It’s easy to understand why Tony Bennett crooned “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The City by the Bay has mesmerized visitors ever since it burst onto the American scene during the California Gold Rush of 1849. By the time the city incorporated in 1850, its population had exploded from 1,000 to more than 25,000. And as a key West Coast point of entry for immigrants, San Francisco has always valued its rich history, even when disasters have obliterated traditional genealogical records. This guide will help you reconstruct your San Francisco roots.
As the founding fathers were forming the United States of America in 1776, Spain was making its claim on San Francisco. A year after Gaspar de Portola’s expedition to northern California, Spain established the Presidio army base and the Mission San Francisco de Asis.
The area became part of Mexico in 1821, and the mission system gave way to land privatization. Englishman William A. Richardson established the first homestead, and together with Alcalde Francisco de Haro, laid out the street plan for what was then known as Yerba Buena. The United States claimed California in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, and by January 1847, Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco.
San Francisco challenged pioneers with its hilly terrain and therefore remained fairly small despite its desirable port. All that changed in 1849, after East Coast newspapers reported a gold strike the year before. New arrivals poured into San Francisco, many making their fortunes supplying miners rather than digging for gold. California quickly became a state, and the United States secured its acquisition by fortifying San Francisco Bay at Fort Point and on Alcatraz Island.
Shakin’ records loose
You can sum up the key to San Francisco genealogical research in one word: earthquake. The famous 1906 temblor forever changed the landscape of records availability. Although the shaking did considerable damage, the following fires destroyed even more official records. The good news is that genealogists have pulled together to reconstruct the lost history with substitute resources, a huge number of which are available online. Whether your family lived in San Francisco before, during or after the quake, look to the following sources.
Birth, death and marriage certificates were hardest hit by the fires in 1906. The SFGenealogy website
publishes pre-1906 newspaper notices you can use as substitute sources (click San Francisco County, then Databases).
Original birth and death records back to 1906 have been moved to the Office of the County Clerk
, where informational copies are unrestricted. Order marriage certificates starting in 1906 from the San Francisco County Assessor-Recorder
. On FamilySearch.org
, you’ll find San Francisco funeral home records and a large collection of post 1906-digitized marriage records (in “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997”).
When it comes to filling in gaps left by the earthquake, newspapers rise heroically from the ashes. In addition to the birth, marriage and death notices at SFGenealogy, the Library of Congress’ free Chronicling America site offers digitized and searchable pages from local papers, including the San Francisco Call
. The free California Digital Newspaper Collection
includes the Call
, Pacific Rural Press
(1871-1922), Wide West
(Sept. 30, 1854-Jan. 1, 1858) and Daily Alta California
(Dec. 10, 1849-June 2, 1891). At the Sutro Library in San Francisco
, you can access the San Francisco Chronicle
(1913-1980) and the San Francisco Examiner
(1913-1928). The Family History Library (FHL) has a San Francisco Newspaper Index (1904-1949) on microfiche; rent it through your local FamilySearch Center.
Cemeteries: The city opened its first public cemetery, the Yerba Buena Cemetery, in 1850. Its primary cemeteries were the Presidio (also called San Francisco National Cemetery), established in 1884, and City Cemetery (also known as Golden Gate Cemetery, which included a potter’s field).
Start your city directories research with San Francisco City, Social & Phone Directories
, where you’ll find links to online directories. Compilations date as far back as 1776, and a large number cover 1850 through 1982. You also can find a number of original directories at the California State Library in Sacramento
Census: US censuses of California start in 1850. Although that census doesn’t include San Francisco, a special state census taken in 1852 does cover the City by the Bay. You’ll find it on subscription site Ancestry.com; an index is at FamilySearch.org. You’ll also find the transcription of an 1842 San Francisco census—part of a court deposition—.
Land Records: In its collection of local land records, the FHL has the microfilmed McEnerney court actions (including an index to plaintiffs) to establish land ownership after the 1906 earthquake. To see additional resources at the FHL, run a place search of the online catalog on San Francisco and click the Land and Property heading.
At the SFGenealogy website, you’ll find links to digitized county land records such as San Francisco land titles (1839-1852), real estate transfer lists from 1876 and 1895, an index to federal land records for California and more. The San Francisco county records on FamilySearch.org also include deeds.
The free Internet Archive
has digitized Real Estate Block books by Handy (1894, 1901, 1906, 1907 and 1909-1910, six volumes), and Mery (1909). And at the David Rumsey Map Collection
, search a wide array of free digitized historic San Francisco maps, including Sanborn fire-insurance maps for 1905.
Immigration: The Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay was a major port of entry for immigrants from Asia and Central and South America. Under the restrictive immigration laws at the time, nearly 250,000 were subjects of federal investigations. Search a partial index for case numbers and access files at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Pacific Region Branch in San Bruno, Calif. Search for passenger lists at Ancestry.com.
Incorporated: 1856, as a consolidated city-county
Nicknames: City by the Bay, Fog City, Frisco
County: San Francisco
County seat: San Francisco
Area: 231.89 sq. miles (city and county)
Motto: Oro en paz, fierro en guerra (Spanish for “Gold in Peace, Iron in War”)
Primary historical ethnic groups: Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Latino
Primary historical industries: tourism, finance, military, religious, mining
Famous residents: Ansel Adams, Mel Blanc, Joe DiMaggio, Barbara Eden, Robert Frost, Jerry Garcia, William Randolph Hearst, Jack London, Johnny Mathis
- The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned: A Photographic Record of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire by William Bronson (Chronicle Books)
- Raking the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for Pre-1906 San Francisco Research, second edition, by Nancy S. Peterson (California Genealogical Society)
- San Francisco Deaths: 1865-1905, four volumes, compiled by Barbara Close and Vernon A. Deubler (California Genealogical Society)
- SF Probate 1906-1942: Register of Actions, 3 volumes, compiled by Vernon A. Deubler (California Genealogical Society)
- SF Probate Index 1880-1906: A Partial Reconstruction compiled by Kathleen C. Beals (California Genealogical Society)
Archives and Organizations
California Genealogical Society
2201 Broadway, Suite LL2, Oakland, CA 94612, (510) 663-1358
California Historical Society
678 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94105, (415) 357-1848
California State Library Sutro
San Francisco State University, J. Paul Leonard Library, 1600 Holloway Ave., Fifth and Sixth Floors, San Francisco, CA 94132, (916) 654-0266
San Francisco, CA 94102, (415) 554-4950
San Francisco Historic Sites
1. Alcatraz Island
Access from Pier 33, San Francisco, CA, (415) 981-7625
Get a close-up look at the infamous federal penitentiary and the site of the first lighthouse and US-built fort on the West Coast.
2. Angel Island State Park and Immigration Station
Angel Island, San Francisco Bay, (415) 435-3544
This renovated National Historic Landmark is open for tours. The island, part of Angel Island State Park, is the site of a US Bureau of Immigration inspection and detention facility where many Asian immigrants were held.
3. Cable Car Museum
1201 Mason St., San Francisco, CA 94108, (415) 474-1887
Learn about the history of San Francisco’s iconic cable cars from historic cars, photographs and mechanical displays.
Main entrance on Grant Avenue at Bush Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
From the 1850s to the 1900s, Chinatown welcomed immigrants from the Guangdong province of southern China. Today, the neighborhood is a city within a city full of shops and restaurants, attracting more annual visitors than the Golden Gate Bridge.
5. Golden Gate National Recreation Area
US Highway 101, (415) 455-2000
The jewel of this park, which encompasses the historic Presidio, is the famous Golden Gate Bridge. You can drive or walk across the structure, declared a Modern Wonder of the World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
San Francisco Records at a Glance
Birth Records Begin:
1905; surviving documents available from April 1906 Research tips:
Request informational certificates from the Office of the County Clerk in person or by mail. Use newspapers and the resources linked here
to substitute for missing records.
City Directories Begin:
As early as 1776, most date from 1850 Research tips:
Many are digitized at the SFGenealogy and Internet Archive websites. See a comprehensive listing here.
Research tips: Records of Chinese passengers go back to 1882. You can search all of the National Archives’ passenger lists for San Francisco at Ancestry.com.
Marriage Records Begin:
Available from 1906 Research tips:
Certified copies of marriage records are available from April 1906 to present from the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder at City Hall
. See the San Francisco County Records collection at FamilySearch.org for digitized records.
Tip: California’s “Great Registers,” biennial lists of eligible voters, are a great resource for tracking San Franciscans starting in 1866. The records are searchable on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.
1776 | Lt. José Joaquin Moraga and Francisco Palóu found San Francisco
1850 | San Francisco is incorporated
1853 | First electric telegraph is used between Merchant’s Exchange and Point Lobos
1854 | US Mint opens on Commercial Street
1860 | Pony Express begins service to San Francisco from St. Joseph, Mo.
1861 | Alcatraz fort designated as a US Army prison
1870 | California legislature creates Golden Gate Park
1906 | Magnitude 7.8 earthquake strikes April 18 at 5:12 a.m.
1915 | Thomas Watson receives the first transcontinental telephone call at 333 Grant Ave.
1937 | Golden Gate Bridge officially opens
1989 | Magnitude 7.1 Loma Prieta Earthquake kills 63
California Genealogy Crash Course: Find Your Golden State Ancestors on-demand webinar
California Research Guide download
The Family Tree Sourcebook
From the July/August 2012 Family Tree Magazine