Spanish Arrival in California
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Two events stand out relating to the Spanish arrival in Alta California: the voyage of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo who was the first European to set foot in Alta California and the arrival of Blessed Serra and others who would start the settlement of Alta California. Both of these events took place relatively close together in the San Diego area and are memorialized there with various monuments.
On 28 September 1542 Cabrillo brought his three ships to Ballast Point, considered the first point where European's set foot in Alta California. Today, Ballast Point is in the middle of a Navy base. He named the harbor San Miguel. It was only changed later after Spanish settlement took place. From the Cabrillo National Monument you can look down on the point as well as get sweeping views of the entire San Diego area.
Needless to say, Cabrillo would be hard pressed to recognize the area today!
While Spanish ships periodically sailed down the California coast carrying treasure from the Philippines it was almost 200 years before any settlement efforts were put forward. The distances from Spain and other ventures in the world left California largely untouched.
I discovered one of the reasons for this on a visit to Morro Bay. There, in a park between the power plant and Morro Rock, I found a historic plaque that reads in part: "On October 18, 1587, the Manila Galleon, Nuestra Senora de Esperanza, commanded by Pedro de Unamuno, entered Morro Bay near here. A landing party was sent to shore which included 'Luzon Indios,' marking the first landing of Filipinos in the Continental United States. ... The group was attacked by native Indians two days later, and one of the Filipinos was killed. Unamuno and his crew gave up further exploration of this part of the coast."
(Side Note: San Diego got its name when Sebastian Vizcaíno anchored his flagship San Diego in the bay 10 November 1602; he was searching for pearls and was making a survey of the area. The feast day of Saint Didacus of Alcala was the following day and the area was renamed San Diego in his honor.)
It took the efforts of Czarist Russia to seriously bring the Spanish to California. Russian fur traders had started working their way down the coast from the Bering Sea and by 1765 had gotten as far as the Farallon Islands off of San Francisco. This was seen by Spain as a potential threat and plans for colonizing Alta California were quickly made. A dual land and sea thrust was planned to settle Monterey with a stop at San Diego on the way. Plans were drawn up by the King's personal agent in New Spain (Mexico), Inspector-General José de Gálvez. The project leader was to be the recently appointed governor of Baja California Don Gaspár de Portolá. In charge of the missionaries would be Blessed Junipero Serra.
7 January 1769 the packet San Carlos sailed out of La Paz and a month later the San Antonio also sailed for Alta California (Side Note: The San Antonio arrived 11 April 1769, 17 days before the San Carlos in early May 1769). A third ship, the San José carrying a large amount of supplies sailed, returned to port, and sailed again but was lost at sea. Sadly, most of the crews of the two vessels that did make landfall perished at sea from scurvy (the use of fresh fruits and vegetables to counter the disease was unknown at the time).
The landing point for the two ships is along the San Diego coast just beyond Ballast Point. That area is now a narrow park between the harbor and the San Diego airport (Spanish Landing Park).
The first of two land expeditions left El Rosario on Good Friday, 1769 under the command of Captain Rivera with Padre Juan Crespí as diarist. San Diego lay 350 miles ahead through, in Padre Crespí's words was "sterile, arid, lacking grass and water, and abounding in stones and thorns." Two months later they arrived at their destination (14 May 1769). In mid-May, the fourth expedition with Captain Portolá and Blessed Serra left. Along the way they were forced to raid the Baja California missions for supplies and even then they ran out of supplies along the way. They were forced to live off the land and reached San Diego 1 July. As Portolá had ridden ahead, Blessed Serra was in charge when they arrived.
Of the 219 individuals who made up the original parties only half actually reached Alta California; many deserted and a quarter died. Plaques in the Spanish Landing Park honor these brave souls.
Portolá pressed on toward Monterey after sending the San Antonio back to San Blas for supplies. The remainder of the party camped near the Indian village of Cosoy, on a hill overlooking San Diego. On 16 July 1769 Blessed Serra raised the cross on the first mission site in Alta California.
Settlement had begun.