The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1978, Volume 24, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


BECAUSE proposed occupation of the northern country was to be spiritual as well as military—with the founding of missions and conversion of Indians equally as important as establishment of presidios—the attempt to settle Upper California became known as the “Sacred Expedition.” Visitador general José de Gálvez left nothing to chance in planning the details of the enterprise. Fortunately he had sufficient control of means and methods to outfit four divisions—two by sea and two by land—to start independently but to unite in San Diego. The risks of total failure were thereby greatly lessened. Gálvez, with uncanny insight, chose capable and experienced leaders destined to contribute significantly toward the success and permanence of Upper California settlement. All participants received individual instructions about their projected roles.

The San Carlos and San Antonio, two small packetboats commanded by Captains Vicente Vila and Juan Pérez of the royal navy, were fitted out at San Blas, Mexico, for the sea-going division. These vessels, plus a special military force of twenty-five Catalonian volunteers (Companía Franca de Cataluña) then serving in Sonora under Lieutenant Pedro Fages, were ordered to La Paz. The hastily constructed and still uncompleted San Carlos, the first to set sail, reached Lower California early in December, 1768. Partially provisioned at San Blas, she had to be unloaded, careened, finished, and reloaded again at La Paz. Gálvez personally supervised and even lent a hand to all operations. The ship was ready to depart on the morning of January 9,1769; Father Serra said mass and prayed for those on board—Captain Vila; first mate Jorge Estorace; Lieutenant Fages and his Catalonian soldiers; Ensign Miguel Costansó, cosmographer and engineer; Pedro Prat, royal surgeon; the Franciscan Father Fernando Parrón; and a crew of thirty-one.

Gálvez saw his first California division sail from La Paz amidst joyous blessings, and even accompanied Vila as far as Cabo San Lucas in the supply ship La Concepción. Despite its favorable send-off, the San Carlos ran into serious difficulties. Severe storms hampered progress, the water casks leaked, and many of the sailors became afflicted with scurvy. Vila’s instructions were to keep out to sea until 34° and then head in for San Diego (thought to be at 33°30′ according to Vizcaíno’s 1602 narrative instead of its actual 32°40′). This added more than two hundred miles to the distance and increased their exposure to cold weather. When the San Carlos reached San Diego Bay on April 29, 1769, after almost four months at sea, the stricken men had not the strength to lower a boat. They were rescued by crew members of the San Antonio who had preceded them into port eighteen days before.

The San Antonio, under command of the Mallorcan Juan Pérez, a former navigator on the Manila galleon route, departed from La Paz on February 15 with Franciscan Fathers Juan Vizcaíno and Francisco Gómez, and a crew of about thirty men. Pérez, favored by good winds, also sailed to 34° and landed on an island in the Santa Barbara Channel to replenish his supplies. The Spaniards obtained fresh fish and water from the friendly natives in exchange for beads. Naming the island Santa Cruz, Pérez turned southward and anchored the San Antonio safely in the harbor of San Diego after a voyage of fifty-five days. The Indians of the region at first mistook the vessel for a great whale, but soon discovering their error, regarded it as a forerunner of wonderful things—its arrival had coincided with an eclipse of the sun and an earthquake. Pérez was dismayed not to find the San Carlos already in port and called for a stay of twenty days before proceeding to Monterey. The tardy vessel arrived two days under the deadline.

Map of the Port of San Diego

Map of the Port of San Diego from the expedition
of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1792)

The men of the San Antonio built a tent on shore to shelter the sick and dying crew of Vila’s ship. Dr. Prat and the three friars attended the scurvy-ridden soldiers and sailors as well as circumstances permitted, but the sickness spread throughout the camp until about one-half of the combined crews had succumbed. Neither Costansó nor Fages could carry out their instructions for a preliminary exploration of the territory; indeed, for two weeks they did little more than help care for the sick and bury the dead. One other ship, the San José, sailed for San Diego on June 16, 1769, but returned to San Blas for repairs. Departing again in May, 1770, the vessel disappeared with all on board and no trace of its remains were ever found.

Gálvez appointed Captain Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, commandant of the Loreto presidio, head of the first overland detachment scheduled to depart from Santa María, the northernmost former Jesuit mission. With twenty-five soldados de cuera (leather-jacket soldiers) from his Loreto garrison, Rivera started from La Paz in September, 1768, on a northward mission-by-mission tour to recruit Indian auxiliaries and gather all available livestock and provisions. Nearly four hundred animals were assembled at Mission Santa María, but pasturage was so scarce that Rivera transferred his camp to Velicatá, about thirty miles to the north and inland from present-day El Rosario. The energetic captain informed Gálvez that his departure for San Diego would be in March, 1769; the visitador immediately ordered Franciscan Father Juan Crespi, a native of Mallorca, to join Rivera. The expedition, which included forty-two Christian Indians, left for Upper California on March 29, and reached San Diego after fifty-one days and some four hundred miles of marching. Several Indians had died and the animals were weakened by lack of water and feed; but in all, the journey was successful. Rivera, aghast at seeing the hospital camp so near the ocean’s edge, moved the patients to a nearby hill where the presidio was later built.

Catalonian-born Gaspar de Portolá, governor of Lower California and overall commander of the expedition, led the second overland party. Its members also assembled at Mission Santa María while supplies were transported inland from the Bay of San Luis Gonzaga. Portolá awaited Father Junípero Serra, religious head of the company, who was delayed by the gathering of church utensils and ornaments. A lame foot, injured on the road from Vera Cruz to Mexico, also hindered the Franciscan priest’s travel until, at times, his departure with the expedition seemed doubtful to everyone but himself. Serra finally started from La Paz at the end of March, stopping at Mission San Javier to appoint Father Francisco Palóu president of the Lower California missions. Despite his painful incapacity, Serra then proceeded slowly to Santa María where he joined the worried Portolá on May 5. The entire company departed for San Diego six days later. Upon reaching Velicatá on May 14, they remained long enough for Serra to found Mission San Fernando on that site.

Portolá’s march essentially duplicated Rivera’s, but without the burden of transporting so many domestic animals. After passing through the broad Tia Juana River Valley, they entered San Diego on July 1,1769. Portolá and Serra, pleased to join the others, were distressed to find the port a veritable harbor of sickness. Upon meeting with the sea and land commanders, the governor decided to send the San Antonio, with Juan Pérez and the remaining eight of his original twenty-eight man crew, back to La Paz to report on the condition of San Diego and obtain additional supplies. The San Carlos prepared to leave for Monterey as soon as there were enough healthy sailors to handle it. Portolá then planned his overland march to Monterey.

The governor had instructions to proceed to Monterey without delay, take formal possession of the land, and establish a mission and presidio at the port. Portolá organized a company of 63 men including Fages, Rivera and Father Crespi. They did not recognize Monterey but discovered an incredible bay to be known as San Francisco which Father Crespi described as “a very large and fine harbor, such that not only all the navy of our most Catholic Majesty but those of all Europe could take shelter in it.”

Portolá, the dedicated soldier, was discouraged by his failure to find Monterey as his orders instructed, and was dismayed by the obstacle San Francisco Bay presented to further travel. He wrote in his diary that “they had found nothing,” and ordered his sick and hungry men homeward. When the expedition reached Carmel Bay on the return trip, Portolá crossed Cypress Point peninsula and planted a cross on the still unrecognized shore of Monterey Bay. Beneath it was buried a letter reporting that “for lack of provisions” they were returning to San Diego on that day, December 9, 1769.

Meanwhile two days after Portolá’s expedition had departed to Monterey, Father Serra had convened his little band of half-starving Spaniards and Indians on the slopes of present-day Presidio Hill just behind San Diego’s Old Town. A crude cross marked the site thus chosen for Alta California’s first mission, and the new outpost was officially dedicated on July 16, 1769, to the glory of San Diego de Alcalá. Problems for the settlement began at once. The originally friendly Indians became defiant, pestered the sick at night, and stole anything they could find, especially cloth. They were “. . . of an overbearing disposition, insolent, covetous, tricky and boastful . . . although they have little courage, they boast much of their strength…..” They used their rafts, which were skillfully managed by means of a double-bladed oar, to board the San Carlos in an attempt to steal the sails. They carried long harpoons with a sharp bone inserted at the point and were “so adroit in throwing this weapon that they seldom missed their mark.”

As the Indians watched the continual deaths from scurvy diminish the strength of the Spanish garrison, they planned an attack. During the first encounter, three natives and one of Serra’s Indians were killed and several others, including Father Vizcaíno, were wounded. After the battle, Spanish soldiers built a stockade around the mission building and the Indians were forbidden to enter. Things quieted down although the priests had no success in gaining converts. They were mostly occupied with caring for the sick and the problems of survival. The first six months at California’s original settlement were ones of constant struggle.

Portolá’s expedition, “smelling frightfully of mules,” at last returned to Mission San Diego on January 24, 1770. When the governor told Serra of his failure to find Monterey, the father-president remarked wryly, “You come from Rome without having seen the Pope?” Serra and Vicente Vila were readily convinced by Portolá’s descriptions that he had indeed found Monterey, but did not recognize it. Since provisions were low, the commanders decided to await the arrival of the ill-fated San José or the return of the San Antonio before making a return trip to the north.

The shortage of food at San Diego became extremely critical during the next few months. The Spaniards subsisted on wild geese, fish, and other food exchanged with the Indians for clothing, but the ravages of scurvy continued for lack of understanding of its cause. A small quantity of corn they had planted grew well—only to be eaten by birds. Portolá sent Captain Rivera and a small detachment of men to the Baja California missions in February to obtain cattle and a pack-train of supplies. This temporarily eased the drain on San Diego’s scant provisions, but within weeks, acute hunger and increased sickness threatened to force abandonment of the port. Both Serra and Portolá, Spaniards of the most tenacious, unwavering faith in God and themselves, remained steadfast in their desire to fulfill the orders of their superiors. Yet, the lives of their few remaining soldiers were at stake. Reluctantly, Portolá resolved that if no relief ship arrived by March 19, the birthday of the expedition’s patron saint San José, they would leave the next morning “because there were not enough provisions to wait longer and the men had not come to perish from hunger.”

Father Serra immediately proposed a novena, a nine-day period of prayer for the intercession of divine aid, which would end on the crucial day of San José. No ship came into sight by the morning of March 19, but at three o’clock in the afternoon, as if by a miracle, the sails of the San Antonio were discernible on the horizon. Joy filled the hearts of all in camp even though the ship sailed past the entrance of San Diego Bay on its way to Monterey, where Juan Pérez assumed Portolá was waiting. Perhaps guided by Providence, the San Antonio lost an anchor in the Santa Barbara channel near Point Conception. Several crewmen, upon going ashore, learned from friendly Indians that Portolá’s expedition to Monterey had long since retraced its route southward. Pérez headed toward San Diego Bay and four days later joined the thankful survivors at the mission. The San Antonio brought corn, flour, and rice to the starving men.

The establishment of California’s first permanent settlement was truly an epic of faith and courage. The dream of José de Gálvez and others—the extension of Spanish civilization to both Lower and Upper California—was realized by men who stood fast in their devotion to church and state, and who believed in the future of the city to be named San Diego de Alcalá.