The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1986, Volume 32, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

About the book
Part 1 ~ Native People
Part 2 ~ Spanish Rule
Part 3 ~ Mexican Interlude
Part 4 ~ Yankees Move In
Part 5 ~ Boom and Bust
Part 6 ~ A New Century
Part 7 ~ Modern Times



Point Loma was the first rugged foreland of golden California to rise above the horizon to European eyes. Spanish explorers called it The Point of California. Its name has changed since, like that of the admiral who discovered it. Born in Portugal, he was baptized Joao Rodrigues, although among Spaniards he was known as Juan Rodriguez. Another name, Cabrilho, followed his surname; it apparently referred to the village of his birth. Later Californians changed it to Cabrillo, a Spanish form of the word. He qualified himself for leadership while serving the king of Spain as a soldier under Cortes, during wars in Mexico and Central America.

In June of 1542 he sailed northward from Navidad, on the west coast of Mexico, to explore the northwest coast of the continent to find out what was on it and how far it extended. Most important, he was to search for the mythical Straits of Anian – known to the English as the Northwest Passage – supposed to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific through, or above North America, providing a convenient route for voyagers to Cathay, the Spice Islands, and the Spanish colonies on the Pacific Coast. If France, England, or another enemy discovered the Straits first, Spain’s future would be gravely affected.

Cabrillo was given two little vessels, only partly decked over, to carry his expedition on a hard voyage up a wild, unexplored coast, against the prevailing winds. The ships were named San Salvador and Victoria. They were among a number built by Cabrillo himself, with the aid of Spanish overseers and Indian workmen. They were of native materials, except that the ironwork and finished articles were brought from Spain to Mexico and transported across the continent from Gulf ports.

The ships were far from well found for a long voyage to windward, being open, stubby, and small, yet Cabrillo reached San Diego 103 days out, on September 28, discovering the point, the bay, and Upper California itself. He called the harbor “San Miguel.” In his official diary he said, “Being in this port there passed a very great tempest, but on account of this port’s being very good they suffered nothing.”

The Spaniards remained here six days, then sailed northward. While landing at San Miguel Island at the western end of Santa Barbara Channel, Cabrillo broke his leg (or arm, the two accounts of the voyage differ) but he did not delay there. Off the coast of Northern California, November storms drove him back. He returned to San Miguel Island to weather the gales and recuperate. He died there of his broken limb, an earlier victim than Hudson or Franklin of the search for the Straits of Anian. Cabrillo’s pilot, Ferrelo, pushed northward again perhaps as far as Cape Mendocino, and did not get back to New Spain until April of 1543.

During the latter part of the sixteenth century Sir Francis Drake, Sir Thomas Cavendish, and other freebooters came into the Pacific Ocean, raiding and plundering, and Drake claimed Northern California for England in 1579. The Spanish government’s interest in the Straits of Anian became more vital. Also an urgent need arose for a haven for the Manila galleons during their run with the westerly winds of the North Pacific to Acapulco. Refuge from northern storms was no less important than a place of safety from buccaneers. The Manila trade would make the merchants involved fabulously rich if even half of the ships were lost, but how much better it would be if more could be brought through!

By 1602 the galleons had been running regularly for almost forty years. They were to keep up a scheduled service for over two centuries more, until 1815, and become the longest lived line in maritime history.

San Diego Gets Its Name

On May 5 of 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino, who had been on the great galleon Santa Ana when it was captured by Cavendish off lower California, was sent with three good ships, the San Diego, which he made his flagship, the Santo Tomas, and the launch Tres Reyes, to explore the coast of California. On November 10 Vizcaino anchored under the lee of Point Loma, five months out from Acapulco.

Two days later-on the feast day of San Diego de Alcala, a Spanish Franciscan who lived in the fifteenth century-priests with the expedition set up a chapel on Ballast Point and there held the first Catholic service conducted on Californian soil. On that day the bay was renamed for San Diegoin honor of the day and the flagship. Declaring that Cabrillo’s recorded observations were too inaccurate to identify positively the points he had visited, Vizcaino changed the rest of the names set down by his predecessor.

The Spaniards stayed ten days while their ships were scraped and repaired. Vizcaino described San Diego in his journal as a port which must be the best to be found in all the South Sea (the Pacific) … protected on all sides and having a good anchorage.” Although Vizcaino recommended this as an ideal port for the Manila fleet, when he saw Monterey Bay he said that haven was even better, partly because of the forests of tall trees which could be worked into spars and masts, to repair damage from weather or gunfire.

He returned to Mexico after a difficult struggle northward to find the Straits. Forty of his men died of scurvy during the voyage. The admiral once wrote in his journal, “The sick were dying of hunger because they could not eat what was on board the ship on account of their sore mouths.”

To the government of New Spain Vizcaino recommended that settlements could and should be established in California. He organized an expedition, under the authority of the Viceroy, to capitalize upon his voyage of exploration, but his destination was ordered changed to Rico de Oro and Rico de Plata, mythical islands, of which the Spanish had heard rumors.

California was forgotten. One hundred and sixty-seven years passed before white men again entered San Diego Bay. Occasionally Point Loma was sighted by the castled galleons heaving along under slowly lifting, white-bellied sails, on the long searoad from Manila to Mexico.

Foreign Threats

Not until Spain’s absentee ownership of California, established by right of discovery, was challenged, did settlement ensue. In the late eighteenth century the Russians, who had advanced rapidly across Siberia and the North Pacific into Alaska, began to move southward. Fear that they might occupy the harbors of California, and become a threat to the Spanish hold on Mexico and its riches, caused King Charles to direct that steps be taken to establish royal control of the land.

In 1768 the Inspector General of Mexico, Jose de Galvez, undertook to organize five expeditions at La Paz, Lower California, three to come by sea and two by land, to settle California. On January 9, 1769, the first contingent set sail in the supply ship San Carlos; on February 15 more followed in the ship San Antonio, and, a little later, the last to set out from the harbor of La Paz left in another vessel, the San Jose.

On April 29 the San Antonio sailed into San Diego Bay, the first ship since Vizcaino’s. The San Carlos, which departed over a month before the San Antonio, was nowhere to be seen. For two anxious weeks the San Antonio swung to her anchors just inside Ballast Point, quite alone. Then theSan Carlos came in, after having sailed too far north-in accordance with Cabrillo’s directions; Vizcaino’s had been ignored. Two dozen of the 62-man crew of the ship were dead of scurvy; only four sailors could stand up and help work the ship, and it was beyond their power to lower a boat when they arrived. The crew of the San Antonio had to take them off. A rude, canvas hospital was set up on the beach for the sick men. The men of both ships settled down to await the San Josewhich never did come in, and never was heard of again.

On May 14, Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada led the advance party of the overland expedition to the shores of the bay. With him came seventy men, including Father Juan Crespi, who kept an account of the journey. Finding the ships’ complements camped by the bay in terrible physical condition, Rivera moved the bivouac to the Old Town area, and set up hospital, corral, and brush hut headquarters for all, thereby choosing the site of San Diego. In time, fresh food and livestock he brought improved the health of the men. Supplies for the expeditions were largely provided by the missions of Lower California, which had been taken from the Jesuits in 1767 and given to the Franciscans temporarily to serve as bases for expansion into Upper California.

The Coming of Serra

Gaspar de Portola, the first governor of California and commander of the entire colonization effort, which was called “The Sacred Expedition of 1769,” rode in on June 27, and two days later the rest of his party arrived with Junipero Serra, the new Father President of the yet-unfounded mission chain. In a few days Portola set out again to the northward to search for the wonderful bay of Monterey, described by Sebastian Vizcaino as an excellent place to make the center of California development.

San Diego was officially founded July 16 on a hill above Rivera’s camp, a hill chosen for its commanding view of Mission Valley with its large native population, of the bay, and the area surrounding. Father Serra, after a solemn mass, dedicated the first mission in California to the glory of God. In the same ceremony he dedicated the first presidio – or military settlement – whose walls were to surround and protect the mission. Both were named San Diego, in honor of the saint for whom Vizcaino had named the port. Earthworks for defense and huts for shelter were soon thrown up to create the first foothold of European civilization in California on Presidio Hill, which has become known, consequently, as “The Plymouth Rock of the Pacific Coast.”

The presidio took the form of a square, about the size of a Modern city block, within ramparts that developed from earthworks and palisades into adobe walls with bastions mounting brass cannon. Buildings housing officers, troops, supplies, and the mission formed a smaller rectangle surrounding an open parade ground and the commandant’s house. In the middle of the south wall stood the great gate, the only way in. Through it came the Franciscan fathers, from other missions in Upper and Lower California, and the soldiers of the king, with their lances, shields, flintlocks, and banners.

The danger from the native population was considered so great that neither private citizen nor missionary was allowed to leave the protection of the walls without a military escort. The mission failed to grow because of the lack of tillable land near the presidio and because the natives feared and distrusted the soldiers. In 1774 permission was received to remove San Diego Mission to its present site about five miles up the valley, where there was a large native village called Nipaguay. Ground was broken during the fall of 1774, but on November 4, four hundred natives from the El Capitan area, taking advantage of the mission’s exposure, attacked and burned the building.

California’s first Christian martyr was Father Luis Jayme, who, after the attack commenced, walked out the door with his arms outstretched, saying, “Love God, my children.” His lifeless body was found the next day. Father Serra, on receiving word of the martyrdom, said, “Thanks be to God! That land is already irrigated; now the conversion of the Diegueños will succeed.”

Some of the natives who carried out the assault returned to become mission neophytes. Mission San Diego, rededicated In 1777, soon boasted flourishing vineyards, and orchards of olives, dates, and pears. Herds of cattle, horses, and sheep spread over the rolling hills.

Mission Days

The mission, like the presidio, was built in the form of a square, but It enclosed beautiful gardens, irrigated by water brought from a dam miles up the river, via California’s first aqueduct.

Natives worked in the gardens, orchards, fields, and ranges. Their day began with a morning mass; a breakfast of pozole or ground barley boiled with meat, vegetables, or, on special occasions, chocolate. Beans and beef were staples for the evening meal after the angelus.

The system was patriarchal. Unmarried neophytes were locked in barracks at night to put them beyond temptation to sin. Married couples lived in villages of huts outside. Corporal punishment was inflicted upon those who broke the rules laid down for them; floggings and confinements in the stocks were employed.

Life was leisurely and undisturbed by the rest of the world, until 1793, when the English explorer, George Vancouver came. He and the Spaniards enjoyed very cordial relations, but he publicized the excellence of the harbor in his reports and remarked on its need for protection from attack. He recommended Ballast Point as the best location for a harbor defense fortification. The Spanish followed his suggestion to the letter, and built Fort Guijarros, named for the point, which they called Point Guijarros – “Point Cobblestones” – because of its shingle beach.

The first American ship to enter the harbor was the little brig Betsy, which came in on August 25, 1800, for wood and water. Word of the abundance of sea otters brought more Yankees, for the otters’ skins commanded high prices in China. In 1803 the ship Alexander tried to smuggle five hundred of them out of San Diego, but was prevented by the authorities. Later in the year the brigLelia Byrd was arrested for the same reason. A duel between the guns of the ship and fort, after theLelia Byrd‘s crew overpowered the guards set over them and put out to sea, has been dignified with the name The Battle of San Diego. The fort’s gunners were driven to cover in this, the only time San Diego’s harbor defense guns were fired in action.

Time passed uneventfully until 1812, when a great earthquake shook down the mission church. The 1813 reconstruction gave the mission much of its present form and appearance. Converts increased in numbers and, in 1818, the asistencia, or mission outpost, was established at Santa Ysabel with a small chapel.

Hippolyte de Bouchard, the Argentine pirate who sacked Monterey and Capistrano, aroused a great deal of excitement here in 1818, although he failed to show up. The presidio garrison could have done nothing if he had come. They were few and ill-equipped. The military establishment was a poor orphan, administratively, being so far from army sources of supply and finance. The missions had to feed and clothe the troops, although to a large extent the soldiers were left to shift for themselves.

Yet they remained loyal to the Spanish crown during the revolutionary wars, as did the Franciscans, whose hold on their lands depended on royal support and power. In 1821, however, one of the king’s most important officers in Mexico, General Agustin de Iturbide, swung his army over to the side of independence and declared himself Emperor Agustin I of Mexico.

Although the event seemed far away, it ushered California into a new era. No longer a province in the realm of the Spanish Bourbons, it had become a Mexican dependency. The mission period would close as a result, and that of the ranchos would begin.