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Migration to the Bay

Native American tribes, settler colonization, the Gold Rush, the Immigration Station of Angel Island, World War I, and World War II.  These are just some of the countless people and events that spurred migration to the San Francisco Bay Area. Different groups of people, from all over the world, traveled to California for one reason or another, whether it is to find opportunity, spread their own particular faith, or try to strike it rich. 

Bay Area Native Americans

and Settler Colonization

Before the colonization of the Native American tribes in 1542, there were different Native American tribes that occupied the land. The Natives were of different Miwok and Ohlone tribes and they inhabited what is now Fort Mason, Crissy Fields, Sutro Baths, Marin County, Horseshoe Cove in Fort Baker and at Big Lagoon at Muir Beach. The Natives had their own languages that they spoke, their own beliefs, and ways of life. In 1542, Spain sent Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to explore the coast of California and find a passage that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In 1769 Spain sent another explorer, Gaspar de Portola, to Monterey Bay.  Traveling with him were sixty men, including soldiers, priests, and Christian Native Americans. The main reason why the Spanish Empire kept sending explorers to California was to conquer land and further spread Christianity. The Spanish completed these tasks, but also sought wealth, land , and fame for themselves. Once they occupied native lands, they attempted to impart changes to the native way of life, including diet, faith, language, education, and culture. After a hundred years of Spanish's control. the Native population went from about three-hundred thousand to twenty thousand. The drastic decrease in population was primarily due to diseases that the natives weren't immune to; such as the measles, smallpox, and syphilis. In 1776, around the same time English settlers in the 13 East Coast colonies were declaring independence, the Spanish established the Presidio and soon put local natives to work in building missions, farming, and helping the priests. One of the oldest buildings in San Francisco was founded in October of the same year, the Mission Dolores de Asis. 

Besides the Spanish settler colonization of the Native Americans, the Russians also established a settlement in Bodega Bay, called Rumiantsev Bay. By August 1812, the Russians constructed two blockhouses that housed twelve to forty cannons-later becoming known as Fort Ross.  Later Fort Ross would be considered a mixed village because the Russians and the Kashaya people lived there together. One last name to mention from well before this period, in the sixteenth century, is Sebastian Cermeño. He was a Portuguese explorer contracted by Spain and became one of the first explorers to miss San Francisco Bay. 

Esteva, Sofia. "Bay Area Native Colonization". Dominican University of California, 2020.

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San Francisco Public Library. “[Mission Dolores, 1800's].” Calisphere. San Francisco Public Library. Accessed November 30, 2020.

Portuguese History- South San Francisco Historical Society

          Click here to listen!


Jones, Pirkle. “Black Panthers in Marin City, CA, #58 from A Photographic Essay on The Black Panthers.” Accessed November 8, 2020. 


Hutchinson, William H. Chinese Railroad Workers . n.d. Calisphere .

Sam Brannan was considered the first millionaire in California due to the Gold Rush. He made a living not by mining for gold, but by owning supply stores. Here is an audio clip about Brannan. 

                            Click here to listen!

Strike it Rich 

Between the 1840s to 1860s important events took place to shape not only California, but also the broader United States and even much of the world! In 1846, the United States waged war against Mexico in what has become known as the Mexican-American War (U.S. name) or the U.S. Intervention in Mexico (Mexican name). The war began on April 25, 1846 and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe less than two years later on February 2, 1848. It began with the dispute over whether Texas ended at the Nueces River or the Rio Grande. The U.S. claimed it ended at Rio Grande and Mexico claimed it ended at the Nueces River. U.S. President James Polk declared war and eventually appointed General Winfield Scott to take an army and invade Mexico City via Vera Cruz. On September 14, 1847 Scott invaded and took control over Mexico City. There were ten thousand casualties from the U.S. due to illness and one thousand five hundred who died in battle. On Mexico's side, there were nine thousand casualties. Though the U.S. took over the capital of Mexico, the job wasn't finished. President Polk ordered Nicholas Trist, who was the chief clerk in the State Department, to negotiate a peace treaty. Polk became increasingly impatient with the negotiation and called off the signing of the peace treaty, but Trist disobeyed orders and on February 2, 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed. The treaty entailed Mexico giving up power and land to the United States. The U.S. ended up gaining new territory: New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas and western Colorado. The total cost of these new territories was fifteen million dollars. Acquired new territories means adding to the population, over one million Californios, who were guaranteed certain rights in the treaty.

Not long after the Mexican-American War came the Gold Rush. This was when large numbers of people from all over the world came to California to try to strike it rich. The Rush part of the Gold Rush Era began on January 24, 1848, when James Marshall, a carpenter, was working at Sutter's Mill. Sutter's Mill was owned by John Sutter and he heard that there was gold on his property and tried to keep it a secret. The secret didn't last long and everyone in-the-know started to look for gold on all nearby riverbanks. Large numbers of Europeans and Qing Dynasty Chinese made their way over to California to search for gold, causing a major influx in the population of California. Many of the Chinese experienced poor treatment. They were discriminated against and often couldn't find work; that is, until 1863 when the Transcontinental Railroad was being built. Two companies were contracted for the building of the railroad; the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. The Chinese were hired to lay tracks for the Central Pacific and this provided consistent work.  In fact, many of the engineering marvels of the railway tracks through the Sierra Nevada Mountains were built by these Chinese crews.  On May 10, 1869 they finished the railroad and it was the first of its kind to link the East and the West Coast together. Upon the completion of the railroad, large numbers of Chinese were out of work again.

Won, Kaitlyn. "Migration: 1840s to 1860s." Dominican University of California.

Angel Island

As mentioned above, the Chinese began to migrate to California during the Gold Rush, wanting to strike it rich or simply provide a better life for themselves and their families. Many families in China wanted to come to America because they were in poverty, experiencing starvation and/or violence. These poor conditions were largely a result of the Taiping Rebellion, which took place between 1850-1864. Historians estimate that the rebellion resulted in twenty million deaths. By 1876, about 116,000 Chinese took refuge in California. Angel Island was an immigration station which largely served as a detainment center from 1910 to 1940. Over time, the island held one-hundred and seventy-five thousand Chinese, about sixty thousand Japanese, and thousands of others.  Detainees were typically held between a couple of weeks to several months, with some notable, particularly lengthy, exceptions.  When the Chinese migrated, most were hoping to accumulate wealth and return home; but, their unpopularity in the region made this more difficult. Work was hard to find, but when the construction of the Transcontinental railroad began, the companies hired fifteen to twenty thousand Chinese immigrants.  They were also paid less, receiving thirty to fifty percent lower wages than whites who had the same job. They were also often assigned dangerous work, like handling the explosives. 

On October 5, 1881, a Treaty Between the United States and China Concerning Immigration was proclaimed by President Chester Arthur. The agreement stated that the U.S. could restrict migration from China at any time, but could not prohibit it. The Chinese migrates were also protected under this law and certain individuals who had specific jobs could come and go as they pleased.  Under pressure from Californians, the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted the following year, prohibiting Chinese immigration for a period of 10 years (and was later renewed).  A similar act made it to president Hayes desk four years earlier in 1778, but it was vetoed. 

Torres, Jacquelyn. ""The American Dream:" The Nightmare Chinese Migrants Experienced in the Late 18th Century United States." Dominican University of California.

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“Photograph of Chinese Poetry on Wall.” Wikimedia, 2017, .

Angel Island - Chinese Immigration by 1LightMedia on YouTube:

Post World War II: Mexico

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Delgado Soto, Jose Francisco. "Photo of braceros walking on street." Bracero History Archive, 

Item #855. Accessed October 26, 2020.

Juan Topete Interview

Juan Topete
00:00 / 1:11:00

During World War II, there was a huge labor shortage as young men went off to war. One important and creative solution was the Bracero Program which was started by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942. Under the auspices of the Good Neighbor Policy, Mexico and the United States made a deal where Mexican workers would fill jobs in agriculture and railway construction. Before signing the deal, Mexico requested a few conditions: Mexican workers were not to serve in the U.S. military, not to be subjected to discrimination on or off the job, were guaranteed transportation to and from their destinations, were provided decent living conditions in the U.S., were repatriated at the end of their contract periods, and were not to be used to replace American domestic servants or reduce wage levels. Between 1942 to 1964 over four million contracts were signed. In the urban Bay Area, workers were mainly in Oakland, working maintenance on the Southern Pacific Railroad.  Their living conditions consisted of camp sites or small living quarters. In the 1950s the program was attacked by politicians and reform organizations. Eventually in 1954, under President Eisenhower, Operation Wetback took began, and the deportation of some Braceros took place twelve years after the program began. This notably impacted the Mexican immigration population, shrinking from 11.6 million to 11.3 million. 

Palacios, Katya. "Bay Area Migration Post WW2: The Bracero Program." Dominican University of California.


"Hunters Point Slip, c. 1900", wnp71.0346; GGNRA/Behrman GOGA 35346 G810 SH-593. Accessed December 8th.

 Washington DC's local ABC news station did a wonderful piece honoring David Johnson and his photography of the civil rights movement, including the 1963 March on Washington:

     Click here to watch!

Golden Gate Bridge

Resources for Migration History 

DUOC Public History Students designed lessons plans for both 8th and 11th grade students, incorporating California's Academic Standards and interactive features for added student engagement.  Find the associated lesson plans for Bay Area's migration history below.

The History of the Bay Area is inseparable from the evolving relationship between mankind and the ocean itself. Learn more with this video below!

Post World War II: African Americans

African Americans were another group to migrate during World War II.  In they Bay Area, many happened to occupy land that was previously homed to the Japanese. They lived in the area what is now known today as the Tanforan Mall, near the San Francisco International Airport, which was a temporary detainment center at the beginning of Japanese Internment.  Under direction from Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, the U.S. evicted and incarcerated 110,000 Japanese Americans. In 1943, African Americans began to migrate, largely from the Southeast, to work in shipyards and other war industries. During this time period they began to inhabit what is now known today as Hunters Point and the Fillmore District in San Francisco. 

Moreno David, Jennifer. "Bay Area Mirgration Post WW2:African Americans." Dominican University of California.

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