Remixing El Presidio

June 4, 2008

The Officers’ Club

Filed under: Uncategorized — colleenmorgan @ 6:05 pm


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Rachel Marks
Narrative 1: How to Make Adobe in San Francisco
“Adobe architecture provides relatively simple, economical, and thermally efficient building in dry, desert climates. In such climates, stone is often rare and wood is too scarce for building or to fuel brick kilns,” says Eric Blind, Presidio Trust archaeologist.
Adobe is, at first glance, a very simple building material that is seen in various cultures across the world. The basic supplies necessary to make adobe are dirt and water, which can be found in abundance pretty much everywhere. Yet, in order for adobe structures to survive, every element that goes into the mix has to be carefully formulated against weather conditions and the time-consuming labor to construct with the bricks must be managed against the time it takes for them to dry properly.
Making adobe is more complex then placing mud into brick-shaped molds. The mixture requires dirt that is taken from a clay context, sand, hay, horse and/or cow manure, and water. It must be mixed for hours, placed into wooden molds to dry for a month or longer and carefully monitored to ensure there are no cracks. The sensitivity of materials and labor intensive quality of adobe may not have made it the most attractive building option for the Spanish colonists. There are only a few months out of the year in which the weather would have been warm enough, long enough, to dry the adobe, the hay and manure could have been used to fuel fires for cooking and the labor involved could have been put to use modifying the landscape to more adequately fit the colonist’s ideals. Despite the pitfalls of using adobe it remained the most viable building option until the American period due to lack of wood and stone in the immediate area.
The complicated adobe recipe and the technical knowledge of how to construct adobe buildings originated from the colonists’ home villages in Central America. It traveled with the Spanish colonists across California and must have been foremost in their minds when they realized this lack of suitable wood and stone in the immediate vicinity. Adobe would have been familiar and its production would have been plausible from the areas they traveled through in order to reach northern California. The industry associated with making adobe may have also been an additional reason for capture of a Native American workforce.

Blind, Eric
If These Walls Could Speak. Internal Presidio Trust document. Document given to author June 4th, 2008 by Liz Clevenger.


Narrative 2: Ceramic Production and Consumption at El Presidio
“El Presidio de San Francisco’s military settlers inhabited a world of clay. The vertical walls that defined their built environment, whether of wattle-daub, rammed earth, palisade, or adobe, were surfaced in clay: the settlers walked across floors and plazas made of packed clay and fired-clay ladrillos: and, after the 1790’s, they slept under roofs of curved clay tejas.” (Voss 2008: 203).
The native laborers who built the clay adobe structures mentioned above by Voss would have been largely unfamiliar with ceramic technology because their traditions involved basketry and stone bowls. These two materials are not well attested in the archaeological records at the Presidio for several reasons. Native American lives were generally not allowed to continue ‘as is’ after conquest because their lifeways tended to change dramatically with European contact. Their presence at El Presidio would have been allowed if they adopted the ways of the colonists; therefore they may not be distinguishable in the archaeological record.
The best archaeological records regarding ceramic use come from 1999 and 2000 excavations of a midden pile outside Building 13 [Voss, 2008]. As with all archaeological deposits, this represents only a partial record of ceramic production, use and discard. The findings were wide-ranging enough to present a clearer picture of what ceramic types were utilized and where they were coming from. There are also documentary records containing the colony’s annual shipping requests and receipts, which is helpful in assessing the needs that were not met by the Spanish crown and subsequently what they would have had to produce on their own.
The families who moved to coastal California must have been enterprising and resourceful. They journeyed not just with their material possessions but cultural knowledge of how to maintain the lifestyle they wanted to pursue. But they had to adapt their material preferences to accommodate different environments. By the late eighteenth century the colony was feeling more and more estranged from the Spanish Empire. Around this time the archaeological record shows an increase in locally produced ceramics, which co

Voss, Barbara
2008 The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. University of California Press.


Narrative 3: Adobe in the Officers’ Club Structure
“For theirs were the hands that carried out, under the direction of overseers, the projected plans of the Padres.” (Webb 1952: 104). So says a poetically framed and accurate statement regarding Native Californian labor at El Presidio. Their labor was, by far, the most important cultural resource to the colonists. The Mission’s purpose was to convert and El Presidio’s purpose was to establish a colony under the Spanish crown. Several missions and presidios had been established by Spain along the California coast, so the settlers had an idea of what to expect when it came to native relations and came prepared for armed conflicts. Both groups, religious and military, would have competed for native labor in their attempts to fulfill their manifest destinies.
Although most historical reports list El Presidio as being in a general state of disrepair there are a series of Spanish military accounts that describe seismic activity and storms in 1812 and 1813 that damaged the buildings enough to require extensive reconstruction. This was undertaken in 1815 under the supervision of Commander Luis Antonio Argüello, who decided to raze most of the quadrangle and start rebuilding it from scratch [Voss 2008: 186-188].
The adobe underneath the current Officers’ Club building probably dates to this 1815 reconstruction. Most of what is known dates to archaeological work done between 1996 and 1999 by Cabrillo College in order to asses the structural integrity of the building and if preservation steps were necessary. This excavation also revised the notion that the adobe was from the original 1776 construction, as assessed by the U.S. Army in the early twentieth century.
The U.S. Army had very romantic notions of the Spanish colonial period and created the current building façade with white stucco, red roof tiles, and ironwork grating meant to evoke Spanish architecture as they understood it. In the process of remodeling the Officers’ Club they also installed a peep-window that allows visitors a view “inside” the walls to some remaining adobe bricks. This small view into a wall interior is symbolic of the ways in which the relationship between the past and present are continuously negotiated at the Presidio.

Voss, Barbara
2008 The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. University of California Press.

Webb, Edith
1952 Indian Life at the Old Missions. University of Nebraska Press.

El San Pedro

El Poder


By: Jason Felix
Milestone 3
Narrative 1
The Antiquated Cannons of El Presidio: A Budgeted Defense System

Two cannons appear to guard the entrance doors of the Officers’ Club on the Main Post of the Presidio. They were once used to defend the entrance to the San Francisco Bay. These cannons, El San Pedro and El Poder, were cast in 1673 and imported to El Presidio from Peru between 1776 and 1822 (National Parks Service Website, 2008). This means that they were at least 103 years old when the Spanish military imported them to El Presidio.
It is interesting to think about why the Spanish colonists imported antiquated weaponry to defend the coast of San Francisco. One would assume that better weapons developed during the 103 years gap since the Spanish settlers obtained the cannons. Why would the colonial Spaniards want to use outdated weapons to defend their coastal home?
One reason might be that the Spanish military did not need to defend El Presidio extensively because surrounding Native Californians were not much of a threat to them. Barbara Voss asserts that the absence of defensive capability suggests a lack of fear by the military settlers that their home would be attacked (2008: 155). The early Spanish settlers probably developed peaceful relations with bordering tribes and deposed the natives that posed a threat to them. It is stated that, “Some local people sought out the colonial explorers, offering gifts of firewood, food, and water. Others brandished weapons and threatened the colonists but stopped short of directly attacking them” (Voss 2008: 43). The peaceful relationships that the early colonists developed with the indigenous tribes may have led the Spanish to believe that they only needed antiquated weapons to defend themselves.
Lack of financial support from Spain may also have been a likely reason that the colonists used the outdated military technology. California was envisioned as a military colony but was not given the support to subdue the native population while simultaneously guarding against other European powers. (Voss 2008: 58). Also, “Although El Presidio de San Francisco was allowed to remain open, it did not receive any increase in royal support and continued to decline throughout the remainder of the 1780’s” (Voss 2008, 64). Perhaps the early colonists could only obtain the 103-year-old cannons because it was too expensive to fund El Presidio.

Voss, B. (2008). The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. University of California Press, Berkeley.

National Parks Service Website accessed June 4, 2008.

National Parks Service Website accessed June 4, 2008

Replica of colonial Spanish Military uniform


Milestone 3
Narrative 2
El Presidio’s Offensive Strategy: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

El Presidio housed the Spanish Military and served as the initial barrier defending the San Francisco Bay from other European threats. Although the Spanish settlers wanted to protect the gateway to their existing land, they were even more interested in expanding their territory and converting indigenous people. Spanish Priests drove the notion that their mission was to convert Indians to Catholicism. Barbara Voss states that, “The military settlers who lived at El Presidio were tightly bound to their government, their church, their commanding officers and to each other through a dense web of legal obligations, religious observances, and social ties” (Voss 2008: 63). The inherent need to spiritually save natives and find new resources were what motivated the Spanish colonists to leave their fort and explore new places.
In order to explore outside of El Presidio’s locale the Spaniards needed to free themselves from the burden of defending their base of operations. They strategically placed the Spanish Flag to mark their territory which geo-politically positioned the Spanish Army on the Northern California coast. The colonists probably established peaceful relationships with neighboring native Californians and deposed local people that posed a threat to them.
Like the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. The Spanish colonists engaged in offensive military excursions that inadvertently defended themselves from outside threats. They did this by seeking encounters with far off unfamiliar indigenous people. Voss states, “As the nineteenth century began, the soldiers of El Presidio de San Francisco turned away from the problems of foreign defense to engage in protracted punitive campaigns against unbaptized and runaway Indians” (Voss 2008: 66 from Phillips 1993). This brought battles away from the central military hub and into uncharted territory. By doing this, the early Spaniard settlers were able to march their troops to explore, expand, and colonize native Californian land.
The Spanish military also instituted rape and other harsh tactics as standard military practices. It is stated that, “The colonial military attacked Native Californians in their own inland villages, regionalized armed conflict farther and farther inland. Sexualization of military conflict through rape and sexual assault also terrorized Native Californian communities” (Voss 2008: 155). These unethical strategies were what made the colonizers successful in their initial militaristic endeavors prior to Mexican revolt. Offensive attacks gave the Spanish an advantage and turned out to be one of the ways they defended El Presidio.

Voss, B. (2008). The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Phillips, G.H. 1993. Indians and Intruders in Central California, 1769-1849. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

An artist’s conception of the original Presidio

The Eastern Corner of the original El Presidio on a windy day

Milestone 3
Narrative 3
El Presidio of 1792’s Missing Fourth Wall: Lack of Windfall for a Windy Fort

For a number of years El Presidio’s Quadrangle, which was supposed to have four impenetrable sides according to standard Spanish military practice, lacked a fourth facade on the eastern side. Barbara Voss states, “The Presidio never met regulation standards for defensive capabilities. This finding seems especially surprising when we recall the settlement’s primary purpose: to provide security and defense against both indigenous and foreign aggressors” (2008: 154). This means that El Presidio was a three-walled fort until 1815. It is interesting to think about why it only had three adobe enclosure walls and how it affected the structure’s defense. One would assume that strong fortification would be required to protect soldiers. But, why was there no fourth wall until 1815? Was it necessary to enclose the entire quadrangle of El Presidio?
The missing fourth wall was likely due to lack of funds and materials. It is stated that, “They had brought few tools and little hardware with them on the overland journey from Tubac, and no serious construction could begin until the needed materials were available” (Voss 2008: 176). Also, “With few personnel or funds available, Acting Commander Sal was unable to maintain–let alone improve–the condition of the quadrangle.” (Voss 2008: 181). Although El Presidio began as extremely permeable it is surprising that this had little effect on their defense. This might be due to the peaceful relationships that the Spanish colonists developed with the natives or perhaps because they eliminated Native American threats. If this was the case, then what possible benefit could the three-walled fort have provided for 40 years?
Some may conclude that only three walls were needed to protect from the strong ocean winds and sand coming from the Bay. As any San Franciscan can attest, the Bay Area has very strong coastal gusts. During that time El Presidio did not have the trees that presently block some of the wind. Since El Presidio was mostly sand dunes, with sandstorms being a prevalent problem, perhaps the walls served more to block those strong oceanic winds until they could afford to build a fourth wall.

Voss, B. (2008). The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Langellier, J.P., and D.B. Rosen. 1992. Historic Resource Study: El Presidiode San Francisco—A history under Spain and Mexico, 1776-1846. Presidio of San Francisco. Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center.


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