By James Mills
In the most respected histories of San Diego, the opening chapters dwell at some length on a noble forest which once allegedly stretched from one end of Point Loma to the other, and from the harbor to the sea. However., the view that there was no great wood on the Point has gained support in more recent years, but has not, by any means, completely prevailed. None the less it is possible, by use of available sources, to arrive at a reasonably valid conclusion in answer to this question.
The most quoted authority on the forest is William E. Smythe. His relation of Sebastian Vizcaino’s visit in 1602 contains quotations from the account of the voyage kept by Father Antonio de la Ascension, describing a montesillo on the northwest side of the bay. Montesillo he translates into its most strictly correct English equivalent, little forest. This rendition is made all the more likely right, he thought, by the fact that the account goes on to tell of “tall and straight oaks and other trees” there. Father Ascension gives the dimensions of the forest as three leagues in length and half a league in breadth.1
Smythe goes on to quote Ephraim W. Morse, who recalled having seen another narrative of Vizcaino’s voyage. This one mentioned an oak grove on the bay side of the Point.2 While this is adduced as further evidence that the forest covered the whole headland, it should be noticed that it is not.
The next support Smythe offers for the forest theory is drawn from remarks of Miss Margaret Macgregor, a long time resident of the Point.
She is quoted as saying:
There is no doubt that Point Loma was covered with trees. 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 oak 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.3
With the exception of the remarks about the stumps, this is, unfortunately, pure hearsay. Indians have been traditionally less than reliable witnesses.
Richard Henry Dana’s great book Two Years Before the Mast has been used as a support for the forest’s existence. He wrote on’ the occasion of his first visit to San Diego : “At sunset on the second day we had a large and well-wooded headland directly before us, behind which lay the little harbor of San Diego.”4 This is mitigated by the fact that when he returned, twenty-four years later, he said: “The coyotes still bark in the woods; for they belong not to man, and are not touched by his changes.”5 As there were no woods by that time, it is apparent that Dana was using the term woods to mean woody plants of all sizes, including brush. Furthermore, in Two Years Before the Mast Dana also said:
Wood is very scarce in the vicinity of San Diego; there being no trees of any size for miles. In town the inhabitants burn the small wood which grows in thickets … With us the getting of wood was a great trouble; for all that in the vicinity of the (hide) houses had been cut down … Having alighted on a thicket, the next thing was to clear away the underbrush, and have fair play at the trees. These trees are seldom more than five or six feet high, and the highest I ever saw on these expeditions could not have been more than twelve …6
This is a description of many a Southern California landscape, with copses and galleries of oaks scattered among the chaparral in favorable spots.
Again and again personal recollections of the stumps Miss Macgregor told about are brought up to require explanation in lieu of acceptance of a forest. These stumps prove beyond a doubt that there were trees on Point Loma, but that has never been denied. There are trees all over the San Diego area, but it is no Black Forest. Bertram B. Moore recalls that, during the construction of the present road out to the old lighthouse, no stumps were turned up. Where stumps only occur here and there in an area, there were trees only here and there. In addition, the suggestion has been made by Carroll D. Scott, a local naturalist, that many of the big roots found were of “lemonade berry” bushes. These shrubs were common along the coast, and when excavated out, in San Diego, left holes big enough to bury a horse in, according to Scott. Moore reports further that, while he worked on the construction of the road, he checked the depth of the soil. On the military reservation, there was no more than a few inches at any point on the top. A forest would need more soil, and would produce more in a relatively brief period of years.
In an often repeated interview with a reporter from the Daily World in 1873, Captain J. C. Bogert said that Point Loma, and all the rest of the harbor area, was heavily shaded with big oaks in 1834, when he first arrived, in the whaler Black Warrior, and such was still the case when he returned in 1852 to be local representative for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. The reporter or the captain must have been building up a modest truth into a good story. It is in direct contradiction to the boundary survey report made by Lieutenant Emory, which said the environs of San Diego were quite barren.8 As Emory was here when he made the entry in 1846, between Captain Bogert’s two observances of forests, the story in the World must be rejected in whole or in part.
The Ascension account of Vizcaino’s voyage remains the major support for the existence of a forest in times past. However, montesillo need not necessarily be translated little forest, it may also be little mountain, less formally. Henry Wagner so rendered it in his English version.9 The montesillo is described as protecting the port from northwest winds. As it was three leagues long and one-half a league wide, it was the size of the whole Point.10 Therefore, it must be the whole Point that is referred to, as Moore and others have proved that the peninsula was not essentially a forested area.
Hopkins also translates Ascenion’s montesillo into forest, and consequently has Mission Bay surrounded by a forest as well.” He does not go on to mention the report in Vizcaino’s diary to the effect that there was a grove at the mouth of an estuary which entered Mission Bay.12 That these river bottom trees alone were noted as being in sight from Mission Bay certainly implies that Mission Bay was not surrounded by woods, and that there were few, if any, trees on the northern side of Point Loma.
Some eye-witness accounts of later times are not so controversial. Captain George Vancouver, on his voyage of exploration in 1792-94, made entries in his logbook that limit the forest to the widely scattered scrub and live oaks described by Dana forty years later. He said, “Some bushes grow on it, but no trees of a large size.”13 He went on to deplore the impossibility of obtaining wood here.
Thirty-odd years after Vancouver’s call, the Frenchman, Duhaut-Cilly, characterized the available wood that had been mentioned in a few accounts. He said his ship’s people busied themselves with taking in supplies of wood which were gathered on “the barren peninsula making the southern side of the harbor, where shrubs and bushes there are cut.”14 This wood was, then, brush for galley fires, and even that apparently was more plentiful on the far side of the bay than on the more convenient Point Loma side.
It seems apparent that the whole idea of a forest on the Point first gained serious attention as a result of Father Antonio de la Ascension’s description of the montesillo on the north side of the harbor, and its rendition in English as little forest instead of the more likely little mountain. Evidence and recollections, which indicated that the area was dotted at one time with as many live and scrub oaks as might be expected anywhere in Southern California, were used to support the initial premise, once it was made.
The expert translators, however, did not call the Point a little forest in the first place; and people doing primary research on the ground found evidences only of groves in one or two places, and thickets. As no reliable evidence can be found in contemporary descriptions that does other than support the negative point of view, it must be accepted.
1. William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907, An Account of the Rise and Progress of the Pioneer Settlement on the Pacific Coast of the United States, San Diego, The History Company, 1907, 33.
2. Ibid., 33-34.
3. Ibid., 34.
4. R. H. Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, Personal Narrative of Life at Sea, New York, John W. Lovell Company, n.d., 103.
R. H. . Dana, Twenty-four Years After (appended to a reprint of Two Years Before the Mast), New York, P. F. Collier and Son, 1909, 408.
6. R. H. Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, 145.
7. San Diego Daily World, June 12, 1873.
8. House, Notes of a Military Reconnaissance from Fort Leavenworth, in Missouri, to San Diego, in California, Including Part of the Arkansas, Del Norte, and Gila Rivers, by Lieut. Col.. W. H. Emory. 30th Cong., 1st Sess., H. Ex. Doc. 41, Washington, Serial No. 547, (page) 113.
9. Henry R. Wagner, “Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast in the Sixteenth Century, Chapter XI, Father Antonio de la Ascension’s Account of Vizcaino’s Voyage,” Quarterly of the California Historical Society, XI, 295.
10. Smythe, op. cit., 33.
11. H. C. Hopkins, History of San Diego, Its Pueblo Lands and Water, San Diego, City Printing Company, 1929, 17.
12. Herbert Eugene Bolton, editor, Original Narratives of Early American History, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916, 83.
13. Margaret Eyer Wilbur, editor, Vancouver in California 1792-94, The Original Account of George Vancouver, I, Los Angeles, Glen Dawson, 1953, 192.
14. Charles Franklin Carter, translator, “Duhaut-Cilly’s Account of California in the Years 1827-28,” Quarterly of the California Historical Society, VIII, 250.