History of San Diego, 1542-1908

PART ONE: CHAPTER 2: Beginning of the Mission Epoch

IT WAS in the year 1769 that Spain finally got ready to reap where her explorers had sown generations before. Carlos III was King, the Marquis de Croix, a man of great energy and enterprise, was Viceroy of New Spain, Don Joseph de Galvez was Visitador General. The royal order came for occupation of the ports of San Diego and Monterey. And it was high time. Spain could not hope to hold vast territories indefinitely by mere right of discovery, and both England and Russia had eyes upon the Pacific Coast of North America. It was the latter’s aggression which was most feared and which probably gave the specific impulse to the new movement.

It is not, however, the name of king or statesman which survives in the popular imagination when the early settlement of San Diego, and the coast line which stretches north of it, is recalled, but the name of an immortal missionary. And it is a fine tribute to the quality of mind and heart which finds its expression in unselfish and loving service that this is so. But as I study the records of the past it seems clear enough that it was the lust of empire far more than religious zeal which led to the pioneer plantings in California. This judgment is no reflection on the Missionary Fathers, who simply availed them­selves of a favorable political situation to accomplish designs unquestionably born of a high conception of duty to God and man. But if we seek the motive behind the movement, we find it when we ask ourselves the question: If the Spanish King had not wanted to hold California for the advantage of his empire, would it have been within the power of the Franciscans to found a line of missions from San Diego northward, and thus to lay the foundation-stones of an enduring civilization? The question must be answered in the negative, for the missionaries could not have supplied the necessary ships and soldiers nor the other provisions essential to the great undertaking. Put the question in another way and ask: If there had been’ no missionaries, and if the Spanish King had still desired to occupy the California coast, could he have done so with the men and money at his command? Unquestionably, he could; but he was wise enough to utilize the enthusiasm and capacity which he found ready to his hand in the shape of the Fran­ciscans and who were the more necessary because the Jesuits had but recently been expelled from their mission holdings in Lower California.

CARLOS III. King of Spain when the Spanish soldiers and missionaries made the original settlement at San Diego, 1769.

It is important to note the influences which led to the founding of San Diego, and it is the simple truth of history to say that the most vital of these influences was the need of

Spanish statecraft to exert itself in order to hold valuable possessions gained in previous centuries by exploration and discovery. If this motive had been absent, San Diego would not have been settled in 1769, nor perhaps by those who spoke the Spanish tongue. Its history might have been entirely different. It might have been settled by Russians, or by Englishmen, or it might have slept on until a new nation ­almost at that hour in travail on the Atlantic Coast of North America-sent its pioneers across the plains and mountains to give a new and strange flag to the breeze.

It is true, of course, that for many years the missionaries had urged the King to lend his assistance to the conversion of the gentiles of the North, and that a Catholic nation like Spain, always influenced by the Papacy, would naturally give heed to the claims of the faith. But while this was doubtless taken into account, it was clearly secondary to considerations of empire. Nevertheless, when the time for action came, a great man, garbed in the cassock of the priest, stood ready to sow the seed of a harvest which men are now but beginning to reap.

Junípero Serra was fifty-six years old when the opportunity came to him. He had been trained from childhood for the work he was to do. Born on the Mediterranean Island of Mallorca, in the humblest circumstances, he was benevolent and devout even in his youth and seemed to have had no other thought than to do good. He became a Franciscan friar at sixteen and the enthusiasm of the boy gradually evolved into the burning passion of the man for the salvation of souls. He sought the blackest midnight of ignorance that he might spread the light of his faith the most widely, and his quest brought him to the North American Indian. For many years he labored in Mexico, among the Missions of the Sierra many years and pene­trated to the farthest frontiers. When he heard of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Lower California, he feared that the Indians in that country would relapse into utter barbarism, and hastened to occupy the field before this calamity could occur. It was thus that Galvez found him on the ground, ready to co­operate in the scheme of settlement and to raise the Cross under the protection of the sword.

FATHER JUNIPERO SERRA. The immortal missionary who founded the settlement of San Diego, in co-operation with Spanish governor and soldier, Portola.

In October, 1765, the two leaders met at Santa Ana, Mexico, to develop their plans in detail. It seems clear that Galvez was the master mind at the conference, but that the priest as­sented heartily to all his suggestions. When they separated a perfect understanding had been reached and both proceeded to push the organization of the expedition with the utmost vigor. The early days of 1769 found plans well advanced and the hour for the actual beginning of the movement close at hand. It was the work of Galvez to get the ships ready for the voyage and to direct the organization of the military parties who were to go by land and sea; and the work of Father Serra to select the priests who were to go, some by sea and some by land, to engage in the founding of the new missions. There was much to be done in securing furniture, ornaments, and vestments for the churches which were to be established. It was arranged that these things, together with implements, live stock, grain, and other food, should be taken from the old Jesuit establishments, now fallen into the hands of the Franciscans, and that with the exception of the few articles to be accepted as gifts, they should be religiously repaid in kind. Thus the old missions were called upon to support the new, after the Jesuit custom.

On January 9, 1769, the San Cárlos sailed from La Paz, after the performance of impressive religious ceremonies at which Father Serra presided. The San Antonio sailed from San José del Cabo on February 15th, and the third vessel, the San Jose, followed many months later, but went to “the Port of Missing Ships.” It was never heard of again.

The land parties went forward from points where they had been assembled on the Peninsula in the month of March, one proceeding under the leadership of Governor Portolá, and the other under Captain Rivera. Father Serra had expected to go with. Portolá, but when the time came it found him suffering keenly from an ulcerous sore on his foot, contracted during a long journey in Mexico the previous year. He was thus com­pelled to see the party start without him, but he followed soon after and overtook Portolá on May 5th. The effort cost him much pain and lends a touch of real heroism to a journey which was otherwise unmarked by any special hardship. The sore was healed in a single night by an ointment of tallow and herbs such as was commonly applied to beasts, but the ointment was sup­plemented by his own prayers and his touching faith in their ef­ficacy. The cure was only partial; he suffered from the in­firmity to the day of his death.”

Very good accounts of the progress of the expedition, on both land and water, were kept by several of the participants, includ­ing Father Serra himself. These have been preserved and made accessible to students, some of the most important of the trans­lation having been accomplished by Charles F. Lummis, the most competent and tireless student of early California history. But though the accounts are remarkably complete, it is not un­til the story reaches San Diego that they are of special inter­est to us.

Although the San Antonio had sailed over a month later than the San Carlos, it was the first to arrive at its destination. Mis­led by Cabrillo’s error in placing the port two degrees farther north than its true latitude, both ships went as far as Santa Barbara Channel and then turned south on discovering the mis­take. The San Antonio sailed through the Silver Gate and dropped anchor in the harbor, April 11th. Two of her crew had died, and many, were ill, from scurvy. But the condition of the San Carlos, which followed on April 29th, was very much worse. Only four sailors were able to stand at their post and half the troops were also down with the wretched disease. The men were just able to reach port and had no energy left to lower a boat and go ashore. Their plight was soon discovered by the captain and crew of the San Antonio, who proceeded to remove the sick sailors and soldiers to a rude hospital which they had improvised on the shore. Like the early explorers, they were charmed with the port and its surroundings and soon became enthusiastic over the prospects of settlement. “A country of joyous aspect,” they called it, and no one has improved upon the phrase.

FACSIMILE OF THE TITLE PAGE OF THE COSTANSO. Diary of the Spanish Officer who served as historian of the expedition of 1769.

One of the most valuable records of the time was that left by Costansó, a civil engineer and cosmographer of the expedition. who came on the San Carlos. He gives an interesting account of the Indians, who were present in large numbers to witness what must have been a most exciting scene for them—the ar­rival of the first white settlers. The Indians were very shy, at first, but it seemed absolutely necessary for the Spaniards to make their acquaintance without delay, since they had urgent need to obtain a fresh supply of water. The water question ap­pears early in the annals of San Diego and stays late!

The Indians were finally induced to parley and, after pres­ents had been distributed among them, undertook to show the strangers where they could find a flowing stream. “They went a matter of three leagues,” says Costansó, “until they arrived on the banks of a river hemmed in on either bank by a fringe of willows and cottonwoods, very leafy. Its channel must have been twenty varas wide [about 55 feet] and it discharges into an estuary which at high tide would admit the launch and made convenient the accomplishing of taking on of water.” This was, of course, the San Diego River, and it is evident that there had been a fair rainfall in the Winter of 1769. A good-sized Indian village was found in the valley, and Costansó leaves us this item of society gossip: “These natives are of good figure, well-built and agile. They go naked without more clothing than a girdle of ixtle or very fine maguey fiber, woven in the form of a net.” After a better acquaintance with them, he drew this picture of the Indians: “They are of haughty temper, daring, covetous, great jesters and braggarts; although of little valor, they make great boast of their powers, and hold the most vigorous for most valiant. They greatly crave whatsoever rag; but when we have clothed different ones of them on repeated occasions, they would present themselves the following day stark naked.”

The temporary pest house or hospital erected for the accom­modation of the sick sailors stood at what is now the foot of H street. It was a rude affair, made of canvas. A third of those who had come on the San Carlos died before the ravages of the scurvy were stayed. They were buried there, and henceforth the place was known on the Spanish charts of the harbor as Punta de los Muertos, or Dead Man’s Point.

It was on the 14th of May that Captain Rivera arrived with the first land party. This consisted of twenty-five soldiers, from the Presidio of Lereto; Father Juan Crespi, José Canizares, who had been designated to write a diary of the land trip, three muleteers, and a band of converted natives who had been drawn from one of the missions in the South. The natives were brought along for the purpose of performing the drudgery. The party had been fifty-one days on the march without incurring any special hardship. As they approached San Diego they met many of the gentile Indians, and when they came in sight of the ships and camp they were welcomed by a salute of fire-arms.

Rivera proceeded at once to establish a more permanent camp, moving it from the present site of the city to the neighborhood of what is now known as Old Town, in order to be near the river. The exact location of this first attempt at a permanent camp is not entirely clear. Costanso says it was on the “right bank of the river,” and, if he used the term as it is now understood, he must have referred to the north bank of the stream. There is a tradition in Old Town to the effect that the camp was on the north side, though the more general impression seems to be that it was on the south side, not far from the famous old palms. The camp was fortified, a few rude huts built, and a corral made for the animals. Here the whole party was busy for six weeks, at­tending the sick and unloading supplies from the San Antonio. It was here that the second land party found them when it reached San Diego at the end of June. Governor Portolá ar­rived June 29th in advance of his men, and Father Serra just before noon, July 1st. Besides the leaders; the party included nine or ten soldiers, four muleteers, two servants of the Gov­ernor and the President, and forty-four natives of Lower California.

The personal letter which Father Serra sent to Father Palou, his intimate friend and biographer, supplies an account of the expedition which will always be regarded as one of the most precious memorials of San Diego history. The letter in full is as follows:

“My Dear Friend and Sir:

“Thank God I arrived the day before yesterday, at this port of San Diego, truly a fine one, and with reason famous. Here I found those who had set out before me, by sea as well as by land, excepting such as died on the way. The brethren, Fathers Crespi, Viscaino, Parro, and Gomez are here and, with myself, all well, thanks be to God. Here also are two ves­sels; but the San Carlos is without seamen, all having died ex­cept one and the cook. The San Antonio, although she sailed a month and a half later, arrived twenty days before the San Carlos, losing on the voyage eight seamen. In consequence of this loss, the San Antonio will return to San Blas, to procure seamen for herself and the San Carlos. The causes of the delay of the San Carlos were, first, the want of water, and, second, the error which all were in respecting the situation of this port. They supposed it to be in thirty-three or thirty-four degrees north latitude; and strict orders were given to Captain Vila and the rest to keep out in the open sea till they should arrive in thirty-four degrees, and then make the shore in search of the port. As, however, the port in reality lies in 32 deg. 43 min. according to observations :which have now been made they went far beyond the port, thus making the voyage much longer than was necessary. The people got daily worse from the cold and the bad water; and they must all have perished, if they had not discovered the port about the time they did; for they were quite unable to launch the boat to procure more water, or to do anything whatever for their preservation. The Father Fernando did everything in his power to relieve the sick; and although he arrived much reduced in flesh, he bad not the dis­order, and is now well. We have not suffered hunger or priva­tions, nor have the Indians who came with us; all have arrived fat and healthy.

“The tract through which we have passed is generally very good land, with plenty of water; and there, as well as here, the country is neither rocky nor overcome with brushwood. There are, however, many hills, but they are composed of earth. The road has been in many places good, but the greater part bad. About half way, the valleys and banks of rivulets began to be delightful. We found vines of a large size and in some cases quite loaded with grapes; we also found abundance of roses, which appeared to be the same as those of Castile. In fine, it is a good country and very different from that of Old Califor­nia [meaning the Peninsula].

“We have seen Indians in immense numbers; and all those on this coast of the Pacific contrive to make a good subsis­tence on various seeds and by fishing; this they carry on by means of rafts or canoes made of tule [bulrush], with which they go a great way to sea. They are very civil. All the males, old and young, go naked; the women, however, and even the female children; were decently covered from their breasts downwards. We found in our journey, as well as in the places where we stopped, that they treated us with as much confidence and good will as if they had known us all their lives; but when we offered them any of our victuals, they al­ways refused them. All they cared for was cloth; and only for something of this sort would they exchange their fish or whatever else they had.

“From this port and intended mission of San Diego, in North­ern California, 3rd July, 1769. I kiss the hands of your Rever­ence, and am your affectionate brother and servant.


Between the lines of this remarkable letter glows the optimism of the great missionary, and something of that enthusiasm for the region and its possibilities which is felt by all who come within its influence. If nothing save this letter had come down to us from the memorable summer of 1769, we should not have been left in ignorance of the fate of the expedition, nor of the aspect of the country and its inhabitants.

Facsimile of a Page from the Diary of Father Serra, 1769.

With the arrival of Father Serra, the great project of Galvez scored its historic success, a fact which reflected the highest credit upon the man who had planned it to the last detail. He never saw the country himself, but he set the forces in motion which saved it for his king and his flag, at least for a time, and thus he deserves lasting remembrance among the fathers of California. The success of his plans in uniting the four branches of the expedition at San Diego furnished a base from which the larger scheme of settlement could be carried along the coast.

The work of establishing a real settlement began with the least possible delay. The place selected was “a point of middling height,” as Costanso called it, a hill overlooking Old Town now known as Presidio Hill, on the site of an Indian village called “Cosoy.” Standing there today upon the ruins, one can well understand why this spot was chosen and cannot fail to admire the judgment which dictated the choice. It is conve­niently located both as to the harbor and as to the indispensable water in the river, and it commands the valley on one hand, and the shore of the bay, on the other, so as to be reasonably safe from attack from either of those directions. It was easy to for­tify, and it has a sightly outlook upon land and sea. The soil is deep and rich, and therefore well adapted to support the gardens and orchards which are always a part of mission establishments.

Here, in the space of little more than two weeks, rude earth­works were thrown up as the nucleus of a presidio or fort, houses that were little more than huts were hastily constructed, and the largest one set apart as the mission building. Every­thing was ready on the 16th of July for the dedication of the first mission on the soil of California. It was named the Mis­sion of San Diego and the old record declares that it was built at the expense “of the Catholic monarch, Don Carlos III., King of Spain, whom God prosper, defrayed under most ample authority from his Excellency, Don Carlos Francisco de Croix, Marqués de Croix, present Viceroy, Governor, and Captain ­General of this New Spain, by the most Illustrious Don Joseph de Galvez, of the Council and Chamber of his Majesty in the royal, and supreme of the Indies, Intendent of the Army, and Visitador General of this New Spain, by the religious of said Apostolic College, San Fernando of Mexico.”

The ceremonies attending the dedication were as elaborate and pompous as circumstances permitted. The military and naval. officers were on hand with their troops, who strove to make up in dignity what they lacked in numbers. Father Serra and his priests performed their part with the utmost reverence and solemnity, praying that they might “put to flight all the hosts of hell and subject to the mild yoke of our holy faith the bar­barity of the gentile Dieguinos.” The Cross was raised, the royal standard thrown to the breeze, incense sent up from a tem­porary altar, and, from the branches of a convenient tree, the mission bell rang out upon the stillness of the valley.

This was the true natal day of San Diego—July 16, 1769. The life of the settlement dates from that moment. Presidio Hill, with its mouldering, tile-strewn ruins, is historic ground and should be preserved as such, forever. It is the birthplace of civilization on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

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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