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History + Archaeology at El Polin
An aerial photo of a dig site at El Polin Spring that has been separated into a grid, which people are working on excavating.
El Polin Spring has a fascinating history. Recent discoveries are shedding light on how people once lived here. Today, El Polin is a wonderful place to learn about the Presidio’s early history and to watch archaeologists at work.
El Polin Early History
The Yelamu Ohlone were the first people to live in this area, and signs of their seasonal camps have been discovered near El Polín at Crissy Field. The Ohlone likely gathered water and plants at the spring.
In 1776, Spain established the military fort known as El Presidio de San Francisco just a short distance northwest of the fresh water source. El Polín was settled by Spanish and Mexican colonial families by 1812, over twenty years before the town of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) was founded. Indeed, it is considered by some to be “San Francisco’s first suburb.”
Noteworthy settlers include the Briones and Miramontes families. Colonial families lived at El Polín until the 1850s, and it is believed that at least 30 children grew up there. It is thought that the men participated in military service, while women and children grew food, raised animals, and sold produce. Juana Briones, a legendary mother, healer, land owner, and businesswoman, lived here as a young woman between 1813 and 1820.
Fertility Legend
El Polín spawned a legend that the colonists said began with the Ohlone people and continued with early Spanish soldiers. They believed the spring was magical and that any woman who drank its waters under a full moon was sure to have an abundance of children, especially twins. Mariano Vallejo, Commandante of the Presidio from 1831-1833, wrote:
It gave excellent water of miraculous qualities. In proof of my assertion, I appeal to the families of Miramontes, Martinez, Sanchez, Soto, Briones, and others, all of whom several times had twins…attributed these salutary effects to the water of El Polín.
U.S. Army-Era
California, and the Presidio, became part of the United States in 1846. In the 1850s, the U.S. Army built an earthen dam near El Polín Spring to hold water. Two decades later, a water pipeline ran from El Polín to the Main Post. By the 1890s, the Army had planted the nearby ridges with eucalyptus, pine, and cypress.
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, a tent encampment was located near El Polín. Around 1907, it was replaced with wooden barracks. By the 1930s, a nearby paved street was lined with houses, warehouses, street lights, and tennis courts. Also in the 1930s, a commemorative well and cobblestone water channels were built at El Polín, probably by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Apartment buildings arrived in the 1960s as the military expanded during the Cold War. This development met the needs of the Army but also resulted in half of Tennessee Hollow’s creek system being buried in drains or contained in concrete channels.
Archaeology Discoveries
Historians and archaeologists knew from historical maps, records, and myth that El Polín Spring was the site of a Spanish and Mexican settlement just outside the fort of El Presidio de San Francisco. It wasn’t until Barbara Voss, a Stanford University archaeologist, began excavations in 2003 that the 70-year quest of historians and archaeologists yielded its most tantalizing clues.
The 2003 discovery of what Voss believed to be the foundation of one of the Briones and Miramontes families’ adobe homes was just the beginning of what the Presidio Archaeology Program envisions as a long-term research project. Subsequent excavations by Stanford University outlined the extent of the house foundation and found a large borrow pit filled with trash from the nearby house. Several other mysterious features were left for explorations in future years.
In 2010, excavations conducted by the Presidio Archaeology Program in partnership with Sonoma State University uncovered a large basin made of Mexican-era tile that was designed to capture and store water, perhaps for doing laundry or for other household chores at the nearby adobe. A kiln for firing tile was also discovered and reburied for later in-depth exploration. Visitors can see some of these features during a visit to El Polin.
Together these clues are helping archaeologists and historians better understand Spanish and Mexican life before San Francisco. Soon, open excavations at El Polín will allow the public to participate in the discovery process as it is unfolding. The area will be an outdoor archaeology classroom that will allow formal research and informal visitor learning to create a richer understanding of our shared past.
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