The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER NINE: Expeditions By Land

The expeditions to San Diego by land were to find their journey much easier. Capt. Rivera, after gathering animals and supplies from the missions on the route north along the trail first explored by Fr. Link, arrived at Santa Maria Mission, the last outpost of the existing mission system, in December, and not finding enough pasturage there made camp about forty miles northwest at Velicata. This became an important post on what later was known as the Pacific Trail, connecting the later Dominican coastal missions. Velicata is about 270 miles south of San Diego, but, by a road twisting over a great part of upper Baja California, it is about 360 miles.

When Fr. Crespi arrived, the expedition was ready to start. Besides Capt. Rivera and Fr. Crespi, there were Juan Canizares, engineer, 25 leatherjackets from the presidio of Loreto, three muleteers, and between forty-four and fifty-two Indians, of whom most deserted or died on the march to San Diego. On March 24th, Good Friday, with a pack train of 180 mules, the members of the expedition turned their faces north and began the long march. Fr. Crespi noted in his diary: “The country continues like the rest of California, sterile, arid, lacking grass and water, and abounding in stones and thorns.”

They slowly worked their way northward, staying fairly close to the coast, though the death of a number of Indian helpers and the gradual disappearance of many others during the night caused anxiety and increasing difficulties with the pack train. They encountered many Indian tribes and settlements, but only on one occasion were they threatened, a few arrows falling harmlessly at their feet.

Forty-six days after leaving Velicata they descended into a deep green valley thick with Indian houses and got the first indications that their journey was drawing to an end. This was near the present village of San Miguel, just north of Ensenada. The date was May 9th. Fr. Crespi’s diary noted that the moment the Indians “saw us they broke into an uproar, all coming out of their houses and running to some knolls, most of them not stopping until they reached a hill on the other side of the valley.” The lure of gifts restored confidence and “the Indians told us, as we understood perfectly by signs, that they had seen two barks pass by, and that they were not far away.”

The next day they arrived in sight of another valley as green and pleasant as the one they had just left, at what is now Descanso, Baja California, and found themselves surrounded by so many naked and painted Indians they were unable to count them:

“They apparently belonged to four villages, for we observed that four of them, who were doubtless captains or chiefs, made us long speeches, of which we understood nothing, although we inferred from their signs that they offered themselves and their lands to us. We understood also, the same as from the preceding village, that they had seen two barks, and that they were anchored. They also spoke of the people who had come in them, and said that there were three fathers who wore the same dress as I, pointing to me and taking hold of my habit.”

On May 12th, they crossed over to the coast, near the present Tahiti Beach, halfway between Rosarito Beach and the border, where they could see the Coronado Islands, and finding a pool of fresh water named it the Pool of the Holy Martyrs. The next morning, because of cliffs on the beach, they cut back up onto the mesa west of Tijuana and soon saw

“in a long stretch the level shore that we were to follow, all the land being well covered with green grass. From a height on this plain we could see that the ocean enters far into the land. In the bay we saw the mainmasts of the two barks, which were scarcely to be made out on account of the distance we were still away from them. This sight was a great consolation and a joy for everybody, for we found ourselves at last so near the desired harbor of San Diego.”

Three hours of marching brought them to a populous Indian village along which ran “a good arroyo of water,” the Tia Juana River, and Fr. Crespi named the village Sancti Spiritus. There they remained overnight, soaked by rain, and, departing on Sunday morning, May 14th, despite more showers, continued north over the broad plain of the South Bay area, withdrawing a little from the shore for fear that there might be marshes. Indians were everywhere. Thus they circled the southern and eastern shores of San Diego Bay, and in a march of six and a half hours drew near the camp which had been set up by those who had come on the San Carlos and the San Antonio.

“As soon as we descried the camp the soldiers discharged their guns, giving a salute, and immediately those who were in the camp, as well as those on the packets, responded with their artillery and firearms. Immediately the three fathers who had come in the barks, and also the officers who were on the land, came to meet us and gave us hearty embraces and congratulations that we were now all united in this port of San Diego.”

They were the first white men to reach San Diego by land. Though they had suffered deprivations, arriving weary and emaciated, they had walked the distance with less trouble than coming by sea. Costanso tells how the weary marchers rested, and then how the camp was moved nearer the river. Thus Presidio Hill became the site of the first Royal Presidio in California and eventually the site of the first little mission.

Presidio Hill rose from a fairly wooded area and the Indian village called Cosoy actually was a collection of huts scattered among the trees. Fire pits have been excavated on Presidio Hill and mortars and pestles found on the golf course just below it.

“The whole land expedition arrived without having lost a single man or even carrying one sick person after a journey of two months, although they were on half rations, and with no more provisions than three sacks of flour, of which each man received two cakes for his entire day’s ration. They rested on that day near the camp of the sick, and were supplied with food to recover their strength. The officers resolved to move the camp close to the river, which had not been done before because it was not deemed advisable to divide the small force they had for the protection at once of the vessels and of the people lodged on the shore; at the same time, the greater convenience of a shorter distance for the transportation had to be taken into consideration, in order not to tire unduly the men who were handling the launch, as the want of beasts of burden obliged them to carry on their shoulders everything that was brought on shore. All moved to the new camp which was transferred one league farther north on the right bank of the river, on a hill of moderate height (Presidio Hill) where it was possible to attend with greater care to the sick, whom the surgeon, Don Pedro Prat, did not leave for a moment and nursed with the utmost kindness. Seeing, however, that they did not improve, and that the contingency would arise in which the two packets would find it impossible to leave the port for want of seamen, they thought seriously of dispatching one of them to San Blas with letters to inform the viceroy and the inspector-general of the condition of both expeditions. Don Juan Perez, Captain of the Principe ncipe (or San Antonio) was appointed for this purpose, Don Vicente Vila deciding to remain at San Diego till he received new orders and the re-enforcements necessary to carry out whatever his superiors might determine. The packet San Antonio was … unloaded. Part of the cargo was transferred to the camp … and the remainder was put on board the San Carlos. The ship was made ready.”

“Always go forward; never turn back.” This is the creed by which Fr. Serra lived. And on Tuesday, March 28th, long past his physical prime and with a painfully infected leg, he mounted a decrepit burro, and, accompanied only by a faithful servant and a soldier guard, set out on the first leg of his long journey leading to San Diego. He had been at Loreto a year, and though his needs were slight he noted in his diary that “from my mission of Loreto I took along no more provisions for so long a journey than a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese, for I was there a whole year, in economic matters, as a mere guest to receive the crumbs of the royal soldier commissioner, whose liberality at my departure did not extend beyond the aforementioned articles.” What a start for so great an adventure!

He went first to the nearby Mission San Javier, where he met his friend Fr. Palou, who supplied him with more provisions and the first articles for the new California missions, a silver-plated chalice, a small bronze bell, a new chasuble of cloth of gold and a used red one, and a few other necessary church goods. Seeing Fr. Serra’s condition, Fr. Palou offered to go in his place.

“When I saw the wound and swelling of his foot and leg, I could not restrain my tears, when I considered how much he would have to suffer traveling over the very rough and arduous roads known to exist up to the frontier, as well as those still unknown and later to be found, with no other physician and surgeon with him but the Divine Healer.”

But his pleadings were to no avail, and Fr. Serra pushed his tired burro on the hard trail to the frontier mission of Santa Maria, 200 miles north, where he met Capt. Portola on May 5th.

Capt. Portola has been criticized for some of his actions, or lack of them, but he had more than his share of troubles. A sympathetic man, things sometimes came hard for him. In his own narrative he recalls his sadness at the stripping of the missions to supply the expedition:

“While I was passing, my friend, through the missions established by the Jesuits to that one on the frontier named Santa Maria, we experienced no hardships worth mentioning, neither I nor my companions; for, in addition to the fact that we took from the presidio vegetables and delicacies, in exchange for the lamentations of the settlers, we were fortunate enough to be able to sleep under roofs, and make the march with some comfort. In consideration of the great deserts into which I was going, and of the Russian hunger with which I foresaw we were going to contend, I was obliged to seize everything I saw as I passed through these poor missions, leaving them, to my keen regret … scantily provided for . . .”

Meanwhile Father Serra and Portola moved on to Velicata. The new Mission San Fernando was formally founded; a cross was raised and bells were hung. Here, for the first time, Serra encountered truly primitive Indians untouched by civilization. In his diary he writes of them:

May 15: “It was for me a day of great rejoicing, because just after the Masses, while I was praying, retired inside of the little brush hut, they came to tell me that the Indians were coming and were close by. I gave praise to the Lord, kissing the ground, and thanking His Majesty for the fact, that after so many years of looking forward to it, He now permitted me to be among the pagans in their own country. I came out at once, and found myself in front of twelve of them, all men and grown up, except two who were boys, one about ten years old and the other fifteen. I saw something I could not believe when I had read of it, or had been told about it. It was this: they were entirely naked, as Adam in the garden, before sin.”

Serra said that even though the Indians saw that the Padres were clothed he could not notice the least sign of shame in them.

The expedition had now been completely assembled. It consisted of Sergeant Jose Francisco de Ortega, with ten leather-jackets, 44 Christian Indians, four muleteers, two servants, several hundred head of cattle, and a pack train.

It was time to move on, and the expedition left for San Diego on May 15th. From Fr. Palou we learn of the trials of Fr. Serra during this long march, even though Palou was not present:

“During the three days he remained at Velicata our Venerable Father did not suffer any pain in the leg, for from the start the joy and distraction over the foundation (of the new mission) made him forget about his pain. But it was not so afterwards, for on the first journey of three leagues the leg and foot became so inflamed that it appeared there was a cancerous condition there. They were so painful that they gave him no rest. Nevertheless, without complaining to anyone, he traveled another day, also of three leagues’ duration, until he came to a place called San Juan de Dios. There he felt so burdened with his infirmity that he could neither stand nor sit, but had to lie down in bed, suffering such pain that it was impossible for him to sleep. When the governor saw him in this condition he said to him: ‘Father President, Your Reverence now sees how incapable you are of accompanying the expedition. We are only six leagues from the starting point. If Your Reverence wishes, we shall carry you to the first mission, where you can recuperate, and we shall continue on our journey.’ But our Venerable Father, whose hope never waned, answered him in this way: ‘Let Your Honor not speak of this, for I trust that God will give me the strength to arrive at San Diego, as He has given me to arrive this far. If this should not be the case, I conform myself to His Most Holy Will. But even though I die on the road, I will not turn back. Although I be buried there, I shall gladly remain among the pagans, if it be the Will of God.’ When the governor realized the firm determination of the Venerable Father and, on the other hand, his inability either to ride horseback or to walk, he ordered a litter constructed, fashioned in the manner of a stretcher or bier for carrying the dead, and made of rods, so that he might be laid thereon and be carried by the neophyte Indians of Old California who were accompanying the expedition as scouts and for whatever chores they might be called on to perform. When the Venerable Father heard of this, he became very sad, when in his prudence and humility he considered the great labor involved in his being carried by those poor Indians. With this sadness, having retired within himself, he asked God to improve his condition in order to remove the burden to be imposed on the Indians if they should have to carry him in this manner. Rekindling his faith and confidence in God, that afternoon he called the muleteer Juan Antonio Coronel and said to him: ‘Son, do you know how to prepare a remedy for the wound in my foot and leg?’ But the muleteer answered him: ‘Father, what remedy could I know of? Do you think I am a surgeon? I’m a muleteer; I’ve healed only the sores of animals.’ ‘Well then, son, just imagine me to be an animal, and that this wound is the sore of an animal from which has developed this swelling of the leg and the great pains I experience, which permit me neither to rest nor to sleep. Make me the same remedy which you would apply to an animal.’ The muleteer smiled, as did the rest who heard the answer. He replied: ‘Father, I shall do so in order to please you.’ He obtained a little tallow and crushed it between two stones and mixed it with herbs from the field which he found round about; and when he had fried this, he applied it to the foot and leg, and left the application of both materials on the wound in the form of a plaster. God worked in such a way (as the servant of God wrote me from San Diego) that he slept that night through till morning and that he awoke so relieved from his pain and wound that he arose to say Matins and Prime as he customarily did. And, these prayers finished, he said Mass as if he had not suffered any such trouble. The governor and the rest of the soldiers were surprised on seeing the Venerable Father well so suddenly, and relieved that in order to go on with the expedition not the least delay had to be made on his account.”

Fr. Serra himself says little about it in his diary. Under the date of May 17th, and referring to a place named San Juan de Dios, he writes simply,

“I said Mass there, but I had much trouble in standing on my feet, because the left one was much inflamed. For a year now, and more, I have been suffering considerably, and by now the swelling has reached halfway up my leg, which is covered with sores. That is why for the rest of the time we stayed here, I had to lie prostrate most of the time on my bed, and I was afraid that before long I should have to follow the expedition on a stretcher.” [for more, see “Diary of Junipero Serra, Loreto to San Diego, March 28-July 1, 1769” under Translations]

On May 18th he notes that “our stay there continued, but I could not say Mass for the aforesaid reason.”

That is all. There is no mention of the cure by the muleteer, about which Fr. Palou learned later from members of the expedition. But, in a letter to Fr. Palou, Serra says:

“As I crossed the frontier my leg and foot were in bad shape. But God was good to me. Every day I felt better, and kept up with the day’s marches just as if nothing were wrong with me. At the present time the foot is completely well as the other; but from the ankle half way up the leg, it is like the foot was before – one large wound, but without swelling or pain except a certain amount of itching. Anyway it is a matter of little moment,”

Fr. Maynard J. Geiger, O.F.M., who has written the life of Junipero Serra for the Academy of American Franciscan History, believes that Fr. Serra rode his mule the entire distance.

The expedition followed the route of Capt. Rivera and Fr. Crespi, except for the last few leagues. The rather laconic Capt. Portola later described to a friend the troubles en route.

“I began my march to the bay named San Diego, in company with thirty soldiers of the presidio and many Indian auxiliaries; but friend, in a few days we saw with extreme regret that our food was gone, with no source of supplies unless we should turn back. As a result, some of the Indians died, and the rest of them deserted from natural necessity. So I was left alone with the cuirassiers; without stopping the march, we went on, lamenting, now to the mountains to kill geese and rabbits, now to the beach for clams and small fish, and then in search of water, which we did not find for three or four days, the animals going twice that long without drinking, as we ourselves did sometimes. Overcoming these and other innumerable hardships, natural results of such unhappy fortune, we arrived at the port of San Diego.”

The facts in the various versions of the expeditions to San Diego do not always agree, as many of the reports or narratives were written in later months or years, when details had grown dim.

The country slowly grew more green and more pleasant as they walked or rode north, and at last on June 20th, from a hill they saw the Pacific Ocean, and that night camped by the sea at what is now Ensenada, eighty miles south of San Diego. It was a welcome relief from the deserts and sharp hills they had crossed in the weeks that lay behind them. For the rest of the journey they kept as close to the coast as possible, generally following the route of the presentday highway, until finally Sgt. Ortega and a companion were sent ahead to take word to San Diego of their impending arrival. On June 27th, at Rosarito, they met an Indian dressed in blue cotton, which could only mean he had come from San Diego; he gave the joyous news that their goal was less than two days ahead and that he had met the sergeant and his companion on the road. The next morning the sound of pounding hoofs heralded the return of the sergeant with ten soldiers and fresh horses sent by Capt. Rivera. They carried letters for Fr. Serra from Crespi and Parron.

Portola decided to push on ahead, while Serra and the main body of the expedition followed more slowly. Serra writes:

“Early in the morning the Governor, with his servant and eight soldiers, started out ahead of us in order to reach the Port of San Diego the same day; which in fact he did … In the afternoon, a march of two hours and a half was made, this time with two guides from San Diego. We followed the shore all the time, our only trouble being the numerous ravines similar to those of the day before. But today they were not quite so bad. We stopped near a gentile rancheria, situated on a pretty piece of elevated land that has the appearance of an island. Where the ocean does not wash it, there is a ravine. The gentiles, as soon as they saw us, came to us, inviting us to stop with them near their huts. But it seemed to us more advisable to encamp on the other side of the ravine where there is another mesa of large dimensions … The land encircled by the ravine near the rancheria has a spring of good, sweet water of medium size … On both sides of us – where we were encamped and where the gentiles had their homes – high mountains make a complete circle; and thus the place can never be more than what it is; so I gave it the name of Carcel de San Pedro, whose feast we celebrate today.”

This was near the present Tahiti Beach, not far below the border. The next morning, with the guides knowing the direction of the port from the way in which the wind blew, they took a short cut off the traveled Indian road and dropped down into the Tia Juana River Valley, and camped that night at a place which they called San Pablo. This river site was a mile within San Diego County.

“We started early, and the first thing was to cross the ravine and climb up the opposite hillside. After a few ups and downs we saw a wondrous sight a measureless plain stretching out before us over which our footsteps had to tread. The hills we left on our right. And over that plain we trudged that day for four hours and a half. But the ravines we had to cross were, and are, quite numerous, without any possibility of avoiding them or flanking them – they are all alike coming straight out from the mountains. And although I continued to pray and resign myself to the will of God, etc., I summoned up all my courage because you were no sooner out of one ravine than you were into another, and each one was dangerous. At one time I asked the guides: ‘Is this the last one?’ ‘There are plenty more to come,’ was their answer. And they were right as events proved. Anyway like all things in this world, the gullies came to an end; and after little more than three hours on the way, we arrived at a gentile settlement, thickly populated. We were very tired and inclined to stop there. But we were told by the Sergeant that they were an insolent tribe … For this reason, and in order to arrive more fully rested at San Diego the next day, we went ahead, with the intention of reaching another hamlet some leagues farther. Here there was sufficient water, although inferior in quality to what we left to those disagreeable fellows. And now the road being all easy going and the guides knowing the direction of the port from the way in which the wind blew, we made a short cut, leaving on our right the traveled road. At the short distance of about one hour’s going we found that the country was not only nice pasture land, but it had also a pleasant river of good water. There we stopped without going to the next rancheria. That place, which neither the Sergeant who passed by this road for the third time nor others for whom it was the fifth had ever previously seen, and which appeared to us very attractive for placing a good mission, we called San Pablo. It is a very large plain and I would judge that it is located about a league from the sea, more or less. There the animals traveled splendidly, and we went without any further anxiety . . .”

The last day’s joumey lay ahead. It was July 1st.

The routes of Serra and Crespi into San Diego are not known precisely, but from their diaries the general course is easily established. From Sancti Spiritu, where Crespi camped on the Tia Juana River one and a third miles from where it empties into the Pacific, the route was probably northeast across the valley, crossing today’s railroad line at about Palm Avenue and skirting northeast to Palm Avenue hill. It is evident that Serra entered San Diego County from Mexico through a sloping vale now known as Smugglers’ Gulch, about two and a half miles from the seacoast. Serra crossed the broad Tia Juana River valley to camp on the north side, which put him nearer the foot of the bay, one-third to one-half a mile south of Coronado Avenue. Serra crossed the Otay River at some point east of National Avenue and west of Third Avenue in Otay. Here the river bed is a wide, dry wash. Then he went north and gradually northwest, skirting the hills, yet keeping back from the shore to avoid sloughs and marshes. He crossed the Sweetwater River probably in the vicinity of Fourth Avenue in Chula Vista, usually a dry bed. Going through the present National City he reached San Diego approximately on the line of Main Street, ever drawing closer to the bay as the hills drew in. The shore was reached near Market Street, and so along the bay to the camp near the vicinity of Laurel Street.

Serra’s diary reads:

“We started early in the morning on our last day’s journey. Already the beginnings of the port we were seeking are partly visible, and already our guides explained to us its entrance and limits, and thus the labor of the road which is quite flat was made much more supportable to us than usual. On the road we encountered three encampments of gentiles … The road in its last half winds considerably in order to avoid the many sloughs which more or less penetrate the land from the sea, a reason why the journey, which it seems ought to take three hours at most, cost us something more than five, at the end of which we found ourselves on the bank of the port area – not far from its mouth – where the two packet-boats San Carlos and San Antonio were at anchor. From the first of these, being the newest, they came off with the launch to bid us welcome, although we stayed a very short time. Having been informed that to arrive at the place where the land expedition was encamped … we would need to go nearly a league, we therefore continued on and finally arrived at said camp … a little before noon of the above-mentioned day.”

All expeditions, at last, were united at the Port of San Diego. “Thanks be to God, I arrived here the day before yesterday, July 1st, at this Port of San Diego,” Serra wrote Palou. “It is beautiful to behold, and does not belie its reputation. Here I met all who had set out before me whether by sea or by land; but not the dead.” Indeed, Capt. Portola and Fr. Serra found a grim situation, one that was to call on their courage and their resourcefulness. When Fr. Crespi had arrived on May 14th, he had found the crews of both ships ill with scurvy, and 21 sailors and a few soldiers already dead. By the time Fr. Serra arrived, all of the sailors of the San Carlos, except one and the cook, had succumbed, and all those of the San Antonio were ill. Perhaps sixty of the 159 persons who reached San Diego had succumbed to scurvy.

Fr. Serra, along with many others of the time, believed that scurvy was contagious. He wrote that “nearly all the people [were] ill, many having died and every day others continuing to die from the sickness of Loanda, or scurvy.” According to Fr. Geiger, this type of scurvy was named after a particularly virulent variety often afflicting sailors who visited the coasts of Loanda, the Portuguese colony of Angola.

The little camp on Presidio Hill was nothing more than a hospital, and the dead must have been buried nearby. It seems strange that none of the bodies has ever been turned up by flood or excavation.

Despite the troubles, Fr. Serra found San Diego to be all that he had hoped and all that had been described by the early explorers. To him, it was a truly beautiful land and justly famous. There were many willows, poplar and sycamore trees along the river banks, wild grapes grew in profusion, there were plenty of acorns and wild asparagus, and game seemed abundant. “There are so many vines grown by nature and without human help that it would mean little expense to follow the example of our good father Noe (Noah) … In short it is a good country-distinctly better than Old California.”

The humble but zealous friar at last had reached the goal which he had set for himself when he first arrived in Mexico nineteen years before. He was in a virgin land surrounded by pagans in need of conversion and “a harvest of souls that might easily be gathered into the bosom of our Holy Mother, the Church, and it would appear, with very little trouble.”

A new life was opening up before him – a life that was to play a rich part in the history of California. He had come a long way for this moment, 5,000 miles from the sanctuary of an academic life on the peaceful island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean Sea.