San Francisco: Biography of a City


Home to the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Haight-Ashbury, trolley cars, and much more, San Francisco has a rich history and ranks as one of the most important cities in the United States. Founded by Spain as a mission in 1776, San Francisco became part of the United States just before the California Gold Rush. Join Active Minds as we trace the story of San Fran right up to the present and maybe even peek into the future a bit.

Key Lecture Points

  • Established as a remote Spanish settlement in 1776, San Francisco had previously been occupied by Native Americans, the Ohlone people.  The narrow inlet that would later be named the Golden Gate to the San Francisco Bay had been shrouded from previous European exploration, likely by the fog for which the area is famous.
  • San Francisco was a very small Spanish and later Mexican settlement until it became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War in 1848.  After gold was discovered soon thereafter, San Francisco then grew as the primary entry point for both those seeking their fortunes mining and those looking to profit in support of the mining community.
  • Among the fortune seekers were a significant population of Chinese, who worked in the gold fields and later on the railroads.  San Francisco became (and remains) a major settlement point for Chinese-American.  However, the Chinese population were a target of discrimination from the earliest days.  California imposed a specific tax and during subsequent periods Congress explicitly forbade Chinese immigration.
  • In 1906, a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, igniting several fires around the city that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks.  The city rebuilt quickly and celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal a few years later.
  • The 1930s saw the construction of such iconic San Francisco symbols as the Golden Gate and Bay bridges and the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz.  San Francisco was a major center for manufacture of military equipment and ships, as well as a major embarkation center for troops heading to the Pacific Theater in World War II.
  • The post-war period featured prosperity and the growth of the counterculture in San Francisco, setting the stage for its current status as one of the progressive cities in the country.
  • San Francisco and the larger surrounding area emerged as one of the earliest centers for technology companies of all kinds, along with the financial institutions and mechanisms that support them.  While this role is now shared with several other cities around the country, San Francisco continues as a leader.  San Francisco has also experienced some of the stresses that come along such as escalating housing costs, gentrification, and loss of ethnic diversity.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you think accounts for the special allure of San Francisco that draws millions of tourists each year?
  • What solutions to the linked issues of income inequality, housing, and homelessness do you think offer the greatest likelihood of effectively addressing the problems?
  • What do you think are the appropriate roles of the public and private sector in addressing these urban issues?  What could the federal, state, and local governments do best to solve these problems?

Reflective Questions

  • Would you like to live in the Bay Area?  If so, where?  If not, why not?  Would it make a difference if you were at a different stage of life?
  • What combinations of history and other factors foster the growth of alternative social and culture movements like the hippies in places like San Francisco as opposed to places where these movements were much less prominent?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Kamiya, Gary and Paul Madonna.  Spirits of San Francisco:  Voyages through the Unknown City.  Bloomsbury Publishing, October, 2020.  A rich, illustrated, idiosyncratic portrait that breathes life into San Francisco sites both iconic and obscure from two acclaimed chroniclers of the city.
    Click here to order
  • Asbury, Herbert.  The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld.  Basic Books, October, 2002.  The history of the seventy-year heyday of a district birthed by the gold rush that was at the same time was the scene of viciousness and depravity, as well as possessing more glamor than similar districts in other locations.  The book also serves as a chronicle of the birth of San Francisco generally.
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  • London, Jack.  San Francisco Stories.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, October 2010.  Born in San Francisco, growing up in Oakland, London chronicles the tougher annals of SF’s pre-earthquake days, and includes Jack London’s firsthand account of the city burning in the wake of the 1906 quake.
    Click here to order