Not all the Pacific islands are 6,000 miles from home (if you live in San Francisco); and where, back in the day, the cannibals might eat you and your boots. No, but because I claim that San Francisco Bay is part of the Pacific, I include: “The Rock.”

And just a rock it was until the Civil War. It seems that around 25% of Californians were Southern sympathizers as the war started. After Fort Sumter in S. Carolina was gunned up by P.G.T. Beauregard, kicking off the Civil War, the Union felt it was time to install better cannons at Fort Point, which is a brick fort under the Golden Gate Bridge today. The few Spanish cannons left over from the preceding century wouldn’t have been able to shoot all the way across the entrance.

But early in the war it was discovered that the shipboard cannons of the day could blast a brick fort into uncountable bits of shrapnel, making Fort Point as useless as it had always been. There has never been a shot fired at an enemy from Fort Point.

It was then realized that earthwork berms were a better defense and that new cannons were called for. Cannons in the 1850s had developed a problem with the improved gunpowder then available.

Holy sheeeettt, Batman!!!!

It seems the cannons had a propensity to explode in the gunner’s face. This was answered with the Rodman Gun, which was much more robust, and four of these 50,000 pounders were installed facing the entrance to the Gate waiting for the expected Confederate raiders. Someone should have looked at a map. It was a long way from Atlanta.

These guys have 500 pound balls

In fact, there was a move afoot to raid the Pacific Coast. A group of San Francisco Confederate sympathizers called the Knights of the Golden Circle paid a skipper to help them steal a boat with a single small cannon (called a five pounder) to harass San Francisco shipping. They paid the skipper half up front. Never do this! He got drunk and bragged at a waterfront bar about the plot and the conspirators were quickly rounded up (with incriminating letters from Jefferson Davis on them) and imprisoned on Alcatraz, becoming the first prisoners on the island. At the end of the war Lincoln pardoned them, as they were never taken very seriously. Their names are worth mentioning as I am pretty sure P. G. Wodehouse made up these characters. They were: Asbury Hapending, Humphery Horsebox, Ridgley Greathouse and Alfred Rubbery. God I love this.

The island was armed and manned waiting for Jonnie Reb all through the war, but the Confederates never came to the West Coast. The prison remained however and became a low security military, short sentence prison after the Civil War. Some of the convicts served as nannies to the staff children and ran a workshop and gardens. Then in 1895 some true desperados were brought to The Rock with the intention of crushing them under the might of the U.S. military. These were 19 Hopi Indians who were brought in chains: “…and shall be confined at hard labor until they show evidence of a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards.”

The Hopi fortifications that scared the U.S. government half to death

They lived on seven mesas in the middle of the desert in Arizona—land that even the white man didn’t want. One problem the government had with them was that was they wouldn’t sign a treaty as the Hopi tribe because, as they repeatedly explained back in Arizona, there was no single Hopi council. The name Hopi was given to them by the Mexicans, and they said each mesa made its own agreements. They were also the most pacific people and even called themselves Hopituh Shi-nu-mu,” meaning Peaceful Little Ones.

Newspaper articles of the day called them ‘bloodthirsty, scalping Apaches” none of which was correct. They were locked up in 3X6 foot dungeons until the mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro, invited them to lunch.

This excerpt from Altaonline: “The Hopis were treated like visiting dignitaries in San Francisco. On February 9, they toured City Hall, a palatial edifice in the process of being built. A reporter from the Chronicle met the 19 men there. “The unusual spectacle of Indians stalking the corridors and departments of the new city hall under the guidance of the United States Army was seen yesterday,” he wrote. “In order that they might be duly impressed with the advantages of civilization, each brave was furnished with a cigar.”

Next, the Hopis rode a steam train down California Street, then north along the Golden Gate. Finally, high on a cliff facing the Pacific Ocean, Sutro’s spectacular mansion appeared, surrounded by ornate Italian-style gardens. The mayor, a tall man with bushy white sideburns, gave the Hopis a personal tour of his estate, pointing out his life-size replicas of classical Greek and Roman statues that epitomized Western culture.

Sutro’s house on a good day


On a not so good day

Sutro served the Indians a “bountiful luncheon,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, a meal that likely included coffee, bread, stewed fruit, and a weak claret. Afterward, the Hopis were assembled on the mansion grounds for a photograph. In the center of the group stood Lomahongiwma, wearing a ceremonial robe and decorative sash and holding an army officer’s hat. Both the robe and the hat were signs of the soldiers’ respect for the man they’d come to call Uncle Joe, who used sign language and what little English he’d learned in Arizona guardhouses to communicate with his captors. In the photograph, the Hopis look stiff and posed, even by 19th-century norms. Lomahongiwma stares off into the distance instead of directly at the camera; other men gaze up at the sky. Instead of looking impressed by the splendors of San Francisco, the Hopis appear distracted.

The U. S. Army failed to break these men, and they got free coats.

More details on the Hopis of Alcatraz:

After nine months they were returned to their mesas. They never signed the treaty.

In 1933 at J. Edgar Hoover, the founder of the FBI, thought it would be dandy to turn the dilapidated nearly unoccupied island right in front of one of the world’s great cities into a dumping ground for the hardest of the hard rock cases including Machine Gun Kelly and Al Capone.

Machine Gun Kelly

We like to romanticize some pretty harsh hombres like Alexander The Great (a ruthless warmonger) and the gentle Birdman of Alcatraz played so sympathetically by Burt Lancaster. The Birdman was actually a murderer who was doing life, mostly in solitary, and while sweetly tending his birds he killed a guard. The guard was not scalped, as far as I know.

In 1963 the joint was falling apart and the locals were not exactly fond of the prison image, so the island was abandoned (sort of reminds me of my toothless Uncle JoJo plunking his 1952 Pontiac on milk crates in his front yard). In 1969 the Indians came back and took over. These were members of various tribes who said that federal law allowed them to occupy unused government land. I was attending Berkeley at the time and helped run food out on a sailboat. It turned out they had trouble convincing the Feds to roll over. The island was soon vacated.

Then it became a major tourist attraction and until recently a million people a year visited the island. It is once more abandoned.

Subscribe to Pacific Voyages

Voyage to distant locales, right from your inbox.


  • steve millard says:

    WOW…What a saga and writer!

  • ollie says:

    Well, finally after believing I would never go to any of these islands, could only enjoy from a screen,
    I have been to this one many times.

    Actually met the bird man , he was singing book WOW

    As so far thanx

  • Tyler MacNiven says:

    That picture is incredible. Speaks so loudly.
    Amazing, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Created by Captain Jamis MacNiven (Editorial) & Chief Officer Ryan Sport (Design)

© 2020 Pacific Voyages