Backstory and Context
Construction on "Fortress Alcatraz" began in 1853. It later became one of the most powerful of all Pacific Coast defenses and one of the most famous Federal prisons. Alcatraz's historical significance reaches much further back in time and possesses more facets than the story of bank robbers and kidnappers. Often referred to as “The Rock”, the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison. On the island stood the first lighthouse on America's Pacific shores, a light that has guided ships in and out of the magnificent bay for almost 125 years.
For nearly 75 years, the island served as a military prison for army convicts from both the western states and overseas possessions, and for 50 years Alcatraz played a key role in the defenses of San Francisco Harbor. The site also holds great importance to American Indian populations, both in prehistory and in relation to the Indian Occupation of 1969–71, which brought the plight of American Indians to the attention of mainstream media, and launched a significant period of Indian activism.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, American Indians, such as the Ohlone of present-day San Francisco and the Miwok of present-day Marin County, visited the island and used it for a variety of purposes: as a campsite, a place to gather eggs and shellfish, and a way station or site of social ostracism for those who had violated laws or taboos.
According to legend, the first European landed on Alcatraz in 1775. He was Spanish Lieutenant Manuel de Ayala, who named the site Isla de los Alcatrazes, or Island of the Pelicans, because of the large numbers of those seabirds present on the island’s rocky crags.
After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States began construction of a U.S. Army coastal fortress on the island to protect San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz was held by the Union throughout the Civil War. During the Spanish-American War, beginning in 1898, thousands of troops passed through the area on their way to and from the Philippines.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the island began serving as a military prison. The Army left the island in 1933, and in 1934, Alcatraz Island reopened as a maximum-security federal penitentiary. For the next 29 years, Alcatraz established its enduring legacy in public memory as an inescapable fortress where the toughest, most hardened criminals, such as Al “Scarface” Capone, Arthur “Doc” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Floyd Hamilton, and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud, were imprisoned. Alcatraz was notorious as being “escape proof” due to the cold water, strong currents and sharks in the waters surrounding the island. One reputed successful attempt was made by the Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris on the night of June 12, 1962, they were never found. Because of the extremely high cost of operations and maintenance, the Federal Bureau of Prisons closed the facility in 1963, and the island lay abandoned until 1969.
On November 20, 1969, in a highly publicized demonstration that attracted national attention, 89 American Indians who called themselves “Indians of All Tribes” landed on Alcatraz Island and began a 19- month occupation, demanding the right to Indian self-determination. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
In order to preserve the history of the island, the General Services Administration announced the transfer of administration of the island to the Department of the Interior. Alcatraz Island was later added to the newly established Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, and it opened to the public the following year.
The 1979 Clint Eastwood, Escape from Alcatraz, was based on the famous 1962 escape. Filmed on the island, it cost Paramount pictures half a million dollars ($500,000) to restore the prison and give it a cold feel. The 1996 film, The Rock, starring Nicholas Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris was also filmed on the island and the prison.
We Will Hold The Rock. National Park Service. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/we-hold-the-rock.htm.
Alcatraz Origins. BOP. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://www.bop.gov/about/history/alcatraz.jsp.
Occupation of Alcatraz Collection. San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. Accessed April 13, 2017. https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/2589.