The first people to visit Alcatraz Island were native peoples who arrived between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. Two major groups lived around the bay: the Miwok, who lived north of the bay in present-day Marin County, and the Ohlone, who lived in the coastal areas between Point Sur and the San Francisco Bay.
Early use of Alcatraz by these indigenous people is difficult to reconstruct, since most of the tribes’ oral histories have been lost. Historians believe that Alcatraz was used as a camping spot and an area for gathering foods, especially bird eggs and marine life. One tradition implies the island may have been used as a place of banishment for tribal members who violated tribal law.
By the time the first Spanish explorers arrived in 1769, more than 10,000 indigenous people lived around San Francisco Bay.
• On August 5, 1775, Spanish Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed his ship into San Francisco Bay and spent several weeks charting the harbor. During his surveys he described a rocky, barren island and named it “La Isla de Los Alcatraces” (Island of the Sea Birds). Historians debate which island Ayala actually sited, but the name eventually was given to the 22 acre rock today called Alcatraz.
• California became a possession of United States on February 2, 1848 in a treaty with Mexico that ended the Mexican War. A week earlier, on January 24th, gold had been discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Within three years, the population of San Francisco would explode from around 500 to more than 35,000 as gold seekers poured into California.
• By 1850 the Gold Rush was at its height, and California was admitted as the thirtieth state in the Union. Alcatraz and several other bay islands were reserved “for public purposes” by presidential order on November 6, 1850.
• The U.S. Army, realizing San Francisco Bay was vulnerable to enemy attack, fortified the harbor entrance with strategic batteries including a fort on Alcatraz Island. The fort was completed in December 1859. During the American Civil War (1861–1865) Alcatraz became the largest American fort west of the Mississippi River.
• Hundreds of ships headed for San Francisco during the Gold Rush wrecked along the dangerous California coastline The first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was built on Alcatraz to guide ships safely into San Francisco Bay. The light went into service on June 1, 1854.
• The army began sending soldier-convicts to the Alcatraz fort in early 1860. Over the next forty years, the island gradually became obsolete as a fortification and more important as a prison. The U.S. Army removed the fort’s guns and in 1907 formally designated Alcatraz as a Military Prison.
• The army renamed the island in 1915 as “Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks”—a prison for soldiers undergoing punishment and retraining. Army prisoners built most of the buildings on the island. This would be the final military role for the island until the last soldiers departed in 1933.
The army transferred Alcatraz to the civilian Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1934. The BOP quickly converted the aging military prison in to a maximum-security, state-of-the-art civilian penitentiary. Alcatraz would shortly become the most famous federal prison in United States history.
Alcatraz was designed to serve as America’s first maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary, what is today referred to as a “super max” institution. From 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz housed some of America’s most notorious offenders, escape artists, gang leaders and general trouble makers. They were held under the most secure and regimented conditions, in the virtually escape-proof environment on a rocky island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. To the men sent there, Alcatraz was the end of the line.
Alcatraz was sometimes called the “prison within the prison system”, since the only inmates sent there were transferred from other federal prisons. Courts could not sentence anyone to Alcatraz. Instead, the Rock was where the BOP sent its most troublesome prisoners until it was decided they could be safely returned to a lower-security institution. Their average stay was five years.
During the period the Federal penitentiary operated, 36 prisoners were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three men were caught, six were shot and killed, and two drowned. Five convicts disappeared and were never seen again, but the overwhelming odds are that they drowned and that their bodies were never recovered.
In early 1963, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the closing of Alcatraz Penitentiary citing increasing maintenance and operational costs. The last convicts were removed from the island on March 21, 1963. When the island closed, it was replaced by a new maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Today, the government’s “super max” institution is located at Florence, Colorado. Its unofficial nickname is “Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
American Indians of many tribes returned to the island in November 1969. Alcatraz had been dormant for six years since the Bureau of Prisons closed the penitentiary. No one had come forward with a feasible plan for reusing Alcatraz, so American Indian activists seized the island shortly before Thanksgiving and claimed it as Indian Land. This was an internationally-publicized political protest to focus attention on the plight of American Indians.
Indian unity was a key focus of the Indian movement, and there were plans to establish an American Indian cultural center on Alcatraz. One of the most inspirational occupiers was Richard Oakes, a young Mohawk student described as handsome, charismatic, and a talented orator. The media often sought him out and identified Oakes as the leader, the Chief, or the mayor of Alcatraz. Tragedy struck in early 1970 when his young step-daughter Yvonne was killed in a fall on the island. Richard Oakes left shortly after and the Occupation began to lose momentum.
For eighteen months, American Indians and their families lived on the island. However, public interest in the occupation waned, and order among those living on the island began to deteriorate. Federal marshals removed the remaining occupiers from the island in June 1971.
The Alcatraz Occupation is now recognized a milestone in American Indian history. Many Indian people now consider the seizure of Alcatraz to have been a new beginning, a reawakening of American Indian culture, traditions, identity and spirituality.
Each year, Indians of all tribes return to Alcatraz Island on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day to hold a Sunrise Ceremony for Indigenous Peoples and to commemorate the Occupation.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service, was established by Congress in 1972 as part of a trend to make national park resources more accessible to urban populations and bring “parks to the people.” Alcatraz Island was included within the boundaries of the new urban recreation area because of its unique natural resources and human histories.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s 75,398 acres of land and water extend north of the Golden Gate Bridge to Tomales Bay in Marin County and south to San Mateo County, encompassing 59 miles of bay and ocean shoreline. These lands represent one of the nation’s largest coastal preserves and attract 16 million visitors each year, making GGNRA one of the National Park Service most highly visited units.
The National Park Service opened Alcatraz to the public for the first time in October 1973. Visitors had never been allowed on the island before, and the response was overwhelming – more than 50,000 people visited Alcatraz during the first year it was open. Historians estimated this was more people than had set foot on the island during all of its previous recorded history.
Over the last thirty years, public interest in the island has continued to grow. Each year, more than 1.3 million visitors travel to Alcatraz Island.
Today, Alcatraz is being preserved for the enjoyment and understanding of future generations. Former prison buildings are being conserved and seismically upgraded, and additional areas of the island are opened to the public as safety hazards are removed. Seabirds are retuning to the island in ever-greater numbers, and naturalists carefully follow the number of eggs laid during the 8-month long nesting season.
Much of this work is carried out by dedicated Alcatraz “Volunteers In Parks” (VIPs) who lead guided walks, carry out bird census, help restore long-neglected gardens, and preserve historic structures around the island.