Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Meanwhile out West: El Presidio de San Francisco

Opening October 13, 2017, the California Historical Society (CHS) will welcome Alexander Hamilton: Treasures from the New-York Historical Society. In conjunction with this exhibition, CHS will present Meanwhile out West: Colonizing California, 1769–1821, exploring the colonial history of the region now known as California with books, manuscripts, maps, paintings, and artifacts drawn chiefly from the CHS Collection. The shift from an Atlantic Coast narrative focused on the founder of the United States’ financial system—and freshly memorialized thanks to the beloved Broadway musical—to the Pacific Coast promises to draw contrasts and connections between the two regions as they existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Reglamento, e Instrucción para los presidios que se han de formar en la linea de frontera de la Nueva España (Mexico: Br. D. Joseph Antonio de Hogal, 1773), Vault 349.462 Sp15r (1773), California Historical Society.
The same year that the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in a first assertion of shedding their British dependency, Spanish soldiers established El Presidio Real de San Francisco, now referred to simply as the Presidio, at the far northern edge of the San Francisco Peninsula in view of the Golden Gate. Four years earlier, in 1772, the Spanish King Charles III delineated his specifications for military garrisons in New Spain, affirming their role as not only military but physical representations of Spanish unity and power. In these regulations, known as the Reglamento of 1772, the King expressed the importance of claiming militarily strategic positions, building according to uniform architectural plans, and providing adequate food and clothing for soldiers in an effort to, in his words, “defend the lives and estates of my vassals on the frontier from the attacks of the barbarous tribes,” as well as from other European powers exploring Pacific waters. According to archaeologist Barbara Voss, the Crown was actively interested in how location and presentation would affect “the frontier.” This reflected the Spaniards’ concern that the more politically non-centralized organization of Native peoples stood in direct opposition to the “colonial view of a proper civilized lifestyle” (Voss, The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis, p. 51). The King’s insistence on well-regulated presidios, therefore, was a way to aid in the overarching goal of establishing “civilized” Spanish settlements to Christianize and Hispanicize indigenous people in the Americas.

Letter and Administrative File concerning Storm-Related Damage to the Presidio of San Francisco and Proposals for Its Repair, MS Vault 34, California Historical Society

The maintenance of the presidio, due to its construction in wood and plaster, meant that keeping it in the good shape desired by the crown became an important part of life in San Francisco. A 1799 census of troops at the Alta California Presidios offers a unique record with an enumeration of officers and regular soldados at the San Francisco Presidio, along with their salaries; the total numbered only thirty-eight men. According to Barbara Voss’ analysis, the Presidio housed military men, their families, along with older men and widowed parents of soldiers, thus inflating the number of Spaniards without increasing their military strength. Missing from this census is the number of indigenous men working at the Presidio, “adult men recruited or impressed into service as laborers working in agriculture, craft production, and building construction” (Voss, p. 72). As the Presidio was home to the “the administrative, judicial, residential and economic centers” of the Spanish government on the frontier, the work of Native men would have been inexorably tied to its success (Voss, p. 57).
Louis Choris, Voyage pittoresque autour du monde… (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1822), Vault 910.4 C45, California Historical Society
The lithograph, “View of the Presidio in San Francisco,” sketched in October 1816 by German-Ukrainian artist Louis Choris (1795-1828) during his journey aboard the Rurik as part of a three-year Russian exploration of the Pacific, visually corroborates the speculation as to the comparative number of Spanish soldiers and indigenous workers, as well as their relationship. In the hand-colored lithograph, Choris shows three soldiers on horseback holding lances, two of whom seem to be driving groups of Native Californians, who are organized in rows like chain gangs. In this way, the lithograph conveys the disparity between the number of Spanish soldiers and Native people, as well as the hierarchical relationship established by the soldiers’ position on horses as opposed to the indigenous men on foot.

While Hamilton gained the military rank of Major General and political prestige in the newly formed United States government as the first Secretary of the Treasury, the Spanish empire sought a foothold in Alta California. They established Catholic missions along the coast and strategic military garrisons such as the San Francisco Presidio up until the Mexican Revolution of 1821. This Hispanic past of what would later become the thirty-first state of the United States often does not garner the same amount of interest as the dramatic events of the early Federalist period, especially with the ongoing performances of the “Hamilton” musical. By placing the objects of “Meanwhile in California” alongside the New-York Historical Society’s Hamilton exhibition, the California Historical Society hopes to draw attention to this critical period in California history, a time of momentous change and upheaval with lasting impacts on the landscape, culture, and peoples of California.

Louisa Brandt
Library and Collections Intern, California Historical Society


Dorn, Samantha. “Major General Alexander Hamilton.” The National Museum of the United States Army. 16 July 2014. Accessed 12 September 2017.   

Ellis, Clifton. “Spanish Colonial Architecture: Forts and Presidios.” Texas Tech University, College of Architecture. 

Voss, Barbara L. The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

“Voyage pittoresque autour du monde [illustrations—excerpt]: Background. “ American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of Early American Settlement and Exploration: A Digital Library and Learning Center. Wisconsin Historical Society. 2017. Accessed 12 September 2017.

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