How San Francisco got its name

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.

Yerba Buena, 1847

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.

The Niantic

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.



  1. So interesting to know how the city took on the name we know it by. Thanks, John!

    • What is so interesting to me is how fast everything happened. First the war with Mexico and Yerba Buena is captured. Then the name is changed to San Francisco and soon after that gold is found. All that in less than 2 years. So fantastic it must be true. Thanks for writing, Carol!

  2. It was fast, but I think things happened either very quickly or extremely slow. Still fascinating story.

  3. I just read George Stewart’s book about the Donner Party, and was surprised when Mr. Reed, after making it down off the mountain, visited a place called Yerba Buena to raise money for a rescue attempt. I’d forgotten San Francisco ever had another name! I also never knew the British were interested in CA during this time. How serious was that threat?

    I live in Gold Country (Pilot Hill, 6 miles from Coloma) and look forward to reading your books about the Gold Rush.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jenni. California was much different in the 1840s. It was still mostly wilderness. But trouble with the British had gone on for some time mostly over the Oregon Territories that we both claimed. In the middle of this Texas, now an Independent country, wanted to join the United States and Mexico threatened to go to war if they did. America wanted “Manifest Destiny” – for our country to stretch from sea to sea. Because of that we wanted California but San Francisco Bay was the best port on the west coast. Britain wanted it too. We settled with Britain over Oregon along the borders we have today and when the Mexican War broke out we beat them to California. By 1848 the United States had pretty much the shape it has today.

      I think you will enjoy the books. The two already out both happen mostly in early Coloma and Hangtown, just right down the hill from you.

  4. Great article. Just curious though, why did he choose the name San Francisco?

    Laura Hedgecock

    • He chose San Francisco because it was already the name for the bay I suppose, Laura.

      • You are correct about that. The Spanish had already named the bay. However, I read another account that the name was changed because another community was going to name itself Francisca. Bartlett decided to pre-empt them. Early San Fran had some amazing characters. John Geary was the last alcalde and first mayor. He went on to become Governor of California. Then he was Governor of Kansas. Then Governor of Pennsylvania. Died at age 52.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.