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An Introduction to Alcatraz Island


Historical Significance

"The Rock" became a synonym for Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay long before its penitentiary housed the most desperate federal prisoners in the United States for almost 30 years, from 1934 to 1963. Alcatraz's historical significance reaches much further back in time and possesses more facets than the story of bank robbers and kidnappers. On the island stood the first lighthouse on America's Pacific shores, a light that has guided ships in and out of the magnificent bay for almost 125 years. For nearly 75 years, the island served as a military prison for army convicts from both the western states and overseas possessions. And for 50 years, Alcatraz played a key role in the defenses of San Francisco Harbor.

The Rock Is a Rock:

A Description Despite later tales that the island was honeycombed with Spanish tunnels and dungeons, it attracted very little attention ;from explorers and settlers before the Mexican War. Nor was there much about it that was attractive. Alcatraz jutted out of the bay, a barren irregularly shaped rock that was devoid of flowing water as well as vegetation. An American army officer described it as being "entirely without resources within itself and the soil is scarcely perceptible being rocky and precipitous on all sides. Its first surveyor wrote: "This Island is chiefly composed of irregularly stratified sandstone covered with a thin coating of guano. The stone is full of seams in all directions which render it unfit for any building purposes & probably difficult to quarry." He added: "The island has no beach & but two or three points where small boats can land." His survey showed that the island was I, 705 feet long and that its maximum width came to 580 feet. Its long axis lay in a northwest-southeast direction. When viewed in profile it had two "peaks" that reached elevations above sea level of 134.9 and 138.4 feet. The guano probably gave cause for the name White Island that was occasionally applied to it. The Rock measured about 22 acres.

Alcatraz Gets a Name: Explorers

Because of its location in the midst of the swift currents of the bay, Alcatraz (where one could get close to the water) provided an excellent platform from which to harvest the great schools of fish that passed beneath its slopes. But if Indians made use of the island as a fishing station, they left no evidence of their visits. Not until the third quarter of the 18th century did Alcatraz enter into history.

Sgt. Jose Francisco Ortega, chief scout for Gaspar de Portola's expedition, may have seen Alcatraz Island when he stumbled upon the Golden Gate in 1769. Three years later, two Spanish gentlemen most certainly did. Capt. Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespi, exploring the area where Berkeley now stands, looked westward toward the Golden Gate and noted the principal islands within their view. Fages wrote in his journal: "Within the estuary we saw five islands, three of them making a triangle opposite the mouth, with a large distance between them; and the nearest of them to the channel at the mouth [Alcatraz] must have been over a league from it. The largest of the three [Angel], which must have been some three leagues in circuit, was very grassy and with considerable trees on it; the other two [Alcatraz and Yerba Buena] were smaller and also displayed considerable greenery. The first European to visit the island mayor may not have been Frigate-Lt. don Juan Manuel de Ayala, who sailed the first ship into San Francisco Bay in August 1775. On August 12 he set out in a small boat from his temporary anchorage at Tiburon for nearby Angel Island, which he named Isla de los Angeles. Although he found good moorings there, he decided to inspect further before deciding on a harbor: "I rather preferred to pass onward in search of another island, which when I reached it proved so arid and steep there was not even a boat-harbor there; I named the island de los Alcatrazes [Island of the Pelicans] because of their being so plentiful there.

One could readily assume that Ayala had reached today's Alcatraz. However, the chart resulting from this first survey of the bay clearly labeled today's Yerba Buena Island as de los Alcatraces. Some scholars, such as Stanger and Brown, believe that the chart was inaccurate and that the name was applied to the wrong island by an unskilled hand, and that Ayala's "arid and steep" island was indeed today's Alcatraz. Others assume that the chart is correct, that Ayala did visit Yerba Buena, and that the name was later accidentally changed. Stanger and Brown believe that Ayala's phrase could only have applied to today's Alcatraz and not to the more bountiful Yerba Buena. Supporting this conclusion, on the one hand, is the army's experiences on Yerba Buena around 1870, when it had a full-fledged post on the island capable of supporting 150 men. A spring and a well supplied a limited but adequate amount of water. And the post boasted a 5-acre garden. Photographs taken at the time show a heavy natural growth of grasses, bushes, and large shrubs. On the other hand, Ayala's own pilot, Jose de Canezares, described today's Yerba Buena as "rough, steep and with no shelter. A Mexican map of the Bay Area dated 1825 continued to identify Yerba Buena as Alcatraz, with no identification of the

latter island at all. But in the next year, Capt. Frederick Beechey, British Navy, secured permission from Mexican authorities to survey the bay. For whatever reasons, he gave each island its present name and thus they have been known ever since.

Fremont's Claim

During the last years of the Mexican regime, a number of citizens, native and naturalized, of the Republic applied for grants of land around San Francisco Bay at locations that within a short time would be demanded by the United States for use as military reservations for the defense of the harbor. While some of the original grantees had intentions of developing these lands, others were purely speculators and, after the conquest of California, undoubtedly had high hopes that the United States would be forced to pay well to obtain possession of them. Ownership disputes would soon plague all the early military reservations: Presidio, Point San Jose (Fort Mason), Lime Point, Angel Island, and Alcatraz.

Early in 1849 the U. S. Congress appropriated funds for a joint commission of army and navy officers to examine the Pacific Coast with reference to its defense. Maj. John Lind Smith, senior officer of the commission, wrote from San Francisco concerning Mexican titles. He understood that the only titles that existed in California were those derived from Mexican grants and from uninterrupted occupancy for the length of time prescribed by the laws of Mexico. He had also learned that "all valid Mexican grants contain a reservation that they may be resumed by the Government when needed for public purposes; and that any grant without the reservation is not valid because there is a law of Mexico expressly requiring it to be inserted." Smith confidently concluded that the United States could take possession of any land in California that might be required for public use. Alcatraz Island would not test Smith's thesis as much as Lime Point or Point San Jose would in the years ahead; nonetheless the story of its claimants is a curious one.

The Spanish colonial government had, in fact, retained control of all coastal islands. But on July 20, 1838, the Mexican government, fearful that foreigners might occupy some of these islands, passed a law that authorized the governor of California to certify ownership. The prefect, J. de Jesus Noe, at Monterey, did his duty but was puzzled as to why Workman wanted the "completely bare" island. Another Monterey official pointed out that the only possible use Alcatraz could have would be the location of "some kind of lamp which may provide some light in the dark and stormy nights for the protection of ships that pass by." On June 8, 1846, as the sun was setting on Mexico's ownership of Alta California, Governor Pico granted Workman the small island, with the one condition that he establish a navigation light "as soon as possible." Workman did not erect a light on Alcatraz; almost immediately he conveyed the title to his son-in-law, Francis P. Temple, another naturalized Mexican. In 1847, John Charles Fremont, appointed governor of California by Commodore Stockton, "purchased" Alcatraz Island from Francis Temple, "giving a bond for the purchase money in my official capacity as governor of California." Fremont said he regarded the island "as the best position for Lighthouse and Fortifications in the bay of San Francisco. Later in Washington, D. C., Fremont was court-martialed on a number of charges and specifications, among them being this purchase in the name of the United States. The United States rejected the "purchase" on the grounds that Fremont had not possessed the authority to make it. Furthermore, President Fillmore's 1850 order reserving Alcatraz and other parcels of land from sale was a clear indication that the federal government considered itself the rightful owner and purchase from anyone unnecessary. The army's Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast confirmed that belief in 1851 when it wrote that while it had no specific information concerning Temple and Fremont, it was under the impression "that our Government had succeeded to the right of property in that and other Islands which had been vested in the Mexican Government.

The army proceeded to develop plans for the defense of Alcatraz. But Fremont was not at all convinced that his claim was dead. He decided that if he had not purchased Alcatraz for the government, then he had bought it for himself: "The Island consequently reverted to me, and has ever since been held by me to be my property." Eventually, through Simon Stevens of New York, Fremont paid $5,000 to the holder of the bond. From the 1850s on, Temple's name dropped from the records. Not so, Fremont's. By early 1855 the San Francisco law firm of Palmer, Cook, and Company, which seemed to specialize in land litigations that involved the federal government, entered the case either on behalf of Fremont, or in partnership with him. They brought an action of ejectment in the District Court, Fourth Judicial District, San Francisco. The engineer in charge of the works on Alcatraz, Maj. Zealous Bates Tower, notified Chief Engineer Joseph Totten that "Messers Palmer Cook & Co. have commenced suit against me personally for trespass in occupying Alcatraz." The secretary of war quickly authorized Tower to call upon the U. S. district attorney for any assistance he needed.

At the same time Palmer went into court, Fremont wrote U. S. Attorney General Caleb Cushing outlining the case as he saw it, concluding: "I thought it not improbable that the government upon a full examination might be disposed to make some arrangement which would spare us the great expense and delay of litigation." But the government was not so disposed. The construction of fortifications on Alcatraz went on. Fremont's claim came up again in 1859 when D. W. Perley, said to have been the "Pathfinder's" attorney at that time, threatened to institute a suit for the possession of the island. Sec. Lt. James B. McPherson, then in charge of Alcatraz, informed Washington that according to his intelligence Perley was threatening this action because he had lost $30,000 when the federal government declined to pay $200,000 for the purchase of Lime Point on the north side of the Golden Gate. As before, the subject quickly dropped from army correspondence, indicating that nothing much came from the affair.

As late as the 1890s attorneys for the heirs of General Fremont, probably in association with another land dispute at Point San Jose (Fort Mason), placed on record a deed dated August 3, 1883, from Fremont to Charles A. Lamont of New York, stating that for the sum of one dollar and other valuable considerations Fremont sold one-half of all his rights to Alcatraz Island. The newspapers guessed that the old claim was to be renewed before Congress or the Court of Claims. But the Fremont heirs seem to have dropped their interest in Alcatraz about this time. They would, however, continue the battle over Point San Jose. Alcatraz has remained firmly in the hands of the federal government from its first occupation by the army engineers until today.


English sea voyager Sir Francis Drake passed the San Francisco Bay during his Western expedition in 1579. Alcatraz would remain undiscovered until 1775 via land expedition.


Drake's ship the Golden Hind.


The San Carlos, commanded by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala.


Captain Frederick Beechey


John Charles Fremont


Commodore Stockton


Maj. Zealous Bates Tower