The Portolá Expedition of 1769

by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

Following Vizcaíno's voyage, interest in Alta California waned for over a century and a half. During this time, Jesuit missions were sited in the rugged Baja California frontier under the leadership of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino. After securing Baja California as Spain's outpost in western North America, with 17 missions spread over 500 miles of territory, the Jesuit Missionaries were ordered out of the Spanish domain. Their expulsion was carried out by a company of cavalry and Catalonian Volunteers under the leadership of Captain Gaspar de Portolá in 1767 and early 1768. The Jesuits were replaced with Franciscan Missionaries as part of a renewed plan to explore and occupy Alta California from established bases in Baja California.

Two expedition parties, overland and maritime, were prepared for the military occupancy of Alta California. The objective of the expeditions was Monterey, but it was decided to establish a waystation at San Diego and then travel on to Vizcaíno's famous port.

Soldiers for the land expedition were recruited with offers of land for colonization in the frontier territory, as well as advancement in rank. When assembled in the Spring of 1769, the combined land expeditions consisted of Captain Gaspar de Portolá, commander; Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada with 27 cuirassiers (leather-jacket attired light cavalry); Lt. Pedro Fages and 25 Catalonian volunteers; Father Junípero Serra, with a number of Christianized Indians from the Baja missions acting as servants, interpreters, and contacts with local Indians; Father Juan Crespi, company chaplain; Miguel Costansó, military engineer and cartographer, and Dr. Pedro Prat, army surgeon.

The first land expedition under Captain Rivera left for a rendezvous with the maritime contingent at San Diego on March 24, followed by the Portolá party on May 15th. On July 1, the parties met at San Diego. The two ships that managed to reach San Diego lost two-thirds of their crew to scurvy, and the land expeditions lost most of their Baja California Indians to desertion. At San Diego the combined expedition camped and recuperated. Two weeks later, Portolá assembled the ablest men, and with Rivera, Fages, Costansó, and Crespi continued on the expedition toward Monterey Bay. Serra remained in San Diego.

The Portolá expedition, consisting of 64 persons, set out from San Diego on July 14, 1769. The party included the following:

Portolá and servant (2); Rivera and servant (2); Fages and 6 or 7 Catalonian Volunteers (7-8); Costansó, the engineer (1); Ortega and 26 or 27 cuera soldiers (27-28); Indians from Baja California (15); muleteers (7); and Fathers Crespi and Gómez (2).
The land expedition traveled north from San Diego, keeping as near to the coast as possible, most likely in search of the San José, which had sailed from San Blas with the other ships, but failed to arrive in San Diego. Sargent Don José de Ortega and 7 soldiers went a day or two ahead of the main body to explore the terrain. The party reached Los Angeles on August 2, Santa Barbara on the 19th, and the San Simeon/Ragged Point area on September 13th. At this point the gentle coastal plain over which they had been traveling disappeared. From Ragged Point north into the Big Sur area the extremely rugged coast range plunges directly into the ocean.

From San Simeon, the party was forced to travel inland into the Santa Lucia Range. They began the trip on September 16, and after ten days of difficult passage emerged into the Salinas Valley at King City. The expedition followed the Salinas River downstream, camping on September 27th near Metz and the next day at Camphora. On the 29th they reported many antelope, and in a grove in the Salinas River bed encountered a group of Indians who apparently were engaged in a communal hunt. This group is often identified in the literature as the Ensen (a subgroup of the Ohlone or Costanoan), but it is more likely that these individuals were members of the Esselen tribe.

On October 1, the party reached the area now known as Blanco, along the Salinas River between Marina and Salinas, probably about four miles from the beach. There they camped for six days in a grassy plain near the river to rest and explore. On arrival, Portolá, Crespi and five soldiers immediately went downstream to the mouth of the river, and from a small sand hill (Mulligan Hill, elevation 58 feet) viewed Monterey Bay.

For a couple of days the scouts explored the Monterey Peninsula, but the harbor glowingly described by Vizcaíno could not be found. The dejected party determined to proceed northward, still hoping to find the San José awaiting them in the fabulous port. The party resumed its march on October 7th, reaching the area of Espinosa Lake, east of Castroville. By then, at least ten of the party were being carried on litters due to the effects of scurvy. The following day they reached the Pajaro River, which they named for the large straw-stuffed bird (pajaro in Spanish) with a wingspan of over six feet in a deserted Indian village (the inhabitants fled after a visit from the scouts the previous day). The party reached the Pinto Lake area of Watsonville, but there was forced to delay a few days because so many were sick. Ortega and his scouts went on ahead. The main party resumed travel on October 15th, reaching Santa Cruz on October 18th and the San Francisco Bay area on October 31. It was only then that they realized that if Monterey really existed it must be behind them! And there was still no sign of the San José.

On November 11, the party turned south. By the 26th they were back at the camp near Blanco. The next day they forded the river and reached Monterey, camping near the small lagoon called El Estero. On November 28th they rounded Point Pinos, passed through the Del Monte Forest, and crossed the Carmel River, camping close to the shore at San Jose Creek (Monastery Beach). They remained there until December 10.

There was abundant food for the animals, but little for the explorers. They could find neither fish nor game, and were forced to eat sea gulls and pelicans. On November 30, about a dozen Indians from the interior (these would have been Rumsen, a subgroup of the Ohlone or Costanoan) visited bringing quantities of pinole and seeds. The following day the party killed a mule for food, but not everyone would eat it. To make matters worse, the weather was bad, and snow began to cover the hills. The dejected party decided to return to San Diego. Before they left, they erected two large wooden crosses, one on a hill at Carmel Beach (probably the location of the current cross south of the lagoon), and the other near a pool on an eminence facing Monterey Bay. The party then headed south. With the exception of five deserters, all members of the party arrived in San Diego on January 24, 1770.

The expedition reported that they could not locate Monterey, but the priests and officers at San Diego were sure that Portolá and his men had indeed reached the fabled port. More serious was the lack of "souls to harvest" at Monterey. It was the most thinly populated spot they had passed on the entire expedition.

With the return of the famished Portolá expedition, supplies at San Diego were stretched to the limit. Part of the company was dispatched to Lower California to stretch the supplies, but Portolá was contemplating abandoning the outpost when the supply ship San Antonio arrived on March 23. With an abundance of fresh supplies, it was possible to plan a return to Monterey, this time to establish a presidio and mission. The colonization expedition began on April 16, 1770.

The San José, for which the expedition had searched for over six months, had been forced to return to San Blas for repairs. That ship never reached California; it departed San Blas after the repairs were made, and was never heard from again.

Copyright 2000 by G.S. Breschini


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