The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER ONE: Before the Explorers

San Diego was a well populated area before the first Spanish explorers arrived. The climate was wetter and perhaps warmer, and the land more wooded than now. The remnant of a great inland lake covered most of Imperial Valley. The San Diego River wandered back and forth over the broad delta it had formed between Point Loma and Old Town, alternately emptying into Mission Bay and San Diego Bay.

The natural food supply was so abundant that the state as a whole supported an Indian population far greater than any equal area in the United States. The native population of the southern counties alone must have been at least 10,000.

The early maps made of San Diego Bay by the Spanish explorers show the same general configuration as of today, except, of course, for the many changes in the shoreline made by dredging and filling in recent years. The maps, crudely drawn without proper surveys, vary considerably in detail. Thousands of years ago, in the late part of the Ice Age, Point Loma was an island, as were Coronado and North Island. Coronado used to be known as South Island. There was no bay, as we think of it now. A slightly curving coastline was protected by the three islands, of which, of course, Point Loma was by far the largest. What we now know as Crown Point in Mission Bay was a small peninsula projecting into the ocean.

On the mainland, the San Diego and Linda Vista mesas were one continuous land mass. The San Diego River, in those days a roaring torrent, gradually cut a canyon five hundred feet deep through the mesa on its rush to the sea. The melting of the continental ice caps over thousands of years slowly raised the level of the ocean by a hundred feet, and, as it rose, the river lifted itself on the deposits of its own silt. The silt today is about one hundred feet deep in the bed of the river and forms the broad flood plain of Mission Valley.

Through all these centuries the river poured its mud and debris into the open sea, building up a delta which eventually tied Point Loma fast to the mainland. All of the low flat land between Old Town and Point Loma is a delta deposit. This closed San Diego Bay on the north to make two bays out of one, Mission Bay on one side of the delta and San Diego Bay on the other. To the south another process was at work. Silt from the Tia Juana River did not produce a delta similar to that of the San Diego River. Instead, southwest storm winds or an eddy on the lee side of Point Loma shifted the river’s sediments northward, depositing them in long sandy spits connecting North Island and Coronado to each other and to the mainland. Thus San Diego Bay was landlocked south and west.

Mission Bay once was open to the sea and deep. But gradually material which was eroded from the south shore of La Jolla and cut from the embankment at Pacific Beach, along with sediments washed down from Soledad Mountain, was carried southward by waves and currents and deposited across the wide mouth of Mission Bay, creating the sandy spit of Mission Beach and leaving only a narrow tidal opening. And inside, a once usable deep-water bay was slowly choked up by deposits from the San Diego River. The expedition of Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602 first noted Mission Bay. Ensign Sebastian Melendes, sent out with an exploring party, reported it was yet a “good port.” For many years it was known as False Bay.

The shifting of the course of the San Diego River has been of considerable historical interest. Lieut. George Horatio Derby, of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, in a report to Congress in 1853 stated:

“At the time of the first establishment of the Mission of San Diego, and the ‘Presidio’, or the military post, this plain, and in fact the whole valley for six miles above, was covered with a dense forest of sycamore, willow, and cottonwood, with an undergrowth of various kinds of shrubbery, among which the wild grape was most abundant. At this time, the river ran through the most northerly part of the plain, skirting the hills … and emptied into False Bay. This course it continued until 1811, when, by continued deposit of sand, its bed was so much elevated that it altered its channel to the southwest, still however, emptying into False Bay, until 1825, when a great freshet occurring, it overflowed its banks, destroying many gardens and much property, and formed a new channel discharging into the harbor of San Diego. From the continued accumulation of sand, its course has somewhat fluctuated but has never been essentially altered since that period.”

In 1889, George Davidson, of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, set 1835 as the time when the San Diego River again began emptying into San Diego Bay. Old Spanish charts, made long before this time, also show the river emptying into San Diego Bay. Thus it shifted back and forth across its own delta. Lieut. Derby said that while Mission Bay once was sufficiently deep to admit vessels of considerable size, by 1810 it was filled with shoals and sand bars, and hardly deep enough at low tide for a sail boat. Lieut. Derby was sent to San Diego to restrain the river, to force it into a more permanent bed and prevent the threatened silting up of San Diego Harbor, as had happened with Mission or False Bay. The original Derby Dike was built of dirt in 1853-54, but had to be reconstructed in 1877. It ran from a point near the base of Presidio Hill to the inland foot of Point Loma, and successfully diverted the flow of the river back into Mission Bay, thereby saving San Diego Harbor.

The report by Lieut. Derby of a heavily wooded river valley, and particularly the comments of the early explorers about a forest on Point Loma, troubled historians down through the years. They generally concluded that the explorers must have been mistaken, or their words not properly understood or translated. Fr. Antonio de la Ascension, who accompanied Sebastian Vizcaino, records in his detailed report of the expedition that on the morning following their arrival at San Diego in 1602:

“The General ordered some men to go and look over a ‘Montesillo’ which protected the port from the northwest wind. Captains Alarcon and Peguero and Father Antonio went with eight harquebusiers and found on it many live oaks, junipers, and other trees such as rockrose, heather, and one very similar to the rosemary. There were many fragrant medicinal and healthful herbs. From the top of the hill all that spacious ensenada (bay) could be clearly seen. It was a port very capacious, good, large and safe, as it was protected from all winds. This hill is about three leagues long and half a league wide, and to the northwest of it there is another good port.”

Historian Henry R. Wagner wrote that strictly speaking the word “monte” means a forest or thicket but he concluded that, as there is no likelihood that Point Loma was covered by trees other than some scrub oak and brush, Fr. Ascension undoubtedly used the word in its other variation of “little mountain.” Richard Henry Dana, the author of “Two Years Before the Mast,” who visited San Diego in 1835, wrote of a “large and well-wooded headland,” but also commented later that wood was very scarce in the vicinity of San Diego and that the trees were small ones growing in thickets. But perhaps they weren’t so mistaken. There is considerable scientific evidence that the area was much wetter at one time and that the last three hundred years have been relatively dry. Dr. Carl L. Hubbs, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in climatic studies has shown that large populations of Indians lived in places where now they could not possibly find enough fresh water to live. He has also shown that a fresh-water lake, one hundred and five miles long, thirty miles broad, and three or four hundred feet deep, once filled the Salton Sea Basin. It is known as Lake LeConte, Lake Cahuilla, or Blake Sea. As the weather turned drier and the Colorado River swung to the east so as to discharge directly into the Gulf of California rather than through the Salton Sink, the great lake rapidly disappeared, evaporating probably at the rate of about five feet a year, though it was still in existence until about three hundred years ago. Recession lines left as the lake dropped were visible until the last few years, during which jeeps have messed up the evidence. The memories of this great inland sea lived in Indian legends, and Spanish explorers were sufficiently impressed to place it on maps.

Spanish explorers also reported forests of trees at Santa Barbara, to a greater extent than now, and their maps show the lower part of the Central Valleys of California covered with swamps and marshes. Much of this growth and wetness, if they did exist, have largely disappeared with declining rainfall.

Dr. Hubbs believes the desert, in the Southwest in particular, has been getting drier over long periods of geological time, and that the prospect is for continued aridity, broken by occasional wetter periods, and thus for a continued march of the desert. The drought that started in 1934 was perhaps the most severe of any which has occurred since the Ice Age or during the last 15,000 years.

The Indians who made their home in San Diego County looked with considerable suspicion and apprehension on the white explorers who came by sea. They indicated by signs that they had received word of other white men, with swords and guns, roaming deep in the interior, and the reports were not good. The Indians’ first inclination was to shower the visitors with arrows. But they proved willing to listen to reason. So the tragedy of the American Indian was enacted in San Diego, as elsewhere, despite all that the missionaries sought to do. A law of nature says that the decrease of a native race is in proportion to the immediacy and fullness of contact with a superior civilization. This was true of the Indians in Northern California. The two principal San Diego Indian groups, the Dieguenos and the Luisenos, fared a little better. The Dieguenos in particular proved to be an independent though unorganized people, proud and arrogant, stubbornly resisting conversion, passionately clinging to old customs and beliefs, often resorting to force, and surviving in larger numbers than any other California Indians. But even those numbers were pitifully small. The argument over whether the San Diego Indians were superior, or inferior, to other American Indians has never ceased. They certainly had not attained the state of development of the Indians the Spaniards found in the Valley of Mexico, Yucatan and Peru. They were good craftsmen, though. The arrowpoints made by the men were as good or better than any in North America, and the women made pottery and baskets of excellent quality. Opinions of them held at the time must have been prejudiced somewhat by the prior experience of the Spaniards with some of the Indians of Baja California: the farther down the peninsula, the lower the Indian.

A German Jesuit missionary, Fr. Johann Jakob Baegert, who spent the years from 1751 to 1768 administering to 360 Indians of the Mission San Luis Gonzaga, in the southern interior of Baja California, returned to Germany after the expulsion of the Jesuits, and in a book of his experiences described the Indians there as physically strong, but lazy and stupid, being liars and thieves, dirty in all respects, polygamous and wicked, lacking any idea of morals, admiring nothing, having no terms of relationship such as father and son, and only able to count, at best, to six. Obviously they needed attention. But the exasperated padre acknowledged that the Indian was happy. He liked his hot, barren country, had nothing to worry about, had nothing, yet all he needed, and always was in good spirits, laughing and joking. These were the lowly Pericu Indians, unrelated to the Dieguenos and whose language had no connection with any of the aboriginal stock in North America.

The Indians of San Diego County, described in Cabrillo’s report as comely and good-humored, were much higher in the scale of human development, but as happened elsewhere, their decline under the impact of civilization was so swift that most of their religion, their strangely moving mythology, and their tribal lore and customs were lost forever, so that a true evaluation has been difficult to reach. By the time Americans had arrived in goodly numbers, the Indians who remained in or near the settlements and towns had slipped into a state of near-degradation and were treated contemptuously as “digger Indians.” Those who had retreated deeper and deeper into the hills, and those living in the mountains and deserts, were decimated by disease, by the inevitable changes in living habits, and by neglect.

The Indian picture as a whole is a confused one, though there are reasonable grounds for believing that the cultures of all Southwestern Indian groups are related to each other and in turn to those of Mexico, though regional and area distinctions are very sharp. The Aztecs who conquered Mexico City are related, linguistically, to the Shoshoneans of San Diego County.

The Shoshoneans occupied almost a third of California, as well as vast areas of the Great Basin, and even today they are the largest group of Indians in America. The Uto-Aztecan mass of allied tribes to which they belonged stretched all the way from Panama to Northern United States. The ancestors of the Mexican Nahua, to which the Aztecs belonged, and the California Shoshoneans were associated thousands of years ago.

There were two linguistic groups of Indians, the Yuman and the Shoshonean, in Southern California and on some of the offshore islands. The Indians who later were given the designation of San Dieguenos, as coming under the jurisdiction of the Mission of San Diego, were of Yuman stock; while the Luisenos, identified with the area of the San Luis Rey Mission, were of Shoshonean stock.

There were many tribes of these two linguistic groups scattered over Southern California. The Hokan family included the Northern Dieguenos, the Southern Dieguenos, the Kamia, and the Yuma tribes. The Uto-Aztecan, or the Southern California branch of the Shoshonean family, included the Luiseno and Cupeno, Pass Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Desert Cahuilla. Farther to the north were the Gabrielino, Nicoleno and Juaneno, who have disappeared.

The Dieguenos were the most important to San Diego history. They occupied all of the territory south of a line running from south of Carlsbad eastward to just south of Escondido and then northeasterly to Warner’s Ranch. The eastern boundary is vague, but it is believed they did not go below the eastern slopes of the mountains. The Indians at Mesa Grande and Santa Isabel were Dieguenos. The Luisenos principally inhabited the valley and surrounding hills of the San Luis Rey River. Their territory extended northeast from Warner’s Ranch to Soboba Hot Springs, about four miles northeast of Hemet, and then generally west and southwest to the coast just south of San Juan Capistrano.

The Cahuilla, who also figured in San Diego’s history, were found in mountain and desert areas northeast and east of Warner’s Ranch and, while of the same Shoshonean linguistic stock as the Luisenos, they differed in their tribal organization, traditions and religious beliefs. They spoke a dialect distinct from the Luisenos. A large and important group, they had little contact with early Spaniards and never came under the influence and supervision of the missions.

The Cupenos, one of the smallest Indian groups in California, were identified with Warner’s Ranch and its hot springs, and while generally considered a distinct tribe, they apparently belonged to the Shoshonean linguistic stock. The territory they controlled at the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River was no larger than five by ten miles. Another little known tribe was the Kamia, sometimes called the Kamya, Cameya or the Quemaya. This was a Yuman tribe that lived between San Diego and the lower Colorado. Their identity does not seem too clear and their chief place of residence was probably across the line in Mexico. They generally are associated with the Dieguenos.

The Luisenos are believed to have numbered between three thousand and four thousand at their maximum; the Cupeno, about five hundred; the Cahuilla, about twenty-five hundred; and the Diegueno-Kamia, about three thousand. This would make a total population of approximately ten thousand in a Southern California area largely made up of San Diego, and Imperial and Riverside Counties. They were not true nomads, and all tribes had some place they called home. The Dieguenos knew nothing of agriculture: they didn’t need to. They lived in rancherias in the upland valleys in the winter. They spent the summer roaming from place to place, in search of food, camping wherever they were, under the trees. Houses were used only in the winter. They were made of poles of sycamore or oak tied together at the top, then thatched with deer weed tied by strands of yucca.

Though most of the Diegueno villages were inland, there were eight permanent settlements around San Diego itself, and a number of camp sites used for fishing. The villages were located at La Jolla, just south of the present La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club; in Soledad Canyon; at the mouth of Rose Canyon, which was the largest of the group; at the foot of Presidio Hill; on the north side of the San. Diego River near the entrance to Murray Canyon; on the south side of Mission Bay, along West Point Loma Boulevard; on the bay side of Point Loma; and near the foot of Market Street.

The men usually went naked. Women wore a two-piece petticoat, the back garment of willow bark and the front of the same material or of strings partly braided or netted. Sometimes they covered themselves with rabbit skins. Both men and women wore long hair, the men bunching it on their heads and the women allowing it to hang loose. Tattooing was common with the women generally wearing more designs than the men. The most common pattern was two or three vertical lines on the chin, but often they marked their head, cheeks, arms and breast.

Much has been made of their eating habits, which were often described in contempt as denoting the Indians as hopeless savages. They mainly lived on acorns, seeds, nuts, and bulbous roots, but ate about anything that moved-rabbits, hares, woodrats, ground squirrels, gophers, grasshoppers, caterpillars and ground worms. They made crude traps. Deer, antelope and mountain sheep were killed with bows and arrows, but the Indians rarely hunted bears, mountain lions or wildcats. Around San Diego Bay, the Indians also ate fish and mollusks, and made tule balsas or rafts which they propelled with double-bladed paddles.

Violence was part of their life. Wars were largely feuds over trespassing, and enemies were decapitated and no prisoners taken. It is claimed that jealous women upon occasion would commit suicide. In war they would cut the entire scalp, including the ears, from their foe, and preserve it. Victories in war were celebrated in a night of dancing, and the dancers would take turns in setting the scalp of the fallen enemy on their own heads.

Among California Indians generally, death was very mysterious. They prepared for it over many years and always wanted to die where they had lived. Ashes of the dead were placed in pottery jars and secreted in the ground. An image ceremony began with a night of wailing; the images of the dead, made of mats stuffed with grass and with features of haliotis shell, were marched around a fire for six nights, and finally at daybreak were placed, along with some of the dead man’s possessions, in a house of brush open to the east and burned. The dead were made content, but at the same time it was made certain that they did not return.

Even in death the Dieguenos were set apart. The Yuman groups to which they belonged probably were the most irreligious Indians of North America. Mr. Malcolm Rogers, of the San Diego Museum of Man, is of the opinion that they never mentioned death, nor referred to the dead. About the time of the Spanish conquest, some of the Luiseno medicine men began to proselytize among the Northern Dieguenos but without much success.

Most of what we know about them has come down from the people who tried either to civilize them or subdue them. They did have a religion and an oral literature, but much of the latter was recorded only in later years as it survived in the tribal memory of Indians still living in San Diego’s back country. The Dieguenos danced for the revival of the moon toward the end of its waning. Song and stories tell of a spirit world in which the little animals of their daily lives assumed human qualities; others concerned the eternal mysteries of all men – of how the world began, where man came from, and the struggle between good and evil.

The Luiseno initiation ceremonies for the coming of age of boys and girls, ceremonies so natural to native races, seemed severe, though perhaps they served the purpose of preparing them for a stoical acceptance of life and all it might bring. Girls were forced to swallow balls of tobacco. Later, they were placed on their backs in pits lined with heated stones, and then more warmed flat stones were placed on their abdomens. Here they remained for three days, men dancing around them by night and women by day, and let out once each twenty-four hours while the pit was reheated. In turn, boys in their final ceremony were laid on ant hills, or put into a hole containing ants, and then more insects were shaken over them from baskets. It was a grueling experience, and was concluded when the ants were whipped from their bodies with stinging nettles.

The Luisenos handed down to their children the age-old lessons that made and preserved family life and gave rise to civilization. Indian boys and girls were taught to respect their elders, to listen to them, to give them food freely and not to eat meals secretly, to refrain from anger and to be polite to relatives. A. L. Kroeber, of the University of California, whose study of the California Indians has been the foundation of much of what is known about them, says the Luisenos taught that if these rules were followed, then one would be stout, warm and long-haired, would grow old in good health and have children to whom to pass on counsel, be talked of when death came, and have one’s spirit go to the sky to live. The disobedient and heedless would be bitten by the rattlesnake or spider.

The fragments of their past which have been left to us do not tell much in trying to settle the argument over the place of San Diego County Indians in American history. The Luisenos seem to have been more mystical than the Dieguenos, and more capable of abstract thought, as indicated in their mythology. The Dieguenos were superior story tellers. One of the most intriguing bits of history is the Indian tradition of a flood which submerged all the earth except one peak. This same story is found, in some variation, among many of the primitive peoples of the world. The University of California recorded the old legend as remembered by a surviving Indian. He tells it as follows:

“There is a wonderful little knoll, near Bonsall, the Spanish name it Mora, the Indian name it Katuta, and when there was a flood that killed all the people, some stayed on this hill and were not drowned. All the high mountains were covered, but this little hill remained above the water. One can see heaps of sea-shells and seaweed upon it, and ashes where these people cooked their food, and stones set together, left as they used them for cooking, and the shells were those of shell-fish they caught to eat. They stayed there till the water went down. From the top of the hill, one can see that the high mountains are lower than it is. This hill was one of the First People.”

In the religion of the Luisenos, as recalled by Indians of modem times, is the story of the Eagle, expressive of their preoccupation with death.


“The Eagle, seeking escape from death, went north from Temecula to San Bernardino, came around by the east to the south and west through Julian, Cuyamaca, and Palomar, going towards Temecula, and died at Temecula. The Eagle sang this song at Temecula. When he got sick he talked this way. He was talking about the spirit. When they were all going along they could hear something singing far away, and the Eagle said that was the spirit, and he told the people that everywhere he had been, north, south, east and west, death was there waiting for them. It was very near. No one knew when it would come, but they would all have to die.”

And die they did. Few pure Indians are left to recall the legends of the past. Tribal identifications have become indistinct as a result of marriages between tribes and mixed marriages with Spanish, Mexican and American settlers. Others have vanished into the American melting pot. By 1960 there were less than two thousand scattered on eighteen reservations in San Diego County, totaling about 120,000 acres. Some historians have been critical of the missionaries, in their treatment and concentration of the Indians, but opinion in such cases seems based more on prejudice than on truth. Civilization was advancing on the New World, and the Indian had no hope of retaining his identity. The missionaries, if anything, helped to bridge the overwhelming gap between aboriginal life and the 18th Century.

The missionaries brought the Indians to Christianity, as best they could, and tried to teach them how to live with each other in peace, how to raise food, and to learn the trades necessary for survival under completely new conditions. But the Indians never could entirely understand the importance of discipline and order. The California tribes which had the closest association with the white men are now extinct. The San Diego Indians were made of sterner stuff. When the missions had been abandoned and the padres largely gone, Indians were hunted like animals, to be shot, put to work, or herded into reservations no better than stockades. In some cases casual efforts were made to exterminate them. They endured a century of neglect.

The reservations ultimately were to save the Indians from extinction. Brought together with their own kind, and protected from abuse, they were given time to make new adjustments to life. They still speak the Indian language, along with English and Spanish, though they no longer practice their old religious ceremonies. What they remember of their songs and dances are seen and heard at the occasional fiestas held at the missions and churches on the reservations. The Catholic Church once again administers to their spiritual needs, as it did at the time of the padres. San Diego has been left a rich heritage in such Indian names as Cuyamaca, Jamacha, Jamul, Pala, Pauma and Temecula. The older Indians prefer the security of their tax-free reservations. However, many of them, and particularly the young, seek work outside. Some do not return. They have won all the privileges of other citizens of the United States, even to voting, and seem destined, at last, to be assimilated.