Although Alcatraz sits in the middle of San Francisco Bay, only a little over a mile from the city, the island seemed as distant as if it were a thousand miles out to sea. The island seems uninviting and because of its unappeal, it played an important role in the history of California. The island had a number of uses. Alcatraz was the site of a powerful fortress, a military prison and a federal prison. The island is surrounded by treacherous cross currents and five-knot tides with a deadly undertow. The water temperature around Alcatraz averages fifty-four degrees which is frigid enough to induce hypothermia. In addition to the freezing temperature, there are occasional sharks and whirlpools strong enough to drown a man.
Although not appealing to a vacationer, the geography of the area was perfect for a prison as it made escape nearly impossible (Redden, 165). The California gold rush spurred the building of a lighthouse on the island. Wealth from gold increased San Francisco's ship traffic and population and a guiding light was needed to take the ships safely through the bay. In 1850, the military used the island as a defense.
Places for cannons and gun placements were carved out of the land slopes. More than four hundred soldiers were stationed on the island, guarding it from outside attack. The military's Rodman cannon could shoot fifteen inch, 440 pound cannonballs as far as three miles. The military moved off the island when the defense system became outdated (Golden Gate National Park Association, Discover Alcatraz, 2). During the Civil War, soldiers convicted of desertion, theft, rape, murder and treason were imprisoned on the island. During the Spanish War of 1898 military convicts were housed there.
Later, groups of Native American activists occupied the island on three different occasions. Their stays ranged from four hours to nineteen months. The Native Americans claimed the island for the "Indians…