San Francisco, California


San Francisco was the first great immigrant city of the American West, receiving people from around the world during the California gold rush of 1848–49. In 2000, its metropolitan population of 7,039,362 was one of the most culturally diverse in the United States. About 30 percent of its population was Asian and 14 percent Hispanic (see Hispanic and related terms). The largest non-English ethnic groups of the greater metropolitan area (including Oakland and San Jose) were Mexican (988,841), Irish (649,758), Chinese (521,645), Italian (422,963), Filipino (382,224), Vietnamese (156,832), and Asian Indian (155,121).
Established by Spain as the Mission of Saint Francis of Assisi in 1776, the settlement remained small until Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821 and a number of Californians decided to settle the distant territory more than 2,300 miles from the capital of Mexico City, a village then named Yerba Buena. England, Russia, and the United States all sought control of the great natural harbor of San Francisco Bay, a goal that the United States achieved with victory in the U.S.-MEXICANWAR (1846–48). The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sacramento Valley of California in January 1848 transformed the newly acquired village on the bay. Between 1848 and the granting of statehood in 1850, more than 90,000 people migrated to California, most from within the United States, but large numbers also arrived from Mexico, Chile, Australia, and many regions of Europe. Almost all arrived through the port of San Francisco, turning a sleepy village into a city of 25,000 in less than two years. Among the immigrants were large numbers of Chinese workers from the impoverished and flood-ravaged province of Guangdong (Canton). San Francisco soon became known for its lawlessness and violent nativism, especially directed at Chileans, Chinese, and Irish. By 1870, the city was almost evenly divided between those born in the United States (76,000) and those born outside the country (74,000), most of them being Irish, Chinese, German, and Italian. Bowing to pressure from San Francisco and California generally, in 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first racial immigration legislation in the United States. Nativist legislation continued with the Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907) and the Alien Land Act (1913).
With increasing government regulations following passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act and its related extensions, it became impossible to adequately examine immigrants at the two-story shed at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company Wharf, then in use as a processing facility. Following the example of the Ellis Island facility of New York, the government created a new immigration detention center on Angel Island. Sometimes called “the Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island was located on the largest island in San Francisco Bay, about two miles east of Sausalito. During its 30-year history (1910–40), as many as 1 million immigrants passed through the facilities—both departing and arriving— including Russians, Japanese, Asian Indians, Koreans, Australians, Filipinos, New Zealanders, Mexicans, and citizens of various South American countries. Almost 60 percent of these immigrants were, however, Chinese. The immigration center on Angel Island was built to stringently enforce anti- Chinese legislation, rather than to aid potential immigrants. Whereas the rejection rate at Ellis Island was about 1 percent, it was about 18 percent on Angel Island, reflecting the clear anti-Chinese bias that led to its establishment.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, Europeans and first- and second-class travelers were usually processed on board and allowed to disembark directly to the city. All others were ferried to Angel Island, where the men and women were separated before undergoing stringent medical tests, performed with little regard for the dignity of the immigrant, looking particularly for parasitic infections. Afterward, prospective immigrants were housed in crowded barracks, sleeping in three-high bunk beds, awaiting interrogation. The grueling interviews, held before a Board of Special Inquiry, including two immigrant inspectors, a stenographer, and a translator, covered every detail of the background and lives of proposed entrants. Any deviation from details offered by family members resulted in rejection and deportation. And if a successful entrant ever left the country, the transcript of his interrogation was on record for use when he returned. The whole process could take weeks, as family members on the mainland had to be contacted for corroborating evidence. In the case of deportation proceedings and their appeals, an immigrant might spend months or more than a year on Angel Island. The unsanitary conditions on Angel Island and degrading treatment of Asian immigrants led to outrage among progressives, but little was done to alter the situation before a fire destroyed the administration building in 1940.
With completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, travel between the East and West Coast became more efficient, further contributing to the rapid growth of San Francisco. As Los Angeles and Oakland began to develop their port and commercial facilities, San Francisco gradually lost its preeminent position as the West Coast center of commerce.
World War II (1941–45) changed the character of San Francisco. Becoming increasingly industrial, it attracted large numbers of African Americans, principally from the South, altering the racial composition of the city. Japanese and Chinese citizens continued to demonstrate their loyalty during the war, though their fate was radically different. Under great suspicion while the United States was at war with imperial Japan, some 18,000 Japanese Americans from the greater San Francisco area were interned as a result of Executive Order 9066 (see Japanese internment, World War II). With China as an ally, however, Chinese San Franciscans earned greater respect and a wider number of job opportunities. By the 1960s, the Chinese were moving into the cultural mainstream, and the Japanese followed soon after. After World War II, San Francisco increasingly became a destination for Mexican and Central American immigrants who replaced the Irish and Italians steadily moving out of the inner city. In the 20th century, minority politics came to dominate San Francisco. While the majority of Californians supported anti-immigrant propositions, such as 187, 209, and 227 (see Proposition 187), San Franciscans consistently opposed them and earned a reputation for generally liberal politics.

A–Z index