Spanish and Mexican California
Presidio and Mission of San Diego
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
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 taken.

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) circa 1790
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.


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Updated 8 February 2016