Serra’s San Diego – Planting the Cross

July 1, 1983

The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Summer 1983, Volume 29, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Forward

MALLORCAN BEGINNINGS
TRAVELS IN MEXICO
OCCUPATION OF SAN DIEGO
PLANTING THE CROSS
SERRA AS FATHER-PRESIDENT
MOVING THE MISSION
INDIAN REVOLT
CONFIRMATION
SERRA’S FINAL DAYS
THE YEARS FOLLOWING
THE SERRA MUSEUM TODAY

 

Planting the Cross

All four groups were united in San Diego on July 1, 1769. They moved their camp from a place near the bay to present-day Presidio Hill. On July 16, 1769, accompanied by fellow Franciscans Juan Vizcaino,, Fernando Parron, and Francisco Gomez, Father Serra blessed the site as Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first mission in Alta (Upper) or New California. They built a brush chapel and within a short time began construction of a small adobe church. Their early days were spent primarily in caring for the sick and dying crewmen of the San Carlos and San Antonio.

Just two days prior to the founding of the mission, on July 14, Portola left San Diego with an expedition of sixty-three men in search of Monterey. The port had been described by Vizcaino in 1602 as well protected and appropriate for California’s capital. Failing to recognize Monterey, the party continued northward and discovered the expansive bay of San Francisco on November 1, 1769. Portola and his weary soldiers returned to San Diego at the end of January, 1770, without having achieved their original goal. Serra was disappointed at their lack of success but was glad to have the extra protection.

While Portola was in the north, the originally friendly Indians began to resent the Spanish intrusion. They became defiant, pestered the sick at night, and stole anything they could find, especially cloth. As they watched continual deaths diminish 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 Vizcaino, were wounded. After the battle, Spanish soldiers built a stockade around the mission building and the Indians were forbidden to enter. Hostilities lessened but the priests had little success in gaining converts.

The shortage of food at San Diego became extremely critical during February and March, 1770. The Spaniards subsisted on wild geese, fish, and other food exchanged with the Indians for clothing, but the ravages of disease continued. Supplies from Baja California 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 Portola remained steadfast in their desire to fulfill the orders of their superiors, but the lives of their few remaining soldiers were at stake. Reluctantly, Portola resolved that if no relief ship arrived by March 19, the birthday of the expedition’s patron saint San Jose, they would leave the next morning.

Father Serra proposed a novena, a nine-day period of prayer that would end on the crucial day of San Jose. 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 seen 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 Perez assumed Portola was waiting. The San Antonio lost an anchor in the Santa Barbara channel near Point Conception and several crewmen, upon going ashore, fortunately learned from friendly Indians that Portola’s expedition to Monterey had long since retraced its route southward. Perez 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 in San Diego was truly an epic of faith and courage, The administrative planning of Galvez, the military leadership of Portola and Rivera, and the spiritual enthusiasm of Serra and his fellow priests had enabled Spain finally to gain a foothold on the Pacific coast of North America. Nevertheless, the next several years were often difficult and disappointing since provisions were scarce and local Indians were not always receptive to the Spanish goals of civilization.