The Portola Expedition of 1769

Click here for a letterbox commemorating the Portola Expedition.

Many of the greatest discoveries in history have been stumbled upon by individuals who were completely lost and confused.  This certainly describes the experience of the Portola Expedition, the first Europeans to encounter the San Francisco Bay in 1769.

In the late 1700’s, Alta California was part of Mexico, which had been a Spanish Colony for about 150 years.  However, Spain had never invested itself in the exploration or settlement of the northernmost part of its North American territory.  But by the late 1760’s Spain was worried that England or Russia was going to to establish outposts in Alta California & steal it away.  In response to these concerns, King Carlos made a plan to construct Missionary churches all along the coast of Alta California and convert the local Indians into Catholic subjects to the Spanish crown.

In late October of 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portola and his party of sixty men (with a caravan of 200 horses and mules for riding and the pack train) were charged with marching from San Diego to the Monterey Bay in order to create a settlement there.  But from their overland approach, Portola’s party failed to recognize Monterey, partially because the place they encountered didn’t match the exaggerated description recorded by a previous explorer attempting to impress the King of Spain.

Ragged, weary, and confused, Portola’s party continued north, climbing over San Pedro Mountain and making camp in Pedro Valley, now in the city of Pacifica.  On November 4, 1769, the Portola expedition scaled what we now call Sweeney Ridge and saw “…a large arm of the sea…some sort of harbor there within the mountains.” And so, Portolá and his men became the first Europeans to see the San Francisco Bay.

Although they initially thought the enormous estuary might be Monterey Bay, they soon realized this was a different place all together.  They decided it must be the San Francisco Bay described by Sir Frances Drake several years before.  This too was inaccurate, because the bay Drake found was actually farther North, near what is now Pt. Reyes.  However, Portola and his group mistakenly called this new bay San Francisco Bay, and the name stuck.

Here is a description of the Portola expedition’s initial exploration of the San Francisco Bay from the diary of Juan Crespi, a priest who traveled with the expedition:

November 7 to November 9th 176:.  This is the furthest point reached by this expedition in search of the harbor of Monte Rey, having got almost to the end of the large estuary here, which all, or most of us, hold to be that of the San Francisco harbor.  A grand place this for a very large plenteous mission, with great amounts of good soil and trees… and great numbers of heathens, the finest and best-mannered that have been met in the whole journey; and this, one of the most excellent places for a large mission.  At once upon our reaching here, several very well behaved heathens, most of them well bearded, came to the camp, giving us to understand they were from three different villages, and I do not doubt there must be many of these, from the many smokes seen in different directions.  Very large bears have been seen, and here where the camp was set up I saw two fresh droppings of these beasts, full of acorns; they must eat plentifully of the great quantities of large ones yielded by the white-oak trees here.  Under some of these oaks there were so many large, ripe acorns lying fallen as to hide the ground; our soldiers and Indians gathered large amounts, as we are now in considerable want of provisions, and the soldiers have been getting by on only one tortilla for days past.”

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