Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Presidios and Forts of Spanish of Alta California
by Justin Ruhge

The founding of the settlements in Alta California was the result of two movements in Spanish history. The first was to settle the California territory from Cabo San Lucas in Baja California and to the north with missions with which to christianize the Native Americans and the second was the outgrowth of concerns by the Crown that these areas might be encroached upon by other foreign powers such as France, England and Russia if not settled and strengthened with military establishments. The efforts to settle Baja California occurred long before the push to Alta California began. Most of the Spanish knowledge of the Californias was based on the Cabrillo expedition in 1542 and the Vizcaino Expedition in 1602. The returning Manila Galleons provided some additional information.

The now famous Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, a native of the Italian Tyrol, was sent over from Sinaloa, Mexico to what is today La Paz in 1683 to establish a mission. The Spaniards had considerable trouble with the Indians and were forced to withdraw to Sinaloa, Mexico. Another attempt was made the same year at what is now San Bruno just north of Loreto. Father Kino reported he had baptized four hundred Indians. Ever restless and with an inquiring mind, Father Kino was the first white man to cross from the Gulf side to the Pacific side of Baja. In 1685 a decision had to be made to abandon the mission.

Father Kino's explorations in Baja and his later journeys in 1701 and 1706 down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California convinced him that Baja was a peninsula and not an island, as had been believed for hundreds of years. His maps of Primeria Alta remained the basis for maps of the region until the 19th Century. In his explorations, Father Juan Maria Salvatierra, a native of Milan, Italy accompanied him.

In 1697 the Spanish government turned over the Baja missionary field to the Jesuits. To support their endeavors, the Jesuits, with the aid of Father Juan de Ugarte, who became its treasurer, founded the now famous Pious Fund raised from the gifts of devout Christians in both Old and New Spain. The Jesuit fathers were given complete authority; even the military must bow to their decisions. Father Salvatierra was appointed Superior and arrived at Loreto in October 1697 with three Christian Indians, a handful of soldiers and sailors, and the leader of the military, Captain Romero. The march northward along the Pacific coast by friars and soldiers had begun.

A chain of seventeen Jesuit missions beginning near Cape San Lucas and stretching north almost to 30° N. Latitude were the achievement of seventy-two years. In the beginning, the Jesuits' main purpose was to Christianize the Native Americans. Then the Spanish government asked them to locate suitable ports of refuge for the Manila Galleons. Consequently, the Jesuits were not only religious pioneers but explorers as well. They were to open the way to San Diego.

The mother mission at Loreto was founded in the first year and remained the capitol and base of the only presidio until 1736, when a second presidio was established at La Paz, later to become the capital of the peninsula. To Loreto came the supply ships, battling the dreaded Gulf storms. Many of them were lost in the early years and the Jesuits came close to starvation. But somehow they hung on. Loreto was their base and its church their spiritual center. The original mission endured until 1830. The present church structure dated from the year 1752. Everywhere the missionaries went in Baja, they encountered Native American tribes. It appeared that the peninsula was well populated despite the very difficult and harsh living conditions encountered by the missionaries. Many of the tribes did not take well to the attempts of Christianization and rebelled, killing all Christians and destroying some of the missions. However, the Jesuits persevered and founded their last mission fifteen miles from San Luis Gonzaga Bay in 1767.

The Loreto Mission Founded in 1697, When at its Height.
Rivera Cambas' Mexico Pintoresco.
As Presented in Time of the Bells by Richard F. Pourade on Page 5.

San Javier West of Loreto founded in 1699 is the oldest existing mission in both Californias in 1960. Photograph by Stanley Griffin.
As shown in The Explorers by Richard F. Pourade, page 114.

Map showing the missions of Baja California established by the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans between 1697 and 1834.
Spain's plan was to have achain from San Jose del Cabo to San Francisco Bay.
From The Explorers by Richard F. Pourade, Page 83.
The foregoing three figures from the Collection of The James S. Copely Library, LaJolla, California
Map of Baja California showing the extent of Spanish colonization on both sides of the Gulf of California.
Shown in The Spanish Borderlands Frontier 1513-1821 by John Francis Bannon, Page 144.
Map showing the extent of Spanish colonization in Northern Baja, Alta California and Arizona.
As shown in The Spanish Borderlands Frontier 1513-1821. by John Francis Bannon, Page 145.

Without any forewarning, the Jesuits were told to leave the missions. Sealed instructions from Charles III, King of Spain, opened by the Viceroy of Mexico, Francisco de Croix on June 24, 1767, called for the arrest of all Jesuits in colleges and missions and for their removal to Vera Cruz for deportation. The job of expelling them from Baja was given to Don Gaspar de Portola, the newly appointed Governor of California. The Spanish government gave no public or official reasons.

The mission fields of Baja were turned over to the Franciscans with the departure of the Jesuits on February 3, 1768. They took over fourteen Jesuit missions of which they were to transfer all but one to the Dominicans in 1774. Later the Dominicans were to extend the Baja mission chain to La Frontera, the territory north of San Fernando. They founded seven missions between 1774 and 1797 and two more in the 19th century, one in 1814 and the other in 1834. By then this chain begun in 1697 stretched to within fifty-five miles of present day San Diego.

The successor to the leader of the Jesuits was the Franciscan Father Junipero Serra, Doctor of Theology, born in the town of Petra on the Spanish island of Mallorca. After years of study and teaching in Mallorca, Father Serra decided to go to the missions in Mexico to serve the church. He and a number of his monastic associates arrived in Vera Cruz, Mexico on December 6, 1749. He was 36 at the time. Father Serra served in Mexico for 19 years from 1750 to 1768. He and his associates served in many areas of Mexico establishing many missions and building a number of churches, which are still used today. Father Serra also taught at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City in between assignments in the missions.

Father Serra and fifteen other missionaries said farewell to the College of San Fernando and sailed for Baja California, arriving at Loreto on April 1, 1768. Father Serra was now 55 years old.

At this same time in history the second major influence for the occupation of the Californias began to take shape in the form of action by the Crown. This was the perceived threat that the other European powers might take action to settle the Spanish territory of Alta California.

The Russians had been exploring, beginning in 1725, the northern edges of the Spanish claims in Alaska under the direction of Captain Vitus Bering. During the reign of Catherine II (1729 to 1796) the first permanent settlements were begun on Kodiak Island. Further exploration continued to the south from 1741 to 1765.

In the 1760s, a Spanish work that was circulating through Europe heightened apprehensions. Entitled Noticia de la California, it was published in Spain in 1757 with all proper permissions but anonymously. The Jesuit Andres Burriel had prepared it from an earlier unpublished manuscript of Padre Miguel Venegas and other material. Although the book was a defense of the Jesuits and their work in Lower California, it went much further. It attempted to show the importance of the Jesuits in the whole frontier enterprise of New Spain, continental and peninsular. Burriel spoke of possible future mission projects in the north for which their cooperation would be vital. He emphasized the importance of Spanish strength on the peninsula to protect homebound Manila Galleons and to extend the frontier to the coast of that other California: San Diego, Monterey and Mendocino. A first English translation of this work appeared in London in 1759. Soon there were Dutch, French and German translations. All this flurry of non-Spanish interest in the Californias roused Spanish apprehensions. All these concerns galvanized the Spanish into action. It was decided to occupy and settle Alta California without the usual first exploration. The driving force of all this action was the king's Visitador, Jose de Galvez, assisted by Mexican Viceroy Francisco de Croix. In 1767 the port of San Blas was established to support by sea the actions that were taking shape. By October 1768 word arrived that Charles III (Carlos III) supported the plan to occupy Alta California.

The King's proclamation was as follows: "The High Government of Spain being informed of the repeated attempts of a foreign nation upon the northern coasts of California with aims by no means favorable to the Monarchy and its interests, the King gave orders to the Marques de Croix, his Viceroy and Captain General in Nueva Espana, that he should take effective measures to guard that part of his dominions from all invasion and insul." The plan was to move north to found the harbor and build the presidio of Monterey with San Diego to be the intermediate base between it and Loreto. Jose de Galvez was to plan the expedition. A combination of soldiers and settlers was to hold the country and, with missionaries, were to convert the Native Americans.

At Loreto there was a presidio with a garrison of three dozen men commanded by the Baja California veteran, Fernando Rivera y Moncada. The governor, Captain Gaspar de Portola, like the friars, was a recent arrival. Galvez had crossed over to Baja to survey the conditions there. He arrived in July of 1768. It was immediately clear that the poor conditions of the missions in Baja would not allow them to support the planned developments in Alta California. The northern developments would have to be supplied from San Blas. However, at the time, the newly arrived Franciscans were the only source of missionaries around for support of this project. Accordingly, Galvez talked with Father Serra about obtaining his support on such short notice. Father Serra accepted the new role of Presidente of the missions of Alta California. He immediately left to conduct a survey of the church vestments that could be spared by the existing missions in Baja to support the new missions in Alta California. Rivera y Moncada scoured the countryside for horses, mules and support equipment. Galvez sent word to San Blas for the two ships that had been built for this project to load and sail to La Paz as quickly as possible.

The expedition to Alta California consisted of four parts. Portola was the titular head of the expedition. Father Serra was to head the missionaries. Lieutenant Pedro Fages was to be chief of the military expedition going by sea and was to retain command of the soldiers on land until the arrival of Portola. The 200-ton San Carlos and the 80-ton San Antonio were to take the supplies, 25 Catalonian soldiers who had embarked from Cadiz, Spain and part of the colonists by sea to San Diego. Portola and Rivera were to lead a land expedition in two sections. A third ship, the 50-ton San Jose, was to bring the remaining supplies.

The San Carlos sailed from La Paz on January 9th commanded by Vincent Vila and carried a total of sixty-two persons. On board was the Spanish Royal engineer, Miguel Costanso, who was to mark the map and ports and lands that might be discovered and to lay out the plan for the presidio at Monterey; the physician and surgeon Don Pedro Prat; the captain of the Catalonians Don Pedro Fages; and a Franciscan chaplain named Fray Fernando Parron. The San Antonio, carrying a crew of 26 and two more Franciscans, with Captain Don Juan Perez, former master of a Manila Galleon, in command departed on February 15th. The land expeditions started from a gathering place named Velicata, near the present site of El Rosario, in northern Baja, where a new mission was to be established. Captain Rivera and Father Crespi left on March 24th and Captain Portola and Father Serra followed on May 15th.

The Spanish could be well organized and effective when properly motivated. Their speed in this case was surprising and commendable. At his sudden departure after only one year in Baja, Father Serra had founded one mission and started one church, at San Fernando on the Pacific Coast, before leaving to organize the missions in Alta California. The Spanish were stepping off into the unknown with coastal information obtained in 1602 by Vizcaino and a brief land expedition by Jesuit Father Linck in 1766 to the north of San Borja. The Spanish were not faint-hearted or inexperienced but were stepping into a new world with years of experience in operations on the borderlands.

The land portion of the expedition proceeded with relative ease but the sea operations were a disaster. The main problem was the time of year. The San Carlos departed for the sail north in January during the stormy season on the coast of California. In addition the strong currents and winds blowing to the south along the coast required that the ship sail far out to sea to tack to make headway north. The San Carlos beat its way north for four months. Due to the ancient charts, the ship missed the San Diego Harbor and meandered through the Santa Barbara Channel as far as San Miguel Island. Finally, the captain realized that they had gone too far north and the latitude readings on the 1602 charts were too high by one degree. The journey of about 1,400 miles had taken its toll in lives also. The sailors' nemesis in those days was scurvy, brought on by the lack of vitamin C present in fresh vegetables and fruit. After 110 days, the San Carlos reached the entrance to the San Diego Harbor. The date was April 28, 1769.

The San Antonio had already arrived on April 11th after a 54-day journey with many of the same navigation problems and scurvy among the men on board. These were the first European ships to arrive in this harbor in 167 years.

The first effort was to find water, which was accomplished with the help of the local Native Americans who inhabited every area of this place. Next, a hospital was constructed on shore and the sick men taken there from the ships. By May 12th, only 20 of the original 90 persons on the two ships were able to conduct any work. Each day more men died.

The land parties fared much better. The party of 83 led by Captain Rivera and Father Crespi arrived at San Diego on May 14th after two months on the unmarked trails. They passed through hundreds of miles inhabited by thousands of Native Americans.

When they arrived at San Diego there was great celebrating. With the larger group at San Diego, it was decided to move the camp from near the water's edge to higher ground on a nearby sloping terrace north of the river. This was to be the area which became the first mission and later presidio in Alta California. The area below this hill was forested and peppered with Native American villages.

The fourth party of 60 led by Captain Portola and Father Serra arrived at San Diego on July 1, 1769. The land frontier of Spain had been pushed north about 500 miles in six months.

On July 3rd, Father Serra raised a cross on what has become known as Presidio Hill and gave a formal beginning to the first mission of Alta California.

The area was heavily wooded and well watered by the San Diego River. Father Serra found it to be everything he had hoped for at the start of the missions in Alta California.

The party of explorers now had to take stock of their situation and make new plans. Again, the purpose of this whole mission was to go north to the harbor of Monterey and establish a presidio and mission there. San Diego was a convenient harbor and meeting station for the first phase of the expedition. These were the instructions of the King and it was not good to disappoint the King.

After a "Junta" the assembled forces were broken up into three groups. The San Antonio under Captain Juan Perez and eight sailors were to sail to San Blas to report on the problems and to seek aid for those remaining sick. She sailed on July 9th. There was still hope that the San Jose would arrive and save the day, but this was never to happen. The ship was lost.

Captain Portola would push on to Monterey. With him would go the main body of the group made up of the two army engineers, Fages and Costanso; Rivera and six surviving Catalan volunteers, Sergeant Ortega and twenty-six soldiers, Fathers Crespi and Gomez, seven muleteers, fifteen Baja Native Americans and two servants. This group left on July 14th for the now historic trek north 600 miles to the Golden Gate.

Map of the Northern part of Baja California, Showing the Pacific Trail pioneered by the Portola Expedition.
This was to become a much traveled road between the settlements of Lower and Upper California.
From The Explorers by Richard F. Pourade on Page 121.
From the Collection of The James S. Copley Library, La Jalla, California.
The Map of San Diego Bay made by the Pilot Juan Pantoja with the Martinez Expedition in 1782.
Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Trees and thatched roofs were used to build a stockade and the first crude Alta California Mission on Presidio Hill.
From The Explorers by Richard F. Pourade, Page 145. From the Collection of The James S. Copley Library, LaJolla, California.

Left behind to secure the first location in Alta California were the San Carlos with Captain Vila and the second pilot, Jose Canizares. On shore were the Fathers Serra, Juan Vizcaino and Fernando Parron, Dr. Prat, a handful of soldiers to guard the camp, a corporal, a blacksmith, a carpenter, one servant, eight Native Americans from Baja and a number of sick.

With this small remaining band an enclosure or stockade was built of cut trees and thatch for roofs on small huts and a church. On August 15th, the local Native Americans seeing their weakened condition, attacked the sick and dying band. This was to be a recurring event throughout the history of the Spanish and Mexican occupation of the Native American territory. The indigenous people did not like their treatment at the hands of the European invaders.

The arrival of the Europeans spelled disaster for the Native Americans. They were a Stone Age people and no match for the invaders who were already in the Iron Age, had cannon and firearms, horses and the wheel, and were masters of civic organization. The Native Americans continually fought between tribes and were experts in the use of the bow and arrow and the "throwing stick" or "boomerang". They lived by foraging, gathering and hunting. They lived together in families and clans in huts and went naked. There was no cloth with which to cover themselves. Their only motivation in this respect was to keep warm. Going naked was natural in their eyes. The two cultures could not be farther apart. Disease and then enslavement by the Spanish was to lead to the eventual extinction of the Native Americans.

In the meantime, the Portola group had reached the area of the Bay of Monterey but did not recognize it as such. Father Serra placed a cross at the place called the Bay of Pines. This area was reached after 38 days on the trail. On October 31st, Portola realized that they had gone too far north, when they recognized the Farallon Islands and Point Reyes. On November 1st, Sergeant Ortega advanced to the shores of San Francisco Bay, the first European to see it.

With a sense of disappointment and failure, Portola decided to return to San Diego. His 74-man expedition reached there on January 24, 1770.

To forestall the inevitable end of their small band from famine, scurvy and further attacks from the Native Americans, Captain Portola decided to send Captain Rivera down to Baja to obtain more cattle and a pack train of supplies. He left on February 10th. Further discussion resulted in the decision to leave San Diego and return to Baja if the San Antonio did not arrive by March 19th. On that day preparations were made to depart, when late in the afternoon the sails of the San Antonio were seen passing San Diego. Captain Perez was told at San Blas to proceed directly to Monterey to assist Portola and Serra who were supposed to be there by then. However, on the way they stopped for water in a harbor along the coast near Point Conception, where the ship lost an anchor, and learned from the Native Americans that the expedition had gone south months before. Perez raised a cross at Monterey and left a note for Father Serra. Four days later the San Antonio reached San Diego with the needed supplies, saved the expedition and changed the history of California. Father Serra got his wish to establish the first mission in Alta California. Many more had died of scurvy on the San Antonio on its voyage south and return voyage north. The expedition had taken its toll to establish Spanish rule in Alta California.

A junta was called to decide the next steps to be taken. Engineer Miguel Costanso reviewed the charts of the coast with Captain Vila on the San Carlos and Captain Portola. He pointed out the error in latitude that was made by Vizcaino in 1602. Because of the error in navigation tables used in those days, the latitudes were recorded higher than today so they were looking for Monterey Bay in the wrong latitude.

The connection of Monterey by land and by sea to the center of Mexico via San Blas is shown in This drawing.
From Time of the Bells by Richard F. Pourade, Page 6. From the Collection of The James S. Copely Library, LaJolla, California.

The landmarks did not agree with the modern latitude readings for the same reasons that the latitude readings the Englishman Francis Drake recorded in 1579 were too high. As a result of this meeting, everyone agreed that they had been at Monterey or the Bay of Pines. It was decided to make another land trek there and to send up the San Antonio with the supplies.

Father Serra and Engineer Miguel Costanso sailed on the San Antonio on April 16, 1770. They arrived on June 1st after a month and half of tacking into the wind on the beat north. Father Juan Crespi made this second land trip with Captain Portola. After a relatively easy land trip, they arrived on May 23rd. One sailor had died of scurvy.

The founding of Monterey was celebrated with a mass by Father Serra, followed by the firing of cannon and rifles. A cross was raised and the dead sailor buried under it. The officers then proceeded with the acts of taking formal possession of the country in the name of the King, unfurling and waving the royal flag, pulling grass, moving stones and other formalities according to law. The next day the fort and mission were established with the name of the King and the Viceroy, San Carlos de Monterey. Father Serra made his headquarters at Monterey instead of returning to San Diego.

The achievement of saving San Diego and the founding of Monterey had to be reported to the Viceroy as soon as possible. A soldier, Josef Velasquez, and an unknown sailor volunteered to make the ride back to Loreto to make this announcement. They arrived at Todos Santos on August 2nd. On July 9th the San Antonio left Monterey with Captain Portola and the engineer Miguel Costanso who had prepared the detailed reports of the Native Americans and the topography of the new land. Captain Pedro Fages was left in charge. With the winds and currents on its back, the San Antonio sailed south the 1,700 miles to San Blas in 24 days, arriving on August 1st. Upon arrival, Captain Portola sent his message to the Viceroy. The message by way of Loreto had not yet arrived. There was great celebration at the news throughout Mexico. A bulletin was issued by the Viceroy to inform the entire world that the boundaries of the Spanish empire had been extended with this expedition, even though there were only 40 people at Monterey and 23 at San Diego. Everyone received kudos, from Galvez to Viceroy Marques de Croix and Portola.

Portola, who became a famous figure in California history, was to be seen no more. He had completed his assignment. Born in Catalonia of noble rank, he had seen military service in Italy and Portugal, as well as in the New World. In 1776, he was appointed Governor of the City of Puebla. He returned to Spain in 1783 where he died in 1786.

The Viceroy provided for support of the new establishments and directed that five more missions above San Diego be established as soon as possible. San Fernando College in Mexico City was asked to supply 10 more Franciscan fathers for these missions besides 20 more for the old and new missions of the peninsula.

El Presidio Real de San Diego, 1769
El Presidio Real de San Carlos de Monterey, 1770
El Presidio Real de San Francisco, 1776 (Including El Cuartel de Sonoma, 1835)
El Presidio Real de Santa Barbara, 1782
Introduction to Spanish Era Castillos
Castillo de San Joaquin at San Francisco
Castillo de Monterey
Castillo de Guijarros at San Diego
Castillo de Santa Barbara
Fuerte de Laguna Chapala/Fort Romualdo Pacheco
Fort Ross
Sutter's Fort
This concludes the first section of this book on The Military History of California. In the foregoing, the founding explorations of the west coast of California by European explorers have been presented. The visit of Drake in 1579, the establishment of the Spanish presidios in 1769, and the Russian settlement in 1812 have laid the foundations for the civilization of California that brought Sutter and the rest of the California pioneers. Our great cities and culture today are founded on the works of these conquerors of the western frontier. The next sections will present the holding of the frontier with forts and the development of defenses on the Western Front. The following table and map will summarize this founding history.
Reprinted with permission from The Military History of California by Justin M. Ruhge, printed 2005


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Updated 8 February 2016