The Presidio of San Francisco is a new kind of national park. It is home to the spectacular vistas, nature, and programs that visitors would expect, as well as a community of residents and organizations who bring renewed vitality and purpose to this former military post. The Presidio Trust is an innovative federal agency created to save the Presidio and share it with the public.
The Presidio Trust Oral History Project captures new layers of the history of the Presidio. The project complements ongoing archaeological research and fulfills historic preservation obligations through interviews with people associated with the Presidio of San Francisco, for example: former soldiers, nurses, doctors, civilian workers, military families, descendants of Californios and Native Californians; environmental groups; and Presidio Trust and National Park Service employees. The interviews capture a range of experiences, including the legacies of colonialism, stories of service and sacrifice, the role of the Presidio in a range of global conflicts, everyday life on the post, and of how this post became a park. The Presidio Trust and the Oral History Center have embarked on a multiyear collaboration to produce these oral histories.
The goals of the Presidio Trust Oral History Project/Presidio are twofold. First, to create new knowledge about life on the post during peacetime, as well as during global conflicts, that illuminates the diversity of experiences and the multiplicity of voices that is the essence of Presidio history. And second, to share this knowledge with the public in ways that leverage the power of first-person narratives to allow people to see themselves reflected in the Presidio’s past so they feel connected to its present. The kinds of questions we seek to answer include: “How can the Presidio’s military legacy inform our national intentions?” and “How can examining the cultural mosaic of people living in and around the Presidio shape our understanding of the nation?”
There were two parts to this project, which are outlined below.
Life on the Post
The Presidio has served as a military reservation from its establishment in 1776 as Spain's northern-most outpost of colonial power in the New World. It was one of the longest-garrisoned posts in the country and the oldest installation in the American West. It played a key role in Spain's exploration and settlement of the borderlands, Mexico's subsequent control of the region from Texas to Alta California, and the United States' involvement not only in frontier expansion, but also in all major conflicts since the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on June 13, 1962.
The Presidio served as a U.S. Army Post from 1847 to 1994. This large military reservation at the Golden Gate developed into the most important Army post on the Pacific Coast. Over time its armaments evolved from smooth bore cannons to modern missiles. It became the nerve center of a coastal defense system that eventually included Alcatraz and Angel Island and that reached as far north as the Marin Headlands and as far south as Fort Funston (all these former military lands were later incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area). Eventually, there were five distinct posts at the Presidio, each with its own commander: the Main Post, Fort Point, Letterman General Hospital, Fort Winfield Scott, and Air Coast Defense Station at Crissy Field. Also on the 1,491-acre reservation were a Coast Guard lifesaving station and a U.S. Public Health Service Hospital.
In 1972, the Presidio of San Francisco — then an active installation — was included within the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. On October 1, 1994, after the post became excess to military needs, it was transferred to the National Park Service.
The Presidio offers a window into the changes in American society over a span of almost 150 years. The shift from an originally bachelor society where only officers could marry to a community with families and children, advances in modern medicine and health care at Letterman General Hospital, the introduction and expansion of the role of women in the military, the racial integration of the armed forces in advance of American society at large, all are integral to the Presidio's history and reflect American national history. The Presidio is home to one of the nation's finest collections of fortifications, landscapes, buildings, structures and artifacts related to military history.
Rodrigo de la Concepcion
The Presidio 27
On October 14, 1968, 27 prisoners in the Presidio Stockade broke ranks during roll call formation, sat down in a circle in the grassy yard, joined arms, sang We Shall Overcome, and asked to present a list of demands to the stockade commander that addressed the treatment of fellow prisoners and the conditions inside. Just days before a guard had shot and killed a prisoner, and GIs had taken to the streets of San Francisco in massive demonstrations against the war that came right up to the Presidio’s gates — the first anti-war marches organized by GIs and veterans in the nation. For staging this peaceful protest, amidst the heightened tensions of a country increasingly divided over the Vietnam War, the Army tried the 27 for mutiny, the most serious military offense. The actions of the 27 and their subsequent trials made headlines, shocked the Army and the nation, brought the GI movement onto the national stage, inspired the anti-war movement, catalyzed improvements in U.S. military prisons around the world, and ultimately helped to end the Vietnam War.
In 1968, as more and more soldiers began questioning the Vietnam War, going AWOL (absent without leave) and deserting the military, many flocked to San Francisco’s counterculture. Those who turned themselves in or were picked up by authorities, were brought to the Presidio, the nearest Army post, and held in the stockade. As its population swelled to nearly twice what it was designed to hold, stockade conditions became increasingly chaotic and overcrowded, a ticking time bomb. The average age of the Presidio 27 was nineteen and all were AWOLs. Most were from working-class backgrounds, some came from career military families, and only five had finished high school. Their convictions for mutiny came with sentences ranging from six months to sixteen years. Years later — and only after great personal hardship and sacrifice on the part of the Presidio 27, including years spent in federal prison — the military overturned their convictions on appeal and reduced their sentences. In the end, the appeals judge found that rather than intending to usurp or override lawful military authority, requirements for the charge of mutiny, the Presidio 27, in reading their demands to their commanding officers, were actually invoking and imploring the very military authority they had been charged with seeking to override.
Howard De Nike