Spanish and Mexican California
San Blas: The Source of Exploration
by Justin Ruhge

Almost all of California and the Northwest Coast of Oregon and Washington states were explored and occupied from the 10th Naval District at San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, which was established as an official port of entry in 1767 by Visitador Jose de Galvez.

Located south of Mazatlan and north of Puerto Vallarta, San Blas was the outfitting point of expeditions and commerce in the 18th and 19th centuries. It replaced the earlier ports of Navidad and Acapulco, which were used in the very early days of exploration. This was where ships were built, implements for the missions were forged or fabricated, and expeditions originated at that little port on the edge of the steamy mangrove swamps. World commerce was conducted from San Blas Harbor. At the inland administrative center of Tepic, many countries had their consulates and factor's offices. It would not have been possible to settle Baja California and Alta California without the existence of this supply point.

Many of the soldiers and settlers in California came from the province of Nayarit, in which San Blas is located and also from the nearby provinces of Jalisco and Sonora.

The history of San Blas is documented in Michael E.Thurman's book The Naval Department of San Blas. From such an important position in history, the present site is now abandoned and remote. The American naval ship U.S.S. Cyane attacked San Blas during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. The Castillo de la Entrada located across the harbor entrance from the town was captured and the ten eight-pounder bronze guns taken as trophies. A lighthouse now replaces the Castillo.

The author visited San Blas in June of 1987. It is a sleepy fishing village and has been a resort town surrounded by banana plantations and mangrove swamps for many years,.

The main structure in the village that still exists from the original settlement is the abandoned customs house and storage building (Contaduria) dating from the 1770s. The old town and harbor was built around the Contaduria, which was located on top of a black volcanic outcropping about 100 to 200 feet above the sea level. The front of the Contaduria, which was originally four stories high, faces the ocean. Nautical and historical images are incised into the stone on front. This imposing black building was the administrative headquarters and storage for the 10th Naval District and it's supplies. It was a landmark for ships returning from Spanish exploration to that port. Parts of this historic structure have been used as quarry material to build other buildings in the village. The Contaduria is now only one story and a shell of its past glory. A group of six iron cannon are mounted on the wall at the edge of the cliff in front of it and on pedestals between the Contaduria and the wall. Many guns like this were used to outfit ships departing from San Blas and for use at the presidios and in the towns in California.

The church, which is now also in ruin, stands behind the imposing Contaduria structure. This church was the subject of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Bells of San Blas".

San Blas is now only a shadow of its past importance. Before Puerto Vallarta became a tourist center, San Blas was that place. Now it is primarily a fishing village. The Mexican government has recently shown some interest in preserving the site of one of its most historic ports.

The Port of San Blas, Mexico as Drawn in 1842 by the World Traveler for the King of Sweden, "The Kings Orphan" G.M.Waseurtz Af Sandels, as seen from the Castillo de la Entrada.
Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco, California.
Note the hill behind the town where the Contaduria was located.

The remains of the 1700s Customs and Storage House at San Blas.

Ruins of the church behind the Contaduria.

The rear view of the Contaduria.
Internal view of the structure showing support pillars for the upper floors.

Front view of the Contaduria which was originally four stories

One of a number of cannon in front of the Contaduria and a view over the extensive banana plantations and the ocean beyond.

Iron six-pounder (upper) and nine-pounder (lower). Many other guns and cannon balls have been hauled away or thrown over the wall by local inhabitants.

The Above Eight Photographs Taken by the Author and Ann Ruhge, 1987


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Updated 8 February 2016