The Bernal Family of San Francisco

By Albert F. Bernal

Late last year, I began documenting my family history. The name of Bernal is well known in San Francisco, mainly for the neighborhood of Bernal Heights. I knew that my ancestors had received a large land grant that included what is now Bernal Heights, and that earlier ancestors had been among the original Spanish settlers at the Presidio. When my father wanted to recount the family stories, my eyes glazed over and I would tell him, "What difference does it make, Dad? They left us the name, but no money." I just wasn't interested at the time.

Now I am retired and have children and grandchildren. It occurred to me that I can see backward into time through my parents' lives, and forward into time with my grandchildren. Time is unstoppable, and someday I will be the "ancestor" of some children I will never know. I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful for future descendants of mine to open a binder to read the stories of their ancestors? And, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could start a family tradition of each succeeding generation adding their stories, or chapters, to the volume?

In 2010, while visiting my son and his boys in San Bruno, I asked my twelve-year-old grandson, Kyle, to "Giggle" Bernal on his computer. (I know the right term is Google, but I get a kick out of him rolling his eyes and correcting me.) He found a site with a load of information on my family put together by San Francisco historian Greg Pabst. It motivated me to get to work with personal stories of my ancestors for my children, grandchildren, and descendants I would never know.

Shortly thereafter, I was contacted by Vicky Walker, who told me about the Bernal History Project. She was interested in any information I had about the Bernals, and invited me to the BHP monthly meeting in the Bernal Heights Library. I went with my daughter, Amy, and was surprised by everyone's interest in my family. Amy said as we left, "Dad, I feel like a rock star!" Following the meeting, Vicky asked me to share the stories of my ancestors so BHP could put them on their website. I was hooked!

I have written first-person narratives for each ancestor of mine, beginning with Juan Francisco Bernal and his wife, Maria, who arrived with De Anza in 1776. To write the stories, I used anecdotes from my father; historical data; papers written about the family; and other documentation that the family had passed down from generation to generation. There are gaps and inaccuracies in some of the stories, but I believe I've been able to capture the essence of each of these peoples lives and how generation after generation stood on the shoulders of those that came before, each striving for a better life.

I do hope you will enjoy the stories, and if you find something to correct or add, please pass it on to me. This project will never be done if my family takes up my challenge.

The stories to follow are six generations of Bernals, starting with Juan Francisco and ending with my father and uncle. They trace the arrival of Spanish settlers in San Francisco, the attainment of wealth, and how it was lost.

I want to make a special thank you to Greg Pabst and Vicky Walker. They have motivated me to share my project. And special thanks to Ralph Bonds-Vela, a docent at Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, who reinforced my determination to study history through my family and to challenge future generations to add their chapters to the history of the family.

Read Al's own family history.