The Journal of San Diego History
July 1964, Volume 10, Number 3
Ray Brandes, Editor

By Ben F. Dixon

Portions of pages one and seven of the Serra water rights document. Original is in the Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkely.

Some call it a “Lost Document,” but it has not really been lost — only hidden — for the past 190 years.

(1) Junipero Serra brought it to the San Diego Presidio from Mexico in 1774;

(2) Attorney H. C. Hopkins translated the document for publication in his History of San Diego, Its Pueblo Lands and Water, in 1929;

(3) The adult education class in San Diego history used the document in classroom work, 1951-56, and included it in the copyrighted handbook of 1956, Don Diego’s San Diego Background.

As a basic document related to San Diego history, it truly has, been lost to historians and researchers and has been given but little attention.

This brief introduction to San Diego’s historically famous “Water Rights Document” is but the preface to a literary detective story. When finally written, we should have the answers to some interesting questions that have long remained unanswered.

What did Father Serra do with this famous document which he secured from Viceroy Antonio Bucarelli in 1773, after he brought it to the Presidio in 1774? Where was it hiding between the years 1774 and 1923? How, when, and from whom did the Bancroft Library acquire the document? Why did not Hubert Howe Bancroft mention this document in connection with his studies on San Diego and the Mission? How is it that historians of California failed to find this basic document and make mention of it in their intriguing and comprehensive works on San Diego’s local history? In all the catalogues of Serrana heretofore published, there has never been any mention of this document.

How, then, did it come to our attention? In 1950, the late Colonel Ed Fletcher visited the Serra Museum. “Boys,” he said to the staff, “I’ve got a little paper here that ought to be in your files. Maybe it will be of some interest to you. It has a great deal to do with the water rights of the San Diego River.” The Colonel said he was cleaning out his desk, getting ready to publish his memoirs, and had no further need for this document. One of his attorneys had procured it for him, on the occasion of the city’s famous water rights suit of 1923. He handed John Davidson a rolled-up photostat of seven pages.

The names of Junipero Serra and Antonio Bucarelli stood out prominently. Winifred Davidson and this writer collaborated on the translation, and placed it with the water documentation files of the Serra Museum.

On the 195th anniversary of the founding of the Mission, the Committee for the Annual Trek to Serra Cross gives a full publication of the document in Diario: The Journal of Padre Serra. In this issue of the Quarterly of the San Diego History Center, the parent organization which spawned the Committee, as well as at the annual tribute ceremony at Serra Cross, mention is to be made again of this basic document.

Says Dr. George P. Hammond, Director of Bancroft Library, “We don’t know how this document came into Bancroft’s possession. But we are all glad that it is there!”

Editor’s Note
The Serra document represents an example of the need for guides to the manuscript collections in California institutions. The Bancroft Library has launched the first of such volumes, which should be emulated by other historical societies and libraries. The San Diego History Center is currently compiling such a list which will probably be mimeographed for distribution. It is hoped that other institutions will also follow the effort of the Bancroft Library and prepare such guides.

Mr. Dixon, former Curator, Serra Museum, is Chairman, Committee for the Annual Trek to Serra Cross, held on the birthday of San Diego, July 16, and an active member of several local historical organizations.