California's military history is deeply
routed upon the spot where the earliest steps in the civilization
of the territory that now forms the State of California were
Its history begins with the founding of San Diego a city
that has lived under four flags --under the banners of Spain
and of the Republic of Mexico, embracing the years of the old
mission and ranchos the Bear Flag of the California Republic,
filled with all the romance and adventure of a new state followed
by the Stars and Stripes.
It is the story of a coastal city with its own past formalities
long since forgotten a history which incorporates a web
of seemingly unrelated events into a history that ties many of
San Diego landmarks, in and around the San Diego Bay, to its
military past. These landmarks are more numerous than the casual
observer may suppose. They have persisted to this very day as
evidence of a time sense past. Much of this military history
gave birth to California itself. To this extent, many of San
Diego's time-worn doorways began during the period of the Missions
their doors still opening towards a period of that golden
Yesterday of romance, leisure and simplicity.
Still, the legacy of San Diego surrounding its military fortifications
is as much a part of the city's history as San Diego itself is
a part of the history of California.
From its lowly beginning, San Diego became a thriving little
community, given life by the King of Spain. For more than two
centuries, the military sustained and nurtured San Diego through
virtually every phase of its evolution. As development of the
harbor was the key to its future economic well-being, so to was
its defense. When the San Diego of that period had grown up,
the military was still there to sustain it. And, as the years
passed, evidence of its military past still lingers to this day.
The first military defenses of San Diego dates back to the time
when Portolá's military expedition first reached San Diego.
All that was known of California prior to 1769 was based on the
reports of six expeditions: Cabrillo in 1542-1543; Drake in 1579;
Gali in 1584; Cermeñño in 1595; Vizcaííno
in 1602-1603; and Carreri in 1696. This "Sacred Expedition"
arrived in San Diego by land and by sea, and unlike those previous
expeditions of Cabrillo and Vizcaino, were here to establish
a presidio and mission.
The Presidio of San Diego is the oldest European settlement on
the Pacific Coast of the United States and was enshrined as such
on July 16, 1769, when Father Junipero Serra planted a cross
on Presidio Hill and dedicated the mission and presidio to San
Diego de Alcala (1).
Actual construction on Presidio Hill began almost immediately.
At that time, a hospital was established to tend to the scurvy,
and a few days later the presidio was constructed with rude earthworks
and some rudimentary huts were built for quarters. Later, stronger
wooden structures were built.
In less than a month after the Mission was established an uprising
of the Indians took place. Four of the Spaniards were wounded
and a boy was killed. By 1773, adobe construction began on the
hill. The presidio was strengthened the following year by the
emplacement of two bronze cannon, one of which was pointed toward
the harbor and the other toward the Indian Village below. The
site of the presidio had a commanding view of the bay and allowed
the Spanish to observe any possible intruders. More importantly,
it was the center of Spanish colonization efforts in Alta California.
By 1774 the strategic presidio atop of Presidio Hill had been
secured. With the indigenous population now believed to be subdued,
in August the Mission was moved five miles north to take advantage
of the fertile soil. The new location provided a reliable source
of water and agricultural land for both the mission and presidio
at San Diego.
On the night of November 4, 1774, another Indian uprising took
place. More than 1,000 Indians joined in the attack. In the conflict
one of the priest, Father Louis Jamme, and the blacksmith and
a carpenter were killed, and every one of the inhabitants of
the Mission received more or less wounds. The Mission itself
was burned, and everything in it destroyed.
The present Mission buildings stand on the site of those destroyed
by the Indians in their last uprising. The presidio remained
a strategic military location from which Spanish troops garrisoned
there provided general protection to the mission below.
Soldado de Cuera
(Leather Coated Soldier)
Image courtesy of
the Army Art Collection, US Army Center of Military History
(1) Half of the expedition continued north
to found the Monterey Presidio. A small garrison was left in
San Diego, commanded by Captain Rivera y Moncada. This garrison
of 18 formed the nucleus of the future Presidio of San Diego.
This number was again reduced to eight in number when the rest
of the garrison was allotted to Mission San Garbriel.
Questions and comments concerning
this site should be directed to the Webmaster