Author Archives: chimeraspider

Alcatraz – Appraisal

Cultural Values

In determining the significance of Alcatraz Island, the island’s different values must be taken into account. Alcatraz Island has restitutive, cultural, economic, environmental, historical, social and spiritual values. It represents a pivotal moment for the Native American movement and also has considerable historic value as a former Military Fortress and as a Federal Penitentiary.

Environmental Values

The environmental values of Alcatraz include unique geological formations, rare birds, and an abundance of plants. The flora on Alcatraz have significant value because they were introduced to the island and cultivated for decades.

Social, Spiritual and Symbolic Values

Since Alcatraz has a significant amount of history, it also has a significant amount of social, spiritual and symbolic value. For Native Americans the island stands as a symbol of Native American activism and to them it always has been and always will be “Indian Land”.  With the advent of the “Unthanksgiving” ceremony, Alcatraz Island has also become a place with spiritual values.  The island’s social values pertain to anyone who has had a relationship to the island, for example prisoners, prison guards and their families during the island’s time as a federal penitentiary.

By realizing the overall significance of Alcatraz Island, the National Park Service has created a well thought-out and comprehensive management plan that helps to preserve the island’s values and minimize the threats to the site. The aim of this management plan has been to conserve and protect the island’s significance and to make it available for future generations to appreciate. Nevertheless, the National Park Service should place more emphasis on the period (1969-1971) when it was occupied by Native Americans.

View of SF from Alcatraz

By Julia Frers-Karno

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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Cultural Heritage in the Digital Age

Cultural Heritage in the Digital Age is a portal into the Microhistory/Cultural Heritage projects of a UC Berkeley course  Anthropology 136k/LS180c held in Spring semester 2011.