Part I Prelude
In their preliminary report to the membership on the archaeological and historical investigations at the Royal Presidio of San Diego, published in the October 1965 issue of the Journal of San Diego History, then called “Times Gone By,” Donald L. Brockington, field director of the archaeological field school, and Ray Brandes, director of Junipero Serra Museum, stated:
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.
Their definition remains timely and appropriate. Their report on the first season of work at the Royal Presidio Excavations aroused much interest and the issue soon was sold out.
Sections of that original article, plus additional information compiled by the staff of Junipero Serra Museum, and by Dr. Paul Ezell, Project Superintendent of the Royal Presidio Excavations, (without whose assistance and guidance this new material never would have been assembled), have been incorporated into a new and up to date report on the excavations appearing in this issue of the Journal of San Diego History. As you read the article you will be able to see how the project is meeting the test of providing a “study of a human culture.”
Part II The History of a Hill
The story of the Royal Presidio Excavations begins with the history of a promontory known to us as “Presidio Hill.” In relating its story we cannot start by saying that “in the beginning there was the hill,” for in the beginning there was no hill. The hill was created by upheavals of land, by seas which rose and fell, by the washing of an infinite number of raindrops, by the baking effect of a glowing sun, by the buffeting of winds and by the San Diego River, which, at one time, apparently was a powerful force, sweeping down from the mountains and eating away huge sections of land as it sped toward the sea. The river in this way formed a valley. The southwestern corner of the mesa overhanging the valley is our Presidio Hill.
At one time the hill was forested and animals roamed its surface. We know this because this was true of other hills in the area. As late as 1602 the explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, discovered this, according to a diary kept by one of his men named “Torquemada,” when they visited San Diego.
… on land there is much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes and many other birds… on the morning after the day of the glorious St. Martín, the general ordered some men to go and examine a mountain (Point Loma) which protects this harbor from the northwest wind. .. they found much live oak timber and other trees…
By the time that Father Junípero Serra arrived in San Diego, in 1769, much of the timber and much of the game had disappeared. The deserts of eastern California had begun to march toward the Pacific Ocean?a journey which is continuing today.
We do not know at what precise time Indians began to roam the hill and settle at its base. When Father Serra came to San Diego on July 1, 1769, a large number of Indians lived in a village called “Cosoy,” at the foot of the scarp, where there were trees and where there was good water. Little is known of the history of these Indians, whom it is assumed, the Spaniards named “Diegueños.” The facts are hidden beneath the surface of the hill.
By one mere act, on July 16,1769, Father Serra elevated the hill to a place of historic significance. On this austere ridge overlooking a pair of shimmering bays and long skirts of purple sea trimmed with white ruffles, he chose to erect the first mission and presidio in Upper California…
Part III The Life and Death of a Presidio
On the morning of July 16 therefore the zealous Fr. Presidente, (Father Serra) assisted by Fathers Vizcaíno and Parrón, raised the Cross where the chapel was to stand; whereupon he blessed the sacred emblem of salvation as also the location for the future mission, both within sight of the harbor. The few men able to be on their feet, when not attending the scurvy-stricken soldiers and sailors, lent their assistance in constructing a few poor huts of stakes which they roofed with tiles. These rude structures together with the hospital camp, they surrounded with a stockade.
In these words Father Francisco Palou described the origin of the Royal Presidio of San Diego and the founding of white settlements in Upper California.
Of what significance was the establishment of this presidio? What purpose did a presidio fill?
Spanish colonizing projects in Upper California involved the use of two forces, a religious group to Christianize the people and a military force to conquer the country and to protect the members of the missionary expedition. A presidio was a fort?a military settlement designed to assist in protecting those who were part of the Spanish colonizing project from attack by Indians or other unfriendly forces.
Presidios also were outposts of Spanish civilization in a distant and alien new world. During the years 1769-1830 four presidios stood as the only defense of Upper California. Of these San Diego was one. It guarded a district which ran north 125 miles. It was responsible for the welfare of San Diego Mission, San Luis Rey Mission, San Juan Capistrano Mission, San Gabriel Mission and three assistencias.
Between the time that the first crude buildings were erected, in July 1769, and the following spring little was accomplished toward building a permanent presidio of San Diego. During that summer only about four soldiers were on hand to hold the Indians in line?the rest having marched north in the futile search for the bay of Monterey. Supply ships had failed to arrive and the inhabitants of the little fortress were almost destitute.
Conditions were so bad that when the military expedition returned from the disappointing trip to northern California, abandonment of the Presidio and of the entire Upper California project was considered. Only Father Serra’s pleas kept this consideration from becoming a reality.
After the arrival of provision vessels in March 1770 the building of the presidio was resumed. A temporary stockade was completed and two bronze cannons were placed in position. One pointed to the harbor and the other, in subtle manner, toward the village of the uncooperative Indians. Houses of wood, rushes, tule, and adobe were constructed.
Black’s “History of San Diego County,” Vol. I, page 80 states that within three years over 4000 adobe bricks had been made. Stones were being collected for use in building the wall to replace the wooden stockade. (This is perhaps the same wall now being uncovered by the excavation classes.) A foundation had also been laid for a church ninety feet long but work on the building was suspended because of delay in the arrival of the supply ship.
It was not until November of 1796, when the esplanade, the powder magazine and flag were blessed by the priests and a salute was fired in honor of the event, that the fort on Presidio Hill was opened officially, says Black. So poor, however, were the presidio inhabitants that in the whole of Upper California there was neither a flag nor the materials for making one…
What was the appearance of the Royal Presidio of San Diego? How was it laid out? The truth is that nobody knows for sure. The secret is hidden in the depths of Presidio Hill…
We know some things about the appearance of the Presidio, based on written record of visitors.
Ship Captain Josef Camacho, who visited the Presidio in 1778 described it as
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…
Father Pedro Fages arrived at the Presidio in 1782 and said:
We arrived at the Presidio of San Diego … about four in the afternoon and halted there. The lieutenant in command, Don Joseph de Zuniga, and his ensign, Valasquez, came out about half a league to meet us. This Royal Presidio is in good condition, as is the troop. They are building a little church in the center and round about the presidio a mud wall…
This was the same year in which, according to some Presidio records, the “old church” within the presidial compound burned. Which church was this?
Duflot de Mofras, an emissary of the French Government, who arrived in Monterey on May 12, 1841, described San Diego Presidio when he wrote that all California posts were established:
…on the same plan. Choosing a favorable place they surrounded it with a ditch twelve feet wide and six feet deep; the earth of the ditch served as an out-work.
The enclosure of a pueblo was formed of a quadrilateral, six hundred feet square. The rampart, built of brick (adobe) was twelve to fifteen feet high by thirty six inches in thickness; small bastions flanked the angles… Not far from the presidio, according to the topography of the land, was an open battery, pompously styled the the castle; within the enclosure of the presidio were the church, the quarters of the officers and soldiers, the houses of the colonists, store houses, workshops, wells and cisterns. Outside were grouped some houses and at little distance was the king’s farm, el rancho del rey (in San Diego’s case now National City) which furnished pasturage to the horses and beasts of burden of the garrison. (Quoted in Winnifred Davidson’s “Highlights of San Diego History,” page 48.)
What was life like for the handful of pioneers who lived within the walled city? We may speculate and we may rely on the observations of those who visited the Presidio, but much of the information about the lives and dreams of these early Californians also is hidden in the hill…
From 1769 to 1830 the population of what was then San Diego lived within the adobe walls of the garrison. This meant that upwards of four hundred people slept, ate, worked, were born, were baptized, went to school, were married and died there.
Seldom could they ever venture from the Presidio?only when within reach of guns or the protection of guards. This smallest presidio in the Department of California was also the most isolated.
The Presidio of San Diego, said Captain George Vancouver, of the British ship, “Discovery,” which dropped anchor in San Diego bay in 1793:
…seemed to be the least of the Spanish settlements. It is irregularly built, on very uneven ground. .. The, situation of it is dreary and lonesome, in the midst of a barren uncultivated country.
The fear of Indian attack was a constant problem. The “soldados de cuera,” or “leather jacket soldiers,” who guarded the area, were a superb group of military men, yet when the Mission San Diego de Alcalá was attacked by Indians in 1774 and the survivors of the attack made the frantic journey to the Presidio and safety they rushed for protection to an unfair balance; a lone Corporal and ten soldiers to combat the four hundred Indians who had razed the Mission! Roof tops within the Presidio were covered with dirt to prevent the Indians from setting fire to them and the people of the Presidio waited and prayed for safe deliverance.
Every time a foreign vessel entered the harbor there was apprehension within the Presidio. Still the isolated people were grateful for the visits because the visits meant supplies and news of the outside world. This was true of all presidios. Adelbert von Chamisso, who visited in San Francisco in 1816, remarked that the officers of the presidio were only too willing to accept the dinner invitation of the commander of the Russian ship, “Rurik:”
Our friends from the presidio were always promptly on hand.
They were poorly fed, he continued, for the missionaries could not deliver supplies without a requisition and they had no bread or meal and were forced to live on maize.
Life was leisurely and dull, Hubert Howe Bancroft, the historian, commented:
Every week or so small parties of soldier couriers arrived from Loreto in the south or Monterey in the north with ponderous dispatches for officials here and to the north and with items of news for all. Each day of festival a friar came over from the mission to say mass and otherwise care for the spiritual interests of soldiers and their families; and thus the time dragged on from day to day and year to year.
In the middle of the south wall of the Presidio there was a huge gate through which all visitors entered-the frocked Franciscans from other missions, the soldiers carrying mail and travelers from throughout the world.
The duties of the soldiers were varied. They garrisoned the Presidio, the mission, and the “castillo,” or fort, at Point Guijarros, on Point Loma. This was in the tradition of Spanish colonizing methods also, for normally a presidio was assisted in the defense of the area by a castillo, placed outside the presidio at a point overlooking the sea. The castillo guarded the area from naval attack.
The soldados cared for horses and cattle, and performed that most dangerous of all the military jobs, carrying the mail by horseback through the brush from one remote outpost to another.
A soldier had a considerable amount of free time and spent most of it in trying to support his family. His pay was low and his expenses were high, since all supplies were brought in from Mexico. He often could be found doing carpentry work, being a blacksmith, or being a farmer.
For the women, living elbow to elbow with each other inside the cramped citadel, there was the constant battle against dirt and trash accumulation, endless meal preparations over metates, and wood fires, and the unending job of child care. There were no doctors to cure illness, no medicines to alleviate pain and no place to go to “get away from it all.”
To us this seems to have been an intolerable type of life, but for the pioneer citizens within the Royal Presidio of San Diego it was as good a[n] existence as what they had left?and in some respects a better one. At the Presidio one had hope for a better life for himself and for his children through assistance from the government in obtaining that most desired of all personal possessions?the piece of land of his own.
In line with the desire for self improvement was a desire on the part of the people of the Presidio to see that their children were educated. Somewhere inside the fortress as early as 1796 there was a school. It was taught by a retired sergeant, Don Manuel de Vargas. De Vargas had been a school teacher before coming to San Diego to live and teach. Report cards from the National Archives in Mexico City, available on micro-film in Junípero Serra Museum Library for those first twenty five young students, ages five to seventeen, contain succinct comments which indicate that the mutual problems of teachers, students and parents have not changed over the centuries.
Of one young pupil the instructor comments in encouraging fashion, that he has intelligence, but is not industrious, yet he is courteous, thank God!
Of another he remarks that the child is no student but is courteous and industrious?for which blessings thank God!
A third pupil, however, is neither intelligent, industrious nor courteous. It is the will of God, declares the frustrated teacher.
Later, under Mexican rule a school also was established at the Presidio. A priest named Father Menéndez acted as teacher, receiving from fifteen to twenty dollars a month from town funds. In 1829 the school had eighteen pupils.
Father Menéndez had arrived at the Port of San Diego in 1825 and took over the position of chaplain at the Presidio. Up until that time the Presidio relied on the part time services of the priests from the mission, who, since the removal of the mission up into the valley, were assigned the spiritual duties of the Presidio.
The Mexican Revolution, occurring in the early 1820’s, at first had little effect on the Presidio and its inhabitants. In the long run, however, the emergence of the Mexican Republic and its secularization policies destroyed the mission system and indirectly distroyed[sic] the presidios.
Spanish soldiers in Upper California apparently knew little or nothing of the revolution until it was over. On April 20, 1822, the Mexican flag was raised over the Presidio of San Diego and the surprised inhabitants of the fort, having little other recourse, swore allegiance to it.
Actually, at first there was little change for the inhabitants to notice. The language, the customs, and the religion were the same. In addition, the government always had been so far away as to create little direct effect on their lives.
The Presidio of San Diego, for a while, was elevated to a position of higher dignity in 1835, when the governor, Jose María Echeandía, made it the capital of Upper and Lower California.
Alfred Robinson, author of “Life in California Before the Conquest,” visited the capital in 1829, and gave a detailed description of what he observed:
After dinner we called upon the Gobernador General, Don José María de Echeandía…His house was located in the center of a large square of buildings occupied by his officers and so elevated as to overlook them all and command a view of the sea. On the right hand was a small Gothic chapel with its cemetery and immediately in front close to the principal entrance was the guardroom, where the soldiers were amusing themselves, some seated on the ground playing cards and smoking while others were dancing to the music of the guitar. The whole was surrounded by a high wall originally intended as a defense against the Indians. At the gate stood a sentinel with slouched hat and a blanket thrown over his shoulder, his old Spanish musket resting on the other. His pantaloons were buttoned and ornamented at the knee, below which his legs were protected by leggings of dressed deerskin secured with spangled garters.
On the lawn beneath the hill on which the Presidio is built stood about thirty houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans, not so well constructed in respect either to beauty or stability as the houses at Monterey, with the exception of that belonging to our administrator, Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion, then in an unfinished state, bade fair, when completed, to surpass any other in the country.
All presidios had prisons, which were used. Although Spanish justice and Mexican, too, was severe, few soldiers ever were punished in harsh fashion. Severity and imprisonment were reserved for foreigners and for Indians.
During the same period in which Robinson visited San Diego, this unhappy truth was experienced by James Ohio Pattie, who, with his father, Sylvester Pattie, and a party of other trappers, was imprisoned in the Presidio, where his father died. A memorial to Sylvester Pattie is situated southeast of the Royal Presidio Excavations. Some historians claim that he was the first American to die in California.
In his “Personal Narrative,” young Pattie remarked:
My prison was a cell eight or ten feet square, with walls and floors of stone. A door, with iron bars an inch square, crossed over each other, like the bars of window sashes, and it grated on its iron hinges as it opened to receive me.
Pattie also complained about the quality of the food?he was accustomed to a better quality of cuisine than either the Spanish or the Mexicans?and of filth and inhospitality.
There is no doubt that by that time the Presidio was deteriorating. The Mexican government could not and would not keep the presidios in condition. Missions had been secularized and the area, having lost its prosperous agricultural nub, began to retrogress.
During the 1820’s also there began an exodus from the Presidio down the hill to what later became “Old Town,” Soldiers, assisted by the government, and eligible for retirement, selected plots of land of their own, away from the compressed quarters of the fort, and proceeded to build their own homes, and have their own orchards and gardens. The great danger from Indian or foreign attack had subsided. The Presidio was not indispensable to safety anymore. Its importance was gone.
A sad place is the Presidio of San Diego, the saddest of all that we have visited in California, with the exception of San Pedro, which is entirely a desert. It is built on the slope of an arid hill and has no regular form. It is a shapeless mass of houses, all the more gloomy on account of the dark color of the bricks of which they are rudely constructed. Nevertheless it was at that time the seat of the government. Below the Presidio on a sandy plain are seen scattered thirty or forty houses of poor appearance and a few gardens badly cultivated.
This was the opinion of the French navigator Duhaut-Cilly, who came to San Diego in April 1827.
In 1834 Old Town was a thriving little community, unhappy, however over the fact that it did not have city status, but still was ruled by a commandant from the mass of rubble on a hill, whose glory and importance long ago had withered away. In December of that year San Diego was granted “pueblo” or town status.
A few months earlier, in August, San Diego was visited by a young and restless dropout from college. After suffering a severe attack of measles, with resulting eye trouble, the young adult enlisted aboard a trading ship called the “Alert,” and wrote a book about his experiences. Richard Henry Dana, in his “Two Years Before the Mast,” had this to say about 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…
The first place we went to was the old ruinous presidio, which stands on a rising ground near the village, which it overlooks. It is built in the form of an open square, like all the other presidios, and was in a most ruinous state, with the exception of one side, in which the commandant lived, with his family. There were only two guns, one of which was spiked and the other had no carriage. Twelve half clothed and half starved looking fellows composed the garrison; and they, it was said, had not a musket apiece. The small settlement lay directly below the fort, composed of about forty dark brown looking huts or houses and two larger ones, plastered which belonged to two of the “gente de razón.”
San Diego’s fortunes continued to decline. By 1838 its population was so reduced that the pueblo lost its status and was made a mere department of the pueblo of Los Angeles.
Between 1836 and 1840 nearly all the Mexican ranchos were experiencing trouble with plundering by the Indians, disorganized through secularization. Little farming could be done. Ranchers and farmers complained, but there were few soldiers available for protection and they were without arms and ammunition. Indians became so disdainful of the Mexican force of arms that they made raids into populated areas, such as Old Town.
The condition of the military post at the Presidio was very bad, William E. Smythe comments in his “History of San Diego.”
Doubtless the soldiers wished that they had treated the poor missionaries with more appreciation, seeing that starvation and nakedness followed their removal from the contact of the Indians. For example, in 1834, Lt. Salazar could not go to Monterey for want of a shirt and jacket. He had only a poor cloak to cover the frightful condition of his trousers. There was no food for the prisoners. They were therefore farmed out to any citizen who would feed them. In February 1827 fourteen prisoners were engaged in public works?three in repairing the plaza road and several more at work on the courthouse and jail, which were deemed more urgent than the church. The presidio building was abandoned about 1825 and by 1840 it was in ruins. A few half starved soldiers lingered on as a melancholy reminder of former glory.
Folklore declares that in 1839 the garrison consisted of only one soldier at the Presidio and eight at San Luis Rey, and that they disbanded in September in order to escape death from starvation. Much of the remaining sections of buildings had been carried away down the hill by enterprising citizens looking for materials to use in the construction of homes in Old Town. The church and whatever buildings still stood were unroofed by the commandant and the tiles were sold to pay his wages.
In 1841 Alfred Robinson returned to visit San Diego:
At this period of events I embarked on board of the ship “Alert” and again visited San Diego. Here everything was prostrated?the Presidio ruined?the mission depopulated-the town almost deserted?and its few inhabitants miserably poor.
The selling of the roof tiles, thus exposing the walls of the Presidio to the elements, meant that what was left of the historic citadel would disintegrate in rapid fashion. Raindrops crumped the adobe walls into heaps of mud. The sun baked the ruins into dust which the wind tossed over the deserted hillside…
The fortress, was born in promise on a panoramic hillside in July, 1769, was reduced to the ignominy of being forgotten by the community which it had created.
For nearly a century the piles of brick and rock, resembling some weird tombstone, created by ancient giants, stood etched against the hillside under which a city lay concealed. Over its historic surface unruffled cattle wandered munching the yellow grasses which overran the ruins. In the background the busy arms of a squat windmill clicked away the decades.
Black described the scene in his “History of San Diego County,” Vol. I, page 80:
Nothing now remains on Presidio Hill to show the casual observer that it was ever anything but a vacant plot of ground. Weeds cover the earth, wild flowers bloom in their season and always the ice plant hangs in melted festoons from the scattered mounds of earth. A closer examination however show them to be full of fragments of red tile and to show the unmistakable signs of long trampling by human feet. Looking more closely at the mounds, beneath their covering of weeds and earth, one finds the foundation of old walls built of thin red tile and adobe bricks. These are all that is left of the Spanish Presidio of San Diego…
Part IV Unearthing a Citadel
In the 1920’s George W. Marston, a prominent San Diego civic leader and businessman, decided that the birthplace of California deserved better treatment. He bought the land around the Presidio. Through his efforts the deserted slope was made into a park. The ruins were covered with mounds of soil, to designate their location while lawn was planted over them to preserve them from vandals and looters. At the top of the hill Marston built Junípero Serra Museum. In 1929 he dedicated the entire area to the people of San Diego.
The hill no longer was deserted. Visitors came to picnic, to tour the museum and to view the rolling mounds under which lay California’s first community.
In 1964 the San Diego History Center began a feasibility study of the Royal Presidio Ruins. A three phase project was envisioned: historical research, archaelogical investigation, and partial recreation of the walled city. Study plans were presented 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 a museum and research building.
With cooperation in the form of a permit issued by City administrators, the 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.
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 of San Diego. A city was about to be reborn…
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 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 were 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. The long mound to be excavated was divided into three arbitrary sections?four students, under the supervision of a crew chief went to work in each section. Walls 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.
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 three and one half feet; melted into the natural soil. The baked adobe blocks were heavy and often contained fingerprints, perhaps of the maker; several bricks contained prints of a dog which crossed over the bricks drying in the sun. On several other bricks, 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 cobbles?large, 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 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 fifty-four inches thick. Blocks 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, 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 found. 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, a single wide entrance was found leading into another irregularly shaped room. 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 a trapazoid 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 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 drainage 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 drainage 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.
Later investigation showed that the “steps” in reality were a plastered seat and that the “doorway” was non-existent.
During the 1930’s when the park was being developed, a rectangular area 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 was excavated at different places by the students. At the east end 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 (thought to be 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 tiers at heights of up to five feet. Badly rotted pieces of wood were found around this raised platform-and, tacked on with copper nails, were long oxidized strips of fancy 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 womens’ legs 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.
Before proceeding further with speculation it would be wise to define the word “chapel.” A “chapel” was a religious structure intended for use as a place of worship for the soldiers and settlers. This is opposed to a “mission,” which is a church intended more for local Indian populations.
Father 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, before 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, Father Lasuen told of the:
Cemetery 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 Goerge 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 soil-yet throughout the first semester’s work there always appeared some tantalizing evidence that man had lived at this village: fragments of worked shell, a Chumash abalone shell fishhook; shreds from Diegueño Indian pottery indicating the presence of an Indian village near-by the site.
Outside the sacristy, to the south, a trench exposed a very productive trash area. As those involved in archaeology know, very often the best evidences of man’s past come from his trash- the 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. Investigation of the pattern of ships plying trade between Mexico and San Diego in the 18th century will help in terms of understanding the commercial trade of the period.
Pottery manufactured by local Diegueño Indians is being described and identified as a part of this project. Data is lacking on the Indian ceramics made in this region, but the task of analyzing, describing, and classifying these local Indian potteries has begun. The results will contribute to the identification of pottery not only from this site, but from other regional sites as well.
Early photographs taken of Presidio Hill helped to determine the location of the original wall. Several aerial photographs in particular, made 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.
By 1967 it became necessary to relocate the chain link fence, due to the fact that the original areas for excavation had been almost completely uncovered.
The relocation of the fence opened up new areas for excavation to the east of the complex of buildings already excavated.
Excavation then concentrated on the area east of the sacristy, where test pits were put down in an effort to determine the depth of fill along the south side of the new area. The results were surprising; in one pit bottom was found at a depth of twenty inches, whereas in another it was not found until a depth of fifty inches where a crucifix was discovered.
Part V Disintering Some Burials
In February 1968 excavating at the Royal Presidio of San Diego took a new dramatic turn, when the Excavations Committee began exploration of burial sites within the Presidio. The work was accomplished in an air of mounting excitement, which reached a peak on Thursday, March 1.
Late afternoon shadows had encompassed most of the green slope below Junípero Serra Museum when a scream of excitement burst forth from archaeology student Anita Manning. With it she announced the tentative identification of the grave of Henry Delano Fitch, one of San Diego’s foremost first citizens. This was the first grave to be identified.
Anita had been rewarded for her painstaking work in removing, with a dental pick and a small rubber syringe, the dirt from over and around the copper-headed tacks in a fragile piece of wood. The wood had been found lying near the bottom of a shallow excavation just inside the extrance of the ruined church of California’s first European community.
Working for many hours previously with the same care, she had uncovered the letters, “H” and “D,” whereupon someone had remarked in joking fashion regarding the possibility of finding an “F” to go with them.
It was common knowledge that the first Yankee settler in San Diego had been buried “on Presidio Hill.” Richard F. Pourade, Editor Emeritus of the San Diego Union, had voiced the possibility that his grave might be found in the course of the excavations. Yet, considering the known destruction in the past of the cemetary which once lay there, it seemed too much to hope that the excavation group would be so fortunate as to find that initial “F.”
Against all the odds, the “F” was found where it should have been, according to placement of the other letters. Anita no longer could contain her glee. Her exclamation rang across the hill.
Although the class attempted to maintain caution in acceptance on that evidence alone, as excavation and historical research proceeded, it found nothing to contradict that first assumption and more evidence to substantiate the theory that this was the grave of Henry Delano Fitch.
The individual in that grave had been a tall (over six feet), robust man of mature years, most likely a Caucasoid, (resembling, or related to the white race). He was buried in an elaborate leather-covered coffin, decorated with an edging of copperheaded tacks as well as a large cross and two hearts above the initials.
Considering this, together with the circumstance that the particular combination of initials has nowhere else been found in contemporary burial records made when burials still were taking place on “Presidio Hill,” no other conclusion seems possible.
The archaeological evidence that the burial had been made so long after abandonment of the structure that even the precise location of the church walls no longer was apparent is congruent with the burial of Fitch in 1849. This was eight years after the last recorded use of the structure for religious purposes.
The discovery of the remains of Henry Delano Fitch, the Yankee sea captain whose elopement with the daughter of one of California’s prominent Spanish families became a “cause celebre” during the Mexican period of California history, represents the climax, although not the culmination, of a new dimension in the research program on the first San Diego of California. The genesis of that new dimension goes back to the inception of the program in 1964, although it did not come into existence until February, 1968.
Initial planning of the program by Dr. Ray Brandes, then director of Junípero Serra Museum, and Dr. Paul Ezell of San Diego State College, in 1964, did not envision the possibility that burials might be found in the excavations. Lest this failure to include that possibility in the planning for an archaeological program in the Presidio occasion any surprise, it is necessary to review a bit of San Diego history.
Awareness of the existence of a cemetery on Presidio Hill has not been common knowledge, and those few citizens who remembered its existence were not aware that the graveyard had included the old church itself. Many people were surprised to hear that some interments had been made inside the church because this practice has not been followed to any degree for several generations. It once, however, was common practice to bury outstanding persons in a church.
The early burial record, beginning in the late eighteenth century, in Serra Museum, carries an entry noting the burial of Henry Delano Fitch, in 1849, but simply states, “on Presidio Hill.”
Old time San Diegan, Miss Corinne Whaley, in her brief mention of the cemetery, gives no other location than “on Presidio Hill.”
Mrs. Simon Manasse, ninety-four years of age, remembered small wooden crosses in the area to the south of the excavations. This would be outside the modern wall which surrounds the ruins of the Presidio. Those crosses, he said, had disappeared so long ago that he could not remember when they last stood.
Mr. Manasse recalled that a crew of which he was a member, in the course of construction of a road into the Presidio area in about 1925, scraped out several skeletons in the cut outside the modern wall.
Abandonment of the burial ground in the late nineteenth century was followed by neglect and oblivion. Construction, beginning with the Derby Dike in 1853, combined with those processes to create a widespread assumption that this second cemetery in San Diego’s history, like the first, was gone beyond recall.
When, therefore, Dr. Brockington’s crew of San Diego State College students in the spring of 1965 found the first break in the tiled floor of the structure, which they had not yet identified as a sacred building, they were not certain what they might find when they began excavating that gap in the tiles. Upon discovery that it contained a burial, Brockington, filling in for Dr. Ezell until his return from South America could allow him to resume supervision of the excavations, had the test pit refilled. This was done to await the formulation of a policy of action on this kind of find before proceeding any further.
There exists a general policy in archaeology in regard to burials, but some of the circumstances of this project made it quite a different one from most archaeological situations.
Usually (and particularly in the Americas) when the archaeologist excavates a prehistoric site, the site and anything in it is generally regarded only as a curiosity. There are no individuals living who feel any kind of cultural or biogenetic relationship with any artifacts or physical remains which maybe found.
In an historic site, however, there exists a cultural, an historical tie between some members of a modern community and the site. In the case of the San Diego Presidio this emotional involvement was further complicated by the fact that the site is more intimately a part of San Diego’s history than is usually the case.
The situation, owing in part to San Diego’s growing interest in its own past and to the very contribution made by these excavations, is quite different from that of a little over a century ago when the Derby Dike was constructed with fill from Presidio Hill, “bones and all,” according to a contemporary account.
Any human remains found there now can be accepted as those of a Christian and hence would be regarded quite differently from human bones found in a prehistoric site, since the latter would be presumptively non-Christian, i.e., pagan.
Furthermore, the existence of records of burials on Presidio Hill of individuals whose names appear in the history of San Diego, and whose descendants might well be living, makes the relationship between the first San Diego and the modern community even more immediate.
In view of the foregoing, and because of the assumption that as a consequence of the supposed disappearance of the old burial ground there would be a few, if any, more burials found, it was decided in 1965 that the best thing to do was to do nothing. Any burials found would be left undisturbed.
This policy became more and more impractical with the passage of time and the progress of the excavations. Instead of only one, more telltale gaps appeared in the tiles of the floor. In addition there were found places where floor tiles had sunk below general floor level in a form hauntingly suggestive to dismayed archaeologists. Worse yet, anthropology students found clear evidence in the form of stray fragments of human skeletons that others before them had found and disturbed some burials. The attempts to construct a sump to take care of rain run-off and to clear the south wall of the nave for preservation were frustrated by such finds.
By the end of the fourth season of digging, in 1967, it was clear that the policy of pretending that the burials did not exist could not be maintained. Excavation students had located seventeen places where human remains either existed or could be presumed to exist.
Owing to the policy of ceasing excavation immediately upon encountering actual remains, contenting themselves with recording that spot as a burial, the diggers knew that they were at times recording the same burial twice, so that the actual number of burials discovered has not yet been determined. New problems affecting the program had appeared and a new policy had to be devised.
With so many possible burials surviving the supposed destruction of the vanished cemetery on Presidio Hill it was apparent that the Royal Presidio Excavations Committee was closing its eyes to a considerable store of information about the presidial community. The search for the remains of the Apostle Peter in Rome, the search for and discovery of the remains of Juan Bautista de Anza and Father Eusebio Kino in Sonora in recent years were evidence of that fact. The final argument, however, which caused the Research Panel to recommend to the Executive Board of the San Diego History Center that the burials in the Presidio be dealt with the same as burials in any other archaeological project was of a threat of danger. The danger was of vandalism, of desecration of the graves, of loss, to the souvenir hunter, of priceless information.
All archaeologist live with the bitter knowledge that a grave is a irresistable temptation to certain kinds of persons and that the only sure protection is prompt excavation. As the number of actual and possible burials at the Presidio was increased by finds in season after season the attempts to protect them by not publicizing the knowledge of their existence became more futile. This truth was demonstrated by the increasing number of visitors who said that they had heard of the group having found “bones” and expressing a wish to see them.
By the end of 1967 anxiety on Dr. Ezell’s part about the safety of the burials, known and supposed, in the excavations had mounted to the point where he would awake in the night and drive over to Presidio Park to reassure himself that the vandals had not yet struck.
During the sixty and more years that the San Diego Presidio had functioned as a community it had functioned as a Catholic community. It could be presumed with confidence that any individual buried there had been a Catholic. Recognizing, then, a moral claim on the part of the Catholic Church, interviews with Bishop Furey were obtained in order that the Church, through him, might participate in the formulation of the new policy in respect to the burials, much as it had in the inception of the research program in 1965.
Bishop Furey demonstrated his personal concern, as well as that of the Church, by appointing Monsignor Donald F. Doxie, Vice Chancellor Secretary, as liason with the program. He also gave Church sanction to any measures deemed necessary to protect the burials and to recover the maximum of information.
Had this been an aboriginal site each burial would have been excavated as soon as found rather than leaving them to be excavated all at once. The Research Panel knew that once excavation of the burials was started there would be a great deal of public interest. It hoped, in fact, that there would be. It also realized that the longer the excavations went on the greater would be the danger.
The Panel decided on a “crash” program of excavation in order to minimize the risk. This would be accomplished by the saving of the burials within as short a time as possible, a plan conceivable because of an increase in the excavation crew by the addition of Professor Michael Axeford’s class in archaeological field methods from Mesa College.
Axeford’s and Ezell’s experience only with prehistoric sites worked to their mutual disadvantage in this case, according to Dr. Ezell, in that they “woefully underestimated” the amount of time necessary for the excavation of a burial in a historic site. In view of the rather large crew of twenty-seven persons which made it possible to work simultaneously on as many as nine burials at a time the instructors estimated that they could do all that was required by the situation in three days. The group, however, worked thirteen ten-hour days in a row before that point was reached.
This great underestimate of time required was a consequence of two principal differences between prehistoric and historical archaeology, Dr. Ezell explained. First, and most important, is the difference between aboriginal burials and these burials. Aboriginal burials are seldom found where it is possible to discern original grave outlines. Coffins were not used, hence there is nothing of that kind to recover. Also, since they are not found in well-watered parks, the bones are in a much better state of preservation, permitting more rapid excavation.
The most usual (and expeditious) technique is to excavate enough earth from around the general location of the skeleton to leave it on a pedestal, permitting easier access and removal of earth from around the bones.
At the San Diego Presidio on the other hand, all but two of the locations were within a building and underneath a tiled floor. This meant that, instead of the easy method of pedestaling, the original grave walls had to be sought, and in any case, all earth had to be lifted out rather than troweled away after having been removed from around the bones.
Worst of all, the excavators found themselves severely restricted in their ease and freedom of movement. Most of the excavation could only be done by lying on the floor and reaching down into the pit. The presence of coffin remains in six of the burials meant more care and time preserving as much of them as possible.
Finally, the poor state of preservation of most of the burials multiplied the time required to uncover them without disturbing the bones.
A second and less time-consuming but still important factor was the location of the site. Most aboriginal sites are rather removed from concentrations of population so that visitors are not so numerous as to require much time allocated to visitor contacts. Situated as it is in a city park, however, the Presidio is accessible to the public. The excavations have been an attractive interest ever since they were started so that considerable attention has always been given to visitor contacts. With the publication of the news of the burial excavation program, the number of visitors skyrocketed. It became necessary to assign several crew members at a time to the task of answering the natural questions of the on-lookers. The Project Committee made an attempt to bring parties inside the fence to satisfy the public interest, but found that it was impossible to carry on the excavations with so many people in that limited space.
For night time protection of the burials the San Diego History Center began with employed merchant patrol watchmen. As it became apparent that the excavating would take much longer than estimated, the cost of patrol service became prohibitive. Crew members then volunteered to undertake that task in addition to their excavation duties.
Thus began the “Vigilante Service of Presidio Park,” or “The Ghost Patrol,” as a local newspaper columnist put the term. Two teams of two men each stood six hours watch every night from before dusk until after dawn. This meant that every third night a crew member, after having done his stint of excavation during the day, spent an additional six hours that night on watch. Passing the time by use of transistor radios, keeping warm through use of sleeping bags, and bracing themselves against the luxury of “dozing off” by countless thermoses of hot coffee, the volunteer vigilantes sat among the solitary gravesites, while the chill sea breeze whipped up from the bay in freezing fashion, and the time from dawn to dusk seemed to be way longer than usual.
Others pitched in. Members of the San Diego Police Department came by as often as possible to check out the situation, as did other volunteers, wherever they could. Some came bringing refreshments to the patrol members. The abundance of good works sometimes resulted in a situation akin to the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. On at least one occasion well intentioned individuals almost were arrested. This arrangement prevailed until a burglar alarm system was installed at the excavation site. At that time the “Ghost Patrol Syndrome,” consisting of eyes reddened from lack of sleep, joints aching from exposure and stomachs irritated from two much coffee, disappeared.
The only complaint which arose during this hectic period came from feminine crew members who remarked about the discrimination against women which kept them from taking part in the guard duty.
The burial excavation program was initiated on Saturday, February 24. At the end of work on Thursday, March 7, excavation of the remains of twelve different individuals had been completed, with two more nearly completed. These two, owing to special circumstances, required a longer period of work.
The task of analysis then began. What had been found? What contributions to San Diego’s history had been made? Were the excavations of the burials a worthwhile project? The answers were that much valuable material had been found and that the exhuming of the burials had proved to be a wise step.
In those thirteen days information had been recovered about San Diego’s first white settlers which no one had dreamed of when the research program at the Presidio was started. The study is far from complete yet space does not permit setting forth all the knowledge already obtained. Only the most general observations can be given at this time.
First of all, the hopes of learning much about the physical composition of the members of the presidial community were dashed by the poor state of preservation of most of the burials, Dr. Ezell revealed. Although it is improbable that any one of those skeletons had been in the ground longer than 146 years, all but one of them was in worse condition than skeletons elsewhere which dated as far back as 2,700 years. In fact, some Neanderthal skeletons have been found which were better preserved.
Of the fourteen burials excavated only five (and two of those were incomplete from having been disturbed by previous digging) were well enough preserved to enable any further study in the laboratory.
To protect them from further destruction from either vandals or the elements and to allow physical anthropologists to make a more detailed examination those five were treated with preservatives and removed to a place of safekeeping at San Diego State College pending reinterment.
In addition to being too deteriorated to justify any attempt at their removal the remains of Henry Delano Fitch were left in place for reasons to be described later. One child burial was in good enough condition to be removed but, because it was a child of from five to seven years of age nothing more could be learned about it than could be learned where it lay. It was left in place.
The poor preservation of the Presidio burials, when compared with aboriginal burials, is a consequence not of any physical difference between the people but of differences between their cultures, Dr. Ezell explained. The first and most important difference is what happened to the locality in which the burials lay.
For nearly forty years the Presidio burials had been continuously bathed in a weak acid solution. This was as a consequence of the planting and irrigation of the park. Most of the destruction of those burials, therefore, has been accomplished in less than forty years, the last quarter of the longest possible span of time that any of them had been in the ground.
Furthermore, those which were buried in coffins in general endured less well than those not provided with coffins. The coffins prevented the water carrying downward the plant-produced acids, from draining away from the human remains as rapidly as in the case of those surrounded only by earth.
Of the former, all but one were so far gone that one could not even discern such details as position of arm and leg bones, to say nothing of being unable to determine such matters as age at time of death, stature, physique or any possible trace of illness or accident. A shadowy outline, as though one had used chalk dust to sketch vague outlines of a figure on the dust, were all that remained, with only the enamel portions of the teeth to tell which was the head end of the burial.
In such cases as these the sex of the individual has been inferred to have been male (with one exception) since, in conformity with the culture of the time, it is improbable that any of the feminine members of the community attained sufficient prominence to have been buried within the walls of the church.
It must be remembered, however, that this is an inference from cultural evidence, since the poor condition of those burials made such an identification impossible. The exception noted again is an inference from the cultural evidence. In this case, however, the bones were well enough preserved to have enabled determination of the sex of the individual if it had not been a child too young for its bones to have developed those distinctive characteristics of puberty.
Here it was the presence of a few tiny beads and of the remnants of a gold-and-silver-thread braid edging of a shawl-like garment around the torso which gave reason to infer that the individual had been a girl. These items were characteristic in those times of female dress. One of the many surprises of the excavations was that this was a second and later burial in this grave, the bones of the first occupant (also a child of about the same age) having been thrust aside for the reception of the second.
Evidence was found that the one-time church or chapel of the San Diego Presidio had continued to be used as a burial ground after the structure had fallen into ruins, a practice still found in Latin America. The floor tiles had been replaced after some burials, a sign that the floor then was still in use.
Others, however, had been broken through the tiles, rather than having the tiles lifted and replaced. None of these had any tiles placed over the grave.
The grave in which Henry Delano Fitch was buried in 1849 was broken through the tile floor at a time when the walls of the building had so far disintegrated that their precise location could no longer be discerned. The inner half of the north wall of the nave had been dug away by the unknown men who dug the grave.
Of the six burials where evidence of the use of coffins was found, only one had survived enough so that, with treatment with preservatives, the coffin fragments could be removed for restoration. In some cases the only sure evidence that there had been a coffin was the presence of the nails, badly rusted themselves, outlining the sides.
Four different styles of coffins were found in those six graves, from the simple unadorned rectangular box, to the elaborate leather-covered and copper nail-adorned hexagonal casket of Henry D. Fitch. Despite its reputation, redwood endured less well than some other wood which appears to be pine, spruce or fir.
Another surprise was the scarcity of artifacts found in the graves. Expectation had been that each would have been accompanied by at least a crucifix or a saint’s medallion, but only one of each was found. Similarly, articles of clothing of a durable nature were equally scarce. A puzzling sheet-copper ornament, a few buttons (including a Phoenix button of the time of Napoleon), the beads mentioned earlier (one of which appears to be a pearl) and a rusted belt buckle comprise the list. One is struck by the difference in this respect between these burials and that of Anza.
One of the most thrilling and ultimately useful finds was of the initials made by driving copperheaded tacks into the lid of the coffin in three graves. The first of these found was the burial broken down through the pedella directly in front of the altar of the chapel, where, in addition to a cross on a pedestal, the initials “J.” “A.” also appeared.
Out of his memory Richard F. Pourade could list five men known to San Diego history with Spanish names beginning with those letters. The identification of those remains will depend on being able to determine how long ago that individual was buried.
One of the child burials in the side chapel, made while the floor was still in use, only contained a few iron nails outlining the coffin in vague fashion, the enamel portion of a few teeth, and the initials “R.” “C.” formed by the copper nail heads still in position in the ground?all else had vanished.
Other than the Fitch initials only one other grave contained anything which would be of direct help in identification. This was a tiny bronze plate which shows the dim traces of enough letters to constitute a full name, giving us hope that when the study committee is able to allot the time to proper examination of it there will be still another identification.
Unfortunately for the wish to reconstruct history in as much detail as possible, such resources for identification of specific individuals have been the exception and most of them may never be identified. One further identification is possible on the evidence of archaeology, history and physical anthropology, rather than any such evidence as initials.
All of the burials except two lay so shallow that after first having discovered it, students were forced to replace earth above floor level to keep it concealed. Above and along one side of the grave, broken through the floor ran an old water pipe. When it came time to excavate it was found that this burial had been disturbed by the excavation for that pipe, most of the bones being in a disorderly pile.
Those bones, however, were the best preserved of any found, indicating that they had suffered least from the acid bath. Yet they had been exposed to it because they lay within the drip line of the large tree at the west end of the nave. This is taken to mean that this individual had been in that place a shorter period of time than was true of any other burial.
With the burial was found a small copper saint’s medallion, and the incisor teeth were of that conformation found more frequently among American Indians than among Caucasoids. In the burial record on file in Serra Museum there is the entry that an Indian named José (no other name given) had been shot and killed near the Bandini house and was buried on Presidio Hill in 1870.
“What is going to happen to those burials that were dug up?”
From the thousands of conversations with visitors to the excavations and members of audiences at public talks this one question has emerged as being uppermost in the minds of most people.
The answer depends on which burial one is discussing. For most of them, as Dr. Ezell indicated, in the description of their condition, the answer is “Nothing?there was nothing left in some of those graves for anything to happen to.”
In those cases, once the sketches had been drawn, the measurements taken and the photographs made, the faint traces of the remains were covered with a sheet of heavy plastic and the excavation refilled. If there had been tile overlying it, each tile had been numbered with chalk, drawn on graph paper and photographed before removal. After refilling the excavation those tile were replaced as found. The decision as to where to reinter the remains which were well enough preserved to permit their removal, awaits the recommendation of the Research Panel and the Executive Board of the San Diego History Center, in consultation with Bishop Furey. Meanwhile, the burials are safe.
Special consideration, however, is being given the remains of Henry Delano Fitch. The dranna of finding that grave was enhanced by bringing together the northern and southern branches of the descendants of the remarkable old Yankee. They not only did not know precisely where their ancestor was buried but also had lost contact with each other.
On March 27,1968, a reunion between members of both branches of the family was held at the excavation site. After discussion among themselves they anounced their wish that their ancestor’s remains not be re-buried, but that they be kept in place as a permanent monument. Should this be done, San Diego will become a member of a select company of communities having such a unique treasure from its past preserved as a memorial. San Diego will join Rome and Altar and Magdalena among those communities of the world who had lost their illustrious men and found them again. The task will be difficult and expensive, but the rewards will be great.
Part VI Postlude
Presidio Hill sits in serene fashion with a multitude of secrets hidden in her enormous bosom. What we have learned from the hill in the past and what we will learn in the future will be accomplished by an unusual and wonderful breed of human known as the “digger.” A “digger” is one who “digs,” who excavates at an excavation site. An excavation site in digger vocabulary is known as a “dig.”
Diggers are born, not made, as any professor of anthropology or archaeology will tell you. Out of any one hundred students or volunteers for excavation work, if a professor finds one true-born digger he counts himself blessed. Diggers are the bloodhounds of humanity, able to smell secrets hidden under the surface of the earth. A digger is compelled by his nature to ferret out those secrets.
A digger will work in mud and never know it, have the sun broil his scalp and never feel it, have wind and rain permeate his clothing and be ignorant of that fact. A digger, flat on his back or on his stomach, breathing dust, getting dirt in his eyes and between his teeth, having his fingers stepped on and his toes stamped on, working for hours with a tool the size of a toothpick and turning up a mere handful of soil, coming up with a find or coming up with nothing, is a happy individual.
With every fleck of earth he removes the digger is turning back time. To him this is the most marvelous of occupations.
Diggers come in assorted sizes and shapes. A digger is a girl with broken fingernails and freckles, hair tousled and squinting from sun and wind. Yet she is feminine in her attitude and manner of working. A digger is a college boy, awakening at home at four a.m. to the sound of rain, who leaps out of bed, and dashes to his car to drive twenty miles in order to cover a precious piece of excavation. A digger is a professor who arrives at the same spot at the same time for the same reason.
A digger is a grandmother who has found a new life. A digger is one who hardly has money to put gas in his car yet always has money to buy books on digging.
The digger is no believer in social protocol. Yet, with the dignity of those royal born, he will greet guest at his digs, neither ruffled by the presence of VIP’s nor disconcerted by the fact that his eyebrows are caked with adobe.
A digger never accepts another digger from mere word of mouth. Performance is the thing which counts. He must see that digger in action before he can accept him as a comrade. One, who under false colors, proclaimed himself a digger, would be spotted in an instant.
A digger is dedicated to the finding and preserving of historic, anthropologic and archaeologic truth. In his search for truth the digger is demanding, skeptical and suspicious, most of all of himself. Am I interpreting the facts in objective fashion, he asks himself. Have I really proved a truth or am I letting my desire to prove a truth affect my reasoning? To let emotion override reason-to leap to an emotional conclusion is one of the unforgiveable sins of diggerdom.
For this reason the digger will always dig a little more, stay on the job a little longer, appear on the job a little earlier, go a little slower in reaching conclusions, often at the sacrifice of a possible bit of glory for himself.
To the following list of diggers, who put no limit on their time, their discomfort or their labor during the recent Presidio Burial Excavations, the City of San Diego and the San Diego History Center owes much. They are:
Mesa College students Marie Carsola, Bea Goodwin, Patricia Hale, Guy Huff, David Kinder, Gary Long and Karen Wheatbread;
San Diego State College students Mary Alice Baldwin, Patricia Biehl, Robert Bowles, Jill Leatherman, James Madsen, James Maidhof, Anita Manning, Robert Nellis, Lynn Nelson, Michael Pannek, Jane Sharrow, Dwight Stanley, Bradley Underwood, Charles Vallor and Andrew Yatsko;
Volunteers John Biehl, Drusilla Ezell, Greta Ezell, John Hedrick, Alma Hudson, Victoria Hudson, Richard Hughes, Ronald May, Mrs. John Miller, John Miller, Susan Miller, Tod Miller, Mrs. J. Francis Mergen, Elaine Rouse, Susan Smith and John Weir.
These diggers would not have been able to perform had it not been for Dr. Paul Ezell, of San Diego State College and Professor Michael Axeford, of Mesa College, whose example of dedication and enthusiasm set the pattern of behavior for students and volunteers.
There are some others to whom thanks are owed for their efforts in behalf of the Royal Presidio Burial Excavations. These persons are diggers in heart, but not in body; who by their effort, their cooperation, their eagerness, also contributed to the recent successes. They include:
Professor John Chambers, of the University of San Diego College for Men and Executive Director of Junípero Serra Museum, Mr. J. Francis Mergen, who at his own expense, filmed the excavation of all the burials, Mr. Richard F. Pourade, who assisted in documentation, Mr. T. Donald Perkins, President of the San Diego History Center, newspaper reporters Joe Stone and Kip Cooper, the staff of Junípero Serra Museum, Mr. Thomas Petersen, Mr. Gordon Pettit, and Mrs. David E. Porter, who gave in generous fashion of their time and who also assisted in the financial end of the installation of the burglar alarm system, the other members of the Research Panel, The Ad Hoc committee of the San Diego History Center, and the Board of Directors of the San Diego History Center.
Special thanks are due Bishop Furey and Monsignor Doxie, whose sympathy, cooperation and moral support qualifies them as true “diggers in spirit.”
The poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, once commented on “the eternal landscape of the past.” It is San Diego’s landscape of the past, on Presidio Hill, which the diggers at the Royal Presidio excavations seek to find, to view, and to preserve.