History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART ONE: CHAPTER 1: The Spanish Explorers

STAND upon the heights in the sunny afternoon and turn your eyes to the dazzling waste of waters, and, with the slightest exercise of imagination, you may see them, yet—those Spanish ships that crept up the coast, then headed for the Silver Gate, in September, 1542. Quaint craft they were, with their round bows and square sterns and their poop decks rising in the air, so that they seemed about as high as they were long. Although small when compared with the standards of today—only three or four hundred tons—there was a certain grandeur about them which does not attach to the modern liner. Somehow, they suggested the poverty-stricken Spanish gentleman who manages to keep his pomp and pride on an empty stomach. For there were paint and gold, carvings and emblazonry of armorial bearings, but there was probably very little to eat, especially in the forecastle.

SHIP OF CABRILLO’S TIME. “The ships were clumsy, hard to handle, capable of carrying but a small spread of canvas in anything approaching a strong breeze, and sailed side-wise almost as well as forward.”

It is a marvel that they could make long voyages in those days. The ships were clumsy, hard to handle, capable of carrying but a small spread of canvas in anything approaching a strong breeze, and sailed sidewise almost as well as forward. They seemed to invite every peril that goes with the sea. Besides, the lack of condensed foods, of facilities for refrigeration, and of sanitary knowledge, entailed hardship and privation upon those who set out upon long voyages into regions of the earth but vaguely known. It is little wonder that sailors died like flies from causes which were comprehensively characterized as scurvy, though in many cases the trouble was simply starvation. And yet those two ships which had pitched and rolled along their uncertain way from Mexico made a brave sight as they swept in upon the smooth waters of San Diego Bay and dropped their anchors under the shelter of Point Loma. They were the first ships that ever rested on those waters—the San Salvador and, the Victoria—and, a new era had dawned upon the world of the Pacific when Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain, looked up and down the bay, around the encircling shores, and then to the hills and mountains that make the noble background.

It was the last act in the great drama of Spanish discovery which began with Columbus fifty years before. A train of events in which he had no part made Cabrillo the star performer and placed in his hand the laurel of lasting renown. Hernando Cortés had set his heart on exploring the mysterious land which lay to the north of Mexico and was popularly believed to be India. He had expected that this would be the crowning glory of his career, but Charles V. was unwilling to see the figure of Cortés grow larger, lest he should set up an empire of his own and divide the glory of Spain. Thus it happened that Mendoza was made Viceroy of the Spanish possessions in the New World and Cortés returned to complain to the King. He never saw New Spain again, and his dream of northern exploration vanished forever.

One of his former lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado, had cherished the same ambition and proceeded to build ships as a means of carrying it into effect. He was in favor with the court and with Mendoza, and thus enabled to proceed with his plans. But Fate did not intend that Alvarado should realize the dream of Cortés and become the discoverer of a northern realm. He was drawn into a war with the Mixton Indians in Mexico and killed while assaulting one of their strongholds. Thus it happened that Cabrillo sailed northward from Natividad, Mexico, on June 17, 1542, on the long-deferred voyage of discovery.

Fortunate, indeed, is the discoverer in the quality of his fame. The achievement of the soldier, of the scholar, of the statesman, of the founder of institutions may be surpassed in subsequent times and relegated to comparative obscurity by those who achieve even more greatly; but the claim of the discoverer cannot be superseded. His distinction endures with the lands he brought to light and gains with their growth through the centuries. California is yet in its infancy, so that it may be said that the day of Cabrillo’s greatest glory will come in the future.

The historic sailor knew a good harbor when he saw it and was the first of a long line of mariners to realize that the bay of San Diego is a spot favored by nature and destined for great things. “A land-locked and very good harbor,” he called it, and gave it the name of San Miguel. On the very day of his arrival, he sent a small boat “farther into the port, which was large.” While it was anchored “a very great gale blew from, the southwest,” but this (lid not disturb the boat and its occupants. “The port being good, we felt nothing,” says the narrative, which is only too meager.

The explorer sent a party ashore to replenish his supply of water. They landed on Point Loma and followed the river channel until they found a pool. It was the driest season of the year, and then, as now, the San Diego River was a little short of water at that season. It was late in the day when the party set out, and dark when they started to return. They chanced upon the shores of False Bay and looked in vain for the ships. The mistake was natural enough under the circumstances, and the traveller who approaches the city by rail generally falls into the same error of mistaking False Bay for the true bay of San Diego when he catches his first glimpse of the country. The sailors camped for the night, but were found early the next morning by another party and guided back to the ships.

It was not long before the Indian inhabitants discovered the presence of the strangers. Word of the extraordinary event must have passed rapidly from mouth to month, and doubtless the story of it was handed down from father to son for many a long year. In the account of the voyage written by one of Cabrillo’s companions, and translated and published by the Government in a report of the United States Geographic Surveys in 1879, this interesting statement appears:

“And the following day, in the morning, there came to the ship three large Indians, and by signs they said that there were traveling in the interior men like us, with beards, and clothes and armed like those. of the ships, and they made signs that they carried cross-bows and swords, and made gestures with the right arm as if they were throwing lances, and went running in a posture as if riding on horseback, and made signs that they killed many of the native Indians, and that for this they were afraid. This people are well disposed and advanced; they go covered with the skins of animals.”

Cabrillo remained but six days in the bay with which his name will be forever associated. He took observations with such imperfect instruments as he had and located the place in latitude 34° 20′ North. (The true latitude is, of course, 32° 41′ 57.6″.) This mistake led to some embarrassment in later times when other navigators tried to find the harbor by means of Cabrillo’s notes. The discoverer sailed away for the North, where he died four months later, or January 3, 1543, in consequence of a fall on an island which his companions named in his honor, “Juan Rodriquez.” With his last words, he directed his party to go forward with the original plan of exploration. His grave has never been, identified, but it is interesting to reflect that his dust is mingled with the soil which he discovered.

JUAN RODRIQUEZ CABRILLO. Who discovered the Bay of San Diego in September, 1542, and first explored the coast of California.

The accounts of Cabrillo’s achievement slowly percolated to Spain by way of Mexico, but if they produced any excitement it was successfully restrained for a period of nearly two generations. In these days, when the news of a fresh mineral discovery sends thousands rushing into the desert on automobiles, or to the frozen wastes of the Far North in swift steamships, it would seem that human nature in the Sixteenth Century must have been different if it could receive the news of the discovery of a land like California without feeling an irresistible impulse of adventure. The difference, however, was not one of human nature, but of facilities for spreading information and for transporting men and supplies across distances relatively greater than any now known in all the spaces of the world. The development of new countries waits upon events. Not in that time did events call for the utilization of the resources of the Pacific. Fortunately, nature provides an ample margin of resources for the needs of successive generations. When there are no more lands to be discovered, the genius of discovery seeks other channels of expression, and men find new and better ways in which to use lands already in their possession. The discoverer is with its yet, and he will be with those who come after us; but he explores the realms of science, or makes his perilous way to new continents of thought, and so he widens man’s dominion of the universe.

It was exactly sixty years before the ships of civilization again appeared off the coast of Southern California. Charles V. passed away without any serious. attempt to colonize and develop the region, but during the reign of his son and successor, Philip II., the possibilities of the peninsula of Lower California, and of the northern regions known as Alta California, were much in the royal mind. It. is easy to understand why nothing was accomplished. Philip, busy with his European politics and with the terrors of the Inquisition, had neither time nor money to expend upon the conquest of the wilderness. Such efforts as were made came to nothing, but when, in 1598, a merciful providence removed the royal fanatic from his blood-stained throne, Philip III. immediately took steps to improve the Spanish possessions of what is now the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Don Sebastian Viscaino was chosen as Captain-General of the expedition and sailed on May 5, 1602, from the port of Acapulco, with two ships and a frigate, together with a small vessel to be used in exploring shallow waters. He was accompanied by three religious Carmelites, one of whom, Friar Antonio de la Ascension, became the journalist of the expedition and wrote an account of the Voyage, which extended to the northern coast of California.

Viscaino pursued his leisurely course northward, stopping at several points in Lower California, and found himself at the picturesque islands which rise abruptly from the sea oft San Diego on November 5, 1602, precisely six months after leaving Acapulco. He gave the islands the name which they still bear, the Coronados. It was November 10 when his fleet sailed into the harbor which no white man, save Cabrillo and his companions, had visited before. A survey of the harbor was immediately undertaken, for Viscaino was bent on obtaining exact information as far as it was possible with the facilities at his command, and he was able to leave several maps which constituted a very valuable contribution to the geographical knowledge of the time.

SAN DIEGO DE ALCALA. From whom the Bay and region derived their name.

It was he who gave the port its present name, though many people suppose that the name originated with the mission which was established more than a century and a half later, and others suppose it was derived from St. James of the Bible. Because his survey was either begun or ended on November 12—no one knows exactly which, though the former seems more probable—and because that was the day of Saint James of Alcalá (San Diego de Alcalá) Viscaino gave the port the name of San Diego. It would be pleasant to linger on the virtues of this saint, whose best monument is the San Diego of today; but space forbids the digression. Born in a hamlet of the Archbishopric of Seville, Spain, in 1400, he died on November 12, 1463, and was buried in the chapel of his monastery near Toledo, Spain. His sainthood was won by a life of loving service, and may well inspire the city which bears his name to lofty effort in behalf of humanity.

On the day after his arrival the Captain-General organized a party to survey a forest lying “on the Northwest side of the Bay,” —evidently Point Loma. The party was in charge of Ensign Alarcon, and included Captain Pequero, Father Antonio de la Ascension, and eight soldiers. In this forest they found “tall and straight oaks and other trees, some shrubs resembling rosemary, and a great variety of fragrant and wholesome plants.” The identity of the spot with Point Loma is further confirmed by the report that “the high ground commanded a view of the whole harbor, which appeared spacious, convenient, and well sheltered,” and by the further statement that “to the Northwest of the wood is another harbor,” which doubtless refers to False Bay. The forest is described as bordering on San Diego Bay and its dimensions are given as “three leagues in length and half a league in breadth.”

The existence of anything approaching a noble forest on the slopes and top of Point Loma in 1602 is a matter of unique interest, in view of the fact that nothing of the sort is found today. But the story is unquestioned by the oldest settlers indeed, those with whom I have talked confirm it and furnish some evidence to sustain the view. Thus Ephraim W. Morse said:

“Many years ago I saw in the possession of the late Mr. Ensworth of San Diego, a piece of an old book in the Spanish language which gave an account of Viscaino’s visit to, and his survey of, the Bay of San Diego in 1602. It had neither title-page nor date; consequently I do not know its author. It is stated that at the time of Viscaino’s visit there was quite a large grove of oak trees on the slope of the hill on the north side of the bay and flat now known as Roseville, and extending around the point towards the North Bay, which is now called False Bay, and that the valley of the San Diego River from opposite where Old Town now stands, as far up as could be seen from the top of the hill, was a dense willow grove, and that at high tide the waters of the North and South Bays met. It further stated that while the bay was being surveyed, the sailors went up the point of the hill (I suppose about where Judge Robinson was buried) and sat under the oak trees, and washed and mended their clothes.”

And Miss Margaret Macgregor, another old settler, says “There is no doubt that Point Loma was covered with trees [referring to Viscaino’s time]. There are now old stumps in the ground there, charred by fire, and the Indians used to dig them out for fuel. The Indians said there was once a heavy forest there, but that it was destroyed by fire. They were live oak stumps. They were not very large—about the same as the other trees on the Point. I would not call it timber. There was a good deal of it—the Point was covered with it.”

This testimony finds very strong corroboration in the following article published in the San Diego Daily World, June 12, 1873:

“The Gipsy yesterday brought into port Captain Bogart. In a conversation with that gentleman some very interesting reminiscences were developed. Captain Bogart first visited San Diego in the Black Warrior in 1834, 39 years ago.

“In those days the bills about the Playa, and indeed all around San Diego, were covered with a thick growth of oak, such as is found in the Julian mountains now. This was the case, to a very great extent, when Captain Bogart came to San Diego in 1852, as the agent of the Pacific Mail S.S. Co.

“He ascribes the destruction of this timber to its liberal use by the native population, and by the crews of vessels trading for hides, in their tanning operations.

“He can remember the time when the whole flat, where the race-course is, was covered with a dense willow growth. His memory also goes back to the days when Rose’s Canyon, clear to Captain Johnson’s, at Peñasquitas, was covered with a liberal forest growth. The tanning operations of the venerable Mr. Rose are responsible for much of this disappearance of timber. We asked Captain Bogart how he accounted for the fact that there were no reminders of the forest growth at the Playa. He replied that he had occasion to cut a road to the Playa once, and came across many stumps. Captain Bogart’s accounts agree with the narratives of the old Missionaries, who say that when they came here, nearly a hundred years ago, the site of San Diego was covered with a forest.”

Andrew Cassidy thinks there is no doubt that Point Loma was once quite heavily wooded, but is of the opinion that the Spaniards exaggerated the size of the trees. This is probably the case, for the early tales of their explorations are notoriously full of such exaggeration. The disappearance of the forest in the manner described by Captain Bogart, or by fire, is entirely probable, and is only another instance of the familiar process by which the natural resources of the West have been wasted.

Viscaino ordered a tent to be pitched on shore for religious worship, and then proceeded to clean and tallow his ships. His men were also busy getting wood and water, and a few were employed in keeping guard to prevent any sudden attack by the natives. They obtained water from “a little island of sand,” where they dug deep trenches. “During the flood,” says the account, “the water was fresh and good, but on the ebb, salt.”

Viscaino and his men saw much of the Indians during their brief stay and found them both interesting and friendly. On their first appearance they came in great numbers, armed with bows and arrows. For the most part, they were naked, but their skins were daubed with black and white. Father Antonio went forth to meet them, attended by six soldiers. They responded to his overtures for a peaceful conference. Presents were distributed by the Spaniards, and the Indians went away pleased with the visitors. It is related that ” the kind of paint they used looked like a mixture of silver and gold color; and on asking them by signs what it was, they gave them a piece of the metallic ore, from whence they made it.” They also signified that they had seen men like the Spaniards in the interior. In return for the food and trinkets which were given them, the Indians left a good many skins of wild animals.

The explorers were delighted with San Diego, and their expressions sound much like those of the tourist of today. They admired the beauty of the scene and appreciated the remarkable climate. Thev declared that the situation offered “a fine site for a Spanish settlement.” Of the mineral possibilities of the country Father de la Ascension wrote: “In the sands of the beach there was a great quantity of marcasite, golden and spongy, which is a clear sign that in the mountains round the port there are gold-mines, because the waters when it rains bring it from the mountains.” They also found in the sand masses of a gray light substance, which it was thought might be amber. Some very heavy blue stones with which, when powdered and mixed in water, the natives made shining streaks on their faces, were thought to be rich in silver.

But most of all, the visitors were impressed during their ten days’ stay, with the importance of San Diego as a natural seaport. In their whole voyage they found no more perfect harbor, nor any place upon which nature had written more unmistakably the prophecy of a great destiny. In fact, it may be truthfully said that Viscaino and his chroniclers were the first San Diego “boomers.” And yet for a period of one hundred and sixty-seven years after this exploration, which added so richly to geographical lore, civilization held aloof from the tempting opportunity. For one hundred and sixty-seven years—what history was made elsewhere in that space of time!—the sun rose and set, the seasons came and went, and the ocean roared along the shore, while this land, which daring explorers had rescued from the unknown, slept in primeval silence. The Indian papooses that Father de la Ascension blessed in 1602 grew to manhood, and their children and children’s children lived and passed away, before the white man came again with sword and cross to plant the first seed of institutions which were destined to take root and flourish.

Return to Books.


Main Page
Author’s Foreword
Introduction: The Historical Pre-Eminence of San Diego

PART ONE:   Period of Discovery and Mission Rule

  1. The Spanish Explorers
  2. Beginning of the Mission Epoch
  3. The Taming of the Indian
  4. The Day of Mission Greatness
  5. The End of Franciscan Rule
    Priests of San Diego Mission

PART TWO:   When Old Town Was San Diego

  1. Life on Presidio Hill Under the Spanish Flag
    List of Spanish and Mexican commandants
  2. Beginnings of Agriculture and Commerce
    List of Ranchos in San Diego County
  3. Political Life in Mexican Days
  4. Early Homes, Visitors and Families
  5. Pleasant Memories of Social Life
  6. Prominent Spanish Families
  7. The Indians’ Relations With the Settlers
    List of Mission Indian Lands
  8. San Diego in the Mexican War
  9. Public Affairs After the War
  10. Accounts of Early Visitors and Settlers
  11. Annals of the Close of Old San Diego
  12. American Families of the Early Time
  13. The Journalism of Old San Diego
  14. Abortive Attempt to Establish New San Diego

PART THREE:   The Horton Period

  1. The Founder of the Modern City
  2. Horton’s Own Story
  3. Early Railroad Efforts, Including the Texas and Pacific
  4. San Diego’s First Boom
  5. Some Aspects of Social Life

PART FOUR:   Period of “The Great Boom”

  1. Coming of the Santa Fe
  2. Phenomena of the The Great Boom
  3. Growth of Public Utilities
  4. Water Development

PART FIVE:   The Last Two Decades

  1. Local Annals, After the Boom
  2. Political Affairs and Municipal Campaigns
  3. Later Journalism and Literature [new material in second edition]
  4. The Disaster to the Bennington
  5. The Twentieth Century Days
  6. John D. Spreckels Solves the Railroad Problem

PART SIX:   Institutions of Civic Life

  1. Churches and Religious Life
  2. Schools and Education
  3. Records of the Bench and Bar
  4. Growth of the Medical Profession
  5. The Public Library
  6. Story of the City Parks
  7. The Chamber of Commerce
  8. Banks and Banking
  9. Secret, Fraternal and Other Societies
  10. Account of the Fire Department

PART SEVEN:   Miscellaneous Topics

  1. History of the San Diego Climate
  2. San Diego Bay, Harbor and River
  3. Governmental Activities
  4. The Suburbs of San Diego

Political Roster, City of San Diego
Political Roster, San Diego County