In 1769 Spain occupied the San Francisco area and by 1776 had established the area's first European settlement, with a mission and a presidio. To protect against encroachment by the British and Russians, Spain fortified the high white cliff at the narrowest part of the bay's entrance, where Fort Point now stands. The Castillo de San Joaquin, built in 1794, was an adobe structure housing nine to thirteen cannons.
Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, gaining control of the region and the fort, but in 1835 the Mexican army moved to Sonoma leaving the castillo's adobe walls to crumble in the wind and rain. On July 1, 1846, after the Mexican-American War broke out between Mexico and the United States, U.S. forces, including Captain John Charles Fremont, Kit Carson and a band of 10 followers, captured the empty castillo and spiked (disabled) the cannons.
Following the United States' victory in 1848, California was annexed by the U.S. and became a state in 1850. The gold rush of 1849 had caused rapid settlement of the area, which was recognized as commercially and strategically valuable to the US. Military officials soon recommended a series of fortifications to secure San Francisco Bay. Coastal defenses were built at Alcatraz Island, Fort Mason, and Fort Point.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on Fort Point in 1853. Plans specified that the lowest tier of artillery be as close as possible to water level so cannonballs could ricochet across the water's surface to hit enemy ships at the water-line. Workers blasted the 90-foot (27 m) cliff down to 15 feet (4.6 m) above sea level. The structure featured seven-foot-thick walls and multi-tiered casemated construction typical of Third System forts. It was sited to defend the maximum amount of harbor area. While there were more than 30 such forts on the East Coast, Fort Point was the only one on the West Coast. In 1854 Inspector General Joseph K. Mansfield declared "this point as the key to the whole Pacific Coast...and it should receive untiring exertions".
A crew of 200, many unemployed miners, labored for eight years on the fort. In 1861, with war looming, the army mounted the fort's first cannon. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of the Department of the Pacific, prepared Bay Area defenses and ordered in the first troops to the fort. Kentucky-born Johnston then resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army; he was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.
Throughout the Civil War, artillerymen at Fort Point stood guard for an enemy that never came. The Confederate raider CSS Shenandoah planned to attack San Francisco, but on the way to the harbor the captain learned that the war was over; it was August 1865, months after General Lee surrendered.
Severe damage to similar forts on the Atlantic Coast during the war - Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pulaski in Georgia - challenged the effectiveness of masonry walls against rifled artillery. Troops soon moved out of Fort Point, and it was never again continuously occupied by the army. The fort was nonetheless important enough to receive protection from the elements. In 1869 a granite seawall was completed. The following year, some of the fort's cannon were moved to Battery East on the bluffs nearby, where they were more protected. In 1882 Fort Point was officially named Fort Winfield Scott after the famous hero from the war against Mexico. The name never caught on and was later applied to an artillery post at the Presidio.
In 1892, the army began constructing the new Endicott System concrete fortifications armed with steel, breech-loading rifled guns. Within eight years, all 103 of the smooth-bore cannons at Fort Point had been dismounted and sold for scrap. The fort, moderately damaged in the 1906 earthquake, was used over the next four decades for barracks, training, and storage, however, in 1913, part of the interior wall was removed by the army in their short-lived attempt to make the fort the army detention barracks using soldier and prisoner labor. The detention barracks were later built on Alcatraz Island and was used until becoming a federal prison. Soldiers from the 6th U.S. Coast Artillery were stationed there during World War II to guard minefields and the anti-submarine net that spanned the Golden Gate.
In 1926 the American Institute of Architects proposed preserving the fort for its outstanding military architecture. Funds were unavailable, and the ideas languished. Plans for the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s called for the fort's removal, but Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss redesigned the bridge to save the fort. "While the old fort has no military value now," Strauss said, "it remains nevertheless a fine example of the mason's art.... It should be preserved and restored as a national monument." The fort is situated directly below the southern approach to the bridge, underneath an arch that supports the roadway.
The most famous example is Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller Vertigo, wherein Kim Novak's character Madeleine jumps into the San Francisco Bay in an apparent suicide attempt.
In "The Man Who Cheated Himself," there is five-minute chase scene near the end of the film that was filmed at Fort Point and shows many shots of the fort.
In "Point Blank," the John Boorman noir movie starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, it is shown as the location for the "Alcatraz Drop" at the closed Alcatraz Prison. However, in the final scene a continuous camera shot rises to show Alcatraz Prison in the distance, revealing this to be Ft Point.
In The Amazing Race 16, teams are here presented with a building's height, year built, and features. They must figure out that it's the Coit Tower and go there to find their next clue.
In Season 3, Episode 20 of the television series The West Wing, (titled "The Black Vera Wang"), Fort Point is the intended target of a foiled terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists, who are planning to attack the fort because of its proximity to the Golden Gate Bridge. The attack is allegedly funded by the fictitious Arab nation of Qumar, a recurring source of terrorism over the course of the series.