Goat Island – Yerba Buena

April 7, 2015 | By | Reply More
Yerba Buena and Yerba Buena Island in the 1840s.

Yerba Buena and Yerba Buena Island in the 1840s.

Replete with legendary treasures, Yerba Buena has also been generously endowed with names, having had a various times more titles than all the bay’s other major islands together.

When Captain Beechey in 1826 erroneously transferred Ayala’s name “Isla de Alcatraces” to the present Alcatraz on his map, he labeled this island Yerba Buena for the “good herb” or wild mint, a fragrant creeper then growing prolifically on the bay’s shores and used by the Spanish to flavor their tea.

The Americans, who preferred something snappier in the way of names, took to calling it Wood Island or Bird Island.

920x920The name that stuck longest, however, was derived from the herd of goats which were pastured there by early settlers and which rapidly multiplied until there were hundred swarming the isle when the forty-niners arrived.

Although most of the inhabitants of “Goat Island” were soon devoured by meat hungry Argonauts, the last of the animals, an ancient but tough survivor named Lonesome Billy, ruled the island around the turn of the century. The name outlasted even Billy, however, and the government map makers eventually yielded to popular usage and erased “Yerba Buena” for “Goat Island.”

The name stuck until 1931, when the U.S. Geographic Board finally surrended to a fifteen-year crusade led by historian Nellie van de Grift Sanchez, broke all precedent by reversing itself, and officially redesignated the island Yerba Buena.

Die hard old timers still defiantly cling to the earthier name, however.

66_bigThe Native Americans had a fishing station and temescal – sweat house – on the island and used the cove on the southeast side as a burial ground. Archeologists unearthed a skull there which had an abalone shell fastened in the mouth in such a position that it may have been used for holding the tongue – a position which caused an early historian to speculate that the skull was undoubtedly that of a woman and that the Native Americans had apparently been more ingenious than they had been given credit for.

During the decade after the discovery of gold the island was occupied by a settler named Thomas Dowling, who built a house at the cove near the old burial ground and developed a sandstone quarry nearby.

ybipostcdwIn order to discourage San Francisco excursionists from swarming over his property he turned loose on the island a bad tempered bull, which soon acquired a reputation as an unwelcome guest at island picnics.

To the grim satisfaction of the picnickers, the bull eventually became a menace even to Dowling and his family and had to be eliminated, giving his pursuers a bad time among the island’s dense grown before he was finally cornered and shot.

Doubtless the picnickers had further cause for gloating when in 1866 U.S. Government evicted Downing and made the island an Army post.


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Category: Curiosities, Fog City - City of Fog

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