The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER EIGHT: Expeditions By Sea

Tragedy was to sail with the San Carlos, as it did with the San Antonio. She arrived at La Paz from Guaymas in a leaky condition and had to be careened and repaired, but in less than two weeks the work was done, the vessel loaded, and the troops taken aboard. Among those on the San Carlos were Vicente Vila, the captain and a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and an experienced mariner, who kept a diary or log of the voyage; Miguel Costanso, a cartographer who was to map the ports and lay out the royal presidio at Monterey; Fray Fernando Parron, chaplain from San Fernando College; Pedro Prat, army surgeon; Don Pedro Fages and his 25 Catalan soldiers; Don Jorge Estorace, mate; and 23 sailors, cabin boys, cooks, and blacksmiths — a total of 62 persons. San Diego is indebted to Vila and Costanso for a detailed story of the experiences and sufferings at the first little settlement to be founded here.

Fr. Palou describes the ceremonies before leaving for San Diego:

“Everything being ready for the voyage of this packet, which was going as flagship, his Illustrious Lordship (Galvez) set January 9th, 1769, for the departure. On that day all prepared themselves with the holy sacraments of confession and communion. After the conclusion of the Mass, all of those who were to sail being assembled, his Lordship made them a wise and tender speech, charging them with the affair in the name of God and the King and of their viceroy in New Spain. He said that he was sending them to raise among the heathen of San Diego and Monterey the standard of the Holy Cross, and that in order to facilitate and secure the desired end, he charged them to observe peace and harmony among themselves and obedience and respect to their superiors, especially the missionary father, Fray Fernando Parron, who was going for the consolation of everybody, and that they should heed him, love him, and respect him. This tender exhortation finished, they made their farewells, and the missionary father received the blessing of the reverend father president (Serra), who was present and pronounced a benediction on the ship and banners.”

Evidently it had been intended that the San Carlos and the San Antonio sail together. Storms interfered with their plans to rendezvous at San Bernabe Bay, and Galvez finally ordered the San Carlos to proceed by herself.

The voyage to San Diego took 110 days. They met with adverse winds, and because of leaking casks had to go to the coast to seek out water, and another time, buffeted by winds, were blown 200 leagues off their course. The haul up the coast always is difficult enough without extra troubles, as Costanso noted, “on account of the prevalence of north and northwest winds, which, with little interruption continue throughout the year and are directly contrary to the voyage, as the coast bears northwest to southeast.”

The ship’s log tells of the troubles that dogged her meandering course, and the effects of the spread of scurvy, that terrible enemy of seamen. Over a long period of time a diet deficient in ascorbic acid, or Vitamin C, which is found in fruit, green vegetables and fresh milk, will cause scurvy. The diet of sailors in those days consisted of biscuits and salt or dried meat. The effects of scurvy are bleeding gums, loosening and loss of teeth, ulcers of the limbs, anemia, and general debility increasing until death.

On January 22-23, it was noted that

“at four o’clock in the morning, Augustin Medina, a seaman, had his leg broken by the tiller. At seven in the morning, the caulker informed me that he had found in the pump the same three and a half inches of water that had been bailed out on the day before. It was found to be fresh water from the casks, as the staves were spreading with the violence of the constant pitching … On April 18-19: At one o’clock in the afternoon, Fernando Alvarez, the boatswain’s second mate and coxswain of the launch, died … On April 23-24: On this day the sick and those who had not yet fulfilled their religious duties confessed and received the sacrament. At six o’clock in the evening the pilot, Manuel Reyes, died … at eight in the morning, the body of Reyes was cast overboard.”

One of the difficulties accounting for the long time it took to reach San Diego was in finding the port, as the latitudes given by the explorers so many years before were far from exact. The ships made landfalls near San Pedro instead of San Diego, as Vizcaino had placed San Diego at 33 0 30′ N. Latitude, while the entrance to the bay is at 32′ 40′ N. Latitude.

The San Antonio, a smaller ship than the San Carlos, was loaded at San Blas and sailed from San Bernabe Bay near the end of January, placed under the protection of St. Anthony of Padua. Aboard were Capt. Don Juan Perez, former master of the Manila Galleon; Miguel del Pino, mate; Frs. Juan Vizcaino and Francisco Gomez; subaltern officers, carpenters -and blacksmiths for the settlements, and sailors, the total numbering possibly twenty-eight. No log of this journey has ever been found, though the diary of Fr. Vizcaino has been privately published.

The crew and passengers of the San Antonio also suffered from scurvy on the winter journey that took 54 days, and they also were unable at first to locate the harbor of San Diego, which Vizcaino had described as surely the best in all of the South Sea. The ship wandered among the Channel Islands for a time and then put back south and finally entered the port on April 11, 1769, the first ship known to visit here in 167 years. The San Carlos, which had left long before her, was nowhere to be seen.

Despair was beginning to overtake those on board the San Carlos when, on April 28, a fog lifted and to the south of them they sighted the Coronado Islands, which they recognized from the descriptions of the Vizcaino expedition. In his log, Vila reported with obvious relief that they “are the best and surest marks for making the port of San Diego which is situated about five and a half or six leagues due north of these islands.”

That afternoon, about 4 o’clock, the San Carlos began working her way toward the harbor entrance, and Vila’s report noted that

“at this place we began to enter a kelp-field with thick patches of seaweed. When the packet had been under way for more than two knots, she stopped almost still and did not answer the helm. I sounded until we had passed it completely, hauling very close to the point in 14 and 15 fathoms.”

At five o’clock, the San Carlos passed into the channel and discovered the packet San Antonio anchored at Point Guijarros, or Cobblestone Point, now known as Ballast Point, and “we broke out our colors. She broke out hers and fired one gun to call her launch which was ashore.” The San Carlos anchored in the channel, and

“at eight o’clock at night the launch of the San Antonio came with her second in command and pilot, Don Miguel del Pino, who gave us an account of her voyage. She arrived at this port on the eleventh of April, with half of her crew down with scurvy, of which two men died. They had only seven men who came in the launch fit for work; of these a few felt symptoms of the disease. Capt. Juan Perez was also in poor health, and only the two missionaries were well.”

Because of tides, calms and adverse winds, it wasn’t until the second day that the San Carlos was able to move up and drop anchor alongside the San Antonio. All were thankful for their reunion amid so much sickness and suffering and for the opportunity for rest and fresh water.

San Diego Bay was quite different in those days, as a map made by Vila shows. The San Diego River in periods of heavy runoff spread out over wide, marshy flatlands between Point Loma and Old Town. The main channel swept around the base of Presidio Hill and turned due south to empty into the bay. The east shore line of the bay was about where Pacific Highway is today. Costanso’s narrative refers to a lagoon into which the river emptied, which must have been formed by sandbars from silt carried down by river floods. Crespi remarks on the large river that ran through the valley, describing it as six or eight varas, or yards, wide and about a half a vara in depth, “but it went on diminishing from day to day, so that in three weeks after our arrival it entirely stopped flowing and there was left only water in pools.”

The first task for crew members of the two ships who were still able to walk was to find a good source of fresh water. In this, they had the cooperation of the still friendly Diegueno Indians, descendants of the same tribes who had greeted Cabrillo 257 years earlier. Costanso’s descriptive and revealing narrative says:

“The first task was to look for a watering place where a supply of good water could be obtained to fi11 the barrels for the use of the men. For this purpose, the officers, Don Pedro Fages, Don Miguel Costanso, and the second captain of the San Carlos, Don Jorge Estorace, landed on the 1st of May, with 25 of the soldiers and seamen who were best able to endure the fatigue. Skirting the western shore of the port, they observed at a short distance, a band of Indians armed with bows and arrows, to whom they made signs by means of white cloths, hailing them in order to obtain information. But the Indians, regulating their pace according to that of our men, would not, for more than half an hour, let themselves be overtaken. Nor was it possible for our men to make greater speed because they were weak, and after so long a sea voyage had, as it were, lost the use of their legs.

“The Indians stopped from time to time on some height to watch our men, showing the fear which the strangers caused them, by what they did to conceal it: they stuck one end of their bows into the ground, and holding the other end, danced and whirled around it with incredible swiftness. But the moment they saw our men at hand, they took to flight with the same agility. At last we succeeded in attracting them by sending toward them a soldier, who, upon laying his arms on the ground and making gestures and signs of peace, was allowed to approach. He made them some presents, and meanwhile the others reached the Indians, and completely reassured them by giving them more presents of ribbons, glass beads, and other trifles. When asked by signs where the watering-place was, the Indians pointed to a grove which could be seen at a considerable distance to the northeast, giving to understand that a river or creek flowed through it, and that they would lead our men to it if they would follow.” [for more, see “Costanso’s Narrative of the Portola Expedition” under Translations]

They walked for about three leagues till they came to the banks of a river lined on both sides with overspreading cottonwoods of heavy foliage. Its bed was about 20 yards wide, and it emptied into a lagoon which at high tide could accommodate the launch, and afforded a convenient place to obtain water. In the grove there was a variety of shrubs and sweet-smelling plants, such as rosemary, sage, Castilian rose, and above all, an abundance of wild grape-vines, which at that time were in flower. The country was of pleasing aspect, and the land in the neighborhood of the river appeared of excellent soil capable of producing all sorts of fruits. The river came down from some very high mountains through a wide canyon (Mission Valley), which ran into the interior in an easterly and northeasterly direction.

“Within a musket-shot from the river, outside the wood, they discovered a town or village of the same Indians who were guiding our men. It was composed of various shelters made of branches, and huts, pyramidal in shape, covered with earth. As soon as they saw their companions with the company which they were bringing, all the inhabitants — men, women, and children — came out to receive them, and invited the strangers to their houses. The women were modestly dressed, covered from the waist to the knee with a close-woven, thick, netted fabric. The Spaniards entered the town which was composed of from thirty to forty families. On one side of it there was observed an enclosure made of branches and trunks of trees, in which, they explained, they took refuge to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemies, as it is an impregnable fortification against such arms as are in use among them. These natives are well-built, healthy and active. They go naked without other clothing than a belt — woven like a net — of ixtle, or very fine agave thread, which they obtain from a plant called lechuguilla. Their quivers, which they stick between the belt and the body, are made of the skin of the wildcat, coyote, wolf, or deer, and their bows are two yards long. In addition to these arms, they use a sort of throwing-stick of very hard wood, similar in form to a short curved sabre which they throw edge-wise, cutting the air with great force. They throw it farther than a stone, and never go into the surrounding country without it. When they see a snake or other noxious animal, they throw the throwing-stick at it, and generally cut the animal in two.”

As the Spaniards learned afterwards from their continued intercourse with the natives,

“they are of an overbearing disposition, insolent, covetous, tricky, and boastful; and although they have little courage, they boast much of their strength and consider the strongest to be the most valiant. They beg for any rag of clothing; but after different ones on successive occasions had been clothed, on the following day they again presented themselves naked … Fish constitutes the principal food of the Indians who inhabit the shore of this port, and they consume much shell-fish because of the greater ease they have in procuring them. They use rafts made of reeds, which they manage dexterously by means of a paddle or double-bladed oar. Their harpoons are several yards long, and the point is a very sharp bone inserted in the wood; they are so adroit in throwing this weapon that they very seldom miss their mark.”

Having examined the watering-place, the Spaniards returned to their ships, but, on account of the condition of the crews, Vila reluctantly issued orders that the San Antonio was to remain at San Diego, instead of going on to Monterey, and that both ships should proceed into the inner harbor and anchor nearer a source of water in order to lighten the work of handling the launch and landing the sick. There they would await the arrival of the land expeditions or the arrival of the San Jose, the little supply ship that never came.

Vila’s diary makes clear that the first camp of white men was established on the east shore of the bay, and not on Point Loma as has previously been believed. Its exact location wasn’t stated but from evidence in the diaries of the explorers who arrived overland, the camp must have been about a league, or three miles, south of Presidio Hill and thus somewhere near Laurel Street on a hillock east of Pacific Highway.

Vila’s journal is almost an epic of tragedy. His diary takes up the return to the ship of the first exploring party, and the move deeper into the bay, a physical ordeal which required four days:

“From Monday, 1, to Tuesday, May 2 – At sunset, the sky and horizon were obscured by so dense a fog that I was afraid that the launch might lose her way, and in order to help her I had to make repeated signals with gunshots and cannon, and with a lantern at the flagstaff, and to ring the ship’s-bell. It was evident from the shots they fired from time to time that the men in the launch were desirous of this.

“At nine o’clock at night she hauled alongside, luckily. The laymen and the missionaries on board of her explained that they had walked about three leagues along the shore, and at that distance they had come upon an Indian village on the banks of a river of excellent water … At five o’clock in the morning, I weighed anchor, and with the launch of the San Antonio out ahead I took advantage of the rising tide to penetrate farther into the harbor. At half-past seven, I anchored in seven fathoms. Muddy black sand. The tide was already running out.

“From Tuesday, 2, to Wednesday, May 3. — At half-past twelve, the seabreeze changed to SSW, moderate. The tide had already lost its force at flood. Accordingly I weighed anchor and, with the launch out forward and under the jib, I stood inside in order to approach the river or watering-place as nearly as possible.

“At half-past four in the afternoon, after reconnoitering and finding that the harbor extended inland toward the SE more than four leagues, and that the watering-place still lay on my port quarter with no channel to approach it on account of the keys and sand banks extending seaward, I brought out the grapnel to the SE, on account of the tide, and ordered soundings taken of the bank lying toward the watering-place, in order to see if there were any channel, but none was found. I sent the launch to theSan Antonio with my two seamen who were well and eight soldiers that Don Pedro Fages had detailed to help along the work of raising the anchor, and of making the vessel fast near us for the sake of mutual service and help.

“From Wednesday, 3, to Thursday, May 4 — At half-past one in the afternoon, theSan Antonio weighed, and at three o’clock, anchored. At five o’clock in the afternoon, several soldiers with Fray Fernando Parron, Don Pedro Fages, and Don Jorge Estorace went off in the launch to bury the dead seamen ashore. At sunset, they returned aboard. At eleven o’clock in the morning, the San Antonio weighed anchor, and as she passed alongside, her captain shouted that she was going to tie up as near the watering-place as possible, as we had agreed. At twelve o’clock, she anchored a full gunshot from the beach. The sick showed no improvement.

“From Thursday, 4, to Friday, May 5 — At five o’clock in the afternoon, the launch came from the San Antonio with the two missionary fathers and Don Miguel del Pino; the latter told me on behalf of Don Juan Perez that in the place where they had anchored there was a good anchorage, free from swells, currents, and surf. In virtue of this information I bade him tell Don Juan Perez to send me the launch at dawn to help me weigh anchor.

“At sunrise, the launch came with one man less. He had fallen ill that night. I raised the grapnel, hove the anchor apeak, hauled out and raised the topsails, and at half-past seven made sail. At ten o’clock in the morning, I anchored astern of the San Antonio, at a distance of a full cable’s-length, in two fathoms of water. Sand. I furled the topsails, ran out the grapnel to the north, and, at noon, was fast, lying NW and SE. The wind continued from the south.

“From Friday, 5, to Saturday, May 6 — After twelve o’clock I sent back the launch with orders to her men to return under arms at two o’clock in the afternoon to make a reconnaisance by sea of the river-mouths, along with Lieutenant Pedro Fages, and to prepare a few shelters on shore where we could place the sick. The wind continued at south.

“At three o’clock in the afternoon, four of the least ailing seamen, Don Pedro Fages, and several armed soldiers, embarked in the launch. The launch of the San Antonio, with her captain and several soldiers, went around to reconnoiter to the SE, in which direction the port extended.

“At sunset, the launches, with all the men, returned. Don Pedro Fages had found by examination of the river-mouths that at high tide the launch could enter quite easily to fi11 the casks. The construction of the shelters was postponed until the following morning. At six o’clock in the morning, a Philippine seaman, named Agustin Fernandez de Medina, died.

“At eight o’clock in the morning, the launch of the San Antonio put off with Don Pedro Fages, Don Miguel Costanso, Fray Juan Vizcaino, and the soldiers who were best able, in order to set about the construction of the shelters.

“From Saturday, 6, to Sunday, May 7 — The day was foggy and drizzly with the wind at south. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the wind shifted to NW. At sunset, the launch returned with the missionary and the officers. They had decided to build the shelters for the sick on a hillock close to the beach and a cannon-shot from the packets. To this end they had gathered a quantity of brushwood and earth to make roofs for those who were to be placed in the shelters … At half-past ten in the morning, the launch went ashore with the officers and the missionary to take charge of the building of the quarters. No improvement among the sick.

“From Sunday, 7, to Monday, May 8 — The sky continued cloudy, with the wind at south. At sunset, the launch returned alongside with those that she had taken ashore. The night passed without event, and at ten o’clock in the morning, the launch went ashore with the officers, soldiers, and seamen who were fit for work. We saw many painted Indians with bows and arrows on shore in various places to the north and south. At sunset, the launch returned alongside. The sick continue without relief.

“From Monday, 8, to Tuesday, May 9 — The day was foggy, with unsteady catspaws between south and NW. At eight o’clock in the morning, the launch went ashore. In her there were shipped two cannon from the packet’s equipment with their carriages and everything needed to handle them, two boxes of cartridges for the aforesaid cannon, a supply of muskets with a bag of bullets of all calibers for grape-shot, eight day’s supply of corn, pulse, and jerked beef for the soldiers in the garrison on shore and hard-tack from the cabin to be used in soups for the sick.

“After the completion of the lodgings and shelters, the disembarking of the sick was begun and at four o’clock in the afternoon they were all ashore; I remained on board with the quartermaster, who was extremely ill, a Galician seaman, and a little cabin-boy who also had touches of the disease. I was unable to walk, and Fray Fernando Parron also was ill. Several Indians and Indian women came to the lodgings as on the day before.

“The weather continued foggy and cool; the wind from the south and SW. No improvement among the sick.

“From Tuesday, 9, to Wednesday, May 10 — The weather was foggy and cool; the wind from south to west.

“Today I set up the guns from the ship, pointing them from both sides of the lodgings, so that they could be used to protect the men on shore. At eight o’clock in the morning, I sent the launch ashore with the mizzen and spritsails, to construct another shelter in which to put ten sick men from the packet San Antonio.

“At ten o’clock, I despatched the said packet’s launch with my mate, Don Jorge Estorace, and several casks to take water. Don Pedro Fages, of his own accord, sent several soldiers ashore to help this work along and to act as guard for the launch.

“This same day four soldiers fell sick, and Don Miguel Costanso told me that only eight men fit for any work were left on shore. The day was cool and chilly; the wind raw from west and NW. At two o’clock in the afternoon, a cabin-boy named Manuel Sanchez died. At one o’clock at night, the launch returned with ten casks of water. At eight o’clock in the morning, a Philippine sailor named Matheo Francisco died. At eleven o’clock in the morning, the launch again put off to go to the river in search of water. The sick without any improvement whatever.

“From Thursday, 11, to Friday, May 12 — The wind continued cold and raw from west and NW. For this reason I determined not to order the seamen from the packet San Antonio who were ill to be put ashore. At two o’clock in the morning, the launch returned with ten casks of water. No improvement was found in the sick.” [for more, see “Diary of Vicente Villa” under Translations]

The two ships were lying near the present edge of the tidelands enclosed by Harbor Drive, and thus protected by North Island from the effects of sea and wind. Costanso says the camp was enclosed by a parapet of earth and brushwood, and sails and awnings were landed to make hospital tents and to provide accommodations for the officers:

“These measures, however, were not sufficient to restore their health; for medicines and fresh food, most of which had been used up during the voyage, were wanting. The surgeon, Don Pedro Prat, supplied this want as far as possible, with some herbs which he sought with much trouble in the fields and whose properties he knew. He himself needed them as much as his patients, for he was all but prostrated by the same disease as they. In the barracks the cold made itself severely felt at night, and the sun by day — extremes which caused the sick to suffer cruelly. Every day, two or three of them died and the whole expedition, which had been composed of more than ninety men, was reduced to only eight soldiers and as many sailors who were in a condition to assist in guarding the ships, handling the launches, protecting the camp, and waiting upon the sick. Nothing had been heard of the land-expedition.”

Nothing had been heard, either, of the third vessel, the San Jose, which was to join the other two at San Diego. She was built by order of Galvez at San Blas, as a supply ship, and, after being loaded on the coast of Sonora with corn, beans and peas, she sailed for Loreto and took on dried meat, fish, figs, raisins, brandy, wine, cloth, vestments, and three steeple bells for the new California missions. How much these things would have meant to those at San Diego! She hoisted sail for San Diego on June 16th, but in three months was back in the port of Escondido, Oaxaca, with a broken foremast. After repairs at San Blas, she was re-cargoed at Cape San Lucas and again put out for San Diego, almost a year later, in May of 1770. Her failure to arrive was to cause continued hardships at San Diego.