Time of the Bells, 1769-1835

CHAPTER ONE: The Ring of Faith

A graying Fr. Junipero Serra, who had brought Christianity to California, sat humbly on the floor of a cabin of the ship San Antonio and slowly and with a tired hand composed a letter to his old friend and companion, Fr. Francisco Palou, at Loreto, the president of the Franciscan missions of Baja California. It was dated: “At the South Sea, in front of the Port of San Diego, April 16, 1770.”

“It is now a full year since I received news from the College, or from his Most Illustrious Lordship,” he wrote, “and soon it will be a year also, since I had my last letter from your reverence. Blessed be God! When you can I would appreciate your sending us some Mass candles and incense. . .”

It was about 7 o’clock in the morning, and the San Antonio had been towed by launch with the tide out to the entrance of the port, and was awaiting a change in the wind to sail north, to once more seek the bay of Monterey. Serra wrote he would hand his letter over to the sailors in the launch, when they were ready to pull away, in the hope it eventually would reach Loreto.

In the many months that had passed since he and the Spanish expedition had left by land from Loreto and by sea from La Paz, to raise the first cross in California and found Mission San Diego de Alcala, more than a third of its members had died of scurvy, supplies had failed to arrive when the San Jose was mysteriously lost at sea, and they had experienced an attack from Indians who mocked their attempts to convert them. Don Gaspar de Portola, the commander, had blazed El Camino Real, or the King’s Highway, up through California in an effort to locate the bay of Monterey, so extravagantly described 166 years before by the explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, but failing to recognize it, had returned, disappointed, to San Diego, ready to give up the entire expedition and abandon California.

But the return of the San Antonio on her second trip up the coast had changed the course of history. She had been bound with supplies for Monterey, in the confidence that a mission and fort already had been founded there, but had turned around and unexpectedly put into San Diego Bay. The first precarious settlement at San Diego was saved; Monterey would be found, and another mission started there as ordered by His Majesty, the King of Spain, and his Illustrious Lordship, Don Jose de Galvez, the visitor-general of New Spain. This time Monterey would be sought by sea as well as by land. Serra chose to go on the San Antonio while Fr. Juan Crespi would go a second time by land, with Capt. Portola. Frs. Fernando Parron and Francisco Gomez would remain as ministers at San Diego, with the protection of some soldiers.

The San Antonio picked up a wind off Point Loma but the voyage proved to be a long and trying one. The wind as usual blew mostly out of the north and west and the San Antonio beat against it, helplessly at times, and as Serra wrote:

“For days far from getting near to Monterey, we were getting farther and farther away from the goal of our desires. The result of it all was that the voyage lasted a full month and a half; and on May 31st, we entered and dropped anchor in the port – the object of so many controversies. We recognized it without any question, as being, both as to its underlying reality and its superficial landmarks, the same and unchanged spot where our ancestors the Spaniards landed in the year 1603. It is plain justice that we should definitely put out of our minds all thought, or any lingering fancy, of the port’s having disappeared, or being no longer in existence. These false notions have been circulated by reports emanating from the recent land expedition.”

The arrival, on a Friday, the first of June, was an occasion for further rejoicing; they found Portola and Crespi, and the rest of the land party, already there, having arrived eight days before after a relatively easy march overland from the semi-arid southland up through a country vividly green and fresh with spring. Serra invited all hands to Mass and the erection of a cross on the following Sunday.

“The day came,” he wrote.

“A Little chapel and altar were erected in that little valley, and under the same live-oak, close to the beach, where, it is said, Mass was celebrated at the beginning of the last century. Two processions from different directions converged at the same time on the spot, one from the sea, and one from the land expedition; we singing the divine praises in the launch, and the men on land, in their hearts.

“Our arrival was greeted by the joyful sound of the bells suspended from the branches of the oak tree. Everything being in readiness, and having put on alb and stole, and kneeling down with all the men before the altar, I intoned the hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus at the conclusion of which, and after invoking the help of the Holy Spirit on everything we were about to perform, I blessed the salt and the water. Then we all made our way to a gigantic cross which was all in readiness and lying on the ground. With everyone lending a hand we set it in an upright position. I sang the prayers for its blessing. We set it in the ground and then, with all the tenderness of our hearts, we venerated it. I sprinkled with holy water all the fields around. And thus, after raising aloft the standard of the King of Heaven, we unfurled the flag of our Catholic Monarch likewise. As we raised each one of them, we shouted at the top of our voices: ‘Long live the Faith! Long live the King!’ All the time the bells were ringing, and our rifles were being fired, and from the boat came the thunder of the big guns.

“Then we buried at the -foot of the cross a dead sailor, a caulker, the only one to die during this second expedition.”

One more official step remained to be taken, to reconfirm the discovery of California by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. As described by Serra, the officers proceeded to the act of taking formal possession of that country in the name of the King, unfurling and waving once more the royal flag, pulling grass, moving stones, and other formalities according to law-all accompanied with cheers, ringing of bells, and cannonades. The next day the expedition moved a rifle shot from the beach and there established a fort and mission which they named San Carlos de Monterey, in honor of the first name of both the King and the Viceroy. From then on, for as long as he lived, Serra would make his headquarters in the north but he always was to look back with nostalgia on San Diego as “the mother mission” of California.

The great news of the saving of San Diego and the founding of Monterey must get back to Mexico. Josef Velasquez, a soldier, and a sailor whom history has not identified, volunteered to make the 1200-mile journey back through San Diego and down the Pacific trail in Baja California that led to Velicata and then along the chain of old Jesuit missions, now administered by the Franciscans, to Loreto, the mission settlement and port on the Gulf of California, known to the Spaniards as the Sea of Cortes. They finally found Gov. Matias Armona and Fr. Palou at Todos Santos, far south on the Pacific side of the peninsula, on Aug. 2. The governor immediately wrote a message to be rushed to the Viceroy, the Marques de Croix, at Mexico City.

At Monterey, the San Antonio, her supplies unloaded, prepared to return to Mexico on July 9. With her went Capt. Portola, his work in California at an end, and Miguel Costansa, the engineer, who wrote such detailed reports of the Indians and the topography of the new land. With the wind at her back, the San Antonio made a quick passage down the coast, and rounding Cabo San Lucas, drove across the open sea on the long slant to San Blas on the mainland of Mexico, arriving on Aug. 1. She had sailed 1700 miles in 24 days. San Blas, situated about 180 miles south of Mazatlan, was to play a vital role in the development of San Diego and the Spanish domination of California. The town where conquerors once walked sat on one of the rocky hills forming the open bay and overlooking tropical lagoons and the dark estuaries that run through groves of mangrove and coconut and banana trees. Orchids abound and roses grow wild.

At San Blas, Portola hurried his own messenger to the Viceroy. A horseman left the feverish, summery heat of San Blas and following a branch of El Camino Real, climbed inland through jungle lushness to Tepic, 45 miles away, and then up one of the world’s greatest mountain gulches to Guadalajara, from there riding the high plateau of Mexico to the capital of New Spain. He arrived on Aug. 10, 1770, after a ride of more than 600 miles. The messenger from Gov. Armona was still unreported.

It was a great day for Spain. Her dominions had been extended many hundreds of miles up the Pacific Coast, to meet the threat of the advancing Russian fur hunters and to thwart any territorial ambitions of the English and the French.

San Diego and Monterey were crude camps in a pagan land. There were 40 people, including converted Indians from Baja California, at Monterey, and 23 at San Diego. But Mexico City of the 18th Century was a city of magnificent cathedrals, great universities and many monasteries and hospitals, most of them standing to this day. The dean of the massive Cathedral, which stands on El Zacalo, or the major plaza, and is visited by all American tourists, was requested to order a solemn ringing of the Cathedral bells. Then, one by one, all the churches of Mexico City followed suit, until the city echoed and re-echoed with the sound of a thousand bells. People poured into the streets, wondering what all the excitement was about. As Palou wrote in his biography of Serra,

“when they were informed, they joined His Excellency in the rejoicing. The principal inhabitants went to the palace to offer their congratulations, which the Viceroy and the visitor-general received together . . . both gave thanks to God for the successful outcome of the conquest and the expeditions sent to effect it, by which the dominions of our Catholic Monarch had been extended for more than 300 leagues in the northern part of this America.”

But that wasn’t all. The Viceroy wanted everybody in New Spain to know about it, so he ordered the printing and distribution of an account, which still survives, and which was sent to every part of the viceroyalty and to Old Spain as well.

El Camino Real, on the Atlantic Coast, now ran from the sandy, humid port of Veracruz, up the old route of the great conqueror, Hernan Cortes, to the snow-rimmed valley of Mexico, and then, on its northern branch, to San Blas, and then jumping across a vast expanse of open and hazardous sea, picked up again at San Diego and stretched on to Monterey. It was a thin line of 2300 miles often staggered with death and disease.

For Galvez, especially, this was a triumphant moment. As a member of the Council of the Indies, he had been sent to New Spain to reform its administration, and he conceived and carried out the planning of the expeditions to settle California and assure the Spanish claim. And Galvez was not one to shun greatness. Efficient and zealous, even to the point of aiding in the scraping of the bottom of the ships for the expedition and in the packing of supplies, he could, at the same time, be mean and petty. He forbade card playing and punished some of the soldiers by ordering them on the expedition to San Diego and Monterey, and referred to the Indians as “poor Israelites” whom he had to lead to some promised land. It was he who carried out for Spain the expulsion of the Jesuits from Baja California and afterward persisted in hunting through their missions for gold, silver and pearls which he was firmly convinced had been hidden from him. This story of hidden Jesuit treasure has lived through the years. He became so rabid on the subject a companion accused him of insanity, and Galvez had him cast into prison. At one time he threatened to bring 600 apes from Guatemala and dress them in uniforms and use them to maintain order. Later, in Sonora, he again was accused of insanity by secretaries, one of whom became a viceroy himself, and again threw his accusers into prison. But, despite it all, California owes much to this vain, erratic but capable man. He eventually returned to Spain and became minister of state for the Indies, dying in 1787.

Portola, with his return to San Blas, stepped out of the history of California. Born in Catalonia of noble rank, he had seen military service in Italy and Portugal, as well as in the New World. In 1776, he was appointed governor of the city of Puebla, apparently serving until 1783, when he received salary advances in order to return to Spain. He died in 1786.

Of the other members of the little band of brave men who broke the way for settlement of California, some remained to write stirring chapters of adventure and faith, and some, suffering personal tragedy and death, followed Portola out of the story. Don Pedro Prat, the surgeon who had disregarded his own health at San Diego in the effort to defeat the scurvy that so ravaged the ranks of those who came by sea, lost his mind and had to be sent back to Guadalajara. Vicente Vila, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and commander of the unhappy San Carlos, which lost nearly all its crew on its way to San Diego, returned to San Blas, with his ship, and died soon afterward. The map he made of San Diego Bay lies in the Archives of the Indies, in Seville, Spain. Fr. Juan Vizcaino, wounded in the first Indian attack on Presidio Hill, never recovered and was forced to leave his companions and return to Mexico.

The work must go on. Within six days of the arrival of the news about San Diego and Monterey, the Viceroy had provided for support of the new establishments and the five more missions that were to be founded as quickly as possible above San Diego. San Fernando College was asked to supply 10 more Franciscan fathers for these missions besides 20 more for the old and new missions of the peninsula. Serra, in his letters, also requested that two bells be supplied for each mission to be founded, and thereafter for more than 65 years, the lives of all those in California, Indians as well as Spaniards, were to be regulated by the ringing of bells that called them to work and to worship.