Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Castillo de San Joaquin
by Gordon Chappell
National Park Service
Castillo de San Joaquin, the Royal Spanish fort which guarded the strait into San Francisco Bay which the Americans later would name the Golden Gate, is gone. It was demolished early in the 1850s, and even the white cliff on which it stood was cut down to near sea level to accommodate construction of a new brick-and-masonry fort completed before the Civil War, a fort which still stands.
Yet San Francisco retains part of the most significant armament of the old Castillo, bronze guns that were a century old when they first arrived, guns of such beauty of design and decoration that they survived the scrapping that was the fate of lesser iron weapons.
Plans for a fortification at the narrowest part of the Golden Gate strait, on the southern shore, dated back to the founding of San Francisco and its Presidio in 1776, when Captain Don Juan Bautista de Anza designated the top of the white cliff at the point known as Punta de Cantil Blanco as the site for a fort. Nevertheless, nothing was done immediately, the garrison known as the Presidio was being established about a mile to the southeast at a more sheltered location. Meanwhile, Spain and Great Britain contested ownership of this part of the New World, and were unable to settle on a boundary between their possessions in the resolution of the Nootka controversy during which Spain relinquished claims to the far northern coast. This unresolved question of imperial rivalry coupled with British naval visits to San Francisco and Monterey alarmed Spanish officials and spurred them to build the fort the need for which had been discussed for fifteen years.
One day after the arrival in San Francisco Bay of the British frigate H.M.S. Discovery captained by George Vancouver, Commandante Alferez Hermenogildo Sal reported to the Spanish Gobernador de Alta California on October 31, 1792, that he had but one cannon on hand, and suggested the mounting of a battery of ten or twelve guns on the Cantil Blanco or white cliff at the point south of the strait.
Apparently in response to this fear of British incursions, on July 24, 1793 the Spanish royal frigate Aranzazu delivered to San Francisco guns and other military stores including, it is believed, the six bronze guns cast in Peru more than a century earlier which survives today. When later that year the British barkentine Chatham arrived in San Francisco Bay, the botanist on board, Archibald Menzies, reported that the Aranzazu and other Spanish vessels "had brought some reinforcements to the settlement, together with a supply of warlike-stores & some Ordnance, for eight long brass four-pounders were laying on the Beach at the landing place & a considerable quantity of Shot of different sizes, so that if we might judge from appearance's & the great preparations now going forward, they seem to have taken some alarm at the defenseless state of the Settlement, for in our former visit (November 1792) we only observed one cannon in the whole place and that simply lashed to a log of wood, but we now observed a number of people employed on the eminence on the South side of the entrance clearing away the ground for the purpose of erecting a Battery for the defense of the Harbour and a more suitable situation could not be fixed on, as it perfectly commanded the entrance."
Construction of the castillo had actually begun in August 1793, the work being done by thirty Indians drafted from Mission Santa Clara, as well as 23 yokes of oxen used to haul timber, guns, and both fired brick and adobe or sun-dried mud brick. The castillo whose construction Menzies witnessed that fall was completed and dedicated on December 8, 1794.
Unfortunately, Castillo de San Joaquin was poorly built and went through a long history of deterioration and repair, and more deterioration and redesign, and more deterioration and ultimate neglect. The one relatively constant factor was the ordnance, and even it changed to some extent. A report in September 1796 listed six iron guns and eight guns, presumably of bronze, which were called at that time 8-pounders. The years passed. Mexico revolted against Imperial Spain and won freedom by 1822; the change little-affected Alta California. In time, the Presidio and the Castillo were abandoned by the Mexican governor in favor of establishing a new barracks north of the Bay at Sonoma, and of the eight bronze and eight iron guns reported at the castillo in 1837, two of the former were moved to the Presidio of Sonoma. These were probably the guns named Poder and San Francisco.
The Bear Flag Revolt, a revolt of American settlers and a few indigenous Californios against the Mexican government of Alta California exploded in June 1846, and soon an American army lieutenant of Topographical Engineers named John C. Fremont was playing a leading role. After one small skirmish, Fremont and his men moved southward, borrowing a longboat to cross the strait, which Fremont named the "Golden Gate," and they seized the deserted castillo and its guns, many of which were lying in the dirt because their wooden carriages had rotted entirely away. Fremont and his men found at that time three bronze and seven iron guns in the castillo. The men spiked the guns by driving iron files into the touch-holes. (The gun named San Pedro still have remains of one of the files in it.)
On July 9, 1846, Captain John B. Montgomery of the U.S. sloop Portsmouth landed a force of sailors and marines to seize Yerba Buena, as the settlement which would grow into the city of San Francisco then was known, and Montgomery dispatched a lieutenant with an armed Party to the Presidio and the Castillo. At the Castillo they found three brass guns, which they believed to be 12 and 18 pounders, made in 1623 possibly a misreading of 1673, 1628 and 1693, as well as seven iron guns. Those bronze guns are believed today to have been the ones named San Pedro, San Domingo, and La Birgen de Barbaneda.
By July 11, Montgomery could report to Commodore John Drake Sloat at Monterey, "I am endeavoring to clear the vents of the brass guns of the fort, and I hope to succeed. Tomorrow I hope to recover the brass 12-pounder, which I learn was buried in the sand at the Presidio Montgomery's men succeeded in reventing the guns San Domingo and La Birgen de Barbaneda, and they found the buried gun at the Presidio, believed to have been the San Martin."
On July 20, 1846, Montgomery sent a launch to Sonoma to pick up the two brass guns there and return them to the Presidio, or more accurately, to Yerba Buena. Meanwhile, his men were constructing a new battery on a steep bluff facing the bay at Punta del Embarcadero, also known as Clark's Point, to protect the anchorage inside the Bay. This battery, its named preserved in San Francisco's "Battery Street," was unofficially known as "Fort Montgomery." Its site was between the present Battery Street and the water and between Vallejo and Green Streets.
The subsequent history of the Spanish cannon has not been closely traced. An undated early photograph of the interior of Fort Point, located on the site of the cliff on which the old castillo stood, shows two of the guns lying on the ground just inside the sally port. In 1870 four of the guns were used as ‘fender posts;' that is, buried vertically at the muzzle near the corners of the sally port entrances, they prevented iron wagon tires from damaging the brick work at the entrance to Fort Point. An 1897 magazine article claimed that Major General Irvin McDowell commanding the Military Division of the Pacific from 1876 to 1882, had brought all the ancient guns together at Fort Mason in order to preserve them, having found them scattered at different posts around the Bay. By the early 1900s, two of them, muzzle down, flanked the entrance gate to the Commanding General's quarters at Fort Mason, and by 1936, one was still there and another was on the lawn in front of the residence, while the other four had been moved to the Presidio, two to flank the entrance to the Officer's Club, two to flank the flagpole on the Parade Ground. Early in the 1970s the Fort Mason guns were moved again, the San Martin to Fort Point and the San Domingo to the Presidio Army Museum, and both were remounted on replica wooden carriages.
Today these historic cannon, cast in a Peruvian foundry three centuries ago, brought to San Francisco from the Spanish ordnance depot at San Blas in Mexico nearly two centuries ago, serve as impressive reminders of San Francisco's more than two centuries of military history.




 San Martin

 Arms of Don Meleher de Navarra y Rocafal, 26th Viceroy of Peru  Fort Point
 San Domingo

 Arms of Don Diego Fernandez de Cordoba, 17th Viceroy of Peru  Presidio Museum
 San Francisco

 Arms of Don Baltasar de la Cueva Henriquez y Saaverdra, 24th Viceroy of Peru  Presidio Flagpole
 La Birgen de Barbaneda

 Arms of Don Melchor Puertocarrero Laso de la Vega, 27th Viceroy of Peru  Presidio Flagpole

 San Pedro

* Translates roughly as"The governing gentlemen of the Royal Audiencia of Lima," a governing council at a time when there was no viceroy or vice-king appointed. The additional coat of arms which several of these guns have in common is that of Spain. Four were cast in Lima, Peru, by Jose de Cubas, one by Alexo de Texeda, one by Antonio de Riva
.Spanish cannon from Castillio de San Joaquin
The cannon San Domingo
Reference: Douglas Watson, "San Francisco's Ancient Cannon . .. with some notes on the Castillo de Joaquin," Calif. Hist. Soc. Quart., Vol. XV, No. I (March 1936).

One version of Castillo de San Joaquin, as it appeared in Bancroft's History of California, measured about 240 by 140 feet. An earlier sketch of fort put it 120 by 180 feet with the buildings in center rather than against rear wall. Still another version had it 120 by 100 feet. Probably all were correct for periods described due to constant remodeling, especially in 1799, 1805, 1808, 1810, 1816, and 1818. "The structure rested on sand and decaying rock," a 1796 report said, "The brick-faced adobe walls crumbled at the shock whenever a salute was fired; the guns were badly mounted and for the most part worn out, only two of the 13 24-pounders being serviceable or capable of sending a ball across the entrance of the port. The whole work, protected by an adobe wall with one gate, was commanded by a hill in the rear, and the garrison of a corporal and six artillerymen was altogether insufficient." Soon after Mexico took over California, a visitor wrote "I found St. Joachirn on his ricky throne, truly a very peaceful and well disposed saint; no one of his cannon in condition to fire a single shot." (Redrawn from Bancroft plate.)
Castillio de San Joaquin, 1794

To find out more about the Castillo and Fort Point, visit the National Park Service's Fort Point National Historic Site Website
Need directions to the Fort Point? CLICK HERE
Recommended reading on the history of the harbor defenses of San Francisco:
Chin, Brian
Artillery at the Golden Gate: the Harbor Defenses of San Francisco in WW II
Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Missoula, MT., 1994
Clauss, Francis J.
Angel Island, Jewell of San Francisco Bay
Angel Island Association, Tiburon, CA 1991
Delgado, James D.
Alcatraz, Island of Change
Golden Gate National Park Association, San Francisco, CA 1991
Martini, John A.
Fort Point, Sentry at the Golden Gate
Golden Gate National Park Association, San Francisco, CA 1991
Martini, John A.
Fortress Alcatraz, Guardian of the Golden Gate
Pacific Monograph, Kailua, HI 1990
Martini, John A. and Haller, Stephan A.
What We Have We Will Defend: An Interim History and Preservation Plan for Nike Site SF-88L, Fort Barry, CA
National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, CA 1998
Thompson, Erwin N.
Historic Resource Study, Seacoast Fortifications, San Francisco Harbor, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California
Denver Service Center NPS, Denver CO 1979
This page was reprinted with permission from Old Forts of the Far West, published in 1965