In 1776, at the same time Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence on the East Coast, El Presidio was established on the West Coast as the northernmost outpost of colonial New Spain. Designed to defend against British, Russian, and French incursions into Alta California, El Presidio would become the administrative center of a large colonial district stretching from the northern reaches of San Francisco Bay, eastward into the Central Valley of California and south along the Pacific coast toward Monterey Bay. It was responsible for defending six missions, several pueblos, and many ranchos.
The original El Presidio garrison measured 92 vargas (approximately 250 feet) on each side. At the center stood the quarters/offices of the fort commander (what is today known as the Presidio Officers’ Club), surrounded by a chapel, warehouses, a guardhouse, and jail.
The Presidio’s recruited population did not come from Spain but mainly from the western regions of Sinaloa and Sonora in Mexico today. Married soldiers with families were the premium recruits; consequently women and children far outnumbered the men in the colonial party. With less than 200 people, the original colonists were fewer in number than many of the native villages in the area. Yet these few dozen soldiers soon dominated the region through intimidation, firepower, and occasional bloodshed. By 1810 there would be more than 11,000 native people representing 45 tribes from the region converted by the missionaries and enforced by Presidio soldiers.
In 1822, after a long War of Independence against Spain, the Presidio became an outpost of Mexico. But during the previous decade the people at El Presidio had learned a level of self reliance that would serve them well in the tumultuous beginnings of the Mexican Republic. In these years El Presidio became a beacon for trade with explorers and merchants sailing the vast Pacific.
Birthplace of San Francisco
In 1834, the first official election to create a civil government in San Francisco took place at El Presidio. At that time the post commandant relinquished his authority over the civilian population of San Francisco. Soon thereafter the commandant began moving the soldiers and garrison north to Sonoma in pursuit of new frontiers. Subsequent meetings and elections of the first city council continued to take place at El Presidio, and the city’s first official records were kept in a drawer in an adobe building here. For these reasons and others El Presidio is considered to be the “birthplace of San Francisco.”
The U.S. Army took over the post in 1846. During several building campaigns they eventually expanded the post far beyond the original Spanish fort. The area where the original El Presidio fort was constructed later became known as the Main Post and served as the administrative and social center of the ever-expanding Presidio.
The foundation of the original Spanish fort was gradually covered over and forgotten. In 1993, as the Army was preparing to permanently leave the post, workers discovered a substantial set of stone foundations, launching a period of rediscovery and ongoing research that continues to this day.