Early Exploration of
San Diego

1542 to 1769

Some early explorers of the 1600's believed California to be an island.

Early Explorers   1542 - 1769

Competition for wealth and power among European nations was largely dependent on lucrative trade with Asia.  Established trade routes through the Mediterranean and across continental Asia were long and costly and no sea route had been established yet around Africa.  Based on a risky theory that the world was round, Christopher Columbus sailed West hoping to discover a shorter and faster route to Asian trade centers, instead he found the new world.  After European discovery of the Americas, there was a rush to claim territory and resources in the new world during the 16TH century.  Spain became the most powerful European nation as it plundered a wealth of gold and other treasures from the Indian civilizations of Mexico and South America.  Spain continued its exploration and set up a Pacific trade route to Asia that was based in the Philippines. 

1542   Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing for the Spanish crown, left Mexico to explore the coast of California.  He was in search of the Northwest Passage, a route which, if it existed, would let ships pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific en route to the Spice Islands without having to round the tip of South America. On September 28, 1542, after 103 days voyage, Cabrillo and his crew found refuge in a harbor he named San Miguel, later renamed San Diego.  He continued up the coast, claiming western North America for Spain and naming it California. 

Later in the 16th century, English sailing vessels also explored the California coast.  Spain needed a resting place for her Manila galleons sailing from the Philippines to Acapulco, and needed to strengthen its territorial claim before England or Russia could establish colonies in California. 

1602   Sebastian Vizcaino

Sixty years after Cabrillo's voyage, the  Spanish government sent Sebastian Vizcaino to explore California's coast following Cabrillo's maps.   Vizcaino anchored off Point Loma on November 10, 1602.  In honor of the saint, San Diego de Alcala and Vizcaino's flagship San Diego, he renamed the bay.  Viscaino continued north as far as Monterey, and upon discovering Monterey Bay, described it as an ideal location for a Spanish port. 

For the next 167 years the inroads made by Cabrillo and Vizcaino remained unexplored while Spanish trade galleons, enroute from the Philippine Islands to the port of Acapulco, continued to travel in sight of the California coast. 

1769   Gaspar de Portola & Fr Junipero Serra Expedition

Attention returned to the territory when Russian fur traders, already established in Alaska, were moving south into California.  In 1768, King Carlos III of Spain finally issued an order to occupy California.  He appointed Jose de Galvez in Mexico to organize an expedition to colonize California, beginning with the strategic bays of San Diego and more importantly, Monterey.  Based on Vizcaino's maps and writings from over a century before,  Monterey Bay was selected as the primary goal for the expedition, having been described as an excellent harbor, and well located along the California coast.  Gaspar de Portola volunteered to command the expedition and was made acting military governor of California, Father Junipero Serra was chosen to lead the missionary effort.  The plan was to combine both land and sea expeditions which would rendezvous at the harbor in San Diego, establish a settlement, then continue north to find Monterey.   The huge harbor at San Francisco had not yet been discovered. 

Portola & Fr. Serra Expedition by Sea

Early in 1769, two supply ships were prepared with provisions and men at the Spanish port of La Paz, in Baja California.  The San Antonio was first to depart La Paz for San Diego harbor on Jan.10th. The San Carlos followed a month later, on Feb. 15th.  Each ship was blessed before setting sail by the religious leader of this expedition, Father Junipero Serra.  He would travel overland up the Baja peninsula with the  military commander Portola and meet the ships in San Diego. Another ship was built for this expedition at the port of San Blas on the west coast of Mexico.  This ship, the San Jose, was to arrive in Monterey later with supplies to replenish the expedition. 

After 55 days voyage, the San Carlos arrived in San Diego on April 11.  It was the second ship to leave La Paz.  Many were sick from scurvy and the San Antonio, which should have been first to anchor, was nowhere in sight ... they anchored and waited on board without leaving the ship.  Finally, two weeks later the San Antonio entered the bay, even though it had sailed from La Paz a month earlier than the San Carlos.  After a grueling 110 days voyage, 24 on board were dead from scurvy, and the remaining sailors too sick to lower a land boat.  The sea expedition made a tent camp on the beach, found fresh water, and tended the sick.  Men were dying every day as they waited in the harbor for 3 more weeks until the first land expedition arrived.  The  last ship, the San Jose, had been sent to Monterey to resupply the expedition.  It was lost at sea. 

Portola & Fr. Serra Expedition by Land

The two land expeditions gathered near Santa Maria, the northernmost mission in Baja California, and still more than 200 miles south of San Diego.  After a 50 day journey, Father Juan Crespi and Captain Fernando Rivera arrived in San Diego on May 14 with the first 42 members of the land expedition.  Captain Rivera relocated the beach camp created by the ship crews to a hill near the  river.  This was the site where the presidio was later built. 

The leader of the  expedition, Gaspar de Portola, arrived June 27, two days in advance of Father Junipero Serra.  Serra's party included the  remainder of the 70 man land expedition, along with herds of various livestock, horses, and 163 pack mules carrying supplies. 

1769   San Diego Mission Founded

At presidio hill, Father Serra dedicated the first mission in Alta California on July 16, 1769.  Just two days before the ceremony, Portola headed north to find Monterey Bay.  He left behind a settlement of 40 with Fr. Serra and ordered the San Antonio back to San Blas for supplies, leaving the San Carlos at anchor for lack of adequate crew. 

Portola's expedition to Monterey lasted nearly 9 months.  Unable to locate Monterey Bay and thinking it farther north, the 60 man expedition came upon another bay so large that Fray Juan Crespi wrote, "doubtless not only all the navies of our Catholic Monarch, but those of all Europe might lie within the harbor."  From then on, San Francisco entered into Spanish plans for expansion. 

Meanwhile, in San Diego the Kumeyaay Indians had largely ignored Serra's missionary efforts and were cautious about the small Spanish camp where so many men were ill.  By the time Portola returned to San Diego, only twenty of the 40 men left at the camp had survived the ravages of scurvy.  Although Junipero Serra insisted the expedition must remain no matter what, Portola set a deadline of March 20.  If supplies did not arrive by that time, San Diego must be abandoned.  On March 19, there were cheers as the fully provisioned San Antonio appeared on the horizon. 


by Kathy Hughart & Bill White 1999

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