Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Introduction to Spanish Era Castillos
by Justin Ruhge

After the visit of Vancouver to Alta California in 1792-1793, the subsequent publication of the journals of the voyage in Europe; the argument between Spain and England over the northern boundaries of the Spanish claims in northern California; and the wars between France, Spain and England, Viceroy Revile Gigedo instructed the Governor of Alta California to provide additional fortifications at the harbors of the major presidios. These were considered to be Monterey, San Francisco, and San Diego. At a later date not specified by history, a fort was also added at Santa Barbara. The Spanish used the word "Castillo" which means castle or redoubt or fort in English to describe these installations.

The history of the forts in California is quite variable. In general, a fort of some unique design complemented each presidio. The information about each depended on the particular installation - most is known about San Francisco, the least about the Santa Barbara Fort. The Spanish realized that their holdings were lightly defended. In 1793 the Viceroy assesses the problem as follows: "At Monterey there were "eight guns and three swivels, all in good conditions"; at Santa Barbara, "two guns and one swivel"; at San Diego, "Three guns." But at Santa Barbara and San Diego the guns were dismounted and without artillerists", from California Under Spain and Mexico-1535 to 1847 by Irving B. Richman, pg. 166.

Don Miguel Costanso of the Royal Engineers made the original recommendations for the forts in 1794 upon the request of the Viceroy Marques de Frankfort. They are as follows:



Costanso is recommending a greatly increased cost and personnel to the Viceroy. While not mentioned in the original proposals, a fort at Santa Barbara was added at a later date. One additional observation by Costanso pointed out that even with the new forts, Alta California was too vast to defend from foreign invaders. The best solution, Costanso pointed out, was a greatly increased program of Spanish colonization of the Californias, which could not, therefore, be easily conquered by the invaders. This latter recommendation was not followed as history has shown us.

Work on the recommended forts began under the control of the local commanders and with local labor, neither of which knew much about constructing forts. San Francisco and Monterey were the first two forts to be constructed.

In 1796, the Royal Engineer Alberto de Cordoba was sent to California by the Viceroy to assist with the construction of the forts and to found the Villa Branciforte at or near Santa Cruz. Cordoba improved the fort at San Francisco and established the battery at Yerba Buena. He helped lay out the fort at San Diego and may have provided plans for the Santa Barbara fort but none have been found to date. Cordoba returned to Mexico in 1798.


Castillo de San Joaquin at San Francisco
Castillo de Monterey
Castillo de Guijarros at San Diego
Castillo de Santa Barbara


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Updated 23 June 2017