The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1986, Volume 32, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Crónicas del descubrimiento de la Alta California. 1769. Gaspar de Portolá.

Ed. by Angela Cano Sánchez, Neus Escandell Tur, and Elena Mampel González. Barcelona: Universitat de Barcelona, 1984. 311 pages. 1300 pesetas.

Reviewed by Thomas E. Case, Professor of Spanish, San Diego State University, specialist in Spanish and Latin American Literature and textual criticism.

The first chapter of the history of San Diego and of California, from Cabrillo in 1542 to Father Serra’s arrival in 1769, is both long in time and short in documents. Serra’s untiring labors crowned by glorious achievements, especially celebrated in 1984 on the bicentennial of his death (a date more important than a birthday for a possible future saint) has obscured the multiple contributions of the secular participants, such as Gaspar de Portolá, leader of the political and military mission to Alta California; Miguel Costansó, his technical assistant; Pedro Fages, the first Governor of the two Californias; navigators Juan Pérez and Vicente Vilas, and the soldiers and sailors who bore much of the hardships of the first explorations. This volume brings under a single cover the reports of these professionals.

Each of the eight parts has an introduction which details the origin of the chronicles (all but one based on manuscripts from the Museo Naval de Madrid, the Biblioteca Nacional de México, and the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid), and provides a biographical sketch of the author and/or protagonist. There are also appropriate biographical and other annotations. The principal figure is Portolá, who, accompanied by Father Serra, reached San Diego on 1 June 1769, to set up a base and then to proceed to Monterey in order to lay claim to Alta California for the Spanish crown. After trekking northward for more than six months, giving picturesque names to sites along the way, Portolá had to return to San Diego without having found Monterey. A second attempt was successful in May, 1770. Portolá then returned to Mexico City in August, 1770, a hero of the Spanish Empire. The first document, a mere four pages, is a brief extract of Portolá’s success in his mission. Miguel Costansó, Portolá’s engineer authored parts two and three. Part Two chronicles both overland expeditions to Monterey and the return to Mexico City, adding praise for the executive pundits, his excellency the Marquis de Croix and His Majesty Charles III. More cogent is Part Three, a detailed journal of the first Monterey expedition, which includes cartographical measurements, descriptions of the flora and fauna, and notes on the tribulations of the small party. The fourth part is written by Pedro Fages, who, five years after the events, summarizes Costansó’s log of the first attempt to reach Monterey, and continues with his own observations of the successful second trip. Fages’s account is laced with personal remarks about the Indians’ language and way of life. Fages succeeded Portolá as military governor, but was relieved of his command because of personal differences with Father Serra. He may have written his own version to leave a record of his competency and share of the glory vis-a-vis a possible negative historical image. Portolá himself is author of Part Five, a dry, perfunctory summary of his overland trip with Serra to San Diego, 11 May to 1 June 1769, and of his unsuccessful search for Monterey and return to San Diego on 24 January 1770. Part Six, written by Vicente Vila, commander of the packet boat, the San Carlos, is a log in mariner’s language of the voyage from La Paz to San Diego and then back to San Blas, 9 January 1769, to 1 August 1770.

The seventh and eighth parts only indirectly concern us; one is Juan Manual de Viniegra’s report on the activities of Josep de Gá1vez, the Visitor-General sent from Spain to organize the Alta California expeditions; the other is an anonymous extract covering the establishment of the Franciscan missions in Alta California, with data on the seventeen Dominican missions in Baja California.

This accessible volume on the early history of California will be particularly useful for students and new scholars to the field. We note that this compilation emanates from Catalonia, not Spain, and stresses the role that Catalans — Portolá, Costansó, Fages, and the Catalan Volunteers — and their close relatives, Majorcans — Serra, Crespí, Palóu, Jaume — played in that epic chapter of history. In the wake of recent publications on Serra and the Franciscan missions, this book counterbalances the religious endeavors with the political conquest, which, after all, was Spain’s primary concern in 1769.