Royal Presidio
of San Diego

1769 to 1835

 Aerial View of Presidio Park Today ~
With Artist Reconstruction of Presidio Ghosted-in From Archaeological Evidence

(click here for a tour of the presidio)

The Presidio of San Diego   1769 - 1835

At presidio hill, Father Serra dedicated the first mission in Alta California on July 16, 1769.  Originally constructed of logs and brush, the San Diego Presidio outpost from 1769 to 1774 consisted of a military base and mission.  Then, for a few reasons, including the mistreatment of  Indian women by Presidio soldiers and need for better agricultural resources, the mission was relocated six miles up river to the Kumeyaay village of Nipaguay.  The following year, local Kumeyaay Indians along with Kamia and Quechan allies launched a nighttime assault on the mission and presidio hoping to drive the Spanish out of their homeland.  They burned the wooden mission to the ground and killed its leader, Fr. Luis Jayme.  For unknown reasons, a planned simultaneous attack on the Presidio was not carried out. 

The missionaries and their staff were ordered back to the relative safety of the fort, and soldiers immediately laid plans to fortify the Presidio with an outer defense wall about 300 feet on each side.  Rooms with flat earthen roofs (azoteas) were built inside. From 1776-1781, frontier officials followed Carlos III's royal instructions and plan for the construction of the presidios. The defense walls and buildings were now built of adobe blocks instead of wood. Soldiers would defend each of the four walls from triangular-shaped bastions on the corners. A complete community inside included a commandant's house, homes for married soldiers and settlers, a chapel, warehouses, bachelor's barracks, a guardhouse inside the gatehouse, and a chaplain's quarters.  The mission buildings near Nipaguay were rebuilt out of adobe and the mission was re-established there in 1777, its present site. 

Several major changes, authored by engineer Geronimo de la Rocha y Figueroa and directed by post commander Jose de Zuniga, occurred from 1781-1793.   Rocha designed yards (corrales) outside the presidio buildings which could be converted to new rooms for additional families.  A new defensive wall was constructed along the exterior of the yards.  Zuniga's construction program included a defense wall beyond the edge of the original fortifications, a series of backyards for cooking, and a 10-room commander's residence built around a small patio. Tejas (roof tiles) and ladrillos (floor tiles) were introduced during the 1780s. 

Within three years of Zuniga's departure in 1793, the presidio was modified again.  From 1796-1821 a new barracks was completed for Catalan troops, and the main gate was moved from the south side to the center of the western wing. Engineers Miguel Costanso and Alberto Cordova recommended that a gun battery be built along the western perimeter to resist pirate raids or European invasion.  During this time, an additional gun battery was also built at the entrance to San Diego bay below Point Loma.  This outpost, Fort Guijarros, was completed in 1797. Maintenance work continued through 1806, but the basic presidio layout remained the same from 1796 on.  Evidence of recycled building materials indicate changes at the Presidio after 1821 following a period of disrepair. Sometime before 1820 an even more elegant new commander's house was built upon a cobblestone platform inside the presidio plaza.  Visitors like merchant Alfred Robinson commented on the fine view of San Diego Bay and surrounding areas from the mansion's front porch. In 1825 the governor moved the capitol from Monterey and Presidio San Diego became the capitol of all of Baja and Alta California At its height, the Presidio's population reached about 500 persons living within the 300 feet by 300 feet compound. 

Even though Governor Jose Maria Echeandia ordered structural repairs of the governor's mansion and presidial structures between 1825 and 1828, fortifications deteriorated.  Parts of the outer defense wall were demolished as settlers and soldiers moved down the hill to Old Town.  Soon Old Town residents began dismantling presidio dwellings for roof and floor tiles.  Many of the exterior rooms were used for trash disposal.  About ten years after the last presidio resident had left, sheep and cattle kept in makeshift corrals were slaughtered at the site.  Large deposits of discarded bones indicate butchering activities. 

San Diego Presidio Comandante Francisco Maria Ruiz received the first land grant in San Diego county for "meritorious service."  Like many other recipients of land grants, Ruiz used  Los Penasquitos Rancho (Little Cliffs), a 8,484 acre tract, for cattle grazing.  During the Mexican Republic period, between 1823 and 1846, governors gave friends or relatives thousands of acres for ranching, Spanish-Mexican military officers also received plots of land below Presidio Hill and built houses there, the beginning of Old Town San Diego. 


by Kathy Hughart & Bill White 1999

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