Early in 1845 the sloop USS Portsmouth braved the turbulent waters at the tip of South America and headed north up the west coast. Captain John B. Montgomery was under orders to patrol off the San Francisco Bay as part of the United States Pacific Fleet’s effort to prevent Great Britain from acquiring California during a time of growing tension with the government in Mexico City. When war broke out Montgomery sailed into the bay and sent marines to the small town of Yerba Buena. They met little resistance since troops under John C. Fremont had slipped across the bay during the night and disabled the Mexican cannon. The American flag first flew over the town plaza on July 9, 1846. Today we know that plaza as Portsmouth Square.
Montgomery appointed the young, Spanish speaking Lieutenant Washington Bartlett as Alcalde of Yerba Buena, a position roughly equal to a Mayor. Bartlett then had Jasper O’Farrell, who had previously done work for the Mexican government in Marin and Sonoma counties, make surveys of the town. It was O’Farrell who laid out Market Street parallel to Mission. Bartlett and O’Farrell, as part of that original survey, also named many of the streets in today’s downtown, but it was Washington Bartlett who named Montgomery Street after the captain of the Portsmouth.In 1847 Montgomery Street was right on the shoreline of the bay. Near today’s Transamerica Pyramid still lie the remains of the whaling ship Niantic that arrived on July 5, 1849 and never left after the crew jumped ship for the gold mines . By 1850 she was in use as a hotel but later she burned in one of the many fires in the early days of the city. Now the site is a California Historic Landmark. Montgomery Street grew into the financial heart of the west coast, the ‘Wall Street of the West’, and is still home to many powerful financial institutions.
John B. Montgomery went on to command the US Pacific Squadron and both the Boston and Washington DC Navy Yards. On January 30, 1847, in one of his final and most lasting acts as Alcalde of Yerba Buena, Lieutenant Washington Bartlett signed an ordinance that changed the name of the small village to San Francisco. Bartlett stayed in the navy until 1859, when he was embroiled in a financial scandal and resigned his commission. He died in 1865.