Spanish Colonial Activity

The rehabilitation was keenly felt throughout the Spanish colonies, particularly in Mexico and the Californias, all of which were ably administered by Jose Galvez, the great agent of the Spanish crown  in America, whose zeal and enthusiasm in carrying out his sovereign’s policy of expansion are matters of historical comment.

For a century and a half, Spanish statesmen had been intending to colonize the Californias. Their plans included possession of Monterey Bay, formerly discovered by the Spanish navigator Vizcaino. They considered this harbor the finest on the Pacific Coast, and desired it for the use of their ships engaged in the Philippine trade.

With this purpose in view, Charles III hastily dispatched a number of veteran Spanish regiments to America with instructions to Jose Galvez to commence an active campaign. When they landed at Vera Cruz, Galvez assigned them to posts of duty along the frontier. One of these, a dragoon regiment bearing the name of “Espana,” contained a company under a captain who was destined to play an important part in the fulfillment of the Spanish monarch’s plan for the settlement of the Californias, including that portion of the mainland which has since become San Mateo County.

This officer’s name was Gaspar de Portola, who later became the first. governor of California, and led the expedition in search of Montery Bay which terminated in the unwitting discovery of San Francisco Bay in 1769. Gaspar de Portola, although not a brilliant historical character, was nevertheless an able and faithful officer whose career has become of great interest to all Californians.

For a time after his arrival at Vera Cruz, Gaspar de Portola served on the frontier of the viceroyalty of New Spain, in the provinces of Sonora and Sinaloa, where a minor war was being waged against the Indians. About this time King Charles, following the example of France and Portugal who were waging a general war on the Jesuits, decided to expel this order from his kingdom, as they had become very powerful and he feared the influence they exerted.

It fell to the veteran captain, Gaspar de Portola, acting under orders from Jose Galvez, to expel the Jesuit fathers from Mexico. With Portola’s commission for this work came also his appointment as the first governor of Lower California, in which he was given entire charge of the civil and military administration of that peninsula. He superintended the arrests of the Jesuits and the inventorying of all the property of their missions, to the satisfaction of Galvez and the Crown.

While Gaspar de Portola was performing these duties which included the establishment of Franciscan fathers under Father Palou, in missions left vacant by the Jesuit fathers, other events in Europe were leading up to his greatest achievement.

Word came to the court of Spain from the Spanish ambassador at Petrograd, reporting Russian colonial activity in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, aiming at territorial aggrandizement. This disquieting news influenced the Spanish Crown to immediately carry out the long deferred project of taking possession of Monterey harbor and connecting it with Mexico by a chain of missions, settlements and forts.

Galvez. in Mexico, entered into the movement for the occupation of Upper California with all the impetuous energy which always characterized his every effort in the service of his master, the King of Spain. For this purpose, two expeditions were immediately outfitted; one to go by land and the other by sea-and these were simultaneously dispatched to Upper California. The objective of both expeditions had been described by the Spanish navigator, Sebastian Vizcaino, as a magnificent harbor, when he sailed by that port on his exploring expedition in 1602-03.

Strange as it may seem, both expeditions failed to reach the desired goal. The sea expedition which consisted of two schooners, the San Jose and the Principe, both laden with provisions and supplies, set sail under auspicious circumstances. After, heading up to the latitude of Monterey they were forced to turn back to Santa Barbara channel for want of water; and finally they returned ‘to San Diego, just in time to avert starvation for the colony established there.

The land party was placed under the command of Gaspar de Portola. The trip up the peninsula to San Diego was safely made and a mission was established at this port. Using San Diego as a base. of operations, on July 14th, the party again proceeded on their journey. From this point the route was along the coast between the mountains and the sea. At the place where Los Angeles grew up they swerved inland, and did not reach the seashore again until in the region of Ventura. At San Luis Obispo the coast route became so difficult that they were obliged to turn inland again and scale the Santa Lucia Mountains, whence they passed into the Salinas Valley  and from there by a gentle descent arrived at modern Castroville.

Although at this point they recognized Point Pinos and other distinguishing features of the Monterey region, they did not realize that the bay they sought lay before them. On October 5, after calling a council, they decided to look for Monterey Bay further north. The next day the party continued wearily, with scant provisions, and on October 8th passed over a river which they named “Pajaro,” in token of an immense bird which they found stuffed with straw. This had apparently been abandoned at their approach by the natives who were preparing it for some ceremony. The bird measured seven feet and four inches between outstretched wing tips. On the 17th they arrived at the present site of the City of Santa Cruz and gave the San Lorenzo River its name. On the 20th, camp was pitched near the entrance to the canon of Waddel Creek, about three miles from Point Ano Nuevo which they recognized from a description of Cabrero Bueno.

Sickness and shortage of rations, which were now reduced to five tortillas of bran and flour per day, delayed the Argonauts here until the 23rd, when they again set forth. They made two leagues that day and by nightfall had reached the vicinity of Gazos Creek where there was a large Indian rancheria. The next day they traveled twice this distance and made camp on San Gregorio Creek. Illness delayed them here until the 27th when they again pressed forward.

The next day’s march was over one of the roughest sections of country that they had yet covered, being interspersed with deep gulches or arroyos, over three of which they were obliged to construct rough-and-ready bridges upon which they carried their sick and led the pack animals. They rested on the banks of Purissima Creek that night beside an old abandoned Indian rancheria. The soldiers took possession of the huts, but almost immediately came running forth with cries of, “las pulgas! las pulgas!” (the fleas! the fleas!). Although piously-inclined Crespi, their spiritual leader, named the place San Ibon, the grosser name has persisted, and survives in the appellation of “Las Pulgas Rancho,” which became one of the largest Spanish land grants in the country.

The 28th of the month found the wanderers’ camp pitched on the future site of Halfmoon Bay or Spanishtown, upon the banks of Pilarcitos Creek. Almost every man in the little force was ill, including the commander; and it was not until Oct. 30th that the column moved on again, passing Halfmoon Bay and Pillar. Point, both of which were observed and noted in the records of the expedition.

At a point about a mile north of where the Montara fog signal is now located, the party found a “rincon” or corner which offered a pleasant shelter against the north wind. A little stream furnished water, and on the beach was an abundance of mussels and other shell fish.

Here. the main party stopped, and Sergeant Ortega with a few companions went on a reconnaissance over the hills to the northeast. In four days he returned to headquarters with the news of the Golden Gate effectually blocking passage further north, with Point Reyes beyond, and the porte (the southern arm of San Francisco Bay) stretching to the southward. The main party then, with Portola at their head, ascended the hills and confirmed Ortega’s report.

Looking from the summit of Montara Mountain, an inspiring panorama unfolded. Far to the north, just visible through the October haze were the white cliffs of Point Reyes with Mt. Tamalpais in the foreground ; while on the northwest the Farallones were faintly outlined. Before them stretching to the southward, lay the porte, around which it was their intention to advance northward.

The whole expedition then marched down the eastern slopes of the San Morenas and camped somewhere between Searsville and Redwood City. By this time sickness had again broken out in the party, and provisions were almost exhausted. In addition to this the Indians were daily becoming more hostile. The leaders held council and it was decided to immediately retrace their steps, and seek the porte of Monterey at a later period.

The return trip was made along the route followed north. After many hardships they reached San Diego on January 24, 1770, just in time to relieve that station from starvation. A second expedition led by Gaspar de Portola was more fortunate and succeeded in locating Monterey Bay.

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