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History of Alcatraz Island

Updated on April 9, 2014

Many years before it was ever referred to as “The Rock” it was the native Americans in the area who sensed its evil yet had no choice but to hunt on the island for food, but they also used it to banish those that had broken one of their laws. Later when the Spanish came to the area the Natives would use the island as a hiding place from the Spanish who would force their religion upon them. The Spanish who were the first European's to visit the island named it “Isla de los Alcatraces” which translates into Island of the Pelicans due to its large population of Pelicans.

At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 with California now claiming the Island, its name was shortened to Alcatraz and the military saw what a great strategic place the island would be and began building a fort in 1853. By 1857 the fort was not yet completed but the first verified deaths on the island happened due to an accident in which a landslide buried several members of a road crew killing two of them. Ever so slowly the fortress was being completed and as the last structure to be built, the Citadel, was being finished up, the year was now 1859.

Captain Joseph Stewart and his unit took command of the island in December of 1859 not only was the island viewed as a great strategic area but also the ultimate in stockades. When the Captain had taken over command of the island he had brought with him 11 prisoners who were taken to the stockade in the basement level of the fort. Soon other forts would send their prisoners to the island as it was the most secure of garrisons available. By August of 1861 Alcatraz was considered the Department of the Pacific's military prison.

The military prison took on many different types of prisoners from other soldiers to Hopi Indians, after the 1906 earthquake and the burning of San Francisco it was realized what a fire trap Alcatraz really was and concrete construction began by knocking down the Citadel. The new structure was built over the Citadel basement and moat and when completed in 1912 could house 600 prisoners in separate cells with both plumbing and electricity. It was a major build and was considered one of the largest concrete structures of that time.

Before Alcatraz Island officially became a part of the Bureau of Prisons in late 1933 over 80 persons attempted to escape the island, 62 were re-captured, one confirmed drowning and 17 are unknown as their bodies were never found and nothing was ever heard about them again. So with the island now being turned into Hoover's “super-prison” the island would essentially be getting the worst prisoners from around the country as no one was directly sentenced to Alcatraz it was where you sent those that could not be controlled elsewhere.

In August of 1934, 69 inmates were transferred to Alcatraz prison, the most famous of which, given the number of 85, was Al Capone. The arrival of the infamous gangster stirred up more media attention than did the opening of the prison and thus began the public's fascination with the island itself. Capone was released in November of 1939. Many more people would pass through Alcatraz Island before it was finally shut down in 1963. It should come as no surprise to anyone that men have been killed on the island, some have committed suicide and many more were driven insane by the strict rules put in place by the Warden which included almost complete silence throughout the day.

There are many ghost stories associated with Alcatraz Island and for those who have been there can confirm that the island still carries an over-all feeling of suppressed energy whether it is rage, fear or excitement, well that is up to the visitor. Enjoy your trip!


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