The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER TEN: Portola Goes North

There was much to be done; the expedition must not fail and the king must not be disappointed. The San Antonio, under Captain Juan Perez, was prepared to sail – not for Monterey but back to San Blas – with letters to inform the Viceroy and Inspector-General of the conditions at San Diego. Vicente Vila was to remain at San Diego until he received further orders and reinforcements. But Portola, anxious to carry out the original instructions, offered to give Vila sixteen men from his own command to continue the voyage to Monterey.

A dispute arose, and Costanso reports that “as there was not one sailor among them, Vila could not accept the offer, especially because he had lost all his sea officers – boatswain, quartermaster, and coxswain – without having anybody to replace them. The governor was of the opinion that the unforeseen misfortune of the ships did not excuse him from continuing his journey to Monterey by land, in view of the fact that all his soldiers and the rest of his men were in good health, and that he had in his division 163 mules laden with provisions.”

Portola, counting on the arrival of the San Jose, decided to push ahead, regardless, “without waiting till the season had too far advanced, so as to avoid the risk of the snows blocking passage across the mountains that might be encountered on the way. For it was known already, from the experience of that year, that it snowed much, even at San Diego where the hills were seen to be covered with snow by the men who had arrived. by sea in April. . . .”

An agreement was reached. Portola would push on to Monterey by land, with the two army officers Fages and Costanso, Rivera and six surviving Catalan volunteers, Sergeant Ortega and twenty-six soldiers, Frs. Crespi and Gomez, seven muleteers, fifteen Baja California Indians, and two servants. The San Antonio was to sail for San Blas with reports for the Viceroy and Galvez. She left on July 9th, with a crew of only eight men. Six of them died on the way.

Left behind on the San Carlos were Vila; the second pilot, Jose de Canizares, who later was to be the first white man to sail through the Golden Gate; a few convalescing sailors, and two soldiers.

On shore were the Frs. Serra, Juan Vizcaino and Fernando Parron, Dr. Prat, a handful of soldiers to guard the camp, a corporal, a blacksmith, a carpenter, one servant, eight Indians, and a number of sick men still lodged in the crude hospital.

On July 14th, after High Mass in a brushwood shack, Portola’s party of sixty-three, weakened and hungry, started for Monterey. Portola looked at his feeble little army and remarked that they were nothing but skeletons.

The soldiers were protected against possible Indian attack and against the rough country through which they were to ride. From their equipment originated that of the Western cowboys and the California lancers of the romantic Mexican period. As described by Costanso, each wore a leather jacket shaped like a coat without sleeves and made of six or seven plies of white tanned deerskin, proof against arrows except at very close range. The shield was made of two plies of raw bull’s hide and was carried on the left arm to turn aside spears and arrows, the rider being able to defend his horse as well as himself. In addition each wore a sort of a leather apron, which the Spanish called “armas” or “defensas,” fastened to the pommel of the saddle and hanging down on both sides to protect the thighs and legs in thickets and woods.

Costanso, records:

“Their offensive arms are the lance-which they handle adroitly on horseback – the broadsword, and the short musket which they carry securely fastened in its case. They are men of great fortitude and patience . . . and we do not hesitate to say that they are the best horsemen in the world . . .”

There was always the threat of the loss of their pack animals which frequently stampeded at the unexpected appearance of animal life – the necessity of reconnoitering the country ahead from day to day to regulate the day’s march according to the distance between watering places, and the need of occasional periods of rest . . . “In the course of time there were many whose strength gave way under the continuous fatigue, and the excessive heat and intense cold.” It took them eight days to cross the country, and they marked their progress in leagues. Their league was about 2.6 miles in length. In general they followed age-old Indian trails, which they called roads; these became the thread of El Camino Real. Much of the route over which they passed, from San Diego to San Luis Rey, is designated on older maps as El Camino Real, and sections of roads along it were still posted as such in 1960. They chose the low valleys just behind the first row of coastal hills, when they could do so, to avoid unnecessary climbing.

Leaving late in the afternoon, after the animals had been watered, they crossed the bed of the San Diego River, marched north along the east shore of Mission Bay and past a large Indian village situated at its northeast corner (at the present site of a drive-in theater), and then turned into Rose Canyon. The Spaniards called it the Canyon of San Diego. They camped the first night where it widens out just above the Convair warehouse and brick plant of today, after a march of only about five miles. Many years ago there was a railroad station near here identifying the area as Ladrillo, meaning brick, where tiles were made for olden San Diego. Fr. Crespi’s diary tells us the most about this first journey of white men across northern San Diego County. It reads:

“We set out from this port of San Diego on this day of the seraphic doctor, San Buenaventura, about four in the afternoon. We went northwest, over level land well covered with grass on account of the proximity of the estuaries, which have good salt deposits. Afterwards we came upon the beach of the second harbor that San Diego has, although it is closed so that it cannot be entered. On some parts of the road there are rosemary and other small bushes not known to us, and on the right hand we have a mountain range, moderately high, bare of trees, of pure earth well covered with grass. We saw many hares and rabbits, for this port abounds in them. At about two leagues we came to a very large village of heathen who are in the valley formed by this second harbor where there are some small springs of water. We called this spot the Village of the Springs of Rinconada de San Diego. As soon as the heathen saw us approaching they all came out into the road, men, women and children, as though they came to welcome us, with signs of great pleasure. We gave them such presents as we could. Here we left the shore, and entered a valley between hills but on the same road. It has many willows and some alders and live oaks, and we understood from the heathen of the preceding village that in this valley there were some pools of good water, and we believed it to be so because it was so green. Although the valley is not very broad it is well covered with grass, and on all sides of it there are knolls, ridges, and hills, all of good land. We found small pools which contained water enough for the people but the horses had nothing to drink. After traveling two hours and three-fourths, in which we must have covered two and a half leagues, we stopped and made camp near the little ponds which we called the Pools of the Valley of San Diego. As soon as we arrived at this place, it being already dark, the heathen came. They brought some very large sardines, and one of them made a long speech, after which the governor and the captain accepted the sardines, reciprocating with beads and some clothing, with which they left in great good humor.”

Portola’s description of their first day’s march is terse, to say the least. He wrote in his diary: “We marched for three hours. Much pasture, but no water for man or beast.” [for more, see “Diary of Don Gaspar de Portola” under Translations]

The next morning they broke camp and followed Rose Canyon as it turns east. The route selected by Portola’s advance scouts is the same one that was selected by the Santa Fe Railroad. Near the head of Rose Canyon, about four miles inland, they climbed a low hill and crossed the wide, flat Miramar Mesa, as does the railroad track, and then dropped down into Soledad Canyon and followed it as it turns into the larger Soledad Valley, sometimes known as Sorrento Valley, which they named the Valley of Santa Isabel, Queen of Portugal. At the north end they entered the gently rising meadow which runs well back of Del Mar and opens up into San Dieguito Valley. Their route from Sorrento to San Dieguito generally is followed by a road still marked as El Camino Real. San Dieguito was named San Jacome de la Marca by Crespi, though the soldiers named it La Poza de Ozuna. It was a day’s journey of about ten miles. Crespi’s diary reads:

“About half-past eight in the morning we left the place, following the same direction to the northwest. We ascended a large grassy hill, all of pure earth, and then found ourselves on some very broad mesas of good soft ground, all covered with grass, not having encountered a stone since leaving San Diego nor any other trees than those spoken of in the preceding valley, except that here and there we saw some very small oaks and chaparral. We saw seven antelopes running together on this mesa and at every moment hares and rabbits came running out. After about one and a half leagues of travel, we came to a very beautiful valley, which, when we saw it, seemed to us to be nothing less than a cultivated cornfield or farm, on account of its mass of verdure, On a small eminence in this valley we saw a village of heathen, with six little straw houses. Upon seeing us, all of them came out into the road, in great good humor and making demonstrations of joy. We descended to this valley and saw that its verdure consisted of very leafy wild calabashes, and many Castilian roses. These heathen have near their village a pool of water in an arroyo. This valley runs from southeast to northwest, and is about one league long and some 400 varas wide, all of good pasture, with some live oaks and alders. We called it the Valley of Santa Isabel, Queen of Portugal.

“We stopped a little while so that the commander might distribute some beads among the heathen of this village, and then continued on our way to the north side of the valley, with a heathen of the village who voluntarily offered to accompany us to the camping place. In about half a league’s travel, at the end of the valley we came to a medium-sized pool of fresh water, in which we saw two pots of baked clay, very well made. Here we turned into a valley which lies to the north and traveled through it, over level land well covered with grass, from which we saw another valley better than the preceding, and went down to it. We pitched camp near a large pool of good, fresh water, which the soldiers called the Well of Ozuna, and which we called the valley of San Jacome de la Marca, asking that saint to intercede with the Most High for the conversion of its heathen natives, and that a mission might be formed here, with him as its patron, since the site is apparently very suitable and invites it. The march this day covered three and a half leagues. The valley must measure about one league from north to south and about half a league from east to west; all the land is level, very verdant, with much pasture, many wild grapes, and other herbs. To the south of this valley there are three large pools, and to the north, according to the story of the explorers, there is a very verdant arroyo, and some other very large pools. Near the southern pools, on a slope, there is a large village of heathen and many well built houses with grass roofs. As soon as we arrived about eighteen heathen came to visit us, with their women and children, all very affable and not at all noisy. It seems that this place is near the sea, judging by our view of it as we came down the valley. The hills that surround this valley are not very high, and all are of pure earth, covered with pasture, the only thing lacking to the site being trees. Many scorpions have been seen, but no one has been bitten by them.”

The portion of the San Dieguito Valley in which they camped runs in a northeasterly and southwesterly direction. Looking inland it seems to be partially cut off by the hills from the rest of the valley formed by the San Dieguito River. They came into the valley just west of El Camino Real and camped near some pools of water. On the third day of marching, they crossed the valley and turned up the sloping canyon along the present Camino Viejo, which runs north from Via de la Valle, took a route through Rancho Santa Fe generally followed today by Paseo del Prado, El Puente, and La Noria, then on to La Bajada to the San Marcos Road and west to S 11, or El Camino Real, which runs north through Green Valley. However, they did not know about Green Valley and pushed on over the hills. They went down to Escondido Creek, which empties into San Elijo Lagoon near Cardiff and named it the Valley of the Triumph of the Holy Cross. Climbing and dropping again they came to Encinitas Creek and they named the valley as the Spring of the Valley of Los Encinos, or oaks. From there they crossed to San Marcos Creek and camped near where it flows into Batiquitos Lagoon, at the north end of Green Valley. They named it San Alejo.

“At half-past two in the afternoon we set out north and northwest traversing the entire plain; then we climbed a bare hill which followed soon afterwards, with a small wood of little trees unknown to us, and some chaparral. Passing over it, we came out upon some broad grassy mesas, and in about 21/2 leagues we descended to a very green valley, with good level land covered with alders. In this valley we came across a village of heathen who, as soon as they saw us, all came running to us, in great good humor. They showed us a little pool of water that was there for their use, and we understood that they were asking us to remain; but, as this was not the spot the explorers had picked out for the camping place, we stopped only a little while. The commander gave some beads to the chiefs, and in passing, we called this place the Valley of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, to which we prayed.

“We proceeded on our way, accompanied by all the heathen, who told us that farther on there was another small watering place. In about half a league we came to another little valley with many live oaks, where we found a small stream of water, which ran a short way in the midst of some blackberry bushes, where we found another village which had only six women. We saw that they had some pots and jugs of baked clay, well made. We called this place the Spring of the Valley of Los Encinos. Then followed extensive hills, with good land and pasture. After about one more league of travel we descended to another very green valley, with good black soil, and from this we entered still another, very green and with good land well covered with grass. In the last valley we made camp near a hill which has two springs of water, one on one side of the hill which had about a limon [sic] of water, and one on the other side with about one finger of running water, from which, by digging it out a little, the animals could drink. Both springs are surrounded by Castilian roses, of which I gathered a branch with six roses open and twelve about to open. Right after this valley comes another, with a village of heathen. As soon as they saw the camp made, the whole village, which was composed of eight men, three women, and four children, came down. Their chief made us a harangue, and when it was concluded they sat down as though they had always known us. One of the heathen came smoking a pipe of black clay, well made. We called this place San Alejo.”

The trail then led by way of Agua Hedionda Creek, which they named San Simon Lipnica, still along the old El Camino Real. The valley is not far from shore, with an estuary at the end of it. After about two and a half miles of hills and mesas they descended into a small green valley with a narrow plain fifty yards wide, and camped on the west slope. There were several springs forming pools and marshes of reeds and grass. This is Buena Vista Creek, just north of Carlsbad, which they named Santa Sinforosa. They covered only about five miles altogether.

“At three in the afternoon we left the camp, following the valley in a northerly direction. In a little while we climbed a very grassy hill without rocks, in open country, then traveled over mesas that are in part covered with grass and in part by a grove of young oaks, rosemary, and other shrubs not known to us. Aside from this all the land is well covered with grass and is mellow. After traveling about a league we descended to a valley full of alders, in which we saw a village, but without people. In passing we named this valley San Simon Lipnica. It is not very far from the shore, and at the end of it we saw an estuary although the sea was not visible. We continued on our way in the same northerly direction, over hills and broad mesas supplied with good pasture, and after about one more league’s travel we descended to a small very green valley, which has a narrow plain some fifty varas wide. We pitched camp on the slope of the valley on the west side. The water is collected in pools, and we noticed that it flowed out of several springs, forming about it marshes, or stagnant pools, covered with rushes and grass. We named this place Santa Sinforosa.”

The next day’s march was only about five miles, and they came to a beautiful watering place previously located by the scouts. It was San Luis Rey Valley, to which they gave the name San Juan Capistrano. The San Luis Rey Mission was founded near the campsite several years later. This marks the end of the old El Camino Real in San Diego County.

On their way into the valley they left the country of the Diegueno Indians, who belonged to the Yuman tribes, and entered the territory of the Luisenos, who were of Shoshonean linguistic stock.

“A little after three in the afternoon we set out to the north. We climbed a hill of good soil, all covered with grass, and then went on over hills of the same kind of land and pasture. We must have traveled about two short leagues, when we descended to a large and beautiful valley, so green that it seemed to us that it had been planted. We crossed it straight to the north and pitched camp near a large pool of water, one of several in the plain. At the extremities or ends of the plain there are two large villages . . . This valley must be two leagues long from northeast to southwest, and about half a league wide in the narrowest place. To the southwest it ends on the beach, which must be half a league distant from the camp, although there is a hill which prevents us from seeing the ocean. We found no running water, although we saw three arroyos which are dry and apparently run only when it rains. There are, indeed, pools of good water, with tules on the banks. The valley is all green with good grass, and has many wild grapes, and one sees some spots that resemble vineyards. I gave this valley the name of San Juan Capistrano, for a mission, so that this glorious saint, who in life converted so many souls, may pray God in heaven for the conversion of these poor heathen.”

Crespi took a little time here to seek out the Indians. He showed them the image of Christ and tried to make them understand about the crucifixion and about heaven and hell. “They showed they understood some of it, and looked remorseful and sighed.” But the Indians refused to kiss the images, to the father’s disappointment.*

The Indian men were naked and painted, the women modestly covered, wearing a woven apron in front and a deerskin behind, with their breasts capped with little capes made of hare and rabbit skins. Crespi rather indignantly noted that “most of the women are clothed in this manner, but all the men go as naked as Adam in Paradise before he sinned, and they did not feel the least shame in presenting themselves before us, nor did they make any movement to cover themselves, just as though the clothing given them by nature were some fine garment.”

On Thursday, July 20th, they followed the valley north for a short time and then cut over the hills and mesas to reach the location of the old Home ranch on the Santa Margarita River near the present headquarters of Camp Pendleton. The site can be reached by following the highway from San Luis Rey and into the camp on Vandergrift Blvd. Camp Pendleton was once known as Santa Margarita y las Flores Rancho. Crespi describes the route and the camp:

“We set out about seven in the morning, which dawned cloudy, and, taking the road straight to the north, we traveled by a valley road about one league long, with good land, grassy, and full of alders. This passed, we ascended a little hill and entered upon some mesas covered with dry grass, in parts burned by the heathen for the purpose of hunting hares and rabbits, which live there in abundance. In some places there are clumps of wild prickly pear and some rosemary. One league and a half from the camping place we saw another beautiful green valley, well grown with alders and other smaller trees. On going down to it we saw a lagoon which the explorers said was salt water. We pitched camp in this valley near a pool of fresh water; the reason for stopping, although the march has only covered one league and a half, is because, since the departure from San Diego, we have had on the right a very high mountain range, and we are now apparently going to meet it, and it is necessary to explore it before crossing it for it seems as though it is going to end on the beach. The pool of water, which I just saw, is more than a hundred varas in length, and its water is very clear and good. Besides this one the explorers say that lower down in the arroyo from the north, there are some more pools, and that a good stream of water runs from them, and they have good lands on which crops might be raised by irrigation. According to this, the place is better suited for a town than the preceding. Because we arrived at this place on the day of Santa Margarita, we christened it with the name of this holy virgin and martyr.”

After traveling only two hours the next day along a route marked today by Basilone Road, they camped along Pulgas Creek in the heart of Camp Pendleton. On July 22nd, they kept along the Basilone Road route to where it turns west to San Onofre. Here, keeping north, they reached Christianitos Canyon just this side of the Orange County line. There is a historical monument at this point, at a spring in the canyon, which records the first baptisms in California. The Spanish called it the “Valley of Los Bautismos.” Crespi tells the story:

“This day dawned cloudy for us. About seven o’clock we set out west and climbed a grassy hill. In a little while we entered a valley which turned to the north-northwest, and which communicates with that of Los Rosales. We traveled in the mountains, for they are not rough but open, with hills and extensive mesas, covered with a great deal of grass and grown with live oaks and alders, especially in the little valleys and arroyos, with an abundance of Castilian roses. Three mesas covered with large live oaks were encountered. About eleven o’clock we came to a pool of water, after having traveled some four leagues from the preceding place. This pool of fresh water is in a dry arroyo, which is grown with many alders. We made camp near the pool, and immediately about fourteen heathen, and as many women, with boys and girls, came and showed themselves to be very friendly; we entertained them and made them gifts. The explorers (scouts) informed us that on the preceding day they saw in the village two sick little girls. After asking the commander for some soldiers to go with us to visit them we went, and found one which the mother had at her breast apparently dying. We asked for it, saying that we wished to see it, but it was impossible to get it from its mother. So we said to her by signs that we would not do it any harm, but wished to sprinkle its head so that if it died it might go to heaven. She consented to this, and my companion, Fray Francisco Gomez, baptized it, giving it the name of Maria Magdalena. We went to the other, also small, who had been burned and was apparently about to die. In the same way I baptized it, giving it the name of Margarita. We did not doubt that both would die and go to heaven. With this, the only success that we have obtained, we fathers consider well worth while the long journey and the hardships that are being suffered in it and that are still awaiting us. May it all be for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls. For this reason this place is known to the soldiers as Los Christianos; I named it San Apolinario; others called it Valley of Los Bautismos.”

The valley is little disturbed from the time of Portola. The Castilian rose still blooms there, as it did in the time of the first baptisms. This little rose, which they found all along their road to Monterey, and which grows from Baja California to Oregon, is not the true Rose of Castile, imported later from Spain but rosa californica, the little wild rose, pale-pink and sweet smelling. The explorers mentioned it many times, calling it the Rose of Castile because it reminded them of home.

Portola’s expedition was finding the journey easy and pleasant going. Now they walked, for a time, out of the history of San Diego County, to find hardships and disappointments. But back on Presidio Hill, an important chapter was being written, with only a handful of witnesses.