Alcatraz – A Brief History

Alcatraz: A Brief History

18,000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period, Alcatraz was a sandstone hill at the entrance to a valley. As the ice melted, the Pacific Ocean rose and the valley filled with seawater to become San Francisco Bay, while the hill became an island. According to the National Park Service, Native Americans have lived in the San Francisco Bay area for over 10,000 years. The two native groups that inhabited the area when the Spanish arrived in the late 18th Century were the Miwok and the Ohlone. The Miwok lived to the North of the Golden Gate, while the Ohlone lived to the South and the East.


Little is known about Alcatraz from the pre-contact period: based on oral histories it appears that local tribes gathered bird eggs there, and also used it as a place of banishment.

Arrival of Europeans
The Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala made the first survey of the island in 1775. He called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which meant “Pelican Island”.

Alcatraz lighthouse was the first to be established on the west coast of the United States, and began operating in 1854. It was damaged during the 1906 earthquake, and replaced with a new lighthouse in 1909.

In 1859 the US government built a fort to protect its recently acquired territory of California. However, by the end of the Civil War in 1865 it was already obsolete.

Military Prison

The commanders of the garrisons at Fort Point and the Presidio realized that Alcatraz would be a convenient place to send their worst offenders, and in 1861 it became a military prison.

Hopi Indians Imprisoned
In 1895, 19 members of the Hopi tribe were imprisoned for seven months for refusing to allow their children to be taken to government-run boarding schools.

Expansion of Prison
Cellhouse, view from the Recreation Yard
Beginning in 1909 the army demolished the original fort and replaced it with a huge prison complex which, when completed in 1912, was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world.

Federal Penitentiary
Because of the prison’s high maintenance costs, the Army handed it over in 1933 to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which turned it into a maximum-security federal penitentiary. During this time it housed some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Eventually, like the Army, the FBP decided that the prison was too expensive to maintain, and closed it in 1963. The island was now declared surplus federal property.

Indian Occupations
On March 9, 1964, five Sioux Indians occupied Alcatraz for a few hours, demanding that the government build a cultural center and an Indian university on the island. This protest inspired a group of Native students led by Richard Oakes to occupy the island for 19 months, beginning November 20, 1969. US Federal Marshals ended the occupation on June 10, 1971.

National Park
In 1972, Alcatraz Island was incorporated into the Golden Gate Recreation Area, and is currently administered by the National Park Service.

By Ian Wilson

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Posted on April 26, 2011, in Alcatraz-San-Francisco, Anthro136k-spring2011-UC-Berkeley, Anthro136kSp11, Microhistories and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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