Speak the word Alcatraz to most people and images of an inescapable federal prison immediately come to mind. That is just part of the history of Alcatraz. The truth lies hidden much deeper in history.
The island was initially discovered by Juan Manuel de Ayala. On his map, he drew an island that he named La Isla de los Alcatraces. Over time, the name of the island was anglicized to Alcatraz, a word meaning pelican. The oldest deed to Alcatraz was given by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to Julian Workman in June 1846 with the express purpose of constructing a lighthouse. Workman never built on the land and it was sold for $5,000 to the United States government represented by John C. Fremont later that same year.
In 1850 President Millard Fillmore signed the bill making Alcatraz a military reservation. Soon afterward, the first lighthouse to be built on the Pacific Coast was constructed on Alcatraz in 1854.The lighthouse serving from 1854 to 1909 was a two story building that contained a 50 foot tower in the middle. The lighthouse was damaged by the 1906 earthquake and by 1909 construction of a new lighthouse commenced.
In 1850, Alcatraz was declared a military reservation by President Millard Fillmore. The first 200 soldiers arrived in 1858.During the American Civil War, Fortress Alcatraz served as a political prison for those who disagreed with Northern views. In 1895, 19 members of the Hopi Native American tribe was exiled to Alcatraz for resisting the United States government policies on forced education and land allotment. The last military prisoner was held on the island in 1933. These prisoners built most of the buildings on Alcatraz. From 1915 to 1933, Alcatraz was known as Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. It was the largest military fort west of the Mississippi River. During its time as a military prison, 17 men successfully escaped from Alcatraz, most by either swimming or stealing boats.
The residents of San Francisco did not welcome the news that the US government planned to turn Alcatraz into a federal prison. In changing over from being a military prison to a federal prison the government left behind 32 military prisoners. These prisoners became the first prisoners of the new prison in 1934. On August 11, 1934, 14 men arrived from McNeil Island. These 14 men were the first prisoners taken into Alcatraz as a federal prison. Each prisoner was held in a cell by themselves. Each cell contained a steel cot, a small steel shelf that doubled as a chair, a toilet and a small basin. Each man was allowed to have two towels, a toothbrush, tooth powder and a cup.
Alcatraz was closed as a federal prison in 1964 after a colorful history. From November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971, Alcatraz was occupied by Indians of All Tribes. The Native Americans wanted to use the island as a worship center and an Indian museum. The occupation of the island ended on June 11, 1971 by the US government. The occupation led to the US policy on Indian autonomy.
For more details on the rich history of Alcatraz, one must simply visit. The island is accessible only by ferry service known as Alcatraz Cruises. Alcatraz is now a national park.