The Journal of San Diego History
October 1965, Volume 11, Number 4
Ray Brandes, Managing Editor

By Donald L. Brockington and Ray Brandes

Photographs from this article

Editor’s Note:

To reconstruct history is the main purpose of archaeology. And, every historical and archaeological project involving recreation of the past should demand a permanent record of the work — a publication. Reports, however, for this purpose, should reach beyond mere taxonomic or the pedestrian chronological studies. The real test of a project value involving the uses of archaeology and history is whether the information received provides a study of a human culture.

The Project Committee of the San Diego History Center, responsible for the work at the Royal Presidio of San Diego, believe that periodic reports to the membership are necessary, and entirely in order. After study discussion and analysis, whatever information is available is to be provided the membership so as to keep them abreast of the progress and informed on new and exciting finds.

This does not negate any final summary report on the project. Preliminary, informative reports will in fact, enhance and encourage at the completion of the entire project, a detailed published study of the human cultures present at the Birthplace of California.

On Sunday afternoon March 7, 1965, the Most Reverend Bishop Francis J. Furey, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of San Diego, blessed the archaeological excavations at the site of the Royal Presidio [1] of San Diego. No one standing there on that afternoon could have known the significance of such a gesture for within a few months project directors made the startling announcement that probably an early Chapel [2] constructed in Upper California had been found on that very spot.


That same day Mrs. Lester L. Wittenberg, President of the San Diego History Center helped Vice-Mayor Ivor de Kirby, representing Mayor Frank Curran, and Mr. Frank Gibson, Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, break ground with trowels in the area.

One hundred and fifty persons witnessed the start of the field work designed to uncover the evidence which will tell of the peoples who once lived and died on Presidio Hill. Since that afternoon, interested thousands have taken guided tours, or strolled about the site reading the posted signs at leisure at the site of the first permanent city in presentday California.

Not quite a year earlier, the Historical Society had begun a feasibility study of the internationally-recognized historic site. A three phase project was envisioned: historical research, archaeological investigation, and partial recreation of the walled city by July 16, 1969, the 200th birthday of the City. Dr. Ralph S. Roberts, Study Committee Chairman, Samuel Wood Hamill, architect, and Board Member, and other Society Directors presented the study plan to the San Diego Park and Recreation Board and to the City Council. The purpose: to determine if the Presidio ruins offered scientific and educational opportunities, and if the once-proud city represented a potential site which might be restored authentically for use as museum and research buildings.

With an enthusiastic spirit of cooperation in the form of a permit issued by City administrators, the Historical Society prepared formal plans to carry out the work. Local business firms and organizations provided grants for research, and financial aid to purchase on microfilm documents from the National Archives in Mexico City, and the Archives of the Indies in Seville. These were some of the written documents and letters originating from this once-important city reflecting views and attitudes of the clergy, military, and civilian alike. They are the journals and diaries, the official reports, the letters home, all capturing on paper some important data which will in part describe life at the Presidio.

Mrs. Hildelisa Branyan, working under the grant from the San Diego Science Foundation, translated sections of Spanish documents, cataloging the information on cards. This information will be collated with the archaeological findings in the earth. In her search for clues to the way-of-life at the Royal Presidio she located an interesting diary of ship-captain Josef Camacho who visited the Presidio in 1778. He told of the “Presidio shaped as a quadrangle made up on the west side with quarters of the troops; on the opposite the house of the Lieutenant Commanding; on the north by three buildings of residents, and on the south by the guarded storehouse. Such information is priceless in the quest for all the missing links.

Mrs. Valerie Lemke, working with material published in English, and particularly the translated letters of Father Serra, also cataloged information, principally descriptive in nature, which will prove of great value when matched up with the results from the soil. And, Patrick Pleskunas, and other students at Point Loma High School took an opportunity to look at and examine documents out of the past. There are yet many more principal papers which need to be obtained and studied before the full scope of this story is completed.

The existence of this historic landmark has long been known. Yet here this village has rested, for nearly two hundred years with the several cultures yet not understood. Little is known of the Diegueñno Indians who lived at the time of Spanish Contact. Almost nothing has been written about the Spaniards who came to this hill and began life on the frontier. Through the use of historical research, and archaeological excavations the intent of the project is to recreate the culture of these persons.

Of those four presidios built by Spanish settlers in Upper California, only this site at San Diego remains in an almost virgin state. The other three have vanished due to man’s handiwork with earth moving equipment. Ironically enough, there are plans for those presidios now gone: San Francisco, Santa Barbara and Monterey, but not for San Diego.

There are certain broad facts well-known to students of history. In 1769, the first Europeans to settle California chose this magnificient vantage point of Presidio Hill for their home. Those who made the beginnings of civilization on this hill laid the ground-work for a city, and for some sixty-five years the hillsite supported the clergy, the military and the civilian settlers in the borderlands village.


At its peak the village may have had four hundred occupants. With worn-out-soil, a desire for more and better land, the Spanish and Mexican inhabitants began to leave the walled city, and moved down to begin the construction of houses in Old San Diego, or Old Town. By 1839, the Royal Presidio was abandoned.

When the exodus took place, the settlers carried off roof tiles, timbers from the beams; removed door and window jams and any other parts which would be useful in building their new homes. Mother nature then took over; rain melted down adobe walls; wind blew in sand and dirt which gradually covered up most of the Presidio. A few walls remained silhouetted against the barren landscape, browsed by cattle and a few sheep.

But little else is understood about this walled city. Even the location of the original ten foot adobe wall around the city is uncertain. The historical evidence rests in foreign archives thousands of miles away or buried as secrets under the sod.

What modern miracle has kept the site as it was, left by those who walked down the hill and away from it?

For some one hundred years the hillside stood silent. Then George White Marston envisioned the hillside as preserved for a park and monument to the Spanish heritage. Almost singlehandedly he developed the landscape, brought in trees to the barren hillside, covered the Presidio over with top soil and lawn, built the magnificent structure of the museum dedicated to Junípero Serra, and gave everything to the people of San Diego as a wonderful present. Few cities in this country can look with pride on such a personas George White Marston. Yet with all his vision, he could not have foreseen the far-reaching significance of his deeds.

In the spring of 1965, following the groundbreaking ceremony, San Diego State College, working under an agreement with the Historical Society, established the archaeological field school for its students in Presidio Park. Dr. Ray Brandes, Director of the Serra Museum, served as liaison for the Historical Society in the project, while Professor Donald Brockington. served as field director for San Diego State College.

Necessary contracts were drawn up; insurance taken out for public liability and property damage particularly, since the work was being undertaken in a public park and recreation area. A chain link fence was erected around the site of the excavations, which enabled visitors to view the work as it was being accomplished, without endangering themselves or obstructing the work of the students.

State College students, and Serra Museum personnel were assigned service as guides for the tourists who visited the site and made inquiries about the excavations. One student worked at the problem of public relations, and preparation of press releases as a class assignment. A control was placed on information which could be disseminated from the excavations in order that only correct information would become public knowledge, and to insure that the participating institutions might have the benefit of the information recovered. Richard F. Pourade, vice-president of the Historical Society, and editor-emeritus, San Diego Union, served as coordinator of news releases.

The section chosen for excavation was a long depression surrounded by mounds about three feet in height. This area of Presidio Park, on the western slope below the Serra Memorial Cross and east of the lower Presidio Drive, was void of vegetation or trees-only the sod had to be removed.

Once the site had been selected and work teams organized, the area was staked out in a grid with ten foot intervals for precise horizontal and vertical control. A primary datum point was established and located, and maps and contour drawings were made. Stratigraphic profiles were drawn for each side of completed quadrants and as work progressed, scale drawings made of all walls and floors. Each quadrant, wall section, and special features were also photographed to insure a complete record of the site. Colored slides, colored motion picture film, and black and white photographs were taken regularly.

Twenty students began peeling back the sod so that the ruins could be viewed for the first time in some two hundred years. The long mound to be excavated was divided into three arbitrary sectionsfour students, under the supervision of a crew chief, went to work in each section. Rows of earth (balks) were left remaining inside the rooms so that the students would have runways for the wheelbarrows carrying off the dirt. Into the soil went the picks to remove the turf and roots coming from pine trees some distance away. Shovels carried out the rubble and top soil, fairly soft from park waterings. There had been some concern that since the park gardeners continually watered the park grounds, the possibility existed that pumps might have to be used in the ground, in the work areas. But the soil was pleasantly soft to work.

The field work was accomplished with William James as assistant director; Robert Cassidy, Carl Falk and Christopher White as crew chiefs; and Margaret Bartz, Susan Cleary, David Connelly, Richard Ellis, Robert Gonzales, Kenneth Hedges, Ardyce Holmberg, Jack Inhofe, Raymond Lieberenz, Joan McCarthy, James Porter, Raymond Scaramella and Franklin Smith as crew members. Dr. Ned Greenwood of the State College Department of Geography also served as a crew member and gave his expert opinions regarding soils.

As students troweled their way down through the rubble, at the same time recording and photographing their finds, adobe blocks could be made out which were the walls of buildings, buried to a height of about 3 1/2 feet; melted into the natural soil. The baked adobe block used for wall construction and flooring was heavy and often contained fingerprints, perhaps of the maker; several brick contained prints of a dog which crossed over the bricks drying in the sun. On several other brick, students noted arrows and other forms of doodling.

During original construction the wall adobes were placed on a base of cobblestones perhaps layered into a shallow trench cut into the native clay soil. The cobble base always is wider than the higher adobe section. Walls splay out at their bases.

Outside the building test pits along one wall exposed foundations of cobblestone which buttressed a heavy building-that is, one with high and heavy walls, and a heavy roof. These were river cobbleslarge, round or egg-shaped. Buttressing of this kind was frequent on the frontier, and not uncommon to religious architecture.

It should be recalled that project directors had absolutely no preconceived notions as to the kind of structure under excavation. As the work proceeded, it became apparent that there were three sections of a rather large building. A long room (Room B) running east-west measured sixty feet long. (Later testing added another thirty feet). This room was eighteen feet wide. The long wall dimensions twenty-seven inches thick, and the wall at the east end being fifty-four inches thick. Bricks measuring 27 x 13 x 3 inches were placed crossing each other with mud mortar between them as the adhesive material.

In this main hall, designated the nave, or (Room A’) tile bases were found along each wall, plastered and protruding several feet above the floor. These probably served as bases for arches inside the long room.

The wall surfaces were smeared with mud mortar and covered with fine lime plaster, often painted al fresco. As the students moved downward into the soil, plaster on the walls began to appear; some with twelve red, blue, or white coatings. Other wall surfaces showed traces of red lines and floral motifs, while large yellow checks on white plaster were also found along the base of the wall. Sea shells according to a contemporary account were used in a local lime kiln for preparation of the plaster.

In addition to the fresco painting on the plastered walls, some rather sizeable pieces of gold leaf were removed from the wall. The paintings had deteriorated considerably, making the task of piecing the elements together a difficult one. But the samplings recovered will be compared with several in existence at other missions and chapels.

North of the nave (Room A’), a single wide entrance was found leading into another irregularly shaped room (Room A). Two low pillars of baked tiles were found where the main hall opened into this side alcove. The bases have been interpreted as having supported an arch over the entrance into the alcove from the main hall. The alcove is about six feet deep and very irregular in form. There is no outside door from this side room. Inside the alcove, temporarily called the mortuary room because of its probable use in funeral services, a tile platform on the floor had a small “built-up” section of adobe block. The plastered platform was painted with red, geometric designs.

At the southeast side of the nave, a doorway led into another room (Room C) tentatively labeled as the sacristy, or area used for changing and storing religious vestments and items used in the services. The interior measures about seventeen feet square with walls twenty-seven inches thick. There was no exit from this room to the outside.

The east wall of the sacristy had been considerably repaired with cobblestones, chunks of adobe, and even pottery sherds pushed into the wall indicating some urgency to plug up a damaged wall. There was some mystery to this until, outside the room, on the south side, a tile irrigation ditch was found, again having all the appearances of hasty construction. The conclusion: that at one time, a heavy flow of water, coming off the hill, went through the wall of the sacristy. The irrigation channel was put in, and the wall plugged up quickly. There had been also at one time, on the south wall of the sacristy, steps and a doorway leading from the sacristy to the outside. This door had also been filled in and blocked up with tile, mud, and other incongruous building materials.

During the 1930’s when the park was being developed, a rectangular area (Room Y) was left open and repaired with the use of modern concrete and the older tile. The room measures twenty feet east-west by twenty five feet north-south. The room aligns itself with the front wall of the main hall, leading to the assumption that it probably is the floor of the bell tower. While this may appear as speculative at this point, sketches of other contemporary Presidio chapels indicate bell towers to the left of the main entrances when viewed from the front exterior.

The front or main door of the church has not been excavated, although it is known to be situated at a certain spot, through use of a soil sampler, exactly ninety feet from the other end of the church. A pine tree, planted in 1928 now reposes on the front steps of the chapel. More appropriately, a Serra Palm should be planted at this spot.

The nave (Room A’) was excavated at different places by the students. At the east end (Room B) next to the wall a raised platform, rectangular in shape and plastered on top was located. Then in this platform there appeared a small rectangular pit (later identified as an ambry into which sacramental items were disposed at the conclusion of Mass). As more earth was removed, a tier of adobe brick appeared, and several more tier at a heigth of about five feet. Badly rotted pieces of wood were next found around this raised platform-and tacked on with copper nails were long oxidized strips of fancily-trimmed copper. After comparison with similar artifacts, these were determined probably to be portions of communion rails.

Among the architectural features and building materials brought to light were the fired, curved red tile, commonly used for both roofing, and for drainage tile. These are reputed to have been moulded on the woman’s leg during manufacture (accounting for the differences in shapes and sizes!)

Building materials included a wide range of red fired adobe tile used for arches, door lintels and flooring, and the large brown-colored adobe used for walls.

All the major artifacts, such as the communion rail, the architectural features such as the ambry, the frescoes, altar, buttressing support the theory that the building was a chapel constructed during the early life of the Presidio. The question remaining to be answered is whether this was the first permanently constructed chapel, or one built later during the occupation of the Presidio.

Serra wrote that a Chapel was under construction. In other letters he wrote that the foundations for the Chapel had been finished, and walls of adobe raised from the ground. He knew by 1774 that he would have to move up Mission Valley, nearer the Indians. He intended to build Mission San Diego de Alcala, which he did, but left behind for use at the Royal Presidio the unfinished Chapel.

Serra offered the building to the military comandante who in turn wondered where he would get the men or the building materials to finish construction. The Presidio Chapel was finished, however, and in use for a number of years, as suggested by a variety of historical records.

Is that Chapel the one now under excavation? Burial registers and other documents of the time period 1781 describe such a Chapel. In 1792, Padre Lasuen told of the “cemetary of the presidio of San Diego . . . situated on one side of the church, which is not the case at other presidios.” The next year Captain George Vancouver brought with him to San Diego, Archibald Menzies, the British naturalist who told of the “church… in the middle of one side of the square and though but small is neatly finished and kept exceedingly clean and in good order …”

Of one matter there is certainty. The Chapel under excavation served a long and continuous period as a house of worship at this Birthplace of California. Further exploratory work at the site, and new and enlightening information taken from the documents coming from foreign archives will produce many more of the missing links!

From within the Chapel itself, few artifacts appeared in the soilyet throughout the first semester’s work there always appeared some tantalizing evidence that man had truly lived at this village: fragments of worked shell, a Chumash abalone shell fishook; sherds from Diegueño Indian pottery indicating the presence of an Indian village nearby the site.

Outside the sacristy (Room C), to the south, a trench exposed a very productive trash area. As those involved in archaeology well know, very often the best evidences of man’s past come from his trashthe fragments of a variety of objects thrown away. Broken pieces of imported porcelain vessels, fragments of iron, copper or brass hardware, glass vessels and bones from the dinner table all find their way to a handy trash pile.

Assuming that man throws objects on top of the trash pile, and that there is no disturbance of this trash heap, the oldest objects should be on the bottom of the pile, generally covered over with a little dirt. The most recently-used objects will be on top of the heap. In the trash pile (strangely enough alongside the sacristy) the artifacts brought to light included large quantities of porcelain dishes, bowls, cups, and saucers. In a more detailed report these will have been identified as having come from various parts of the world reflecting a wide variety of trade from Italy, France, England, Mexico and the Orient. Gilbert Newton is currently investigating the picture of ships plying trade between Mexico and San Diego in the 18th century which will help greatly in terms of understanding the commercial trade of the period.

Pottery manufactured by local Diegueño Indians will eventually be described and identified as a part of this project. Data is lacking on the Indian ceramics made in this region, but Mrs. Toby Ornstein has begun that task of analyzing, describing, and classifying these local Indian potteries. The results will contribute to the identification of pottery not only from this site, but from other regional sites as well.

John Fry, a student at San Diego State College, gave up his free time during last spring to begin studies of the European and Oriental ceramics; preparing a sherd board for use of the student- archaeologists.


James Waddell and Glenn LaRocque helped during the summer months cleaning and numbering some of the thousands of sherds recovered from surface collecting, while Kathleen Rudd assisted in cataloging many new books for the identification of artifacts in the library.

In June 1965, the students from San Diego State College finished the first season’s work. The site was cleaned, grass cut back, and all left in readiness for the fall season. Plans call for continuance of work on the Presidio Chapel. During the summer, Dr. Brandes undertook a field program for junior members of the Historical Society in local archaeology and history. Some forty-five young people from twelve to twenty years of age learned to survey, map and sketch such historic sites. At the same time they performed a community service by helping to maintain the site.

The young people assisted in the study of early photographs of Presidio Hill to determine the location of the original wall. Several aerial photographs in particular, taken in 1928, revealed a long mound of earth running east-west, situated some one hundred yards south of the present re-created wall. The photos were taken at a time when the hill had no grass, trees or vegetation whatsoever.

Testing at this point brought up considerable pieces of tile and brick. The significance of this discovery being that the Presidio was much larger than had been believed. The Chapel instead of being at the south edge of the village, now could be placed in the center of the Presidio. A number of house mounds (not visible on the ground because the earth was leveled and covered with grass) were located outside the present re-created wall.

If we assume the attitude (as we properly should) that when we began to historically research and archaeologically excavate the site of the Royal Presidio, we knew absolutely nothing about these first Europeans, we could now say that we have learned a great deal. We know that the Spaniards were a deeply religious people. The religious edifices begun by Father Junípero Serra, and his writings show this much to us. The carefully written invoices reflect the variety and quantity of religious vestments and articles used at the altar and for Mass. We know that the Spaniards were a very literate people. The voluminous amount of records attest to beautiful handwriting, an appreciation for literary style, and an obsession for the recording of data. Actually the Crown required documents in triplicate (or more) copies and, therefore, the same document might appear in several archives.

That these men brought their knowledge and traits from Europe and Mexico is evidenced in the manner of construction of the Chapel; that they adapted these methods to the environment is seen in the use of mud for adobe, sea shells for lime, and timber for building materials. That they could not survive or exist in the borderlands vacuum is seen in the vast quantity of materials brought into the port of San Diego by ships of the Mission Fleet, and now evidenced both by the written document, and the artifact (fragmentary) recovered from the soil.

Yet the Spaniard was resourceful — he did not always wait for the ship to be hailed into port with supplies. Emergencies required the forging of iron objects; broken saddle trappings needed to be repaired; local artisans devised other tools in preference to waiting six months for a ship to appear on the horizon.

Invoices tell of the shipment by boat from La Paz to San Diego of many necessities of life, and of some luxuries. Bills of lading describe foods, trappings, clothing, and dinnerware shipped by boat. Anthropologists would have expected that metates ground locally from boulders would be found at this frontier village but, invoices clearly note the shipment of large numbers of three-legged metates, made in Mexico of a volcanic stone. Was this kitchen utensil a luxury at this time, or did the housewife have a particular preference for the metate from Mexico which had a flat, rather than round surface?

While the location is not yet known of the school started at the Presidio by retired Sergeant Don Manuel de Vargas, we can feel certain the villagers wanted education for their children. De Vargas had been school teacher just a short time before in San Jose and then came to San Diego to live and teach. Report cards from the National Archives in Mexico City, for these first twenty-five students, ages five to seventeen have been translated. The cards reflect the progress of the children, their attitudes, and even the titles of the books they were using in 1796. Was the school held in the Chapel? The answer to this question is still a moot one, but such records give an intimate glimpse of the younger people and will be invaluable when the total picture is pieced together.

That the soldiers on presidial duty were, at times, an unruly lot is reflected in the correspondence which passed from the clergy to the military. When the first Spaniards arrived at Presidio HilI, they were men far out on the frontier and lonely; co-habitation with the comely Diegueño should have been expected. Moreover the situation became explosive. Father Serra quickly explained the problem to Mexico City; the Viceroy quickly drafted a regulation in 1771 stating that married men moving to California would bring their families and single men would attest to their marital state before they left Mexico.

Father Serra satisfied with the new law wrote to Melchor de Peramas in June 1774, “…now the number of families is increasing. And the people here will now be rid of their belief that the Spaniards are the offspring of mules, a notion they previously had, seeing that mules were the only members of the female gender they saw among us…”

The story of man comes from both the written document and the non-written document in the earth. All this is elemental information, some will say. If this be true then the project has had an excellent start for we must commence as near the beginning of our story as possible. The premise is to put back together a human culture as near as possible using these primary or original source materials. Nothing shall be taken for granted.

The first season’s work is completed. The city is no longer silent for it is offering up its secrets to those interested in the information. It may be said that the finding of the Chapel was pure chance, and yet may be indicative of future electrifying finds. Certainly the work was highly exciting and scientifically productive.

This is but a beginning. Scientific investigations of this kind, accomplished properly require much time and patience. And, the work must be seen through to the conclusion. That end may come in the form of the published final report, or it can come in the form chosen as well, by the Historical Society. The Society plan calls for possible recreation of some of the excavated buildings in time for the 1969 celebration. Within these museum exhibit rooms would be placed the final result of the present work. Every bit of evidence recovered by the archaeological and historical detectives would be transmitted into a living exhibit, to a mannekin, or to an exhibit of some type.

This fall the work will continue at the Royal Presidio. The Historical Society strongly hopes to bring back to life this once-important Spanish village, where the beginnings of Christian civilization took place on the edge of the Pacific.

In just this short time, the site has offered up a wonderful community-project: an opportunity for many persons to learn about our rich heritage, a scientific and educational project for students and laymen, and the potential for a restoration which few communities in this country will ever enjoy.


1. Presidio — In the case of the Royal Presidio of San Diego, a city surrounded by an 8 to 10 foot wall which supposedly gave protection against the Indians. Inside the walled city lived the clergy, military, and civilian settler.

2. Chapel — Religious structure intended for use at the Presidio of San Diego as a place of worship for the settlers and soldiers. This is different from the Mission which was used as a church intended more for the local Indian populations.

The San Diego History Center expresses appreciation to those organizations, and individuals financially assisting the work of the project in this first year. This generosity made possible a project of community-wide interest. Thanks are gratefully due to:

The Copley Press
Mrs. W. C. Crandall
The First National Bank of San Diego
The J. H. Fox Foundation
The Lane Publishing Company
The Law Library Justice Foundation
The Oneira Women’s Club
The San Diego Federal Savings and Loan Association
The San Diego Science Foundation
The Security Title Insurance Company
The Union-Tribune Publishing Company
The Westgate-California Foundation