September 19, 2003

September 15 - October 15

Hispanic Heritage Month

The Spanish Occupation of San Diego

By Ronald J. Quinn

Spain’s decision in 1769 to establish permanent settlements in Nueva or Alta California was a risky one, which involved stretching the resources of an Empire that many believed were already overextended and woefully undermanned. In hindsight it may appear logical and reasonable for Spain to occupy five hundred miles of isolated coastline from San Diego to Monterey, but in the late eighteenth century it was a dubious venture with few precedents of success for the Spanish to emulate.

Historians have long acknowledged that Alta California held little appeal to Spanish expansionists throughout most of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. But as contemporary historian Iris Engstrand has noted, in the sixteenth century Spain went to considerable expense and effort to establish a settlement in Northern California, if for no other reason than to provide solace for ships returning from Manila.

Few historians, until recently, have attempted to understand the complexity of circumstances that led Spain to completely reevaluate its position on the northwestern boundary of the empire in the mid eighteenth century.

The decision of the Jesuits in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries to establish colonies in Baja California was the first step in the Spanish occupation of all of California even though it was not acknowledged as such at the time. The peninsula was a formidable location, which inspired little commercial interest except for those interested in its pearl potential. The Jesuits looked at it as a challenge that would ultimately link California with the order’s other southwestern missions. The Jesuits hoped to establish a solid foothold there, before being threatened by secular commercial interests.

In Baja, the Jesuits developed a peculiar style of frontier settlement that was in some significant ways quite different from the Franciscan experience in Alta California. From the outset, Fr. Juan Maria De Salvatierra, founder of the Jesuit system in Baja, made every effort to control all civilian personnel involved with the missions and presidios in Baja. In fact Salvatierra’s first recruit was Esteban Rodriguez Lorenzo, previously employed on a hacienda owned by the Jesuits.

Through the Pious Fund, a collection of private donations generated by wealthy patrons sympathetic to the Jesuits, Salvatierra hoped to make the missions and presidios as self sufficient as possible, thus ensuring the loyalty of those who labored in these institutions.

In September 1703 the Jesuits received word that they could expect a royal commitment to further funding. But the promise of royal assistance was not without its price. The crown’s decree supported construction of a presidio on the western shore of Baja, presumably Cabo de San Lucas, totally independent of the presidio at Loreto controlled by the missionaries. The decree also encouraged civilian colonization of the peninsula. Although not abandoned, the Jesuits would no longer be the sole determinant of the future of Baja.

Despite all the royal rhetoric, no royal, military, or business interest had the focus of the Jesuit missionaries. No real renewal of the colonies could begin until the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701-1715) had been concluded. With dynastic disputes resolved by 1716, Marques arrived in Mexico City to promote royal policies announced at the beginning of the century. The death of Fr. Salvatierra in July 1717 postponed any possibility of immediate policy changes. Even Jesuits critics acknowledged that the revered missionary possessed the greatest understanding of the potential of the peninsula. The Jesuits had successfully challenged the religious leadership of the Baja tribes, thus making them susceptible to colonial domination.

Realistically, the future of the Jesuits in Baja, California was the least of Spain’s difficulties in the early eighteenth century. On November 1, 1700, Carlos II, King of Spain, died, thus ending Hapsburg dynasty in Spain. Philip of Anjou, Louis XIV’s grandson, became the first Bourbon King of Spain.

The geography of Alta California remained as much of a mystery to the Spanish as it did to its European competitors. For centuries mapmakers had drawn California as an island. Dora Beale Polk, who researched the mapping of California exhaustively, praised the Jesuits, especially Fr. Eusebio Kino, for debunking the island myth. Even though a map of a peninsular California dated 1644 was discovered at a Jesuit college in Munich, missionaries still clung to the island theory. In fact, it wasn’t until the Jesuit Fernando Consag sailed to the head of the Gulf in 1746 that the island myth was finally laid to rest in Spanish circles.

A major contributing factor to the eventual Spanish settlement of Alta California was the massive reorganization of the Spanish Empire under Carlos III. The king ambitiously desired to make the imperial bureaucracy more efficient, and directly responsive to the wishes of the king. In a word, the monarch desired more control over the operations of the overseas empire. Carlos hoped to modernize Spain’s commercial system. Of course, what the British would find in the American Revolution, and the Spanish in California was that the mercantilist system, under which both operated, was itself, the fundamental problem. The cornerstone of the reorganization was the office of Visitor General, who would directly represent the King, and who could on a temporary basis take precedence over any local official. Carlos III chose Jose De Galvez for the California region.

Jose De Galvez was the most influential figure to enter Baja California in the eighteenth century. He envisioned a future for California and Spain’s entire northwestern frontier.

Galvez saw the big picture. He understood his assignment as a mandate to formulate an overall strategy for the northern borderland. In his eyes the area of greatest concern in the region was Sonora, not California. And one of his first priorities was to quell an Indian uprising there. Although Galvez exhibited a fresh approach to the region, he viewed the area with a traditional mercantilist mind set. In this case it meant that the mining potential of Sonora must be protected by a secure borderland in California.

Upon his arrival in New Spain in mid 1765, Galvez immediately initiated new plans for more efficient collection of taxes and the creations of new local militias. But in mid 1767, when Galvez intended to implement the order of taxes and conscription, he received instructions to arrest the Jesuits in New Spain and have them returned to the Mother Country. Rumors had been circulating that such an event might take place. Such an expulsion had taken place in Portugal in 1759 and in France in 1764.

Even though the Jesuits had their critics in Baja, their activities there had little to do with their removal. Opponents saw the Jesuits as creating their own independent empire, complete with an independent Indian labor force and a black market economy. Proponents of the Enlightenment in Spain sought to reduce the power of the Church over civil affairs, and to many, the Jesuits represented the pinnacle of ecclesiastical domination. To Spanish nationalists, the European makeup of the mission communities called into question the Jesuits commitment to Spanish imperial policy.

Nowhere was the expulsion of the Jesuits more traumatic than in Baja California, since the Order effectively controlled the peninsula. Galvez selected fifty year old Captain Gaspar de Portola as Governor of California in charge of Jesuit expulsion. As Crosby points out, Portola attempted to make the transition as painless as possible by ignoring commands that he prohibit the priests from celebrating Mass and locking them in their rooms. The actual process of expulsion was tedious, since all the missions had to be inventoried, and the contents and property formally transferred to the Crown. The inventories shocked the Visitor. For over half-century enemies of the Jesuits had claimed the Order hid riches in the assorted missions, but these inventories showed that this was not the case. Not only were the missions themselves barely self sufficient, but the Mission Indian population had dwindled to 7,000 from a high of 40,000.

All remaining Jesuit missionaries assembled at Loreto on February 2, 1768. Three days later the sixteen Jesuits left Baja for Spain and eventual exile in Italy.

When Galvez first arrived in Baja in the summer of 1768 he had ambitious plans for the area. Symbolically he set up residence at Real De Santa Ana, south of La Paz, the only area on the peninsula not developed by the Jesuits. On July 12, 1768, Galvez required an inventory be taken by the missionaries and soldier commissioners to enumerate all Indian converts and material possessions in their jurisdictions. In August 1768 Galvez initiated a generous land development program for European immigrants largely funded by government subsidies. He also hoped to move the natives into pueblo communities outside the missions that would hopefully result in economic self-sufficiency. But in less than a year Galvez abandoned this enlightenment program in both Baja and La Pimeria Alta. The missionaries were ill suited both in disposition and training to commit themselves to such a plan.


Jose de Galvez, the Visitor General, was sent by the King of Spain in 1765 to exert more royal control over the growing empire. He organized Spain’s expansion into California.

To the surprise of few, on August 12, 1768 Galvez issued a decree placing all Spanish material possessions in the hands of the Franciscan missionaries.

Galvez chose to revive the Mission System because he had no other option.

Galvez selected Junipero Serra, a seasoned veteran of almost twenty years of missionary experience in New Spain, to head the Franciscan mission development in California. Nueva California, or Alta California, now took precedence over the peninsular missions.

What followed was an intense correspondence between Galvez and Serra dealing with the objectives of the expedition and the personnel that would participate in the “Sacred Expedition.” Galvez ordered a redistribution of the Indian population throughout the Baja missions. This action came as a result of the aforementioned inventories. He believed there were too many Indians at the Southern Missions, so he moved many of them to Todos Santos on the pacific. This was a controversial action opposed by many of the missionaries. It was difficult enough to make converts. Moving newly Christianized Indians to distant locations drove them to abandon mission life altogether. Galvez cared little about the natives. He wanted them positioned in the correct location for the eventual northern expedition. For example, all orphaned male Indians were to be sent to Loreto to receive instruction in handling coastwise vessels.

At this point historians are satisfied to tell the narrative of the occupation of Alta California under the leadership of Serra and Portola. Understandably this was a fascinating and bold enterprise. Galvez ordered the outfitting of four divisions, two land and two seas, which would ultimately converge in San Diego and in turn, would move on from that base to Monterey. What an extraordinary expedition Galvez envisioned. The Spanish had little knowledge of either area, and in the case of Monterey, they were barely able to identify it when they reached it. They knew little or nothing of the peoples of either area, not an insignificant issue, since the Spanish would be relying on these very natives to make their enterprise a success.

Historians seem to accept Galvez’s strategy at face value, except for those who regard the entire enterprise as a moral tragedy. The Visitor opted to ignore any limited expeditions, which would have acquainted the Spanish with the actual challenges they would face in Nueva California. Galvez may have believed a cautious and restrained approach in Baja had resulted in little gain for the empire. And as imperial interests changed after the Peace of Paris, Spain had to take drastic action before England and Russia made a similar commitment. Cutter and Engstrand argue that Galvez chose the large expedition approach to ensure that at least some pioneers would survive in their new surroundings.

In fact, the Cutter-Engstrand view may be partially born out by the experience of the San Carlos and San Antonio, the two packet boats that comprised the sea bearing burden of the expedition. When the ships arrived in San Diego in April 1769, the crew of the San Antonio had to save the crew of the San Carlos, which arrived earlier in the month. Without the four-pronged invasion into Alta California, one could argue that not enough men or provisions would have arrived in San Diego to secure a defensible position.


Juniper Serra had been a missionary in New Spain for twenty years when he was elected to lead the Franciscans into California. For fifteen years he oversaw the establishment of a chain of missions from San Diego to Sonoma and in the process became one of the most important figures in California history.

San Diego provided an excellent example of the limits of Galvez’s grandiose plans. Traditionally Spanish expansionists had awed natives with liturgy, food, and material wealth. Here natives watched while newly arrived Indians and soldiers starved to death, and the healthy remnant hastily scoured the countryside for food. Franciscan historian, Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt explained that the Indians blamed the illnesses of the Spanish on what they ate. The author seems to accept Fr. Palou’s interpretation of this behavior being an act of Divine Providence. Had the natives enjoyed the Spanish vittles, the Spaniards would have died. Inspired by the weakness of the recent intruders, natives attacked or ignored the missionaries. Such a scenario was certainly not repeated at all the missions, but one could argue in San Diego, at least, that the Spanish never recovered from this poor beginning. Despite illness and starvation, the Spanish were encouraged by what they saw in San Diego. The San Diego River, even in July, offered a more secure source of water than they usually encountered in Lower California, with the added benefit of abundant pastureland.

What Galvez eventually created in Alta California seemed to contradict his original intentions. His stated design to streamline the imperial bureaucracy, and make the colonies more self-sufficient clearly did not work in Alta California. In fact the expansion into Alta California produced a mercantilist disaster. The California Missions added a substantial burden to an already overextended Spanish Empire. These settlements were dependent upon annual subsidies usually delivered by ship to maintain stability and survival. Often the provisions were late or spoiled resulting in reduced rations and declining morale. But eventually some missions showed an ability to create a vibrant local economy capable of producing surpluses for export.

Until quite recently, historians have typically ignored any overall interpretation or evaluation of Spain’s occupation of California. Serra’s biographer, Fr. Maynard Geiger dismisses the spread of the Christianity as the primary motivating factor in Spain’s decision to occupy California. He writes:

Thus the religious effort in the New Land became the principal task that Spain sponsored, but it was not the reason for going to California. Had Russia not threatened at the time, there is no proof to show that Spain would have entered Upper California at all.

In this insightful analysis Geiger shows that Spain was motivated by strategic concerns, and used the missionary venture as a way further its secular goals.

But not unlike other historians of the occupation, once he has followed Serra to the “Promised Land” Geiger cannot contain his enthusiasm for the accomplishment: “No one can stand on Presidio Hill in San Diego today and remain unmoved by the fact that here is the cradle of Christianity and Civilization in California.”

The conquest of Alta California by the Spanish in the late eighteenth century was successful on a strategic level. Alta California remained part of the Spanish Empire until Mexican independence. But Spain paid a stiff price for this strategic success. The Mission System created dependency rather than independence, never producing those tax-paying settlers Galvez had desired. Since the proposed canonization of Fr. Serra in the 1980s, historians have engaged in a heated debate about the impact of the Mission System upon California Indians. From a practical viewpoint Alta California showed the Mission System to be obsolete. Combined with the Jesuit experience in Baja, the Missions demonstrated the impoverishment of this frontier institution.

This is an abridged version of an article reprinted from “The Journal of San Diego History” Summer 1999, Volume 45, Number 3.

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