On August 5, 1775, the Spanish ship San Carlos, commanded by Juan Manuel de Ayala, entered what would soon be called San Francisco Bay. Unnoticed by such early naval explorers as Sir Francis Drake and Sebastián Vizcaíno, the bay had been sighted by land during a Spanish scouting expedition six years earlier.
Spanish authorities, intent on offering proof of Spain’s claim to the area, promptly sent nearly two hundred settlers to populate the region. In 1776 both a presidio, or garrison, and a Catholic mission were established. Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores) was started by Franciscans, who named both the bay and the mission after the founder of their religious order, St. Francis of Assisi.
As early as 1835, the United States sought to buy San Francisco Bay from Mexico (independent of Spain since 1821), the same year that a small town called Yerba Buena was founded. It was not until after the end of the Mexican War that California was ceded to the United States as a provision of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed within days of the discovery of gold along the American River. By then, Yerba Buena had claimed its new name, San Francisco—and the Gold Rush was on.
I soon shall be in Frisco,
And then I’ll look around;
And when I see the gold lumps there,
I’ll pick them off the ground. O California,
That’s the land for me:
I’m bound for San Francisco,
With my washboard on my knee.
“I Soon Shall be in Frisco.” [Text, c1914]. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. American Folklife Center
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell is a rich collection of American folk music recorded in the San Francisco Bay area during the 1930s. One of the earliest projects to document the traditions of multiple communities within one geographic area, it includes recordings of music from a variety of ethnic, cultural, and language groups, as well as contextual photographs, drawings, and written documents. Browse the collection’s Subject Index to find hundreds of recordings of the rich variety of musical traditions that have become part of American culture.
- Learn more about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in the motion picture collection Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897 to 1916. For additional early motion pictures of San Francisco, search across all of the online motion picture collection.
- Parallel Histories: Spain, the United States, and the American Frontier, a bilingual collaborative effort between the National Library of Spain, the Biblioteca Colombina y Capitular of Seville, and the Library of Congress explores the interactions between Spain and the United States in America from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The section, Exploration and Settlement after 1750, includes a 1778 report of missions written by a Franciscan missionary (in Spanish).
- To find recollections of the early days of San Francisco, search on San Francisco in “California as I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900.
- Read more about San Francisco’s rich history in Today in History for events including the 1896 opening of the Sutro Baths, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the 1937 completion of the Golden Gate Bridge.