Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Castillo de Guijarros
The Castillo de Guijarros by Justin Ruhge

The second largest Castillo in Alta California was located at San Diego Harbor at what is called today "Ballast Point". Earlier it was called Cobblestone Point, or in Spanish "Guijarros". The ruins of this fort, started in 1794, have been located at the west end of Ballast Point. The Spanish were motivated to start this fort after the visit of the British Vancouver Expedition to San Diego in 1793. Vancouver's comments are as follows:

"San Diego did not come much into contact with the outside world. The first foreign vessels that ever entered this find harbor were those of the English navigator Vancouver, which remained at anchor some three miles and a half from the Presidio from November 27th to December 9th 1793. Grajera and Zuniga, who, however, on account of Arrillaga's severe and inhospitable injunctions were not able to allow the foreigners such privileges as were desired, courteously received Vancouver. The Englishman, though he visited the presidio, spent most of his time on board in preparing journals and dispatches to be sent to England by way of Mexico, having little opportunity for observations.

With little difficulty San Diego might also be rendered a place of considerable strength by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port where at this time there were neither works, guns, houses or other habitations nearer than the Presidio, which is at the distance of at least five miles from the port, and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon."

As with the other Castillos, H. H. Bancroft has provided a summary of the history in the original development of the Castillo de Guijarros. His statements from The History of California, Vol. l, pg. 651 follow:

"At the end of 1794 the viceroy expressed a desire to have a fort built similar to the one just completed at San Francisco, but without cost to the king. 'Perhaps he wishes me to pay the expenses,' writes Borica to a friend. Early the next year Point Guijarros, Cobblestone Point, was selected as the site of the fort whose absence Vancouver had noticed, and preparations were at once begun. Two or three workmen, and the necessary timber, were sent down by the transports from Monterey. Santa Barbara furnished the axletrees and wheels for ten carts (carriages), while bricks and tiles were hauled from the presidio to the beach and taken across to the Point in a flatboat. In December 1796, the engineer Cordoba arrived to inspect the San Diego defenses, in which he found no other merit than that an enemy would perhaps be ignorant of their weakness. But the fort had evidently not been built yet, for early in 1797 Borica approved Cordoba's idea that the form should not be circular.

Nothing more is known of this fortification till after 1800, save that it was intended to mount ten guns; that on battery, magazine, barracks and flatboat, $9,020 had been expended before March 1797; and that in 1798 there was a project underconsideration to open a road round the bay to connect Point Guijarros with the Presidio. Water had to be carried from the Presidio, where a well, long abandoned, was reopened. One hundred and three planks, 22 feet long, were among the timbers shipped from Monterey."

The Castillo at Guijarros was used twice in anger, both times against the Yankee traders that visited the Spanish coast and were suspected of smuggling. The first of these was the ship Lelia Byrd that visited San Diego in March 1803. The ship's mate, Cleveland, states in his Narratives that they found "eight brass nine-pounders, mounted on carriages, which appear to be in good order, and a plentiful supply of ball." The Lelia Byrd fought it out with the battery at Guijarros (now referred to as the first Battle of San Diego Bay) on March 22, 1803. The history of the Lelia Byrd and an account of its encounter with the Castillo Guijarros is told by Hugh Golway in The Cruise of the Lelia Byrd, Journal of the West, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Oct. 1969. However, H. H. Bancroft's statements about the encounter are as follows:

"Next morning Cleveland went ashore with four men, each armed with a brace of pistols, rescued the captives, and brought them off. Sails were set at once andt he somewhat hazardous attempt was made of running out past the guns of the fort.

The hoisting of a flag and the firing of a blank cartridge from the battery had no effect, and when a nine-pound ball came across her bow the Lelia still kept on her course, with the Spanish soldiers on board forced to occupy the most exposed and conspicuous positions. As she passed the fort two broadsides from her six three-pounders were discharged at the battery; while many of the shots from on shore took effect in the rigging, and several struck the hull, one of them making an ugly hole between wind and water. Then the terrified Arce and his companion were put on shore, and in their joy at escape shouted, as Cleveland tells us, "Vivan los Americanos!"

In 1805, the Castillo was reported to be in decline, it had six six-pounders and only one was usable. In 1818 San Diego was spared the Bouchard invasion when he decided to pass it by and sail south. According to H. H. Bancroft, in 1828, an effort was made to restore the Castillo. Bancroft reports as follows:

"The fort at Point Guijarros was hardly in a better state, but might be repaired at a cost of $10,000. We do not learn that any such sums were forthcoming from territorial or national treasury; but in May 1828 the governor asked the padres for ten men, with tools and food, to be set to work on the battery, which a few months later was at least in condition to discharge several broadsides into Bradshaw's vessel. The barca plana, or flat-boat, which had been wont to ply between the Presidio and the port, was wrecked at Los Adobes late in 1827, and a year later the governor directed that small wharf should be built of the timbers."

In 1828, Captain John Bradshaw with the Franklin engaged the Castillo in a duel lasting 20 minutes, thus taking part in the "Second Battle of San Diego Bay". A famous world traveler was there as an eyewitness. The French explorer Duhaut-Cilly relates this bit of history in his Voyage published in 1834 as follows:

"Captain Bradshaw, who was ready, paid out his cable, and spreading all sail, started for the way out of the bay, leaving officers and soldiers amazed, and unable to understand how a ship which, a minute before, seemed so firmly fixed on her anchors, had in a trice so completely altered the situation.

Here I might have told by what ingenious maneuvers Captain Bradshaw had known how to hide his plan from the still intent eyes of the Mexican officers; how his sails, which appeared as closely furled on their yards as on parade day, were suddenly displayed without a man appearing to put hand to them, and by what means the ship, which presented her prow toward the inner part of the bay, turned, like a man, to the opposite side; but I leave to the ingenious Fenimore Cooper to render, with so engaging truth, these nautical scenes, the painting of which belongs only to him, if not, however also to the author of Le Negrier.

The Franklin could not go out except by passing within less than two hundred fathoms from the fort, a distance from which good gunners would have been able to do her much harm. As soon as the garrison had cognizance of his maneuver, they began a fire, which lasted during the twenty minutes the ship needed, first to come to the most critical point, and then to withdraw beyond reach of the guns. Thirty-six or forty balls fired at her during this interval caused no other apparent damage than the fall of the flying jib, whose halyard was cut. Captain Bradshaw was in replying with two balls as he passed. Thus was ended a discussion which had spread apprehension in all California.

We found this ship later at the Sandwich Islands. The Mexican artillerymen had been more skillful than we had at first thought; she received two large balls in the hull and two others in the rigging, which had necessitated changing the main and mizzen yards."

The armament of San Diego in 1830 was 13 cannons; 8 of brass, and 5 of iron; 3 eight-pounders, 7 of 6 pounds, and 3 of 4 pounds, per the Department State Papers, MS. VI. 202.

On October 30, 1842, William Dane Phelps, captain of the ship Alert, believing that the United States and Mexico were at war, went to Castillo Guijarros and spiked the guns there. His observations during this event are as follows:

"Sunday Oct. 30th 1842. Morning pleasant. At 8 AM perceiving some military movements on board the Catalina such as firing pistols and the Capt. displaying his uniform and talking largely and loudly to the crew, I hoisted our Ensign and pennant and shipped the blunderbusses on the gangways as an offset to his display.

Shortly after breakfast he mounted his horse and rode up to town dressed in uniform; at the same time I started in a boat with my carpenter and 4 hands, took possession of the fort at the narrow entrance of the harbour, spiked all the guns consisting of 5 beautiful long brass 18 pounders and 3 iron 24 d. Out of a pile of shot we also picked out all that would fit our own guns and returned on board.

These guns at the fort were part of them dismantled but could soon have been put in service to annoy us in our passage out. Of course there was no garrison to oppose us…"

The map of San Diego drawn by DuFlot de Mofras during his tour of California in 1843, showing the locations of the Castillo de Guijarros and the Presidio. He lists the Castillo in ruins at that time. From Eugene DuFlot de Mofras Travels on the Pacific Coast Vol. l, pg. 230.

The Alert's 12-pounder guns seem to have been at least a fair match for the Castillo. According to Phelps, the Castillo Guijarros had only "eight cannon "of which only a few were serviceable" (Bancroft, Vol. III, pg. 610). It is not likely that Micheltorena had sent soldiers to seize the Alert, but he probably did send men to secure the cannon, only to find that Phelps had taken the matter in hand as he describes. (Bancroft, Vol. IV, pg. 320).

In 1843, DuFlot de Mofras visited San Diego. His comments are as follows:

"At San Diego the fort and presidio are inhabited; on one side of the fort under the crumbling walls a few pieces of bronze cannon lay partially buried. At the pueblo a few soldiers in charge of an officer reside.

The fort and neighboring buildings are deserted and in ruins; fragments of six or eight bronze cannon may be seen embedded in the sands.

An inspection of the general plan will reveal how easily the mouth of the harbor might be fortified. This could be accomplished by setting a battery on the hill which could command the entire bay, rebuilding the fort, and locating a few guns on the opposite spit of land, so that shots would focus on the neck of the harbor which could be captured by fire from a battery erected south of the little point where the warehouses are now situated."

In 1842, the "Kings Orphan" visited the San Diego area and produced a rendering of the harbor, which showed the Castillo in use, manned and the flag raised.

H. H. Bancroft gives a status of the Castillo in Vol. III, pgs. 610-611 as follows:

"Of the presidio buildings nothing is known except that they were abandoned in 1835 or a little earlier, and in ruins long before 1840. Probably much of the material was brought down to build the little town of 30 or 40 houses that had sprung up at the foot of the hill. After Castro's raid of Christmas 1838, earthworks were hastily thrown up on the ridge for the town's protection, and a cannon was brought over from the Castillo. This Castillo, or fort, at Point Guijarros, had no garrison or guard after 1835, if it had one before.

An investigation in 1839 showed the existence of nine cannon, two of them serviceable, with 50 canisters of grape and 300 balls. It was intended to put a guard in charge of this property, but the enterprise failed; and in January 1840, the remnants of the fort and casa mata were sold to Juan Machado for $40. A few of the guns were perhaps removed; one may still be seen at San Diego; and the rest, after being spiked by an American captain in 1842, are said to have been thrown into the bay during the war of 1847."

The exact shape of the Castillo has been researched. One drawing in 1851 shows a three-sided structure. The location was later used as a whaling station and then became the foundation for a U.S. Army battery in the 1870s. The present opinions are that the Castillo was built with embrasures somewhat like San Joaquin but not as high. The establishment in 1981 of the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation has begun a new chapter in the history of the Fort. This group has been excavating the Fort location at Ballast Point with the support and assistance of the U.S. Navy. Many artifacts have been found that help the modern world understand just what the Fort looked like. In the excavations at depths of 10-15 feet the Fort breastworks were found in 1987.


A sketch of the San Diego Bay by the "Kings Orphan", G. M. Waseutz af Sandels in 1842. The Castillo Guijarros is shown on the far right with guns, gunners and the flag raised. The guns are pointing over the parapets. Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco, California.
This 1853 United States Coast Survey Map indicated the location of the Castillo de Guijarros to the left of Ballast Point. A three-sided shape is shown. The arrow is added by the author. Courtesy of the National Archives.
Excavations of the breastworks of Castillo de Guijarros in 1987. Note the tile and brick scattered on top of the cobblestone foundation. Some of the excavations were ten feet deep. Photograph by the Author.

The breastwork was a straight line of cobblestones covered with red tile. The parapet was made of brick. This construction was backfilled with sand and a wooden esplanade was laid down for the cannon. The wood for the esplanade was cut and shipped from Monterey. Two buildings were built. The one of brick housed the guard while the other for the casa mata was made of stone.

The cannon at the Castillo have been discussed above and in the section on the San Diego Presidio.

Access to the Castillo site, located on the Navy Submarine Base, is limited.

References: for the San Diego Castillo are as follows: The History of California by H. H. Bancroft, Vol. I, Il, lll; Vancouver in California-1792 to 1794 by Marguerite Ayer Wilbur, Vol. l; DuFlot de Mofras Travels on the Pacific Coast by Marguerite Ayer Wilbur, Vol. l, ll; Journal of a Voyage Between China and the North-Western Coast of America, Made in 1804 by William Shaler, published in the American Register or General Repository of History, Politics and Science, Part 1 for 1808, lll, C. and A. Conrad and Co. Philadelphia, 1808; A Narrative of Voyages and Commercial Enterprises by R.J. Cleveland, Vol. l, ll; Alta California 1840-1842 by William Dane Phelps; The Cruise of the Lelia Byrd by Hugh Golway, Journal of the West, Vol. Vlll, no. 4, October. 1969; DuHaut-Cilly's Account of California in the Years 1827-1828 by Charles Franklin Carter, Quarterly of the California Historical Society, Vol. Vlll, no. 2, June 1929; Gunpowder and Canvas by Justin M. Ruhge, 1987.


An Artist's concept by Joyce Reading McLeod of what the Castillo de Guijarros defenses may have looked like, based on several years of archeological excavation by the Fort Guijarros Museum Foundation, San Diego, California.
The rendering by Bud Rinker of the complete Castillo de Guijarros battery is shown here for the first time based on excavations and the historic record. The guns peer over the glacious of the brick and tile fortification. The buildings house the gunners and the powder magazine. From Gunpowder and Canvas, by Justin M. Ruhge, pg. 4-28.
A National Park Service drawing of the Castillo de Guijarros laid out in relation to present day structures at the Navy Submarine Base such as Battery Wilkerson. The Castillo is shown in this view with a series of embrasures. OBM No. 1024-0018.
Castillo de Guijarros by Mark J. Denger
As early as the 1790s, Spanish authorities realized the defenseless condition of their California ports, and began to issue orders to take steps to keep foreigners from becoming cognizant of the fact.

Under Spanish rule foreign vessels were prohibited from trading directly with any California port except Monterey. The Spanish had restricted trade with foreign countries in an attempt to reduce the influence that foreign settlers might have on the local population. This rule, proved inadequate, as only two supply ships per year, laden with goods from Spain's House of Trades, were permitted to exchange their cargos for hides and tallow from the mission. Nevertheless, during this period of settlement, San Diego received a couple of foreign visitors who were making scientific voyages of the Pacific. One of the first visitors was Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy.

The matter of San Diego's inadequate defenses was brought home forcibly by Captain George Vancouver, who entered San Diego harbor in 1793 on a return trip from the Pacific Northwest. He noted in a letter to London how poorly the port was guarded, in which he deducted:

"With little difficulty it might be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port; where at this time there are neither works, guns, houses or other habitations nearer than the Presidio, five miles from the port and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon."

Vancouver's observations as to the advantages of fortifications on Ballast Point, then called Point Guijarros (Spanish for "cobblestones") because the point was covered with smooth stones (1), was well heeded by the Spanish.

The Spanish immediately strengthened the presidio and began construction of a fort at Ballast Point. The site of the fort was selected because the peninsula guarded the only access to the Bay. Workmen and materials were sent from as far away as Monterey and Santa Barbara. Brick and tile were hauled from the presidio to the beach and taken across to the point by a small flatboat. The Spanish engineer, Captain Alberto de Cordoba, recommended changing the fort from the proposed circular design at the end of the point to a fort made of adobe with two wings mounting ten guns, sited near the shore end. Completed in 1797, the fort on Point Loma was indeed made of adobe and was armed with a nine-pound cannon. The fort was built on ground later to be occupied by Fort Rosecrans' Battery Fetterman.

It was not until 1800 that the first American ship, the brig BETSY, made its way into San Diego Bay. According to the census reported to the Viceroy that year, the presidio had a population of 167, consisting of officers and soldiers, with their families.

Word of profitable trade opportunities with China and other countries in the Pacific was spreading to the East Coast of the United States.

Three years later two American fur-trading ships, ALEXANDER and LELIA BYRD, attempted to smuggle otter skins out of San Diego. This event proved to be Castillo Guijarros' baptism by fire in what has been called the ‘Battle of San Diego Bay'. On March 22, 1803, the brig LELIA BYRD, mounting six small guns, after some contraband dealings with the local inhabitants, was seized and her crew put under armed guard. The crew managed to overpower their guard and raised anchor and stood out to sea, carrying the captured guard with her. The fort opened fire, scoring several hits. Abeam of Ballast Point, the LELIA BYRD returned fired from her six 3-pounders. This action lasted nearly an hour. Once out of range, the crew of the LELIA BYRD put their captured guards (who had been forced to line the rail during the engagement) into a small boat and let them row ashore. The event was the only time that the guns of the fort were fired in defense of San Diego Bay.

The visit of the two American fur-trading ships, ALEXANDER and LELIA BYRD, marked the beginning of an increase in foreign ships entering the Pacific Ocean and pursuing trading activities along the California coast.

Up to the year 1825, with very few exceptions, the whole civilized population lived with the presidio enclosure or just under the protection of its guns. The presidio being maintained up to 1837, when, in a petty revolution, the troops marched to Los Angeles, where they disbanded themselves for want of pay, and never returned. As time passed, the presidio was abandoned after San Diego became a pueblo. Castillo Guijarros also fell into disuse and disrepair.

By 1839 only two serviceable cannon were left. One of these guns was later mounted on a pedestal in San Diego's Old Town Plaza, another is at the site of Fort Stockton on Presidio Hill.

(1) English-speaking sailors would use these stones as ballast for their sailing vessels - thus the name "Ballast Point."
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Updated 8 February 2016