California: San Diego Presidio

The San Diego Presidio is the site where Father Junípero Serra established the first of twenty-one Franciscan missions and the first military garrison that became the foundation of Western European colonization in California. The area, the size of a modern city block overlooking what is now called Old Town and Mission Valley, has become known as “The Plymouth Rock of the Pacific Coast.”

Site Offices:

Serra Museum

2727 Presidio Drive

Presidio Park

ph.: (619) 297-3258

Casa de Balboa

1649 El Prado

Balboa Park

San Diego, CA 92138

ph.: (619) 232-6203

Web site:

Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

4002 Wallace Street

San Diego, CA 92110

ph.: (619) 220-5422

fax: (619) 220-5421

Web site:

On the spot where the first presidio and mission were established there now stands the Serra Cross. On it is a bronze tablet with the following inscription:

Here the First Citizen, Fray Junípero Serra,

Planted Civilization in California.

Here he First Raised the Cross,

Here Began the First Mission,

Here Founded the First Town

–San Diego, July 16, 1769

Modern Southern California had been visited and claimed by Spain more than two centuries before the arrival of the Franciscan missionaries and military representatives of the king of Spain. It was only in the late eighteenth century, when fear arose that the harbors might be lost to Russian encroachment from the north and English privateers off the coast, that the inspector general of Mexico, José de Gálvez, undertook to colonize the area.

“The Sacred Expedition of 1769” was under the command of Gaspar de Portolá (1723-1784), the first military governor of California. Junípero Serra (1713-1784) was to be the father-president of a chain of missions established in Alta (Upper) California. The plan called for five expeditions from Baja (Lower) California to settle the vast area of the north–three by sea and two by land. The first ship, the supply ship San Carlos, set sail on January 9, 1769, from the port of La Paz on the east coast of the Baja California peninsula. It was followed on February 15 by the San Antonio and, a month later, by the San José. The San Antonio arrived in San Diego Bay on April 29, the first Spanish vessel to visit the harbor in 167 years. The San Carlos arrived two weeks later, having sailed too far north. Two dozen members of its sixty-two-man crew had died of scurvy, leaving only four sailors well enough to work the ship. The third vessel, the San Jose, was lost at sea.

The first land party arrived in San Diego on May 14, 1769, under the command of Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada. With him came Father Juan Crespi, whose diary is the major source of the history of the early years in California. The party had marched for fifty-one days from Velicatá, a mission in Baja California. Governor Portolá and a few of his men arrived June 29 and Father Serra, along with the rest of the second land expedition, arrived on July 1, 1769. Of over three hundred men who had made up the five companies in Baja California, only 126 survived the arduous journey to San Diego. The site of their landing is now identified as “Spanish Landing” on Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego.

Captain Rivera moved the encampment to a more suitable location along the banks of the San Diego River in the general area now known as Old Town. There they set up a hospital to care for the many ill sailors, corrals to safeguard the animals they had brought, and several brush huts that served as headquarters for all. Choosing this site determined the location for San Diego.

Father Serra was fifty-six years old when he arrived in San Diego. For a long time prior to this trip he had suffered from asthma and a chronic sore on his leg. Despite these infirmities he founded nine missions along El Camino Real (the king’s highway), once more establishing Spain’s control of California and converting thousands of Indians to Christianity.

On July 16, 1769, Father Serra founded the mission on the hill immediately north of the encampment, overlooking the river and the bay, a site now known as the Presidio San Diego. Accompanied by about three dozen men, Father Serra set up a cross, consecrated the primitive brushwood chapel, and christened the entire enterprise “San Diego de Alcalá” in honor of the fifteenth century Saint Didacus of Alcalá. This was the first mission in Alta California and is known as the “Mother of the Great California Missions.”

In addition to the church, the Spanish soldiers built a garrison at the Presidio (the name originally used by the Spaniards to identify a military post or fortified settlement). The first structures were built of mere wood and brush, but their presence on the hill was designed to impress upon the local Indians, the Kumeyaay, that the Spanish were now in control of the entire region and that Spanish colonization and land management were to dominate all phases of their lives. The records indicate that Christianizing and subduing the Kumeyaay in the early days was not at all successful. Within a month after the Presidio was founded, the Kumeyaay staged their first attack on the fort; five Indian warriors were killed. By the end of the first year Father Serra had baptized only one child.

Relocation of the Mission

In 1774, five years after the founding, the mission church was moved about five miles northeast, where it remains to this day. The military, on one hand, was charged with securing the land and subduing the indigenous population. This frequently led to instances of soldiers brutalizing the Kumeyaay, especially the women. The Franciscan friars, on the other hand, sought to “civilize” and convert the Indians to a peaceful life of Christianity, establishing and working in a harmonious agrarian society. It was believed that the new site, removed from the Presidio, would offer the church not only more arable land and a better source of water but also greater success in fulfilling its missionary goals.

The Kumeyaay, however, failed to distinguish between the two groups of Spanish conquerors. After less than one year, in November 1775, they attacked, looted, and burned the new mission, wounding and killing many, including the head of the mission, Father Luis Jaime, the first martyr in San Diego de Alcalá. The church was rebuilt immediately and over the years withstood additional attacks and earthquakes.

The Presidio

After a perilous beginning the original Presidio flourished on its hilltop location. It served as the Spanish civil and political center for the entire San Diego area, which within two decades extended 100 miles south to Ensenada, Baja California, and 125 miles north to present-day Malibu. This prosperity, however, also created problems. By 1800, San Diego Bay was visited frequently by American and foreign ships trading with Pacific nations and other West Coast ports. This development placed Spain’s control of the region in jeopardy.

In 1821, Mexican revolutionary forces overthrew the Spanish rulers, and the entire American Southwest was made a part of Mexico. The California missions were secularized, the Franciscans left Mexico, and on April 20, 1822, the representatives of Spain officially abandoned the Presidio. Mexico did not occupy the Presidio and the garrison, and all its buildings were left to crumble.

Within a few months after independence, the soldiers from the Presidio and new settlers to the area built their homes down the hill in Old Town. By 1835 San Diego became a civil “pueblo” with a population of over four hundred ranchers and townspeople engaged in various trades. The Mexican period, however, was short lived. By 1846 the Mexican-American War had commenced and Presidio Hill was briefly used once more as a garrison by Commodore Robert Stockton. Following California statehood in 1850 the Presidio was again abandoned, and Old Town gradually declined in favor of “New Town,” the site of present-day San Diego.

The New Presidio

The current appearance of the Presidio dates to 1907, when the San Diego merchant and philanthropist George Marston (1850-1946) purchased a portion of the hill in order to establish a park displaying the first European settlement on the West Coast. Receiving little support from either the city or the business community, Marston devoted the next two decades to developing the project in the spirit of American historical site preservation customary in the early years of the twentieth century. Rather than allowing the Presidio its barren natural appearance of native scrub brush and wildlife, Marston wanted the site to resemble a northern European park. In one year over twenty thousand plants and trees were planted. It was a time when Southern California marketed itself as a romanticized image of a European landscape set in a tropical paradise with an ideal climate.

In 1913, a civic group called the Order of Panama dug up hundreds of tiles from the old garrison and constructed a huge cross–the Serra Cross–which was erected on the Presidio site where they believed the first mission church may have been. The major development project, however, was not to be completed for many years. The imposing building now on the Presidio is the Serra Museum, sometimes mistakenly identified as the San Diego Mission. It was designed by the distinguished San Diego architect William Templeton Johnson (1877-1957) in a style that combined southern European and Mediterranean architecture with the California mission style of simple lines, arches, and deep-set windows. It was intended not to replicate a church but to symbolize the conquest of Spain and to illustrate the realization of civilization and Christianity in the New World. The structure ignores any reference to either the Native American or the Mexican contribution to the history of the Presidio; indeed, not even the harsh reality of life during the years of the mission fathers and the garrison is included. The Serra Museum, with all of its splendor, represents not a historically accurate account of the past but an illusory re-creation of facts. The fine interior furnishings are magnificent antiques from fifteenth to seventeenth century ruling-class Spain, rather than from the late eighteenth century when Father Serra lived and worked in Alta California.

The Serra Museum was dedicated on July 16, 1929, the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Presidio. On that day, Marston, who had developed the entire project at his own expense, gave title to the park and the museum to the citizens of San Diego.

Places to Visit

In conjunction with California’s bicentennial in 1969 the area at the foot of Presidio Hill was established as the State Historical Park at Old Town. Nineteen structures were identified as suitable for restoration, representing the era of Old Spain, Mexico, and the early years of California. Most of the houses had crumbled adobe walls; they are now faithful modern replicas. Of particular interest are the Estudillo adobe home originally built in 1827 by the commander of the Presidio, the Casa de Bandini dating from the 1820’s, and the Mason Street School, erected in 1865 as Southern California’s first publicly owned schoolhouse.

For Further Information

  • Hennessey, Gregg, ed. Junipero Serra Museum. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1999. Includes essays on the building of the Museum and Park, on the architect Johnson, and the historical uses of Presidio Hill.
  • Jackson, Helen Hunt. Glimpses of California and the Missions. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992. Provides an excellent account of life at the missions, including the procedures used at the founding ceremonies.
  • Kyle, Douglas. Historic Spots in California. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. A project of the California Conference of the National Society, including descriptions of all State Registered Landmarks and most places on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • McKeever, Michael. A Short History of San Diego. San Francisco: Lexikos, 1985. An excellent popular history, with many photographs, that provides a fine introduction.
  • Mills, James. San Diego–Where California Began. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1985. A well-researched narrative, including many fine photographs, written by a former curator of the Serra Museum.
  • Pourade, Richard. The History of San Diego. San Diego: Union-Tribune/Copley Press, 1960-1977. This seven-volume series on the “Historic Birthplace of California” is the most extensive and well-documented writing on all aspects of San Diego’s history.