Jan. 30, 1847: San Francisco uses a little trickery to get its name


Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, as seen in 1851. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The city of Yerba Buena ceased to exist on Jan. 30, 1847 and was renamed San Francisco. Yerba Buena, which means “good herb,” was originally the name of the city by the bay when it was part of the Las Californias Province of New Spain and later as part of the Alta California territory of Mexico.

In July 1846, during the Mexican-American war, Yerba Buena was claimed for the U.S. and the American flag was raised over the main square, today known as Portsmouth Square and located in the Chinatown section of San Francisco.

During all the fighting, land grabs for gold, and creation of military and trading posts in the area, word began to spread of a new town that was going to be founded where the Sacramento River feeds into the San Francisco Bay. That town was to be called San Francisco. But the Chief Magistrate of Yerba Buena at the time realized many sailors and traders were visiting his city, believing it to be the soon-to-come San Francisco. He wisely proclaimed that Yerba Buena would be renamed San Francisco to capitalize on the confusion. The other city further inland had to take the name Benicia, under General Vallejo. Though Benicia was briefly the capital of California, San Francisco has long since passed it in size and industry – undoubtedly because of its name.

In 1848, California became a U.S. territory under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and later a state on Sept. 9, 1850. San Francisco remains one of the most popular spots to visit in the state – though no longer for the gold. More than 16 million people come to the city every year to admire the natural beauty as well as the history of the region.

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