San Francisco, CA

From military base to National Landmark, the Presidio reflects the story of America's military and industrial expansion

Built in the Bay
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

America, as an international power, has grown tremendously over the past 200 years. The early frontier era gave way to a more industrialized form of war with the Civil War and Spanish-American war, which in turn transitioned into the modern era of international power with war as an industry in and of itself.

Park Presidio was once a military outpost for three governments. The transformation from a small fort under New Spain, to a full-fledged military outpost under the independent Mexican government and finally into a critical naval and intelligence base during the 20th century under the American government reflects the transition of America as a meager international player into a dominating world power.

Situated at the point of San Francisco facing Marin County, Park Presidio was initially established for the government of New Spain to get a foothold in Alta California and the San Francisco Bay. It eventually passed to the Mexican government in 1820 and then on to the American government in 1848.

In 1989, Congress voted to end the Presidio's status as an active military base and on Oct. 1, 1994, it was transferred to the National Park Services, officially ending 219 years of military use.

Park Presidio's lengthy military history provides a helpful lens to view American imperial expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The indigenous Ohlone people who lived on the peninsula were among the first to interact with New Spanish settlers. While a portion of their interactions were cordial, with New Spanish officers engaging in small trade with the Ohlone for food and goods, the indigenous people were eventually pushed out of their ancestral home with violence from the officers and enlisted men.

Military Origins Under New Spanish and Mexican Governments

The fort itself was built later that year by a party led by Jose Joaquin Moraga.

In June 1776 Juan Bautista de Anza led a colonizing party of 240 people and their families along what would later become the Bautista de Anza Trail, into the Alta California territory. Upon their arrival in northern California, Moraga and Anza dedicated the Presidio de San Francisco on Sept. 17, 1776.
(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

In the early few years of the fort, it was minimally staffed with just 33 men in the garrison in 1783. In 1794, a 13-gun battery was completed to defend the bay's entrance. At the time, the fort represented the New Spanish government's most in-depth expansion into their northern-most territory.

After Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the fort was operated by the sovereign Mexican government.

Under the newly independent Mexican government, the presidio was briefly abandoned in 1835 when General Mariano Vallejo transferred military forces to Sonoma. Despite the erosion of the adobe walls from the saltwater and rain, the U.S. military still occupied the fort after landing on Yerba Buena Island at the start of the Mexican-American War.

The Presidio was subsequently seized by the American military in 1846 at the start of the war and the Mexican flag was officially lowered two years later following a treaty between the two countries.

19th Century American Occupation

When it was officially reopened by the U.S. military in 1848, it quickly became home to a number of garrisons and eventually several famous generals including William Sherman, George Henry Thomas and John Pershing. It was critically important as a staging ground in the lead-up to the invasion of the Philippines.
(Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration)

The discovery of gold in northern California in 1848 brought an economic and social boom to San Francisco. As the City rapidly expanded, the U.S. military began to see the value of establishing a lasting presence in the area.

In the early 1850s, the Army Corps of Engineers built Fort Point, a four-tiered brick and granite fort, sitting just underneath what is now the Golden Gate Bridge, as a way to increase protection for the Bay. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the area saw increased military occupation and construction as the Bay Area became a helpful staging ground for the Union Army and Navy. The expansion to the modern Park Presidio we know now began in this era of American occupation.

The campaigns against the Indigenous Americans in the 1870s and 1880s spurred even more growth for the now well-established military hub.

20th Century American Occupation

The sprawling barracks winding between tall redwoods that now makes up the Park Presidio was codified in the lead-up to and during World War II because the U.S. military saw the Bay Area as a critical training area and line of defense for forces in the Pacific theater.

In the 1890s the U.S. military began installing several concrete gun batteries on the bluffs, many of which are still around today. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, General Frederick Funston led a campaign to provide food and clothing for those who had lost their homes and a subsequent refugee settlement was established on the Presidio grounds.

By the early 1910s, the fort was occupied by mostly cavalry and infantry troops. The Presidio cavalry was the first to protect the newly established national parks in California before the development of the National Parks Service in 1916.

An additional expansion during the 1920s stemmed from the construction of the Crissy Army Airfield. When the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937, the airfield moved north for easier take-offs and landings.

During World War II, the Presidio saw a different kind of growth with the advent of a military intelligence school and the expansion of the Letterman Army Medical Center which would become the biggest in the country, treating over 76,000 patients from the frontlines in the Pacific.

During the Cold War, the Presidio was home to a number of Nike missile defenses thought to be the first line of defense for a possible Soviet and Chinese invasion.

On June 13, 1962, the Presidio was officially designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Presidio is now known for its bustling fields during weekends and the rapid weather changes, along with some stunning views of the Golden Gate, but the history of the landmark informs us of the critical military expansions undergone by three different countries as they sought to protect their sovereignty from real or perceived threats.

Its modern use, marked by San Franciscans walking dogs and playing games obfuscates the violent and imperial beginnings of such a beautiful landmark.

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