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San Francisco's Birthday

June 29, 1776—just a few days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence a continent away in Philadelphia—is celebrated as the official birthday of San Francisco. It was on this date that the Spaniards celebrated their first mass under a temporary shelter at the site of the future Mission Dolores.

In March of that year, a Spanish scouting party under Captain Juan Bautista de Anza had determined the sites for a future presidio overlooking the entrance to the bay and, in a sheltered valley to the southeast, a mission. They named the small stream and lake where the mission was to be built Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Lake of our Lady of Sorrows).

De Anza’s advance group was followed three months later by an expedition of soldiers, Mexican settlers, and two Franciscan priests led by Lt. Don José Joaquin Moraga. Having traveled north from Sonora in Mexico (from a settlement near present-day Tucson, Arizona), the group arrived on June 27 and set up camp on the lake. Two days later Father Francisco Palóu dedicated this site of the original Mission San Francisco de Asis by saying mass at the open air chapel that Moraga had ordered built.

The mission was dedicated to the patron saint of the Franciscan order, but has always been popularly known as Mission Dolores after the name of the lake. The first mission church, dedicated on October 8, 1776, was located where the Roxie Theater stands today at Camp and Albion Streets near 16th Street—very near the geographical center of today’s City and County of San Francisco. In 1782 Palóu laid the foundation stone of the present Mission Dolores when it was rebuilt on more solid ground. Completed in 1791, it is the oldest building in San Francisco.

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Mission Dolores has for many years hosted commemorations of San Francisco’s birthday, as in this photo from June 29, 1959.

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