The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1981, Volume 27, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Professor of History University of San Francisco

THE ISOLATION of the peninsula of Baja California, the ruggedness of the land and the intemperate climate with high temperatures and long periods of drought, required a careful adaptation of human inhabitants to the environment to permit their survival. This adaptation included the maximum usage of the scarce resources of flora and fauna, self-limitation of population growth, and, more recently, the specialized selection of plants and animals introduced into the region. The technical developments which created the possibilities for the establishment of an artificial environment and opened transportation and communication routes following the Second World War also gave impetus to demographic, urban and economic expansion in Baja California, radically altering the intimate relationship between man and his environment which had existed for various millenia.1 Although these changes have been felt throughout the world, they have been more notable on the Peninsula, where only the remote areas of the sierra have remained relatively free from technological influence. Contemporarily, the process of development may be considered, in the main, to be an attempt to adapt the environment to man.

The contemporary problems of contamination and destruction of the peninsular environment may well be corrected or avoided through reflections upon the past and the ability of the various cultures to avoid such devastation. The history of the almost incredible capacity of the Bajacalifornian to adapt himself to his inhospitable environment may be divided into two periods: Indigenous (c. 5000 B.C.-1697 A.D.) and Euroamerican (1697-1840).


The inhabitants of the region which can be considered completely peninsular, today non-existent due to the introduction of European diseases, formed three linguistically distinct but culturally similar groups: from north to south, Cochimí, Guaycura and Pericú. These groups were neolithic seminomads living from hunting, fishing and gathering of seeds and edible fruits without any benefits of agriculture, domestic animals, pottery or permanent living structures. Cultural homogeneity was derived from the absolute adaptation of all three groups to the environment. This adaptation was manifested in two forms, sustenance and the manufacture of material necessities related to the acquisition of foodstuffs, clothing and housing, through the utilization of mineral, vegetable and animal elements.

Mineral Utilization

1. Basaltic rock: manos, metates, knives, axes, hammers, scrapers, dart and arrow points.

2. Volcanic rock: manos, metates, scrapers.

3. Obsidian: dart and arrow points, blades (region of San Ignacio-Las Vírgenes).

4. Miscellaneous rock: construction of sleeping circles, rock for boiling or roasting, rock for hunting by stoning.

5. Salt: collected in natural pans such as those of Isla San José and Isla del Carmen.

Vegetable Utilization

1. Carrizo, reedgrass (Arundo donax): arrow, dart, harpoon shafts, poles for gathering of pitahaya fruit, small baskets, beads, necklaces, women’s aprons, huts, the tender roots as food, the sweet sap as a beverage.

2. Corcho, cork (Erythrina flabelliformis); logs for rafts of three or five trunks.

3. Zalate, wild fig (Ficus palmeri): figs, seeds toasted and ground.

4. Palo chino, acacia (Acacia peninsularis), Dipúa (Cercidium microphyllum):  seeds in pods toasted and ground.

5. Palo blanco (Lysiloma candida): seeds in pods toasted and ground, bark for tanning and ground to a powder to apply to wounds as an antiseptic.

6. Mezquite, mesquite (Prosipis juliflora), Palo verde (Cercidium peninsulare): seeds in pods toasted and ground (medesá).

7. Datilillo (Yucca valida): leaves pounded to make hemp for cords, nets and bags, the root roasted and eaten.

8. Palma, palm (Washingtonia robusta; Erythea brandegeeí): leaves for mats, aprons and short capes for women, leaves and bark pounded for hemp for cords, nets, bags and trays.

9. Mimbre, willow (Chilopis línearis): bows.

10. Tule, cattail (Juncus sp.): tender roots as food.

11. Teddá-San Miguel (Antigonon leptopus), Ortiga (Urticacea sp.): seeds toasted and ground.

12. Nopal, prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris): pear fruit, leaves cooked.

13. Guigil (Castella tortuosa): raw wild cherries eaten.

14. Biznaga, barrel cactus (Ferocactus acanthodes):seeds toasted, spines used as needles.

15. Cardón, giant cactus (Pachycereus pringlei): seeds toasted, sap boiled as wound antiseptic.

16. Garambullo, old man cactus (Lophocereus shotii), Ciruelo, wild plum (Cyrtocarpa edulis): fruit eaten raw.

17. Mezcal, agave (Agave shawii, deserti, sobria, aurea): root roasted as basic food, stalks and leaves sucked for sweet sap (aguamiel), leaves pounded for hemp.

18. Tabaco silvestre, wild tobacco (Nicotiana glauca): burned and smoke breathed.

19. Pimentilla (Peperonia umbilicata): seed toasted and eaten.

20. Pitahaya agria, sour pitahaya (Machaerocereus gummosus): paste made from fruit eaten.

21. Pitahaya dulce, sweet pitahaya (Lemaireocereus thurberi): fruit eaten as basic food, seeds toasted and eaten in “second harvest” (recovered from excrement).

22. Miscellaneous woods: firehardened for digging sticks, arrow, dart and harpoon points, construction of huts or fences against the wind, friction to make fire.

Animal Utilization

1. Deer (Odocoileus hemionus), Desert sheep (Ovis canadensis), Puma (Felis concolor), Wildcat (Lynx rufus), Coyote (Canis latrans) meat eaten raw or roasted, bone for arrow or harpoon points, bone ground as food, skins for aprons or small caps for women, covers, bags, rawhide for sandals and cording.

2. Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus): meat eaten raw or roasted, skins for aprons and shoulder coverings for women, rawhide for cording.

3. Cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus auduboni), Squirrel (Ammospermophilus leucurus), Woodrat (Dipodomys merriami, Thomomys bottae), Mouse (Perognatus baileyi, Peromyscus eremicus, maniculatus) : eat eaten raw or roasted.

4. Fox (Vulpes macrotis, Urocyon cinereoargenteus), Seal (Phoca vitulina): meat eaten raw or roasted, skins for shoulder coverings for women.

5. Whale (Eschrictius glaucus): when washed ashore, meat eaten raw or roasted.

6. Badger (Taxidea taxus): not eaten, meat reputed to taste like that of humans.,

7. Shark (Carcharhinidae sp., Lamnidae sp.): meat eaten raw or roasted, teeth for knives or arrow points.

8. Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus, Lampropeltis getulus, Masticophis lateralis, Chilomeniscus cinctus), Lizards (Sceloporus orcutii, magister, Uta stansburiana, Dipsosaurus dorsalis, Urosaurus microscutatus, Cnemidophorus tigris mundus, hyperthrus, Crotaphytus wislizenii): meat eaten raw or roasted.

9. Sea turtle (Chelonia mydas): meat eaten raw or roasted, shell for cribs, cooking vessels, trays, adornment.

10. Quail (Lophortyx californica), Dove (Zenaida macroura, asiatica, Columbina passerina), Goose (Branta nigrans, canadiensis), Duck (Mergus serrator, Anas platyrhyncos, acuta, carolinensis, americana, cyanoptera, Bucepahala albeola, Aythya americana, affinis, valisineria, Malanitta perspicillata, Oxyura jamaicensis): meat eaten raw or roasted, plumage for adornment.

11. Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis): meat eaten raw or roasted, plumage and skins for capes, covers, pillows.

12. Insects (Gryllacrididae, Cicadidae, Acrididae, Gryllidae, Tettigoniidae), miscellaneous worms: eaten roasted.

13. Miscellaneous birds: meat eaten raw or roasted, plumage for adornment.

14. Miscellaneous fish: all varieties as basic food; large fish stomachs for water vessels.

15. Pearl shell (Pinna rugosa, Atrína tuberculosa): meat eaten raw or roasted, shells for adornment.

16. Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica): meat eaten raw or roasted, pearls for adornment.

17. Octopus (Octopus vulgaris): meat eaten raw or roasted.

18. Miscellaneous shellfish: all varieties as basic food.

In general, the indigenous population utilized the scarce peninsular resources to the maximum degree, with few exceptions. Utensils were those essential for existence, housing barely existed, only the women wore clothing, and, for this reason the small bands of native groups enjoyed absolute mobility and time to permit them to search for and obtain animal and plant foods as well as to locate waterholes. This high level of adaptation and utilization of resources notwithstanding, on many occasions the native peoples suffered from hunger and privation which forced them to even adapt themselves physically, adjusting themselves to a system of eating in excess and later spending various days without food but without suffering from hunger or weakness, and by using the “second harvest” or redigestion of evacuated seeds and “maroma” or swallowing a piece of meat tied to a cord which, after a period of digestion, was removed to be passed among other companions or family members. Native groups, self-limiting the birth rate and suffering or prospering in accordance with nature, never presented a danger to the environment and in all probability in the struggle for survival the latter dominated man until the arrival of Euroamericans.2


The first stage of Euroamerican contact with the peninsula of Baja California lasted for a century and a half; however during this period no permanent settlement was established and for this reason the encounters with native inhabitants were brief and of little direct influence. The expeditions of Fernando Cortés (1535), Francisco de Ulloa (1537) and Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (1542), all of which carried horses, hogs, sheep and cattle to supply the crews, familiarized the natives to a certain degree with white men, their dress, domestic animals, ships, arms and tools. Notwithstanding this initial contact, the native Bajacalifornian did not avail himself culturally of it until the arrival of the pearl-fishing expeditions of Sebastián Vizcaíno (1596), Nicolás de Cardona (1615), Francisco de Ortega (1632-1636), Pedro Porter y Casanate (1644-1648), Bernardo Bernal de Piñadero (1664) and Francisco de Lucenilla (1668) when the exchanges made for pearls brought knives, axes and iron nails, glass beads and mirrors, and wool and cotton cloth into his possession. Further, these expeditions carried supplies of domestic animals (horses, mules, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, dogs) which on various occasions fell into the hands of natives who probably slaughtered and ate them immediately. Too, the expeditions usually built housing for the crews upon going ashore, thus demonstrating a new method for protection from the inclemency of the weather.3

The second stage of Euroamerican contact began in 1683 with the establishment of the ill-fated mission of San Bruno by Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and Admiral Isidro de Atondo y Antillón. Attempts to establish herds of cattle and cultivated fields of corn, beans and other basic crops failed due to the drought of that year, and thus the mission, supplied by irregular voyages from the coast of Sinaloa, was abandoned in 1685. Despite the lack of success of San Bruno, the presence of the mission introduced the concept of agriculture to the native and furthered his familiarity with domestic animals.4

After a period of twelve years the Jesuits succeeded in founding a permanent mission, Nuestra Senora de Loreto, in October, 1697, thus beginning seventy-five years of occupation on the peninsula from Cabo San Lucas to 30° North Latitude, principally along the watershed of the Gulf of California. To avoid the problems met by Kino and the dependency upon maritime supply from Sinaloa and Sonora, the Jesuits carried out careful exploration, observing geographical and climatological factors, water supply, and, in great detail, the native methods of adaptation and survival. In the main, the Jesuits reflected a high level of academic preparation and therefore, could eclectically employ their own technological knowledge together with the more basic concepts of the native population.

Learning from their neophytes, the missionaries added to their diet from the meat of deer, sheep, rabbit, quail, dove, goose, duck, shellfish and sea turtle, and the fruit of thepitahaya, prickly pear, as well as the cooked root of the mezcal. They also employed cactus fibers for cording, nets, string, thread and bags; mesquite seed and branches as forage for livestock; bark of palo blanco as tannen; sap from palo brea (Cercicium praexos) to repair jugs and other pottery; huisache (Acacia farnesiana) seed to make ink; and jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) for medicinal applications.5

In spite of these applications of native products, the missionaries depended principally upon plants and animals introduced to the peninsula and upon European technology. These introductions took place primarily between the years 1702 and 1720 through the efforts of Father Juan de Ugarte who carefully studied the environment of each area to select, and thus assure, the definitive adaptation of the olive, pomegranate, peach, lemon, orange, fig tree and of corn, beans, garbanzo, wheat, melon, sweet potato, watermelon, squash, grape and date palm in the respective missions. Ugarte also noted the rapid adaptation of horses, mules, burros and goats brought from the mainland, as well as the problems met in expanding the herds of sheep which suffered from the heat and cactus spines which caught in their wool, and of hogs which lacked adequate forage. In his own mission of San Francisco Xavier Viggé-Biaudó, Ugarte built the first irrigation works on the peninsula and at the visita of San Miguel de Comondú in 1714 he initiated the concept of land reclamation by transporting thousands of mule loads of soil to create arable fields.6

Due to these careful selections and the application of European technology, the missions of Baja California became self-sufficient in basic crops and livestock products and remained so during the Franciscan and Dominican periods from 1768 to the mid-nineteenth century. Notwithstanding the development of the mission temporalities and the dietetic advances among the native population, this declined due to the introduction of European diseases. Therefore, beginning in 1768 the concession of lands to civilian settlers was begun in Loreto, Comondú, La Paz, Todos had the natives and missionaries, sought those lands with the greatest availability of water and in some cases these were those abandoned by the missions following the disappearance of the native population.

The new colonists availed themselves of the experience of the missionaries, cultivating the plants which they found established and utilizing methods of the missionaries and natives. Generally livestock ranchers, the civil settlers began their herds with semi-ferral cattle which foraged openly, the chinampo, and which had proliferated during the first half of the eighteenth century, adapting themselves to living on mesquite, cactus and other peninsular shrubs which permitted them to go several days without water. This adaptation and proliferation of the chinampo, as well as that of mules, is reflected in the decree of Jefe Político Luis del Castillo Negrete ordering the control of herds by roundup on the Llanos de Xiray and Magadalena. The basic industry until the Second World War was stock raising, and it flourished in harmony with the environment, controlling itself according to the climate, geography and the number of natural enemies, the coyote and puma.7

Recent advances in the raising of cattle, cultivation of jojoba, fishing and utilization of cactus reflect the employment of modern technology in relationship with traditional resources. Nevertheless, the attempts to expand cultivation and the population through exploitation of fossil water deposits, the contamination of the coastal areas, the introduction of unadaptable plants and animals, and demographic pressure on the natural habitat may cause irreparable damage if technology and industry proceed without considering the past.


1. Although the entry of man to the peninsula has not been precisely determined, an antiquity in excess of 7,000 years has been assigned to some shellmounds on the shores of the Gulf of California.

2. For further details relative to native culture see: Juan Jacobo Baegert, Noticias de la Península Americana de California (México: José Porrúa e Hijos, 1942), 77-96, 113-114, 119, 121; Miguel del Barco, Historia Natural y Crónica de la Antigua California, ed. by Miguel León-Portilla (México: UNAM, 1973), 21, 33,35,41,66-75,79-84, 87,89,95-96,99-106,115,122-126,135,140,183,194,202-209,218,250,279,297,343; Harry Crosby, Cave Paintings of Baja California (La Jolla: Copley Books, 1975), passim; W. Michael Mathes, ed., Californiana I (Madrid: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1965), documentos 29,36,57,177,183; Californiana II (Madrid: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1970), documentos 32,34,37,94; W. Michael Mathes, Vivian C. Fisher, E. Moisés Coronado, eds., Obras Californianas del Padre Miguel Venegas, S.J. (La Paz: Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, 1979-1981), NI, 81-89; Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World (London: Bernard Lintot, 1726), 291-318; George Shelvocke, A Voyage Round the World (London: J. Senex, 1726), 402-415.

3. Henry R. Wagner, Spanish Voyages to the Pacific Coast of North America in the Sixteenth Century (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1929), passim; W. Michael Mathes, ed., The Conquistador in California, 1535 (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1974), passim.

4. W. Michael Mathes, ed., Californiana III (Madrid: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, 1974), documentos 25,29,33,38.

5. Barco, Historia…, 13,64,67,73,95-96,115,126,209.

6. Ugarte, observing the presence of the wild grape (Vitis Arizonica), determined the sites most adequate for the development of viticulture. Barco, Historia…, 75,95,122,255-257.

7. W. Michael Mathes, ed., Los Regístros de Marcas de Baja Califomia Sur (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1967), passim.