The Bay Area Through the Eyes of the Early Naturalists
by David Rains Wallace on January 01, 2006
In 1579, Sir Francis Drake likely stopped in what is now Drake’s Bay. This modern artist’s rendering shows Native Miwok people going to meet a small launch from Drake’s ship, whose hull is being repaired.
Illustration by Gordon Miller, www.gordonmiller.ca.
The Bay Area has a much longer history of flower children than one might think. At least, that’s what a picture of Adelbert von Chamisso suggests. As a naturalist traveling on a Russian expedition in 1816, Chamisso collected the type specimen of California poppy in San Francisco just 40 years after Spain founded the Presidio and Mission Dolores. But his flowing locks and rakish beret wouldn’t seem out of place on a Winterland poster. In fact, he was a poet as well as a naturalist, a pioneer of the Romanticism that later evolved into the folk-rock poetry of the 1960s. Robert Schumann used his love poems as lyrics for some of his famous “Lieder,” classical concert favorites.
Someone like Chamisso would be an unlikely member of a scientific team today, but poets and artists were as likely as anyone to collect plants in the early 19th century. The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus had only recently founded the modern method of classifying species with his Systema Naturae, and the word “scientist” would not come into use for decades. Germany’s greatest poet, Goethe, was among that country’s leading botanists. The natural world, still largely unknown to science but increasingly accessible, was open to anyone with the energy and curiosity to explore it. Though the expeditions in which they took part were at root commercial and colonial, people like Chamisso were excited by beauty as well as facts. And early conservationists like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir were enthusiastic readers of such naturalist-explorers’ accounts.
Chamisso’s expedition, led by captain Otto von Kotzebue, circled the globe, but paid special attention to western North America because Russia’s fur trade was moving south after devastating Alaskan sea otter populations. In October 1816, Kotzebue’s ship, the Rurik, sailed into San Francisco Bay, then so remote from the rest of the Spanish empire that the colony’s garrison hadn’t been paid for seven years.
“We ate on shore, in a tent,” Chamisso recalled, “and our friends from the Presidio were always promptly on hand. The misery in which they languished . . . did not permit them to be hosts.”
Chamisso might have been expected to include California’s state flower—called poetic names like copa de oro and dormidera by the Spaniards, who used it as a mild narcotic—in one of the lyrical poems he wrote after returning to Europe, as well as in the botanical descriptions he made during the expedition. But the place’s very remoteness, along with Spain’s suspicion of colonial rivals, made the Rurik’s stay so brief that he never saw the unforgettable spectacle of poppies covering the hills in spring.
This reflects a paradox about the Bay Area. Although it is one of the world’s largest and loveliest estuarine ecosystems, Old World civilization tended to overlook its natural qualities—first because so few people from those cultures knew of it, and then because so many did, once the Gold Rush transformed the region from backwater to boomtown virtually overnight.
- Chamisso was a well-known poet as well as a botanist; composer Robert Schumann used Chamisso’s love poems as lyrics for someof his famous “Lieder.” Courtesy of John W. Perry Archival Images.
Although European ships had begun sailing up the California coast in the 1500s, none is known to have entered the foggy and narrow Golden Gate until the 1770s. Early natural history accounts were scanty, since expeditions were too harrowing for most scholars, save for the occasional ship’s officer or priest. Explorers reported a kind of lost world, where a forbidding coast hid bucolic conditions inland. The first Spanish expedition, captained by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, told of snow on the hills above Monterey Bay in November, but also of rich forests and savannas, with large human populations and herds of elk and pronghorns so numerous they reminded the adventurers of cattle back home.
Cabrillo sailed right past the Bay Area, but a more famous expedition most likely stopped here in 1579. Most of what is known about Sir Francis Drake’s alleged sojourn here is from a book later published by his nephew. It probably is based on the journal of Drake’s chaplain, but some people suspect it was at least partly fabricated to obscure Spain’s American claims. The book’s natural history descriptions suggest the Bay Area—possibly San Francisco Bay or Bodega Bay, but more likely Drake’s Bay at Point Reyes. Even the National Seashore’s archivist will go only as far as saying that “most scholars agree” that Drake landed at Point Reyes, while others advocate for sites as far away as Oregon and Mexico.
The Drake book mentions islands, quite possibly the Farallones, where the crew killed enough seals and seabirds to supply their voyage to Asia. It attributes customs to the local people resembling those of the Coast Miwoks who inhabited Point Reyes. When a whale-like object full of pale, strangely clad men appeared offshore, the Indians made long formal speeches, returned offered gifts, and the women wailed and scratched their own faces—all behavior that seems to reflect a Miwok belief that the spirits of the dead passed out to sea.
Although it was June, Drake’s expedition reported that “nipping cold” and “most stynkinge fogges” prevailed on the bay, and “the face of the earth itselfe” was “unhandsome and deformed . . . shewing trees without leaves, and the ground without greenes.” Inland, however, they found “a goodly country,” populated by “very large and fat Deere which we saw by the thousands, as we supposed, in a hearde.” These were likely tule elk, which live around Drake’s Bay once again today, after reintroduction in 1998. The book doesn’t describe local wildlife in detail, except “a strange kind of Connies” of which “the whole Countrey” was “a warren.” With feet like a mole’s, a tail like a rat’s, and food-carrying pouches on either side of its chin, this sounds like the pocket gopher, of which the headlands around Drake’s Bay are still “a warren.”
Two Spanish expeditions passed through the area in 1595 and 1602, but Spain then ignored upper California for almost two centuries. European geographers regarded it as an island for most of that time. When the overland Gaspar de Portolá expedition finally discovered San Francisco Bay in 1769, it was an accident—they were looking for Monterey Bay.
The de Anza expedition that followed a few years later did include an observant, if ambivalent, naturalist. Pedro Font, a native of Catalonia, was a missionary in northwest Mexico when his superior ordered him to accompany de Anza. He rode horseback or walked all the way to the Bay Area, spending part of March and April of 1776 here. Like his predecessors, Font had distinctly mixed feelings. He enjoyed the spring weather and flowers, but he disliked the area’s ruggedness. Grizzly bears terrified him: “There are many of these beasts in that country, and they often attack and do damage to the Indians when they go to hunt, of which I saw many horrible examples.”
Redwoods awed Font, but he was less impressed by the local valleys’ potential as places to establish missions, his chief concern. “This place is one of very level land, well covered with pasturage,” he wrote of the South Bay, “but it is lacking in firewood, for there is no other timber than that along the river, which is of cottonwoods, sycamores, ash, and laurel; and in all that region there is not a single stone.”
De Anza’s party ventured as far as the Central Valley east of the Delta, and although the Sierra gleamed invitingly on a smog-free horizon, the valley marshes and alkali flats daunted them. “It appeared to me,” Font complained, “that the country is so bad that it could not easily be inhabited by human beings.” They decided to return to Monterey by a shortcut through the mountains to the south, but got so entangled in the Diablo Range (specifically the area that is now Henry Coe State Park) that de Anza called it the “Sierra del Chasco,” the Practical Joke Mountains.
Even after Spain established the San Francisco Presidio later in 1776, explorers continued to sail right past the Golden Gate. But botanists like Adelbert von Chamisso were part of a new era of exploration. Ships were safer, and the search for colonial wealth had become systematic. Naturalists played an integral part in this, since newly described species like the sea otter had enormous potential value. The next expedition to reach California, under the British captain George Vancouver, entered the Golden Gate three times from 1792 to 1794, unnerving Spanish officials, who restricted the English to the Presidio after their first visit.
The Vancouver expedition’s naturalist, Archibald Menzies, was a model practitioner of the new exploration, circumnavigating the globe twice in a long and illustrious career. Sir Joseph Banks, the doyen of English natural history, ordered Menzies “to investigate the whole of the natural history of the countries visited, paying attention to the nature of the soil, and in view of the prospect of sending out settlers from England, whether grains, fruits, etc., cultivated in Europe are likely to thrive. All trees, shrubs, plants, grasses, ferns, and mosses were to be enumerated by their scientific names as well as those used in the language of the natives.” Menzies complied energetically, and hundreds of his specimens were the first to reach Europe, including redwood, California laurel, big-leaf maple, toyon, madrone (Arbutus menziesii), and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).
Menzies’ job was not an easy one, however. He was on less than friendly terms with Vancouver, who turned the naturalist’s botanical assistant before the mast—made him work as a common sailor instead of a plant collector—then put Menzies under arrest for insubordination when he complained. Most of his live specimens (including roots and seeds of California poppy) died during the voyage, perhaps because he was unable to care for them with his assistant banished to the rigging. He was never in California during the spring flowering season, which also hindered his collecting. “I had little opportunity to augment my botanical collection,” he wrote of an October 1794 foray into Tomales Bay. “We saw no fresh water and the arid aspect of the Country would indicate its being a scarce article if at all procurable.”
Chamisso faced similar obstacles, including strained relations with a domineering captain, when he sailed into San Francisco Bay on Kotzebue’s Rurik two decades later. He knew that Menzies had collected there—Vancouver’s account of the voyage had appeared in 1798, although little had been published about its botanical discoveries. The Russians had aroused Spanish suspicions by establishing Fort Ross north of Bodega Bay, so authorities restricted them to the Presidio even on their first visit. A trip to Mission Dolores, an hour’s ride inland, was the longest foray Kotzebue recorded.
Their month-long October stay also missed the flowering season. “The fogs, which the prevailing sea winds blow over the coast, dissolve in summer over a heated and parched soil,” Chamisso wrote, “and the country exhibits in autumn only the prospect of bare scorched tracts, alternating with poor stunted bushes, and dazzling wastes of drift sand . . . the Flora of this country is not adorned by one of those species of plants which are produced by a warmer sun.”
But a poet’s eye helped Chamisso to see diversity in apparent monotony. “It however offers much novelty to the botanist,” he continued. “Well-known North American species are found mixed with others belonging to the country; and most of the kinds are yet undescribed.” He eventually gave scientific names to more than 30 new plant species in San Francisco, including California bayberry, yerba buena, and California sagebrush as well as California poppy. He named the latter Eschscholzia californica after his friend Johann Eschscholtz, the expedition surgeon. Chamisso was the first to realize the flower’s uniqueness—Menzies had placed it in an Old World poppy genus, the celandines.
- The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) shown in anillustration Chamisso made from the type specimen he collected in SanFrancisco in 1816. Chamisso named the flower after his friend JohannEschscholtz, the expedition’s surgeon. Courtesy of The LuEsther T.Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.
The first botanist to send back many viable live specimens of California plants was David Douglas, a largely self-taught Scottish horticulturist who spent 19 months in the state from 1830 to 1833. A moody, restless man, Douglas was the first to climb numerous peaks in the Cascades and Rockies. California’s unique vegetation fascinated him: he wrote to an English patron that “it would take at least three years to do anything like justice to the botany.” He made only brief visits to the Bay Area, but, characteristically, got around a lot. He seems to have climbed Mount Diablo and made discoveries there, including the Mount Diablo globe lily. He described redwoods, which he doubtless saw in the East Bay hills and on the San Francisco peninsula, as “the great beauty of California vegetation . . . which gives the mountains a most peculiar, I was almost going to say awful, appearance.”
The 1848 Sutter’s Mill gold strike marked the end of natural history’s Romantic era in California. In its wake, the Bay Area changed in two years from a backwater into the West Coast’s main metropolitan area, and minerals replaced living organisms as the focus of interest. This era was by no means scientifically inactive—after all, it saw the founding of the California Academy of Sciences in 1853 and the State Geological Survey in 1860. But even a professional botanist like William H. Brewer, the “principal assistant, in charge of the botanical department” of the new Geological Survey, spent as much time investigating coal and mercury deposits as native plants.
Unfortunately, by then many species had already disappeared. In valleys west of Mount Diablo, where Font had seen prairies full of elk, grizzlies, and pronghorns, Brewer described a state of “high cultivation; farmhouses have sprung up and rich fields of grain and growing orchards everywhere abound. Game was once very abundant—bear in the hills, and deer, antelope, and elk like cattle, in herds . . . All are now exterminated, but we find their horns by the hundreds.” Only in backcountry like Corral Hollow east of the Livermore Valley did he see grizzlies and pronghorns, and they soon vanished there.
When John Muir arrived in San Francisco in 1868, he asked the first man he met what was the quickest way out of town, then more or less kept walking until he got to Yosemite. His often-quoted description of the Central Valley seen from Pacheco Pass shows how much naturalists’ perceptions of wild nature had changed since Font’s time: “[A] landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld . . . level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine.” Font had still lived in a semi-medieval world that considered wild nature and humanity inimical. Muir, on the other hand, happily slept out alone for years in California mountains still well-populated with grizzlies.
Had Muir arrived a few decades earlier, he might have gone into raptures over the Bay Area’s wildflowers as he did the San Joaquin Valley’s. The somewhat fanatical Muir was really a little hard on the Bay Area. Indeed, many of the wildflowers collected by Menzies and Chamisso still grow in the Presidio, and botanists have used the early naturalists’ descriptions to look for them, although not without some difficulty. Alice Eastwood, a botanist with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco for many years, wrote in the 1940s that “very few” of the species Chamisso described in 1816 survived in the Presidio because they had “been killed by the dense forest of cypress, pine, and eucalyptus planted years ago.” But Eastwood’s expertise seems to have fallen short on this occasion.
“Fortunately, I did not know of these comments when I embarked on a search for these plants,” wrote botanist Ida Geary in a 1979 issue of Fremontia, the magazine of the California Native Plant Society. Motivated by early accounts, Geary and her associates combed the Presidio and made some surprising discoveries. “The first year  we found 48 of the 82 [species that Eschscholtz and Chamisso collected]. [R]ecently we added more discoveries.” Geary’s finds included rarities like dune tansy, as well as “weedy” survival experts like California poppy.
Today, habitat restoration projects at the Presidio aim to use early records as a guide for bringing back even more of those species, though such efforts sometimes run up against people’s desires for shady, nonnative forests rather than open dunes—the “bare, scorched tracts” that Chamisso remarked on. But the records made by the likes of Menzies and Chamisso could help chart a course toward a world that better balances the one those explorers found with the one they brought with them.