Timeline of San Diego History: 1800-1879

A new commander’s house is finished in the Presidio plaza. The garrison now numbers more than 100. First American ship, Betsy, arrives at San Diego.

November 22, 1800
Earthquake of 6.5 magnitude hits San Diego region

August 25,1800
First American ship, Betsy, under command of Capt. Charles Winship, arrives at San Diego.

March 17, 1803
American ship Lelia Bird, under command of Capt. William Shaler, attempts to leave San Diego port with 1000 smuggled otter skins. Spanish battery on Fort Guijarros (at Ballast Point on Point Loma) fires on the Lelia Bird, which returns fire. Spanish guards on board the ship are later freed. Nobody is injured.

Construction begins on new San Diego Mission church.

Mexican war of independence from Spain begins in central Mexico with few direct impacts on the frontier, except for increasing trade with foreign merchants.

War of 1812 between United States and Great Britain begins.

Earthquake destroys the San Diego Mission church, which is reconstructed in 1813.

Work begins on Mission Dam and aqueduct, finished in 1816-17.

March, 1817
The Traveler departs with California’s first shipment of grain.

More settlers bring the total population to more than six hundred residents. Presidio families begin to establish homes in what becomes Old Town San Diego. The adobes of Maria Reyes Ibanez at the corner of present-day Juan and Wallace Streets, Rafaela Serrano on Juan Street, and Pio Pico next door are all finished by 1824. Between 1827 and 1830 several other structures are built around Old Town plaza including those of Juan Rodriguez, Jose Antonio Estudillo, Juan Bandini, Dona Tomasa Alvarado, and Rosario Aguilar. (From “A Brief History of Old Town” by Iris W. Engstrand and Ray Brandes.)

Mexico wins independence from Spain and San Diego comes under Mexican rule for about 25 years. First known home (today’s Presidio Hills Golf Course golf shop) is built in Old Town.

April 20, 1822
Mexican flag is raised over the Presidio. California swears allegiance to Mexico.

Los Peñasquitos, the first private rancho, is granted by the Mexican government – 8,486 acres to Captain Francisco María Ruíz; eventually 33 land grants covering 948 square miles are recognized.

San Diego becomes the unofficial capital of Upper and Lower California, because of the preference of new Governor Jose Maria Echeandia. The Presidio, with its dwindling garrison, goes into significant decline.

San Diego Presidio soldiers skirmish with Indians, killing 28.

Jedediah Smith, the first American to arrive overland in San Diego, opens a route from Salt Lake Valley.

Fur trappers Sylvester Pattie and his son James Ohio Pattie are imprisoned by Gov. Echeandia. Sylvester dies in jail and his son is eventually released to vaccinate thousands against smallpox.

Boston trader Henry Delano Fitch elopes with Josefa Carrillo from San Diego.

Malaria epidemic kills many Indians. Secularization Act leads to closing of missions.

September 1, 1834
Juan Bandini and Jose Hijar arrive on the brig Natalie with 140 colonists.

December 21, 1834
13 votes are cast in San Diego’s first pueblo election. Juan Osuna is elected first alcalde (mayor) over Pio Pico.

January 1, 1835
Recently elected officials take office when San Diego becomes a pueblo.

Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882) arrives in San Diego as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim. Dana’s book “Two Years Before the Mast”, published in 1841, is one of America’s most famous accounts of life at sea. It contains a detailed account of hide-curing, woodcutting, local wildlife and rattlesnakes during his four months in San Diego.

The Mexican military and last residents abandon the Presidio and the site becomes a ruin.

Juan Bandini leads rebellion, captures Los Angeles.

Smallpox epidemic kills many Indians. Indians plunder San Diego back-country ranches.

San Diego’s pueblo status is revoked because of a decrease in San Diego’s population (probably 100-150). From 1838 to the Mexican War San Diego is governed as part of the sub-prefecture of Los Angeles.

New Governor Pio Pico orders land confiscation and sale of the California missions. California is divided into 2 districts; southern district from San Luis Obispo south.

May 13, 1846
United States declares war on Mexico, invades Mexico from the east, reaching San Diego in December.

July 29, 1846
Marine detachment from the sloop-of-war Cyane raises the first American flag in the Plaza of Old Town San Diego.

October 31, 1846
Admiral Robert F. Stockton arrives aboard Congress. Fort Stockton is established on the top of Presidio Hill in November 1846 to defend the city during the Mexican War.

December 6, 1846
General Stephen Watts Kearny’s “Army of the West” enagages General Andres Pico and his Mexican-Californian army in a bloody battle at the Valley of San Pasqual, near present-day Escondidio. The United States suffers many casualties, including nineteen American dead and many more wounded. The Mexicans are reported to have six soldiers killed at the battle, and many more wounded as well. Although the war for California is won by the United States, the Battle of San Pasqual proves to be an important victory for the Californios.

January 29, 1847
Mormon Battalion arrives in San Diego, without ever fighting a battle. Five companies totaling 500 men had been mustered in at Council Bluffs, Iowa on July 16, 1846, along with some 34 women and 51 children, to join U.S. forces in the war with Mexico. Under command of Philip St. George Cooke after reaching Santa Fe, some 339 men, 4 or 5 women and perhaps 6 children complete the 2000 mile trek to San Diego.

January 24, 1848
The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill starts the California Gold Rush.

February 2, 1848
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is signed, ending the war between Mexico and the United States. Treaty also sets the boundary between US and Mexico which arbitrarily divides the two countries (Native peoples are the most impacted, since historically and by language groupings they are one group, suddenly cast into two sections.)

Colonel Cave Johnson Couts (1821-1874) comes to San Diego to act as an escort for the American-Mexican Boundary Commission from San Diego to Colorado River. The same year he is elected delegate to the State Constitutional Convention.

Census sets non-Indian population of San Diego at 650, County of San Diego at 798.

February, 1850
San Diego County is created as one of California’s original 27 counties. It includes much of the Colorado and Mojave deserts, extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River and including all of present-day Imperial County and much of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. 

March 18, 1850
William Heath Davis purchases 160 acres in “New Town” (now downtown San Diego). His home, originally located at State and Market Streets, is the oldest surviving structure in San Diego’s New Town. Built on the East Coast and shipped around Cape Horn, it is a well-preserved example of a prefabricated “salt box” family home, now housing a museum at 4th and Island in the Gaslamp district.

March 27, 1850
An Act to Incorporate the City of San Diego is passed. First election establishes government by a Common Council and elected mayor. San Diego’s first Mayor is Joshua Bean, brother of the famous Judge Roy Bean.

September 9, 1850
California is granted statehood by the United States of America.

Antonio Garra, a Cupeno leader residing at the village of Cupa, leads last of the major Indian revolts, prompted by the county’s attempt to collect taxes from Indian tribes, at Don Juan Warner’s Ranch. Garra’s first objective is to destroy Camp Independence, the military camp established on the Colorado River for the protection of overland travelers. Garra is executed by firing squad, January 17, 1852.

April 5, 1851
Cave Johnson Couts marries Ysidora, daughter of Juan Bandini, in Old Town, amid a fiesta that lasts a week. Rancho Guajome is a wedding gift from Abel Stearns, the bride’s brother-in-law.

May 29, 1851
San Diego Herald publishes its first edition.

January 3, 1853
San Diego County Board of Supervisors holds its first meeting.

Liuetenant George Horatio Derby (1823-1861) arrives to divert San Diego River back into False Bay. Derby is remembered best as Squibob or John Phoenix, for his humorous pieces published in the San Diego Herald, and Phoenixiana, first printed in 1855.

First known vigilantism occurs after indigent tailor John Warren is found bludgeoned to death by the jawbone of an ox. Townspeople, led by Ephraim Morse and Robert Israel, round up three Indians suspected of the crime. Without a trial, two are hanged in Old Town and the third escapes.

Warner’s Pass (San Pasqual) road is declared a public road by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, serving as a main road between San Diego and the Colorado River until 1868, when shorter routes to the south, leading through the pass at Jacumba, began to be used by stagecoaches.

November 15, 1855
The “Old Spanish” lighthouse on Point Loma is illuminated for the first time 15 minutes before sunset. The site, 422 feet above sea level is frequently enshrouded in fog. A new lighthouse at sea level would replace it in 1891. The original lighthouse, restored in 1935, would become the nucleus of the Cabrillo Monument.

Whaley House, built by Thomas Whaley, is the oldest brick structure in southern California. In addition to being the home of the Whaley family, it served variously as granary, store, court-house, and school and as the town’s first theater.

August 13, 1857
The schooner Loma is launched, the first boat to be built in San Diego shipyards.

James Birch establishes the “Jackass” mail route between San Diego and San Antonio; passengers must traverse the Oriflamme Canyon and Colorado Desert on muleback. Stage driver James E. Mason brings first overland mail to town and decides to settle here.

October 2, 1858
San Diego is hit with a 75mph Category 1 hurricane, the biggest on record, causing some homes to collapse and boats to wash ashore but no deaths.

San Diego population is 731. San Diego County population is 4324.

San Diego Herald, San Diego’s first newspaper, founded in 1851 by John Judson Ames, publishes its last edition.

San Diego floods from heavy rains; state-wide storms.

United States Civil War begins. It ends April 9, 1865 with General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

May 27, 1862
Earthquake of 6.0 magnitude hits San Diego region

Smallpox epidemic kills hundreds of Indians and Mexicans in Southern California. Beginning in San Juan Capistrano, the epidemic reaches San Diego in 1863.

Floods of 1861-2 are followed by the Great Drought. During the fall and winter of 1862-63 only 3.87 inches of rain falls in San Diego County. Little more than five inches of rain falls in 1863-64. Ranchers drive their cattle to the mountains and into Baja California. The once-great cattle industry of California is virtually destroyed.

April 14, 1865
Abraham Lincoln is assasinated by John Wilkes Booth, while watching a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.

First public school house opens in San Diego. Mary Chase Walker is its first teacher. She receives a salary of $65/month. After eleven months she quits teaching and marries Ephraim Morse, president of the school board.

April 15, 1867
Alonzo Erastus Horton arrives from San Francisco on the paddle-wheel steamer Pacific. On that same day he gives the County Clerk $10 to cover the cost of a new election for the Board of Trustees, which is held on April 27th. On May 10, with local merchant Ephraim Morse as auctioneer, Horton acquires 800 acres of land, which would become New San Diego, for $265. Horton returns to San Francisco and opens a land sales office on Montgomery Street.

Kimball brothers buy 26,400 acres of Rancho de la Nacion and lay out National City.

Feb 15, 1868
Ephraim Morse presents a resolution to the Board of Trustees of San Diego that land be set aside for a city park. Morse, Thomas Bush and Alonzo Horton select the land now known as Balboa Park.

October 10, 1868
San Diego’s Weekly Union publishes its first edition near the Plaza in Old Town. Today’s San Diego Union-Tribune would result from a merger of The San Diego Union and The Evening Tribune, founded Dec. 2, 1895. John D. Spreckels purchases the Union in 1890 and the Tribune in 1901. Spreckels’ estate sells the newspapers in 1928 to Ira Clifton Copley of Illinois.

April 8, 1869
First post office is established in New San Diego. Dr. Jacob Allen is appointed postmaster.

Albert Seeley purchases the run-down Bandini Adobe in Old Town and spends six months in renovation of the old home to create the Cosmopolitan Hotel, building the Seeley Stables next door.

Alonzo Horton completes a wharf at the end of 5th Avenue, at a cost of about $45,000. On March 24, Horton sells $5,500 worth of commercial and residential lots in one day. His new town begins to boom. Horton Hall opens around Christmas 1869. This two-story brick building on the southeast corner of Sixth and F streets has shops downstairs and a meeting hall with 400 seats upstairs, serving as downtown’s first public theater. Horton Hall burns in 1897 and is torn down shortly thereafter.

City of San Diego population is 2300. San Diego County population is 4951.

Black prospector Fred Coleman discovers placer gold near present-day Julian, setting off local “gold fever”. First lode mine, the George Washington Mine, is discovered in February of 1870. By 1875, mines in the area produce over $2 million in gold. By 1876, many of the mines are closed, though significant gold production continues until about 1911.

Feb 4, 1870
San Diego becomes the first city west of the Mississippi to set aside land for an urban park. This 1440 acre tract becomes the site for City Park, now Balboa Park.

Alonzo Horton opens his Horton House hotel on D Street (now Broadway) between Third and Fourth Streets (where the U. S. Grant Hotel now stands). He sets aside a half block across the street as a plaza for his visitors (now Horton Plaza).

October 24, 1870
George P. Marston and his 20-year-old son, George White Marston, arrive in San Diego. Young George takes a job as a clerk at Horton House – eventually becomes a successful businessman, civic leader and founder of the San Diego Historical Society.

County archives are moved from the Whaley House in Old Town to the new seat of municipal government, the newly built County Courthouse in New San Diego.

Mount Hope Cemetery is established.

Tourmaline is discovered near Pala, though previously known to the Indians. Mining increases by the turn of the century, stimulated by the high price of tourmaline in China. About 90% of the gem production in Southern California comes from five mines in inland San Diego County.

April 20, 1872
Fire sweeps Old Town, destroying key business buildings.

Mission San Diego de Alcala is in disrepair.

Thomas Scott of Pennsylvania Railroad sets off brief railroad boom with start of construction of Texas & Pacific Railroad from San Diego east; bond failure in Paris and Wall Street panic halts boom.

San Diego Chamber of Commerce publishes its first City Directory, including 22 photos, promoting New San Diego as a place to live and listing schools, churches, lodges, and downtown businesses.

The San Diego Society of Natural History is founded at a meeting held in the office of local attorney and naturalist, Daniel Cleveland.

Ah Quin, age 27, arrives in San Diego aboard a four-masted schooner wearing the traditional queue and carrying everything he owns on his back. Because of his diplomacy and mastery of English, Ah Quin quickly finds work as a labor contractor for the California Southern Railroad. Later Ah Quin is recognized as the unofficial Mayor of Chinatown, an area bounded by Island, J, 3rd and 4th.

Murderer Pancho Lopez and a band of six ruthless bandits instigate gunfight at Gaskill’s Store in Campo. Six men are killed, Luman Gaskill is wounded in the chest but survives.

Severe drought in San Diego County.

Following a five-year partnership with Charles Hamilton, merchant George Marston establishes the first store of his own in a small wood structure on the northwest corner of what is now Fifth Avenue and Broadway.

December 5,1877
Lieutenant Reade of the U.S. Weather Bureau gives first public demonstration of the telephone in San Diego County.