1847: Thanks to a Spanish noblewoman and the quick thinking of Yerba Buena’s first American alcalde, San Francisco gets its name.

early-yerba-buenaJanuary 30, 1847:
Yerba Buena becomes San Francisco

Yerba Buena

That was the name given to the tiny bayside settlement back in 1835, a name taken from the wild mint growing on the sand dunes that surrounded it. And if it hadn’t been for the lucky first name of an elegant Spanish noblewoman, that’s what the city of San Francisco would still be called today.

Our magnificent bay had already worn the name of San Francisco since 1769 — but though some in Yerba Buena apparently used it as a nickname, it never occurred to its motley population to make “San Francisco” official.

In July of 1846 Yerba Buena was just 11 years old, a sleepy hamlet in Mexican territory with just about 200 residents. The place woke up some when Captain John B. Montgomery sailed into the harbour, marched into the center of town and raised the Stars and Stripes.

The Mexican alcalde and other officials split town before Montgomery’s marines arrived, so — at least as far as Yerba Buena was concerned — the annexation of California in the Mexican-American war took place without a fight.

mariano-vallejorobert-sempleDon Mariano Vallejo, Dr. Robert Semple and the Bear Flag connection

A couple of weeks earlier up in Sonoma, the rancho of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo had been invaded by a ragtag collection of American frontiersman. They were attempting to strike a blow for California’s independence from Mexico. Don Vallejo, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the Mexican territory of Alta California, was arrested — kidnapped, perhaps — and transported to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River.

You’ll undoubtedly recognize this as a scene from the infamous “Bear Flag Revolt” — a terrific story, but I’m in grave danger of digressing here. In fact, I mention it only because the route taken by Vallejo’s captors led them across some of the General’s considerable Mexican land-grant holdings, specifically those around the convergence of the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay.

One of the more civilized members of that Bear Flag group was one Doctor Robert Semple, an energetic, well-educated and nearly seven-foot-tall Kentuckian. Doctor Semple was also a man with vision, and he carefully noted the beauty — and strategic potential — of this location.

About six months later, once hostilities had settled down a bit, Doctor Semple and his one-time prisoner Don Vallejo struck an agreement to found a new city on that spot — right on the northern shore of the Carquinez Straits.

“Francisca”, new metropolis of the West

On January 19th, 1847, Vallejo deeded a five-square-mile tract of his lands to Semple. Don Vallejo made one important stipulation to this deal; that the new city be named for his beloved wife: “Doña Francisca Benicia Carrillo.”

Doctor Semple agreed.

The name would honour Señora Vallejo, but also — and more importantly to the enterprising Semple — associate itself with the great San Francisco Bay. The city he envisioned as the new metropolis of the West would be dubbed “Francisca”.

Lt. Bartlett sees the future

The agreement was officially recorded in Yerba Buena by the new American alcalde — Captain Montgomery’s second in command, Lieutenant Washington Bartlett. Though Bartlett’s position in Yerba Buena was only temporary, he had apparently already fallen under the patriotic influence of his new surroundings.

Washington Bartlett, like Semple, realized that names carry symbolic weight. Association with the already well known San Francisco Bay — and the mission — would help the upstart “Francisca” attract shipping, commerce, and national renown.

Yerba Buena had grown to a population of barely 500 at this point, and there was absolutely nothing that guaranteed its future as the primary city of the West — or even of the Bay Area. The formation of “Francisca” right across the bay had real potential to eclipse the little town altogether.

As one writer tells it, “Alcalde Bartlett went into executive session with himself”, and solved the problem by scratching out the following decree:

AN ORDINANCE WHEREAS, the local name of Yerba Buena, as applied to the settlement or town of San Francisco, is unknown beyond the district; and has been applied from the local name of the cove, on which the town is built: Therefore, to prevent confusion and mistakes in public documents, and that the town may have the advantage of the name given on the public map;

IT IS HEREBY ORDAINED, that the name of SAN FRANCISCO shall hereafter be used in all official communications and public documents, or records appertaining to the town.

– Washington Bartlett, Chief magistrate January 30, 1847

francisca-benicia-vallejoDoctor Semple, who in addition to his city-planning activities had launched California’s first newspaper a few months earlier, used it to splutter, bloviate and cry foul in a hundred different ways.

But the deed was done, and “Francisca” was out.

The new town would have to settle for Señora Vallejo’s second name: “Benicia“. And that, of course, is the name it bears to this day … as well as a long-standing grudge against the city across the bay.

California’s hidden Gold Fever infection wouldn’t erupt for another year and a half, but when it did, it would be the name of San Francisco that would echo around the world.