Time of the Bells, 1769-1835

CHAPTER SEVEN: George Vancouver

The Spaniards withdrew behind a wall of secretiveness and suspicion — the world was not to know about California, if they could help it. The first foreigner to break through this wall for a thorough look at San Diego was a British sea captain, George Vancouver. He found San Diego a dreary and lonesome place, poorly protected, its people indolent and incapable of resisting any real invasion. What an irresistible temptation to foreigners!

Though the Spaniards claimed California through the discoveries of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, the English couldn’t forget that Sir Francis Drake had been along the coast, as a gentleman pirate, in 1579, had gone ashore, tacked up a claim on a brass plate, and named the country New Albion. It was time for another look at the northwest American Continent. George Vancouver, who had been with the famous Capt. James Cook on his round-the-world explorations, was named to command a small fleet, armed, but carrying surveyors, map makers, astronomers, botanists and geologists, and this expedition has left us detailed descriptions of San Diego and the mode of life in Spanish California times. He had instructions similar to those of the Frenchman, La Pérouse, to investigate the fur trade, as well as to chart the coast and all its waterways, and investigate and report on all Spanish settlements. His reports on both Upper and Lower California were to uncover the weakness of the Spanish hold and the little progress which had been made on colonization and development.

Vancouver’s three vessels — the Discovery, the Chatham and the Daedalus — were on the American coast in April of 1792 and conducted what probably was the last search for the fabled Strait of Anian, a navigable passage which must connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and which had intrigued mariners since the days of Corté and Cabrillo. They didn’t find it, but near the mouth of the Columbia River they did find an American brig, the Columbia, of Boston. Capt. Robert Gray, upon sighting the British ships, hoisted an American flag and fired a salute of welcome.

The Columbia had been the first American ship to encircle the globe. Capt. Gray left Boston in 1787 and after trading for otter furs along the Northwest Coast, went on to China and then around the world. Now he was on another voyage, in which he discovered the Columbia River, picked up a cargo of furs which he sold for $90,000 worth of Chinese goods in Canton, and returned to Boston after an absence of three years, and with a rich profit. The success of his trading was not to be overlooked.

In all, Vancouver made three different visits along the coast, and entered San Diego Bay on Nov. 27, 1793. His ships were the first foreign vessels ever to visit here. As far as he was concerned, St. Diego or San Diego, was part of New Albion, as he persisted in calling California.

The ships dropped anchor without the slightest indication of having been seen, let alone being welcomed. Certainly everybody couldn’t have been asleep. Finally, Vancouver dispatched a Lt. Swaine up the harbor to the presidio to inform the commanding officer of the arrival of the ships and to inquire if any dispatches had arrived for them by land.

The presidio guard was acting very cautiously. Vancouver’s arrival had been anticipated and careful instructions had been received. While Swaine was on his way to the presidio, a messenger brought to the Discovery a polite letter from Señor Don Antonio Grajera, a lieutenant in the Spanish cavalry and commandant at San Diego, requesting to be informed of the business that had brought the little squadron within the limits of his command.

When Swaine returned with the news that he had been received with politeness and hospitality, Vancouver answered Grajera’s letter and announced he would pay his official respects the following day. All very formal. Vancouver tells of his visit:

“This visit, accordingly took place, accompanied by Lts. Puget and Hanson. On landing we found horses in waiting for us, on which we rode up to the presidio, where we were received with that politeness and hospitality we had reason to expect from the liberal behaviour of the commandant on the preceding evening. His friendly offers were immediately renewed, and were accompanied by similar assurances of assistance from Señor Don Zúñiga, the former commandant, who had recently been promoted to the rank of captain of infantry, and appointed to the charge of an important post on the opposite side of the Gulf of California, for which he was then preparing to depart.”

Yes, the Spanish were polite, but, Vancouver continued:

“These gentlemen informed us that having been given to understand it was my intention to visit this port they had long expected us, and that about four days before, on being informed of the probability of our arrival, they had, to their great mortification, received at the same time from Señor Arrillaga (the acting governor, Capt. José Joaquin de Arrillaga) such a list of restrictions as would inevitably deprive both parties of that satisfaction that could not otherwise have failed to render our stay here very pleasant.”

The orders which presumably embarrassed the reception committee prohibited the transaction of any business on shore, excepting the procuring of wood and water; that when the above supplies were furnished, which was to be done with all possible expedition, it was expected that they were to depart immediately. Vancouver remained for 12 days. He wrote in his journal that:

“The profound secrecy which the Spanish nation has so strictly observed with regard to their territories and settlements in this hemisphere, naturally excites, in the strongest manner, a curiosity and a desire of being informed of the state, condition and progress of the several establishments provided in these distant regions, for the purposes of converting its native inhabitants to Christianity and civilization.”

However, he did have in his possession a copy of the chart of San Diego Bay made in 1782 by Pantoja and which evidently had been reproduced by Alexander Dalrymple, official hydrographer of the British East India Company. This map had also turned up in the hands of La Pérouse. Vancouver noted some corrections in distances and soundings. San Diego, he found, didn’t present much of a military threat.

“The Presidio of San Diego seemed to be the least of the Spanish establishments with which we were acquainted. It is irregularly built, on very uneven ground, which makes it liable to some inconveniences, without the obvious appearance of any object for selecting such a spot. The situation of it is dreary and lonesome, in the midst of a barren uncultivated country, producing so little herbage that, excepting in the spring months, their cattle are sent to the distance of 20 or 30 miles for pasturage. During that season, and as long as the rainy weather may continue, a sufficient number are then brought nearer for the use of the presidio and mission; and such as have not been wanted are again sent back to the interior country when the dry weather commences; which, although more productive in point of grass, is not very prolific in grain, pulse, fruits, roots, or other culinary vegetables. I understood that they are frequently obliged to resort for a supply of these articles to the mission of San Juan Capistrano, which abounded in vegetables and animal productions, consisting of great herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, and goats; and I was assured it was one of the most fertile establishments in the country.”

A botanist with the expedition, Archibald Menzies, also kept a detailed journal, which is now in the British Museum, and he tells of the visit to the presidio.

“When we arrived at the presidio we were met on the outside of the gate by the Commandant and Capt. Zúñiga and the Guard was under arms to receive Lt. Puget as commander of the Chatham. We were conducted to the Commandant’s house which is on the opposite side of the area facing the gate and we must do him credit to say that it is on the whole a much neater dwelling than any we saw at the Northern Settlements, but the soldiers’ barracks which are arranged contiguous to the wall round the square are wretched hovels. The church is in the middle of one side of the square and though but small is neatly finished and kept exceedingly clear and in good order, but the presidio in general we conceived much inferior in point of situation, regularity and cleanliness to that of St. Barbara though the latter is more infant a settlement. This is situated on the western declivity of a rugged imminence and guarded only by three guns mounted in carriages before the entrance.”

Despite the official barriers against cooperation, the Spaniards and the Englishmen seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Menzies said that Capt. Zúñiga and the commandant came down to visit the Daedalus and afterward had lunch on the Discovery. “They were both remarkably pleasant and intelligent men and seemed very partial to our little convivial parties.” The mission fathers also sent a quantity of fruit and kernels, one being noted as simmondsia californica nut, commonly known as goat nut, with an almond-like taste, which Menzies said was a natural produce of the country and praised for its medicinal properties, and which was taken to England and planted in His Majesty’s Royal Garden at Kew.

Fr. Lasuén, the president of the missions, happened to arrive at San Diego during the visit of the ships and hastened aboard to pay his respects to Vancouver.

“This venerable father, though upwards of 60 years of age,” Menzies wrote, “in executing the duties of his calling is exposed in his journeys from mission to mission to great fatigue and frequent hardships — he is sometimes obliged to sleep out in the open air in the valleys or mountains whenever night overtakes him and that too in the most inclement season, and he runs no little risque (sic) of being attacked and cut off in his route by savage tribes, yet this duty he cheerfully performs with a degree of zeal and perseverance that excites admiration and that at a time of life when his age and constitution more justly claim the comfort and care of retirement.”

Vancouver gave Lasuén a small organ and it was taken to Monterey. Menzies told of the shortage of water and was informed that crews of early Spanish ships found water by digging in the sand southward and near the entrance of the harbor. Even in 1792, crews of Spanish ships bound south for San Blas were warned to take aboard plenty of water at points northward before touching at San Diego. Menzies also made a curious observation about an island lying south of San Clemente, which the Spaniards said was a new one and had not been laid down on their charts. No such island has ever been known to exist.

The way of life in California, according to Vancouver, was not calculated to produce any great increase in white inhabitants:

“The Spaniards in their missions and presidios, being the two principal distinctions of Spanish inhabitants, lead a confined, and in most respects a very indolent life; the religious part of the society within a cloister, the military in barracks. The last mentioned order do nothing, in the strictest sense of the expression; for they neither till, sow, nor reap, but wholly depend upon the labour of the inhabitants of the missions and pueblos for their subsistence, and the common necessaries of life. To reconcile this inactivity whilst they remain on duty in the presidio, with the meritorious exertions that the same description of people are seen to make in the pueblos, is certainly a very difficult task; and the contradiction would have remained very prejudicial to their character, had I not been informed, that to support the consequence of the soldier in the eyes of the natives, and to insure him their respect, it had been deemed highly improper that he should be subjected to any laborious employment. This circumstance alone is sufficient to account for the habitual indolence and want of industry in the military part of these societies.

“From this brief sketch, some idea may probably be formed of the present state of the European settlements in this country, and the degree of importance they are of to the Spanish monarchy, which retains this extent of country under its authority by a force that, had we not been eyewitnesses of its insignificance in many instances, we should hardly have given credit to the possibility of so small a body of men keeping in awe, and under subjection, the natives of this country, without resorting to harsh or unjustifiable measures. The number of their forces, between port San Francisco and San Diego, including both establishments, and occupying an extent in one line of upwards of 420 nautical miles, does not amount to 300, officers included; and from San Diego southward, to Loreto, not above 100 more, exclusive of the garrison and settlers residing at that port. These are all that are employed for the protection of the missions. Those of the Dominican order, to the southward of San Diego, are 16 in number, each of which is guarded by five soldiers only. Of the Franciscan order, to the northward of San Diego, there are 13; some guarded by five, whilst others have eight, 10 or 12 soldiers for their protection in those situations where the Indians are more numerous and likely to prove troublesome. . . . The presidio of San Diego and Santa Barbara are each garrisoned by a company of 60 men; out of which number guards are afforded to the missions of the same names. The garrison of Monterey, generally, I believe, consists of a company of 60 or 80 men, and that of San Francisco 36 men only. These soldiers are all very expert horsemen, and, so far as their numbers extend, are well qualified to support themselves against any domestic insurrection; but are totally incapable of making any resistance against a foreign invasion.

“With little difficulty San Diego might also be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port; where, at this time, there were neither works, guns, houses, or other habitations nearer than the presidio, which is at the distance of at least five miles from the port, and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon.

“Such is the condition of this country as it respects its internal security, and external defence; but why such an extent of territory should have been thus subjugated, and after all the expence and labour that has been bestowed upon its colonization turned to no account whatever, is a mystery in the science of state policy not easily to be explained.”

The Spaniards, Vancouver concluded, had merely cleared the way for the “ambitious enterprises of those maritime powers.” By placing establishments so far from each other, and failing to strengthen the barrier to their valuable possessions in New Spain, “they have thrown irresistible temptations in the way of strangers to trespass over their boundary.” He foresaw that a well-conducted trade, especially in furs, “between this coast and China, India, Japan and other places, may on some future date, under a judicious and well-regulated establishment, become an object of serious and important consideration to any nation that shall be inclined to reap the advantage of such commerce.”

It was time to leave. Vancouver’s ships sailed back across the Pacific and upon returning to London, instead of being able to live out his days in honor, Vancouver fell into disgrace, due partly to an incident that took place on his ship. He was accused of flogging a midshipman who was a young nobleman by the name of Thomas Pitt, a member of the great Pitt family. Flogging was common on ships of war, and during a four-year period the records showed there were 95 cases of flogging on the Discovery. The law of the sea was harsh, and as his was an independent command far off in the Pacific, there was no time or means of applying to the admiralty for court martial. Whether he actually had young Pitt flogged is not known. Such an act against a man of high birth was considered unthinkable. The ship’s records merely note that Pitt was sent back to England from Hawaii, on another ship. When Vancouver himself returned, he found young Pitt had become Baron Camelford. He challenged Vancouver to a duel, which was refused, but later Pitt had the satisfaction, if it could be called that, of caning him. A wild and irrational person, young Pitt eventually was accused of taking part in a mutiny, was expelled from the naval service, and later met death in a duel. But Vancouver never recovered from the humiliation. In his late years he completed five of six books on his journeys, dying on May 12,1798.

The Spanish government was now genuinely alarmed. Something would have to be done to defend California. The presidios were to be strengthened and no warships large enough to seize San Diego were to be permitted to enter the bay. The building of a fort on Punta Guijarros, or Ballast Point, a necessity even Vancouver had seen, was ordered. There was considerable talk, as usual, but not much action. But when Spain and England went to war in 1797, though the news was late in reaching as far away as San Diego and Monterey, precautions were taken to thwart any British invasion, which all felt sure was coming. All British ships were to be seized at once; at the first sight of the enemy, military forces were to be concentrated at specific points, and all livestock driven inland. Men drilled in the presidio squares and messengers scurried importantly up and down the state. The Indians were placed on the alert by assuring them the English were far worse than the Spaniards.

Keeping up the defenses of San Diego always had been a problem. Four years before the threat of a British invasion Gov. Diego de Borica had advised the viceroy that three sides of the presidio were in a weakened condition, owing to the bad quality of timber used in roofing for the abutting structures, while the warehouses, church and officers’ quarters on the fourth side were in good condition. Lumber was shipped down from Monterey on the Princesa, and on Nov. 8, 1796, an esplanade, powder magazine, a flag, and a barracks and quarters for married personnel of Catalán Volunteers were blessed by the friars amid artillery salute.

Workmen and timber also were sent from Monterey for the new fort on Ballast Point, while Santa Barbara furnished axle trees and wheels for 10 carts to haul lumber and rocks. Engineer Alberto Córdoba inspected the defenses in 1796 and found that the safety of San Diego would have to depend on the enemy being ignorant of its weaknesses.

The arrival of 25 additional Catalán volunteers raised the strength of the San Diego company to 90 men, and the population on Presidio Hill now totaled more than 180 persons. No foreign invasion ever materialized though the captors of a Spanish vessel claimed that some of their men were on the coast in 1797, as crewmen of two English vessels, and entered San Diego Bay and took soundings by moonlight.

Antonio Grajera, who had succeeded Lt. Zúñiga, had his troubles with women and liquor which affected his mind and health, and he was ordered home, dying two days out of the port while aboard the Concepción. Death also took Fr. Fuster, who had survived. the attack on the San Diego Mission. He died Oct. 21, 1800, at San Juan Capistrano Mission. A band of 200 Indians attacked Alférez Grijalva while he was returning from San Miguel Mission with three natives accused of murder, and Grijalva’s horse and one Indian were killed. Eight foundling children came up from Mexico to live at San Diego and an earthquake, on Nov. 22, 1800, cracked the warehouse and a number of the military houses in the presidio. The presidio commandant tried to induce Spanish youths to learn trades. They were insulted at the suggestion of going to work.

Despite all the work that had been done on the presidio, in the effort to strengthen it, its abandonment was urged in 1802 by Lt. Manuel Rodriguez, the acting commandant who soon was to take over officially as captain. In a letter dated Jan. 13, he reported to Gov. Arrillaga that the presidio was in great danger, as the water was coming over the summit of the lomas and gradually eating away the walls, and unless something was done right away they would fall in ruin. In order to build a new presidio, he said it would be necessary to have one or two professors in the art of building as the person occupying this position at the time apparently was not equipped to know just what should be done, which could be judged by the small quantities of adobes and lumber that he had asked.

“Every year, daily repairs are made to this presidio due to the circumstances of its poor location and being the oldest of all such establishments. . .”

This letter also mentioned that a room added to the barracks and the five houses built for the married Volunteers a few short years before were already falling into ruin due to their hurried and poor construction.

Besides water, there was another factor which was causing great damage. The wind kept knocking down the front walls, which Rodriguez had repaired twice before, and it was considered fortunate that no serious injuries had been sustained. The tiles on the roofs of the principal buildings as well as of all the surrounding houses were falling off, leaving the rooftops broken and useless.

Rodriguez concluded by saying that it was absolutely necessary that a new presidio be erected, but this time to be situated where the wind and water would not affect it. Nothing much happened. And by 1806 even the cannons had been eroded and the wood on the esplanade had so rotted that it was impossible to roll the cannons. Besides, the ammunition didn’t fit the cannons.

Now, significant to the history of California, and of San Diego, was the appearance in northern California waters of the American ship Otter, from Boston. She showed up at Monterey on Oct. 29, 1796. She carried six guns and 26 men. But she wasn’t interested in fighting but in trade: The fur trade. Two years later four American sailors who had been left in Baja California by the American ship Gallant, were brought to the presidio at San Diego and put to work, while waiting for a vessel to take them to San Blas for eventual passage home. In 1799, a British sloop-of-war, the Mercedes, stopped briefly at San Diego, but as the war was over, the visit passed without incidence. A year later, on Aug. 25, 1800, the first American ship entered San Diego Bay. She was the brig Betsy, out of Boston and under the command of Capt. Charles Winship. She took on wood and water and sailed away, carrying $100,000 worth of furs obtained on the northwest coast. Her destination was Canton, China.