San Diego is California’s First City and the first San Diegans (and the first women) were Indians. It was their land and it remained theirs f or more than 200 years after the white man first set foot upon it. During the years of Spanish greatness, Indians were drawn—and sometimes pulled—to the lonely string of missions which ran up the California coast from Baja California. Contact with these Europeans, however, brought diseases which drastically reduced their population.
In 1865 Diegueño and Luiseño Indians lived around the hamlet of San Diego, which numbered about 200 whites. Indian women and their families became the sum of the work force. The burden carrier (above) tied under the woman’s knit cap is made from fibers of mescal cactus. The Luiseño Indian women below were photographed about 1890 at Third and A Streets in downtown San Diego; the woman at the far left claimed to be 128 years old. Indian complexions, like that of the old woman opposite, were hardened, dried and cracked from constant exposure to the elements.
As new settlers arrived, and the population of San Diego began to grow, the Indians retreated to the back country. After secularization of the missions in 1834 the condition of the California natives grew worse. With the later discovery of gold their numbers were diminished even more dramatically as Americans introduced further disease and destroyed established food sources. The “First Americans” had come out last. New settlers in San Diego were shaky as to their ultimate nationality. The town was Southern California’s only important port and both Mexico and the United States wanted it. As the center of the hide trade in California it had been under American influence for several decades. San Diego was taken, lost and finally taken again by American troops before the new flag went up to stay.