Postcard History: Alcatraz Island

By Carla Charter

SAN FRANCISCO, CA. -Many know Alcatraz as the home of such famous prisoners as Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. The Rock, as it is also known, has been featured in movies such as the Birdman of Alcatraz and Escape from Alcatraz. However, the story of Alcatraz started centuries before it became a prison.

The island itself was first mentioned in a description by Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, when he sailed into San Francisco Bay. He spent several weeks there, surveying the bay and in these surveys described the island that is now Alcatraz, naming it La Isla de los Alcatraz, Island of the Sea Birds.

When California became a possession of the United States on February 2, 1848, Alcatraz was part of that possession. The first light house in California was built on Alcatraz to guide ships safely into the bay.

In the 1850’s fearing that San Francisco Bay was vulnerable to enemy attack, batteries were built to fortify it. Alcatraz island then became an American fort being completed in December 1859. During the Civil War the fort became the largest American Fort West of the Mississippi. The first prisoners were soldiers arriving in 1860.

Over the years Alcatraz evolved into less of a fort and more of a prison. In 1907 the forts guns were removed by the U.S. Army and Alcatraz officially became a military prison. The last of the soldiers left Alcatraz in 1933.  In 1934 Alcatraz was officially transferred from the Army to the Bureau of Prisons and became America’s first maximum security prison.

Interestingly Alcatraz was often referred to as a prison within the prison system. A judge could not sentence a prisoner to Alcatraz.  Criminals, usually the most problematic and violent, could only be sent to Alcatraz from other federal prisons, Over the years the penitentiary had 36 prisoners attempted 14 different escapes. Of these 23 men were caught, six were shot and killed and two drowned. There were 5 convicts who disappeared and were never seen again but it is believed they most likely drowned and their bodies were never recovered.

Among the most famous prisoners who were housed at Alcatraz included Al Capone from August 22, 1934 serving a total of four and a half years for tax evasion. Another famous inmate was Robert Stroud the Birdman of Alcatraz serving time for first degree murder who developed an interest in canaries while in solitary confinement at Leavenworth Prison. Stroud authored two books on the subject and developed medicines for their avian diseases. The last prisoner left Alcatraz on March 21, 1963.

On November 19, 1969 Alcatraz was occupied by a group known as Indians of All Tribes (IOAT). These Red Power activists felt that since Alcatraz was closed in 1963 and declared Surplus Federal Property in 1964, it should be reclaimed as Native land.  The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Lakota tribe stated that all retired, abandoned or out-of-use Federal properties were to be returned to Native Americans. The Red Power activists felt that Alcatraz as a result should qualify. The occupation of the Island ended on June 11, 1971.

The island officially became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, under the National Park Service, in 1972. Today visitors can tour the island and learn about its long history. More information on Alcatraz island can be found at www.nps.gov/alca Those unable to visit Alcatraz the National Park Service has an on-line museum at www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/alca/overview.html

 

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