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article imageOp-Ed: Old Lagoon uncovered tells of San Francisco's forgotten paradise Special

By Jonathan Farrell     May 17, 2014 in Lifestyle
San Francisco - Last month San Francisco commemorated the 108th anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Yet, few people can imagine what San Francisco was like in its early days as Yerba Buena village or even before that.
Fortunately for nature activist Liam O'Brien, on the April 17, the day before the Quake's annual commemoration, he got a rare glimpse of something that harkened to a time before any setters arrived.
"While waiting for the J Church trolley, he said, it was impossible to not notice the massive restoration of Dolores Park behind me."
Dorlores Park is a large stretch of green that makes the Mission District on a sunny day one of the best spots to visit in the City. "I was probably the only person there, said O'Brien, however, to gasp at a piece of our San Francisco past." Work crews had excavated just low enough to reveal 'Lago del Los Dolores' ( translated in English as 'Lake of the Sorrows'). Or as some would later refer to it as the Dolores Lagoon." "It is still there, noted O'Brien, after all these centuries, below the soil." "The establishment of Mission Dolores down the street was contingent upon its fresh water," he said.
Local realtor and member of the San Francisco Historical Society, Gloria Rogan pointed out, Missions, like the one in San Francisco were always established very close to fresh water." "As they had to have such access to fresh water sources in order to survive," she said. Fresh water was vital for livestock, etc." "If SF was returned to its' original topography, said Rogan, you would find an abundance of springs, lagoons, and fresh water sources all over the City."
She mentioned that long before the Spanish, the European or 'white man' arrived there were dozens and dozens of tribes of native peoples living in California. The most prominent among them were the Ohlone. Yet to the invading settlers such as the Spanish, then English, Russian, and later Americans, these natives were collectively referred to as the CosteƱos (the "coastal people").
According to historians there were two villages that inhabited the area which the Spanish named 'Lago del Los Dolores," from which Mission Dolores gets its name. The Rammaytush and Yelamu tribe (a sub-set group related to the Ohlone) were for the most part like the Ohlone. Peaceful, hunter-gatherers who had their own customs, distinct language-dialect and form of religion. When the Spanish and other European's arrived the impact they made upon the native peoples was negative.
With its warm weather, springs and lagoon, the area known today as the Mission District was a little paradise to the native peoples. "We (modern high-tech people) forget that there was no running water or sewer system when the Spanish got here," Rogan said. She found lots of old newspapers and maps dating back to the 1800s that mentioned or designated where water could be found.
The Spanish conquistadors with their priests founded Mission Dolores and what was then called Yerba Buena, all part of a "New Spain," to further expand the Spanish exploration under the King of Spain. (There were several she noted during the Spanish colonial era) "First by Ferdinand with the expedition-commission of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued with King Phillip V and then later by King Charles III." Once the routes to the "New World" were established, places in "the America's" like California would never be the same again. At its peak, the California Mission era lasted over 60 years, from 1769 to 1833.
"As we know, said Rogan, the Spanish used the Missions not only as outposts for Spanish troupes and settlers but as control centers," she said. The Missions were used as a way to convert the native people to Christianity and the European way of life. Spain was in a power struggle with England, its major competitor for world domination and acquiring of wealth. According to some historians the various portions of the Ohlone peoples were forced to help build the Missions. While they were taught European trades and crafts, like the tribes of the prairies and plains, captivity and submission was something they resisted.
As more settlers arrived the native peoples that survived were assimilated into a emerging English-speaking and eventually American culture. Mission Dolores was moved from the lagoon to where it stands today. And the lagoon was filled in to make room for expanding urban development. Cartographer David Rumsey features a map in his collection dating back to 1859 which shows that the Mission has not only a lagoon but creeks, ponds and springs.
Sleepy Yerba Buena village would not remain that way for very long. With the influx of several cultures arriving, such as the Russian, the Dutch, etc. Spain's ability to form a cohesive and loyal culture to the throne of Spain was uneasy. While, some historians note, it was hoped that all the Missions would become entirely self-sufficient, none of them were actually able to do so completely. Conflicts and uprisings with the natives, disease outbreaks such as measles devastated the once naturally thriving indigenous peoples. This made the prospect of the on-going life of the Missions unstable.
Eventually, Mexico broke away from Spain, secularizing the culture and disbanding the Mission system. "Large portions of lands were granted to setters, mostly Spanish at first but then later to English, Americans, etc." "What is actually sad is that the native people's were never really viewed and understood until recently as people at all," said Rogan. "The Missions, the priests, the conquistadors, and then the Rancheros, this was all basically a 'land grab,' the native peoples were torn asunder," said Rogan. "We see this time and time again, not just in the Early days of California but throughout all of American History," she said.
As Rogan reiterated, only recently has the detailed life of the native people been brought to light and examined more closely. The natives were basically a gentle people who lived on the land and respected it, taking only what they needed. To them the earth was their mother, something to be cherished. For the white man, the Anglo, the land was something to be taken, extracted, molded, divided, bought, and sold.
"I used to live at 18th and Guerrero years back, said O'Brien and I knew there was a sign in the 'hood' about the lagoon so I sought it out," he said.
This is the plaque that O Brien mentions. It gives witness to California s earliest days.
This is the plaque that O'Brien mentions. It gives witness to California's earliest days.
Liam O'Brien, Nature in The City
"Those of us in the San Francisco nature community talk and dream about 'day lighting' our paved-over creeks, streams, springs and ponds." "I gloried in this moment, he said, as the sun hit the water." "Some life forms, (could be seen that day, when crews uncovered a portion of the old lagoon) some ameba sprang to life, he noted. Only "soon to be buried again."
As part of a group of people who have concerns about the natural integrity of urban life, O'Brien and others try to raise awareness that urban life is built upon nature and that nature must be respected.
As the Mission District goes through yet another dramatic transformation of development, A new form of conquistador has emerged. High-tech firms and real estate developers have converge on the land, pushing out long-established residents and businesses, creating a new culture, unlike the previous one. Still seeing the natural and organic as essential, O'Brien said, "I hope future generations will be able to dream even bigger than us, he said. "How about 'day-lighting' a lagoon?"
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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