Updated: Feb 6
In 1775, a Spanish explorer named Juan Manuel de Ayala was mapping and charting San Francisco Bay. He identified three islands in the bay and named one of the islands “La Isla de Los Alcatraces” which translates to “The Island of Gannets” but can also be translated to “The Island of Pelicans” from the archaic Spanish word Alcatraz which means pelican. As its name suggests, the island was home to a large population of sea birds. Though the use of Alcatraz island by indigenous people is not clear due to the oral history of the tribes there were greatly reduced following European contact, it is believed that Alcatraz was used by the tribes to banish and isolate tribal members that had violated tribal law. It was also used by the tribes as an area for gathering bird eggs and various sea life.
The first recorded European-descended owner of Alcatraz island is Julian Workman. Workman was given the government of Mexico with the agreement that Workman would build a lighthouse on it. Instead of building a lighthouse, Workman almost immediately gave the title to his son-in-law, Francis P. Temple. In 1846, John C. Fremont was the United States appointed the governor of California, and he bought Alcatraz Island from Temple for $5,000 in the name of the United States government. The United States government then rejected this purchase that had been made in its name and court-martialed Fremont on the charge that he didn’t have the authority to make this purchase along with other charges.
In 1850, President Fillmore declared that the U.S. government didn’t need to purchase Alcatraz from anyone since the US had acquired California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Fillmore declared that Alcatraz be set aside for military use. In 1853, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began to build a fort on the island named Fort Alcatraz and finished in 1858 when 200 soldiers came to occupy the island. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, there were around 100 cannons mounted around the perimeter of the island, it was also used as a firearms arsenal, and a lighthouse was finally built on the island. Because the island was isolated from the mainland, by the cold strong waters of the San Francisco Bay, the military also used Alcatraz as a prison for Civil War prisoners of War. It was assumed that any prisoners that tried to escape would never survive the swim back to the mainland. Starting in 1863, when Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus (a court order demanding that a public official deliver an imprisoned individual to the court and show a valid reason for that person’s detention), confederate sympathizers accused of treason were also imprisoned on the island.
The US military began to switch the focus of Alcatraz from coastal military defense to a detention center. In 1867, an actual jailhouse was built to hold prisoners (the prisoners had previously been kept in the basement of the guardhouse). In the 1870s 19 men from the Hopi tribe were sent to Alcatraz when they refused to send their children to boarding schools where they would be assimilated in white American culture. The prison population at Alcatraz continued to grow during the Spanish-American war, growing from 26 inmates to over 450 and after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred from the mainland to Alcatraz for safety.
A huge main cell block began to be built on the island in 1909, and when it was done in 1912, it was the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. The block had 600 cells, a hospital, and a mess hall along with various other prison buildings.
On October 12, 1933, the Army relinquished Alcatraz to the U.S. Justice Department that wanted to use Alcatraz as a federal prison. Prisoners that would be held at Alcatraz would be prisoners that were constantly causing trouble at other federal prisons across the nation. The first batch of federal prisoners was a group made up of mostly notorious bank robbers and murders. During the first three decades as a federal prison, Alcatraz held some of the most infamous criminals in American history including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz. During the time that it was open, a total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts from Alcatraz. 23 of those men were caught alive, six were shot and killed, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing or presumed drowned.”
The most violent of these escape attempts is known as the Battle of Alcatraz. Starting on May 2, 1946, six prisoners overpowered prison officers and took over their weapons. However, they still needed a key to the yard door of the prison so they could make their way to the island’s dock, using the hostage officers as cover until they made their way to San Francisco. They finally found the key on one of the captive officers, but the door lock had jammed after trying too many wrong keys and the prisoners were trapped in the cell house. The prisoners decided to shoot their way out instead and began to fire at officers in the nearby watchtowers. This caused the alarm to be raised and the prison officers not taken hostage began to fire back. The prisoners ended up killing two correctional officers and injured 18 others. The Marines were then called in and they ended the battle. Three of the six inmates were killed in the battle of Alcatraz and the three others received a trial, two of whom received the death penalty.
Because of the prison’s location on the island, all food and supplies had to be shipped in which meant that the operating costs for Alcatraz were much higher than other federal prisons at the time. It cost about $10 a day to house a prisoner on Alcatraz versus $3 a day at a facility in Atlanta. Some of the buildings were also starting to crumble to the prolonged exposure of the salty sea air and there were concerns about the high amount of sewage being released into the San Francisco Bay from the prison. Because of the high costs and the high need of repairs, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the Alcatraz penitentiary to close on March 21, 1963, and the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois was opened as a replacement.
On March 8, 1964, a small group of Sioux led a demonstration on Alcatraz by occupying the island for four hours. Allen Cottier acted as a spokesman for the group and stated that the demonstration was “peaceful and in accordance with Sioux treaty rights.” The demonstrators publicly offered the federal government the same amount of money for the land that the government had initially offered them; 47 cents per acre which equaled about $9.40 for the entire island or just $5.64 for the twelve actual useable acres and they would allow the government to continue using the Coast Guard lighthouse that was located on the island. The protesters were threatened with being charged with felonies, so they left but it caused increased media attention for indigenous peoples’ protests.
On October 10, 1969, a fire destroyed the San Francisco Indian Center. This was devastating to the indigenous people in San Francisco because the center provided jobs, health care, legal help, and social events.
On November 9, 1969, Adam Fortunate Eagle led a group of Native American student leaders and activists from the University of California, Berkeley to symbolically occupy Alcatraz. It was planned that five boats would take about 75 indigenous people over to Alcatraz, but none of the boats showed up. So Adam Fortunate Eagle convinced the owner of a three-masted yacht to let them jump on and pass by the island.
When the yacht got close to Alcatraz, five men jumped overboard and swam to the island, claiming the island by right of discovery, which is what European monarchs would use to legitimize the colonization of lands outside of Europe. The Coast Guard removed the men quickly, but the larger group made it to the island later that day and fourteen stayed overnight. Right before the group left the next day, Richard Oakes delivered a proclamation that had been written by Adam Fortunate Eagle, that was addressed to the General Services Administration again claiming the island by right of discovery.
On November 20, 1969, 89 indigenous people that included students, married couples, and six children landed on Alcatraz despite an attempt by the Coast Guard to block them from the island. At first, the Coast Guard’s blockade blocked all but fourteen of the protestors. When the protesters made it to the island, there was only one guard on the island and sent out the radio message “Mayday! Mayday! The Indians have landed!”
One of the kids that came to Alcatraz that day was actor Benjamin Bratt, the love interest of Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. The group claimed the island as their own under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which states that retired, abandoned, and unused federal lands were open to claims by certain Native Americans. Since the prison had been shut down, Alcatraz island was now unused federal land. The group then issued the “Alcatraz Proclamation” The proclamation reads:
Proclamation to the Great White Father and All His People,
We, the native Americans, re-claim the land knows as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.
We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:
We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years. Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47 cents per acre that the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land. We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of that land for their own, to be held in trust by the American Indian Affairs and by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity – for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down by the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state. We offer this treaty in good faith and wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with all white men.
We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:
It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
It has no fresh running water
It has inadequate sanitation facilities
There are no oil or mineral rights
There is no industry and so unemployment is very great
There are no health care facilities
The soil is rocky and non-productive, and the land does not support game
There are no educational facilities
The population has always exceeded the land base
The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others
Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate,
would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.
The first landing party was soon joined by many others and at the height of the occupation, there were over 600 people living on Alcatraz. The protestors moved into the old warden’s house and guard’s quarters and began to use graffiti on the old buildings with messages like “Red Power” and “Custer Had it Coming”. On the water tower, there was a graffiti message that read “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”
A governing council was formed and then there was a medical clinic, kitchen, public relations department, nursery, and grade school for the children on the island. A security force named the “Bureau of Caucasian Affairs” named after the “Bureau of Indian Affairs” would patrol the shoreline for intruders. Activists from all over the country that supported the protestors' cause would ship supplies to the island including canned goods, clothes, and cash. The band Creedence Clearwater Revival gave the protestors $15,000 to buy a boat so they could ship people and supplies between the mainland and island. The boat was christened the “Clearwater”. Grace Thorpe, the daughter of Jim Thorpe, was an occupier and convinced celebrities like Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda to support the cause. Along with celebrity support and national attention, Grace Thorpe also supplied the island with a generator, water barge, and an ambulance service.
A Sioux named John Trudell started a radio show called “Radio Free Alcatraz” and would broadcast updates of the occupation. The occupation seemed to be going better than anybody thought it could but starting at the end of 1969 it all began to change. Many of the students that had joined the occupation had to leave the island to go back to school. The occupiers that replaced them were usually vagrants that came to live free rather than support the cause. Of the new occupiers, Richard Oakes wrote “Our biggest problems are freelance photographers and the hippies. They stay and eat up our stores, then leave. Then we have to clean up after them.” Both drugs and alcohol were originally banned on the island, but they began to be more and more prevalent.
In January 1970, Richard Oakes’ 13-year-old stepdaughter died after falling from a prison stairwell. Oakes and his wife left Alcatraz soon after and a power struggle between opposing groups on the island ensued. On his radio show, Trudell talked of the problems on the island saying “water was still their big number one problem, and how rapidly their number two problem was becoming electricity.” Thinking that a diplomatic resolution between the US government and the protestors was a small possibility, President Richard Nixon cut all remaining power to the island in May of 1970 hoping to force the Indians off. A few weeks later, a fire broke out and destroyed several buildings. No one knew what or who
started the fire and it was a major blow to morale.
Many protestors left at this point, but there were a few that stayed on Alcatraz for another year despite the living conditions. Adam Fortunate Eagle said “I don’t want to say Alcatraz is done with, but no organized Indian groups are active there. It has turned from an Indian movement to a personality thing.”
In a final effort to get rid of the remaining protestors, the government declared that the foghorn and lighthouse needed to be repaired and sent armed federal marshals to remove the last 15 residents. Though it did not end well, the 19-month occupation succeeded in bringing awareness to the plights of indigenous people. Occupations and protests were later staged by veterans of the Alcatraz occupation at dozens of sites across the country including Plymouth Rock and Mount Rushmore. Though he had successfully removed the occupiers from Alcatraz, Nixon gave a speech saying “The time has come… for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
Alcatraz opened as a national park in 1973 and over 1 million visitors go to the island every year. The National Park Service has even had some of the graffiti restored. Every year on Thanksgiving, indigenous people return to Alcatraz and hold a sunrise ceremony dubbed Unthanksgiving day that honors their ancestors and brings awareness to the current struggles of indigenous people. This year on Thanksgiving,
4,500 people gathered for the ceremony that started with the group forming a large circle around a bonfire while they listened to different speakers that included representatives from the Stand with Standing Rock and Protect Mauna Kea protests.
“50 Years After the Occupation of Alcatraz, Native American Activists Gather – and Resist” by Jillian Jetton
“Alcatraz Origins” by the Federal Bureau of Prisons
“The Rock” Volume I by the Improvement Fund, Pacific Branch United States Disciplinary Barracks
“Alcatraz-World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary” by National Park Services
“Boarding School Seasons” by Brenda J. Child
“Full History” and “Alcatraz Escape Attempts” by the Alcatraz History website
“Alcatraz” by the History.com website
“Alcatraz! Alcatraz! The Indian Occupation of 1969-1971” by Adam Fortunate Eagle
“The Occupation of Alcatraz” by Troy Johnson