The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER ELEVEN: The Cross Is Raised

Early in the morning of July 16, 1769, two days after the departure of the expedition to Monterey, a little band of men gathered halfway up the sloping side of Presidio Hill in Old Town. Below them was the quiet, sheltering bay of San Diego. Beyond that was the vast ocean that had proved to be such a cruel and tyrannical master. Behind them stretched a seemingly endless, rising flow of green hills and blue mountains, of which they knew nothing. Watching them from various points of vantage were suspicious and increasingly resentful Indians who were beginning to dimly realize that their world was coming to an end.

A crude cross was raised on the site chosen for the first mission in California, and Serra sang High Mass and preached a sermon in honor of the occasion. His words have not come down to us, as he was too harassed in those trying days to keep up with his diary, but he certainly asked for courage and strength to meet the trials ahead and expressed thanks for the opportunity of offering their lives in the service of God.

The first chapel was built of wooden stakes, with tule reeds for roofing. It was named Mission San Diego de Alcala, after St. Didacus of Alcala, whose name was first given to San Diego by the explorer Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. St. Didacus was a Franciscan friar who was sainted by Pope Sixtus V in 1588.

Serra knew, however, that others would follow and that some day there would be missions stretching all the way up New California, which the missionaries had wanted to christianize for more than a hundred years. “Above all,” he wrote, “let those who are to come here as missionaries not imagine that they are coming for any other purpose but to endure hardships for the love of God and for the salvation of souls, for in far-off places such as these, where there is no way for the old missions to help the new ones because of the great distance between them, the presence of pagans, and the lack of communication by sea, it will be necessary in the beginning to suffer many real privations. However, all things are sweet to a lover.”

Trouble was not long in coming. The Indians were treated with kindness and given gifts, but with their original curiosity satisfied, they began to press in on the white invaders. They became insolent, pestering the sick at night, craftily watching the burials of those who died of scurvy, and mimicking the sounds of guns. They stole anything they could find, being especially fond of cloth, and on one occasion went out to the San Carlos on rafts and tried to steal the sails. Guards had to be placed on the ship and two others always accompanied the fathers when they went aboard to say Mass.

As the Spaniards died one by one from the effects of the lingering scurvy, the Indians became emboldened by the diminishing strength of the garrison, and it soon became evident that an attack of some kind was imminent. The hour of peril that came on August 15th is described by Serra.

“When these natives, with whom the soldiers from the very beginning showed much familiarity, noticed how small our numbers were, and that we were continually burying a great number, and that many besides were prostrate in bed, on the Assumption Day of Our Blessed Lady, they imagined they could kill us all very easily. The more so when out of our very limited number they saw four going to the beach to change escort and bring back Father Fernando. He had gone on the preceding Saturday to say Mass for those on the boat. They broke in all of a sudden; and the only four soldiers present, seeing their ugly mood, immediately snatched up their arms. The fight was on. There were wounded both on our side and theirs. The one worst hurt was a young Spanish lad from the diocese of Guadalajara. He came to me in Loreto to be my servant on the road, and to be with me wherever I should be established. At the first shot he darted into my hut, spouting so much blood at the mouth and from his temples, that I had hardly time to absolve him and help him to meet his end. This came in less than a quarter of an hour. He expired on the ground before me bathed in his own blood. And so I was quite a while with him there dead, and my little apartment a pool of blood. Still the exchange of shots – bullets and arrows – went on. There were only four on our side against more than twenty on theirs. And there I was with the dead man, thinking it most probable I would soon have to follow him, but at the same time praying to God that the victory would be for our Catholic Faith without losing a single soul. And so it turned out, thank God, for seeing many of their companions covered with blood, they all fled.”

The boy who died was Jose Maria Vergerano, an arrow piercing his throat. Three Indians were killed and a number were wounded, two later dying. This fact either was kept from Serra or else he chose to ignore it, as in his correspondence he mentioned he did not believe any Indians had been killed. Serra came to convert, not to kill. Death was not important.

Fr. Vizcaino, a blacksmith named Chacon, and a Christian Indian who came with them from San Ignacio Mission were wounded, although not seriously. An arrow went through a carpet which had been hung up and struck Vizcaino in the hand, splinters piercing two fingers. The soldiers also may have been hurt, but the records are not clear and reports of the incident, mostly written long afterward, vary. One version is that the fight started when Indians tried to snatch sheets from the beds of the sick.

After the battle, the Spanish soldiers built a stockade of poles around the mission building and forbade the Indians to enter. The latter quieted down for a time but would not yield to conversion, to Serra’s great disappointment. Seemingly, almost in desperation, he took a child and attempted to baptize it, but the parents snatched it back amid the jeers and laughter of the Indians.

The three fathers, however, largely were occupied with the problems of the sick and with bare survival. Eight more Catalan volunteers, four more soldiers, one servant and six more faithful Baja California Indians died of scurvy and were buried. The San Jose was given up for lost.

Meanwhile, the courageous and unhappy Portola was struggling northward in California toward the port of Monterey, which Sebastian Vizcaino had described with such exaggeration, seeing nothing on the way, he reported, except rocks, brushwood and rugged mountains covered with snow. Portola reached the area of the bay in thirty-eight days, but, as it did not come up to Vizcaino’s description, he went on. With a sinking feeling, the Spaniards on October 31st sighted Port Reyes and the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, landmarks easily recognizable from earlier maps. They knew they had gone past the port of Monterey. Before turning back, a band of hunters went into the hills and from the top of one caught sight of an arm of the sea running inland to the southeast. The next day a scouting expedition under Sgt. Ortega came to the shore of San Francisco Bay, which Crespi noted was large enough to hold all the ships in Europe. None of the early explorers had reported such a harbor, and Portola failed to appreciate the significance of his discovery. To him it was only another barrier in his search for Monterey. “In this confusion and distress, friend, not under compulsion from the Russians but from keen hunger which was wearing us out,” Portola notes, “we decided to return to San Diego.” They speculated that perhaps the bay had filled with sand.

They began the long trek back:

“In order that we might not die meanwhile, I ordered that at the end of each day’s march, one of the weak old mules which carried our baggage and ourselves should be killed. The flesh we roasted or half-fried in a fire made in a hole in the ground. The mule thus being prepared without a grain of salt or seasoning – for we had none – we shut our eyes and fell to on that skinny mule (what misery!) like hungry lions.”

Costanso tells that as they approached San Diego they began to wonder about the conditions they would find at the new settlement they had left six months before.

“Each one discussed the meeting according to his temperament and the mood affecting him. Some, seeing things in a favorable light, expected to find them there in every comfort and help, others grieved, considering its weak state and the few resources we had left them. In truth, all of us were returning with a misgiving lest, through the continued force of the maladies and mortality among the people, the settlement had become a place of solitude. On the other hand, there was every reason to fear the evil disposition of the natives of San Diego, whose greediness to rob can only be restrained by superior power and authority, and we feared lest they dared to commit some outrage against the mission and its small garrison.”

The seventy-four man expedition emerged from Rose Canyon on January 24, 1770. They found the three missionary fathers well and those who had survived recovering from injuries and scurvy. When Portola said he couldn’t find Monterey, Serra rebuked him with a remark, “You come from Rome without having seen the Pope.” Serra and Vila realized from Portola’s descriptions that he actually had reached Monterey but had failed to recognize it. There was more distress, too, for Serra. He learned that Crespi and Gomez had baptized two Indian girls at Christianitos Canyon, the first baptismal ceremony in California. Serra was to recall with unhappiness to his dying day that he had not been the one to perform it.

The shortage of food was more critical than ever. For several more months they waited, subsisting on geese, fish, and other food brought by the Indians in exchange for clothing. Portola complained that some of the soldiers were left with hardly enough to cover their backs. Though they planted a small quantity of corn which grew well, the birds ate most of it.

Portola decided to send Captain Rivera down the peninsula for more cattle and a pack train of supplies. Rivera departed on February 10th with some of the soldiers, thereby partially alleviating the drain on the scanty food supply. There are conflicting reports of Portola’s attitude on San Diego. Constanso says that Rivera went because Portola was determined to hold the port lest he incur discredit by abandoning it. Palou says that Portola was in favor of giving it up but was restrained by the pleas of Serra. Serra himself notes: “There is even talk of abandonment and suppression of my poor little mission in San Diego. May God avert such a tragedy.”

However, in conversation with Serra, Portola set a deadline, resolving that, if on the day of St. Joseph, March 19th, a bark did not arrive with help, the expedition should leave the next day because “there were not enough provisions to wait longer and the men had not come to perish from hunger.”

Palou says that “from the very first moment when the governor made public the fact that the expedition would return to Old California in the event that no ship had arrived by March 19th, hardly any other topic of conversation but that of the return trip was heard in San Diego … All these conversations and preparations were as so many arrows that pierced the fervent heart of our venerable Father President.”

Serra felt that if the port were to be abandoned, centuries might pass before it could be settled again, and this brought forth his own resolution to remain in California, even if the rest of the expedition should return. To this end, he invited his former pupil, Crespi, to remain with him. The latter gratefully complied. Vila also confided to Serra his intention to keep the San Carlos in San Diego harbor, as he thought the port could be held.

It was now well into March, and they had no way of knowing whether help was actually on the way or whether they had been abandoned by those for whom they had endured so much. The San Antonio, of course, was on her way back up the coast.

But what had happened to the San Jose? Reloaded at San Blas and San Lucas, she had swung around the cape for the run to San Diego. In a month she was back once more, this time for more water. She sailed again in May of 1770 and vanished. Moreover, the San Antonio had instructions to by-pass San Diego and proceed directly to Monterey, on the assumption that Portola and Serra already had established a colony and mission there as planned.

Serra proposed to Portola that all should make a novena, a nineday devotion, in honor of St. Joseph, who was the patron saint of the expedition, and it was begun in time to have the closing on this feast day, March 19th. But it seemed that all was to no avail. The morning of the feast brought no sighting of a ship. Portola and his men completed their preparations to leave for Velicata. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the sails of a ship were discernible on the distant horizon. The ship went right past the entrance to the bay, but somehow all felt that their troubles were over. Portola postponed his departure. Four days later, the San Antonio entered the harbor of San Diego. On her way to Monterey she had lost an anchor near Point Conception, and crewmen going ashore for fresh water learned from friendly Indians that the expedition which had gone north had long since turned back for San Diego. Perez decided to go directly to San Diego to obtain an anchor from the San Carlos, which he knew was still in the bay. Although the San Antonio again had lost most of her crew from scurvy, she brought the corn, flour and rice which meant salvation for the presidio and city of San Diego. The cost had been terrible, but it was small in comparison to the great things that lay ahead.

All of the principal participants testify in their reports, diaries and correspondence to the events on Presidio Hill preceding the arrival of the San Antonio. Crespi writes: “Nine days before the feast of the most holy patron of both expeditions of sea and land, the glorious patriarch St. Joseph, all began to participate in a novena imploring the intercession of divine aid, and on the very day of the feast, March 19th, on which a high mass had been sung, a sermon preached, and at which many confessions were heard, and communions received, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, we saw outside of our desired port a ship that was coming supplied with every kind of provision.” Forever after, Serra celebrated a high mass on the 19th of every month, in honor of the saving of San Diego and the first mission in California.