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The History and Archaeology of Yerba Buena Island - European Explorers and Settlers of San Francisco Bay

A Time Line

The entrance to San Francisco Bay was discovered by Spaniard Jose de Ortega who was a pathfinder for Gaspar de Portola's expedition and the first known European to see the Bay.

With the establishment of a mission at Monterey, the Spanish began sending exploratory parties north to the Bay Area.

The Spanish ship San Carlos was the first to enter, explore, and map the Bay. It anchored off of several islands including Alcatraz and Angel islands.

The Anza Expedition visited San Francisco Bay to choose a site for a military presidio and Mission Dolores.

mission 1777
Mission Santa Clara was founded at what is now San Jose.

The missions disrupted the traditional lifeways of the Native Americans of the area and introduced diseases that decimated the Native population.

A measles outbreak-the worst epidemic in Spanish California-killed one quarter of the Native people in three months.

Nearly all Natives of the immediate Bay Area had moved to the missions by this time.
Mexico gained its independence from Spain and took control of California. The Mexican government began to take mission lands away from the Catholic Church (secularization). Natives left the missions to return to their lands or find work on ranchos.

An American sea captain named Gorham Nye received a permit from the governor of Mexico to live on Yerba Buena Island and build a house and corral there.

William Richardson established a trading post at Yerba Buena Cove which would become San Francisco. This served the English, Russian, and American ships participating in the hide and tallow trade. By this time Mission Delores and the presidio were in disrepair, and the Indian population of the Bay Area had been decimated by disease. In November of 1835 Richard Henry Dana-who would later write Two Years Before the Mast- first entered San Francisco Bay on the ship Alert. The Alert dropped anchor near what they called Wood Island-Yerba Buena Island. Dana wrote that they took enough wood from the island in a week to last the ship a year. Twenty-four years after his visit, Dana wrote,

"It was in the winter of 1835-6 that the ship Alert, in the prosecution of her voyage for hides on the remote and almost unknown coast of California, floated into the vast solitude of the Bay of San Francisco. All around was the stillness of nature. One vessel, a Russian, lay at anchor there, but during our whole stay not a sail came or went. Our trade was with remote missions, which sent hides to us in launches manned by Indians. Our anchorage was between a small island called Yerba Buena, and a gravel beach in a little bight or cove of the same name..."

dana island names

bay 1847

The gold discovery at Coloma led to a rush of people from all over the world to the gold fields of California with most of them coming by ship to San Francisco. Within a year the population of San Francisco grew from a few hundred to 25,000 or more.

The rapidly increasing population also brought an increase in conflicts over land, including Yerba Buena Island-called Goat Island at this time. Gorham Nye sold Yerba Buena Island to Thomas Dowling, but documents show that one Nathan Spear gained ownership of the island (and its herd of goats) and sold meat and wood to the ships in the Bay. A settler named John Jenning also had holdings on the northeastern part of the island, with a barn, stable, windmill, shop, forge, and wharf.

California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state on September 9, 1850. The first state legislature set the limits of San Francisco County and officially named Yerba Buena Island. President Millard Fillmore claimed the islands of the Bay, including Yerba Buena, for the US Government.