Tramps of San Francisco

In search of San Francisco's forgotten histories

Defining San Francisco: How Our City Became a City (Part III)

Part III: A Consolidated Effort 

After the 1906 earthquake, the Movement for a Greater San Francisco proposed an expansion of the land mass of the County of San Francisco from 47 square miles to 500 square miles. Families displaced by the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 had moved to the country, found they liked it, but still wanted to be officially and geographically “San Franciscans.” From the San Francisco Call, October 3, 1908.

Exploring the origins of the boundaries of our City as they hemmed and hawed over the last 165 odd-years has been quite an unexpected expedition (see Part I and Part II of Defining San Francisco). Novelesque, convoluted, and a much longer row to hoe than we had ever imagined, our hobnailed boots have been worn down to mere nubbins. And, yet, there’s still more to tell. A discussion of the boundaries of the City of San Francisco cannot go without some words about the origins of the boundaries of the County of San Francisco, as the two have been intertwined for over 150 years.

According to the National League of Cities, there are only 40 consolidated city-county governments in the United States. There are three types of consolidation:

    • Areas designated as metropolitan governments and operating primarily as cities (there are three of these, all in Tennessee);
    • Areas having certain types of county offices, but as part of another government, such as a city, township, special district, or state (there are 13 of these in nine states); and
    • Areas with governments legally designated as city-counties and operating primarily as cities (there are 11 of this type in six states).

The City and County of San Francisco falls into the last category, and it is the only consolidated city-county government in all of California’s 58 counties. In order for city and county governments to consolidate, most states require a referendum. Successful outcomes are not easily achieved. Over the past 40 years nationwide, nearly 100 proposals have been taken to the ballot box, but only about one-quarter have actually been approved by voters.

San Francisco has the most common consolidated city-county structure, with a single chief executive who has veto powers and a council from several districts that retains both legislative and fiscal functions. While a “city” by name, this consolidated system administers to matters of both city and state. The advantages of this type of governmental organization include cost-savings over the long-term due to increased efficiency of operation (and, therefore, increased revenue), elimination of duplicate services, enhancement of legal powers and jurisdiction, a streamlined system for community planning, and better overall accountability.

As we learned in Part II, and as only the 15th enactment in their first session, the Legislature divided California into 27 counties on February 18, 1850. The southerly boundary of the County of San Francisco extended to San Francisquito Creek (Palo Alto), then due west three miles into the Pacific Ocean before turning north to incorporate all land on the peninsula. One year later, on April 15, 1851, this definition was extended as far north as Golden Rock (also known as Red Rock, south of today’s Richmond-San Rafael Bridge) to three miles within the high water mark of Contra Costa County, then south to Alameda Creek, then due west to San Francisquito Creek. Alcatraces (Alcatraz) and the Rock Islands (Farallones) were also included.

Other local counties among the original 27 established by the act of 1850 included Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa, Branciforte (later renamed Santa Cruz), and Santa Clara. One oversight by the legislature created an overlapping boundary between the eastern boundary of San Francisco and the western edge of Contra Costa County. It would take several unsuccessful attempts by the Legislature to adjust the misalignment before it was finally rectified.

We can thank the first legislators for creating charismatic county names that also pay tribute to the influence of California’s earlier residents:

    • Alameda – a Spanish word for “a grove of poplar trees” or “a public walk or promenade in the shade of trees.” From álamo, meaning “poplar” (Alameda county was established in 1853 from Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties);
    • Branciforte – named for the Villa de Branciforte, a secular pueblo established under Spanish rule in 1797 that was located in today’s City of Santa Cruz, (county renamed Santa Cruz in 1851);
    • Contra Costa – Spanish for “the opposite coast,” as in across the Bay from San Francisco. It was considered a less threatening term than the original suggestion of Mt. Diablo (Devil’s Mountain);
    • Marin – named for the Coast Miwok chieftan Marin (1781-1839) who engaged in battle with General Mariano Vallejo, was taken prisoner, escaped, imprisoned again, and later retired to Mission San Rafael. He would one day serve as alcade at Mission San Rafael.
    • Napa – according to Owen C. Coy (1884-1952), former California state historian, “napa” was a local Native American (Patwin) term for “fish” because of the “myriads of fish” in the Napa River. There are other suggestions that it also meant “grizzly” or “house.” The true origin, however, may never be known as those same Native Americans were nearly exterminated by smallpox in 1838;
    • San Francisco – the Spanish name for the mission established by Padre Junipero Serra (1713-1784) on October 9, 1776: La Misión San Francisco de Asís a la Laguna de los Dolores. Honoring St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), founder of the Franciscan order and Patron Saint of animals and ecology;
    • Santa Clara – another mission established by Padre Serra and named for Saint Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), a friend of Saint Francis and a co-founder of the Franciscan movement;
    • Santa Cruz – according to Owen Coy, Spanish for the “sainted cross,” denoting the cross followed by the devout Spanish explorers;
    • Sonoma – Owen Coy believed “Sonoma” was a Native American (Wappo) name meaning “Valley of the Moon,” denoting the location where the last Spanish mission in California, La Misión San Francisco Solano de Sonoma (Mission San Francisco Solano), was founded. This theory was also espoused by Jack London. However, according to modern-day Wappo natives, “… noma is a place, a town or village. The ‘tso’ sound makes it a more important community, ‘earth place,’ or ‘world place,’ a sort of ‘Center of the Universe’ feeling.”

In 1855, there was a failed attempt to establish a new county, Remondo, south of San Francisco but the move succeeded one year later. As a result, both the Counties of San Francisco and Santa Cruz were significantly reduced in size. It is not clear what Remondo referred to locally (there is a Spanish municipality named Remondo in the province of Segovia, Spain) but the legislators ultimately chose San Mateo as the name for the new county. A line drawn westerly from just south of today’s Candlestick Point through the south end of Laguna de la Merced (Lake Merced) marked the new southern boundary of San Francisco. Saint Matthew (or San Matheo), was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. It was also the name of a creek that used to flow into the Bay near San Mateo’s northern border.

The new county was an indirect result of legislative actions by one Horace Hawes (1813-1871) who, before elected to the State Assembly, had served as District Attorney for San Francisco. During his term as DA, Hawes was instrumental in prosecuting the violent hoodlums that had invaded the frenzied Gold Rush town. When the water lots of San Francisco were approved for sale by the first mayor of San Francisco, John W. Geary (1819-1873), Hawes vehemently disagreed. A man known to have compared himself to Jesus Christ at least twice in his lifetime, Hawes vetoed the move to sell the lots even though he had no power to do so. When that didn’t work, Hawes sought assistance from Governor Peter Burnett (1807-1895), who was serving as the first state governor of California under the American system. Burnett disagreed with Hawes’ point of view and tried to suspend him from his duties. Hawes retaliated by attempting to impeach Burnett but the California legislature would have nothing to do with it.

Despite Hawes’ apparent shortcomings, he did recognize that corruption and vice from the streets were seeping behind the closed doors of the dual City and County governments, resulting in a dishonest, corrupt, and disorganized system. Hawes wanted to do something about it.

By this time (1856), San Francisco had already approved several charters to incorporate and re-incorporate the City, and the State had established the county line at San Francisquito Creek. Hawes had a notion that consolidation of the two separate entities governing San Francisco into a single unit could make the corruption clean-up that much easier. So, in January of that year, Hawes introduced the Consolidation Act to the California Assembly. At the same time, a separate and unrelated bill was introduced that would establish the new county of San Mateo, apparently by some of the same thugs who were trying to control San Francisco.

The battles between upstanding representatives of the people and those only looking out for themselves in the Legislature was fierce. The Consolidation Bill was passed back and forth between the Assembly and Senate, frequently only as a stall measure. After one such attempt, the Sacramento Daily Union  issued a report that may still have a somewhat familiar ring:

“Mr. Tilford [Senator Frank Tilford, a Democrat representing San Francisco] – This gentleman, in a speech upon the proposition to send the San Francisco Consolidation bill back to the Assembly, to enable that body to ascertain whether any of the amendments had been left off in the enrollment, made, as reported in the Journal the following scathing remarks upon a class of men who infest every session of the Legislature:

He believed that the only object of getting the bill back was to attach other amendments to it and thus defeat it. This was not, he believed, the object of the Assembly, but it was the influence of others, brought to bear upon the Assembly; those birds of prey, those vultures who fatten upon carcasses, who throng the lobbies of the capitol.

Those loungers in and about the Legislature who make a living and not unfrequently very high wages, by hanging about the capitol and selling their assumed influence to the highest bidder, are very correctly classed by Mr Tilford, as ‘those birds of prey, those vultures who fatten upon carcasses,’ and he might have added, ‘those vultures who fatten upon what there is left of the State carcass.'”

There were rumblings in Chambers that the main purpose of the Consolidation Act was to free San Francisco from her financial debt to the State. As wrangling over the inclusion or omission of certain amendments to the bill led to repeated delays, the San Francisco delegation complained that if the bill were rejected, it would bring “universal ruin and bankruptcy on the city.” (In fact, the City of San Francisco was already nearly bankrupt because of the ongoing legal battles over land ownership.)

Hawes’ original bill said nothing about reducing the size of the County of San Francisco. Yet, in order to get his bill approved, he needed to accept the new county to the south as part of the consolidation. Finally, on April 19, 1856, all previous charters were officially repealed as the Senate and Assembly of California approved the Consolidation Act:

“The corporation, or body politic and corporate, now existing and known as the City of San Francisco, shall remain and continue to be a body politic and corporate, in name and in fact, by the name of the City and County of San Francisco.”

With the new county of San Mateo established, the new boundaries for the County of San Francisco were defined as:

“Beginning at the southwest corner, being northwest corner of San Mateo, in the Pacific Ocean, on the extension of northern line of Township Three South, of Mount Diablo base; thence northerly along the Pacific Coast, to its point of intersection with westerly extension of the low water line on northern side of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, being southwest corner of Marin and northwest corner of San Francisco; thence easterly, through Point Bonita and Point Caballo [Cavallo], to the most southeastern point of Angel Island, all on the line of Marin, … ; thence northerly, along the easterly line of Marin, to the northwest point of Golden Rock (also known as Red Rock), being a common corner of Marin, Contra Costa and San Francisco; thence due southeast four and one-half miles, more or less, to a point distant three statue miles from the natural high-water mark on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, being a common corner of Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco; thence southeasterly, in a direct line, to a point three miles from said eastern shore, and on the line first named (considered as extending across said bay); and thence west along said first named line to the place of beginning. The islands known as the Farallones shall be attached to and be a part of said city and county.”

The current acreage owned by the City and County of San Francisco. From the Real Estate Division, City and County of San Francisco.

While there have been subsequent disagreements between San Mateo and San Francisco counties over placement of survey stakes and border monuments, as well as disputes over the accuracy of surveys performed decades before, this description of the boundaries of San Francisco is little changed today.

In 1908, only 2 years after the earthquake, a proposal was submitted to the committee of the Greater San Francisco Movement to increase the expanse of land comprising the City and County 10-times over, to 500 square miles. This is the same committee, including industrial and civic representatives from San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties, who also endeavored to obtain a supply of water for San Francisco and her neighbors from Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. The committed believed that the growth of San Francisco was restricted by the existing county boundaries:

“At that time [before the 1906 earthquake and fire] all that could be considered San Francisco proper was confined within the city limits. The peninsula was growing, but the dividing line was clear and unmistakable. After the disaster the homeless found abiding places in the outlying section. Families who had crowded lower Howard, Folsom, Bryant and Brannan streets found more desirable homes in the hills that circle the city. There they found fresh air, garden space, available land at moderate prices and there they chose to stay. In the natural expansion that followed settlements have blossomed on the ridges, along the slopes and in the meadows, until a single city stretches its length along the peninsula … Homes have multiplied into settlements, settlements into towns and towns into cities until today the train passes from one only to enter another … By an arbitrary arrangement, put into effect many years ago, these new home sites, containing San Franciscans, people whose interests lie in the metropolis, are foreign territory, connected by artificial ties to San Mateo county. This is the condition which the new movement seeks to remedy …”

Their solution was to bring San Francisco to them. So that the new rural San Franciscans would not feel so disenfranchised from their “metropolis,” the new boundaries would have extended the County of San Francisco as far north as Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County, then to the north of San Rafael, then east to the area of modern-day San Pablo, along the borders of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties to Grizzly Peak, along the Oakland Hills southward past Redwood Peak to a point just east of Hayward, then turning west and following the Dumbarton Bridge to the border of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties before turning north at the Pacific to run back up the coast to Bolinas (see Google Map). This plan was never approved.

The current charter of San Francisco (last renewed in 1996, with subsequent regular updates) provides the following definition of San Francisco:

“The City and County of San Francisco shall continue as a consolidated City and County with such boundaries as are prescribed by law, pursuant to this Charter and the laws of the State of California.”

Such a mundane and nondescript statement. It reveals nothing of the drama, the characters, the land grabs above and below the water line, the legal and governmental disputes, the immense history that has shaped our City and County boundaries. And, it all began in 1835 when Captain William C. Richardson erected a tent made of four redwood posts and a ship’s foresail near the shores of a remote little cove named Yerba Buena.

The next time you find yourself ambling along Grant Street between Clay and Washington, pause for a moment and try to visualize that single tent, all alone on a sandy dune, the tiny seed from which the City and County of San Francisco emerged.

View County Boundaries of San Francisco in a larger map


    1. City-County Consolidations. At the National League of Cities.
    2. Worley, A.E.T. The Consolidation Act and Other Acts Relating to the Government of the City and County of San Francisco. Wm. M. Hinton & Co.: San Francisco. 1887. Available at Google Books.
    3. The Sacramento Daily Union, the Daily Alta California, and the San Francisco Call, various editions. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
    4. Coy, O.C. The Genesis of the California Counties. California Historical Survey Commission:Berkeley, CA. 1923.
    5. Levy, J. Horace Hawes created San Mateo County. The Daily Journal (San Mateo). March 20, 2006. Available at The Daily Journal (San Mateo).
    6. The 1996 Charter and  San Francisco Municipal Code. Available at American Legal Publishing Corporation.
    7. Foley, L. Who was St. Francis? At
    8. Gagliardi, C.A. Celebrating St. Clare of Assisi. At
    9. LeBaron, G.L. The meaning of the word Sonoma. Santa Rosa Press Democrat, March 12, 1995.
    10. O’Brien, R. Riptides. San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1946. Available at the North Baker Research Library, California Historical Society.
    11. City and County of San Francisco. Property Book, City Limits Summary. Available at San Francisco GSA.

© 2012. Evelyn Rose, Tramps of San Francisco.     Last update August 12, 2012.

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