Alcatraz Island is a 22-acre island, 1.25 miles from San Francisco. It is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, operated by NPS. The island is accessible by ferry from San Francisco.
Shortly after the U.S. acquired California from Mexico in 1846, President Millard Fillmore specified that the island be used for military purposes. In 1854 it became the site of the West Coast’s first lighthouse.
During the American Civil War, Alcatraz housed firearms for safekeeping, and then prisoners of war and Confederate sympathizers.
Alcatraz’s first jailhouse was constructed in 1867. In 1933, when the island came under the control of the U.S. Department of Justice, it became one of the nation’s most notorious prisons, housing well-known villains like Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the "Birdman of Alcatraz"), George Machine Gun Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Mickey Cohen, Doc Barker and Creepy Karpis.
Starting in 1873, Alcatraz incarcerated Native Americans. Some were executed on the island. Some escaped. The largest group imprisoned there were 19 Hopis who were locked up for refusing to abandon traditional lifeways and take up farming, and for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools. They were incarcerated on the island from January to August of 1895.
The island was decommissioned as a federal prison in March of 1963. By then, three prisoners had disappeared from the reportedly inescapable island, but it was costs associated with operating a federal prison on the island that led it its closure.
In 1969, under terms of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which specified that abandoned or out-of-use federal lands be returned to Native people, almost 100 Native people and allies, led by Richard Oakes and LaNada Means and calling themselves Indians of All Tribes, occupied the island for 19 months, inspiring Native activism and precipitating positive change including an end to federal Indian Termination policies and passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975.
Every year on Indigenous Peoples Day and on Un-Thanksgiving, hundreds of Native people and their allies gather on the Rock to remember, to celebrate and to find inspiration and sustenance for the struggles ahead.