1886b:220–249; Osio 1996:44–53).

(12.) Russia was not the only country to take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by the Mexican independence struggle, but it was the only foreign power to claim land in Alta California. British, French, and “Boston” traders regularly traversed Alta California’s shores and frequently entered the San Francisco Bay. As it did with the Russians, El Presidio de San Francisco set aside military ideals of territorial defense in its desperate need for trading partners (Costello and Hornbeck 1989).

(13.) For accounts of Russian colonization of northern California and interactions between Colony Ross and El Presidio de San Francisco, see Blind et al. 2004; Farris 1989; Langellier and Rosen 1996:120–138; Lightfoot, Wake, and Schiff 1991; and Osborn 1997. After Mexico achieved independence from Spain, Russian fur hunting in Alta California’s waters was legalized through a profit-sharing agreement. From that point forward, economic and social interchange between the two colonies flourished.

(14.) see Camarillo 1979; Chávez-García 2004; Haas 1995; Hughes 1975; McWilliams 1949; Pitt 1971; Ríos-Bustamante 1993; Sanchez 1984; and Sánchez 1995 for historical studies of the Californios during and shortly after the transition to U.S. rule.