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Mission and Pueblo Lands

In late September 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into the "very good enclosed port" that he called San Miguel. [1] The early Spanish explorers, however, were more concerned with discovering riches and establishing Spain's power on the seas than in founding colonies. Over 225 years would pass between Cabrillo's visit to the area, later renamed San Diego, and any serious attempt to begin a settlement in Southern California. Responding to the threat of Russian colonization along the northwest coast of America, Spain in 1768 began, for the first time, to give serious thought to protecting its interests in California. As a result, the Spanish king, Charles III, directed Jose de Galvez to organize both land and sea expeditions and establish settlements in Alta California in order to discourage encroachments by the Russians. Father Junipero Serra, head of the missions of Baja California, was chosen for one of the land expeditions accompanying Captain Gaspar de Portola. [2]

On July 16, 1769, Father Serra planted a cross and dedicated a small bushwood hut as the first Alta California mission, San Diego de Alcala. [3] The first in a chain of twenty-one, it was a continuation of the mission system already begun in Baja California. The missions were one of three institutions that determined the shape of the Spanish frontier in the New World. Under the Spanish system, settlements consisted of missions, self-sufficient stations where Indians were assembled to live and work under the direction of a missionary, presidios, garrisoned forts similar to the Army posts of the American West, and pueblos, agricultural towns established where royal policy dictated. In varying combinations these three agencies put their mark on what was later to become the state of California and influenced government and land policies for years to come. [4]

By the time of Mexican independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish-Mexican settlers, called Californios, were challenging the mission system that prevented them from owning property. [5] In their original status under Spain and Mexico, the missions had been granted no lands. However, the government had refrained from granting to anyone else such lands as were needed by the missions and the amount of acreage that they controlled was vast. [6] The demand for secularization of the missions resulted in the order of 1833 which returned mission ranches to the national government of Mexico. On September 20, 1834, Mission San Diego, the mother mission of California, with its holdings of 3,000 square miles was transferred from the church to a commissioner from the government. The pueblo of San Diego, a settlement of four hundred and thirty four people, was organized in 1835. [7] Ten years later a survey and map of the pueblo lands were made by Henry D. Fitch, approved by Governor Pio Pico and countersigned by officials of the Mexican Government Land Department, thus completing the title. [8]

Subsequently, the United States and Mexico went to war over the issue of the independence and admission of Texas to the Union. The war ended in 1847 and in February 1848, a peace treaty was negotiated at the village of Guadalupe Hildalgo near Mexico City. [9] By virtue of this treaty, Mexico's northern boundary was drawn at the Rio Grande and Gila rivers and just south of San Diego between Alta and Baja California. Most important for later land grant claims, the treaty also provided that the United States government would honor those titles to property previously recognized by Mexico. [10]

Point Loma — The City of San Diego vs. the United States

In 1848, a Joint Commission of Navy and Engineer Officers was formed by direction of President James K. Polk to examine the Pacific coast of the United States "with reference to points of defense, and occupation for the security and accommodation of trade and commerce, and for military and naval purposes." [11] The Commission arrived in San Diego in 1850 and reported that San Diego harbor was "remarkable" and a valuable acquisition to a coast where good harbors were rare. [12] Fortifications were recommended on Punta de Guijarros, also known as Ballast Point, which was seen as the best location for the defense of San Diego harbor. Of all the sites visited on the Pacific coast, only San Francisco, the Columbia River and San Diego received first class ratings indicating that the improvements should be built immediately. [13] Based on this report, the Secretary of War, made the following recommendation to President Millard Fillmore on February 24, 1852:


I have the honor to recommend that the following tracts of land in California and Oregon, which have been selected for military purposes by the Joint Commission for the examination of the Pacific Coast, be accordingly reserved from sale or grant, viz:

In California San Diego Harbor, to include that portion of the peninsula lying west to the entrance to the harbor, which shall be included between the southern-most end of the peninsula (Puent de Loma) [sic] and a line drawn across the peninsula from the harbor to the ocean at the distance of one and a half miles above Punta de Guiranos [sic]....

Very respectfully,
Your obedient servant
(Signed) C.M. Conrad
Secretary of War [14]

The recommendation was approved and the land set aside by Presidential Proclamation on February 26, 1852. Transfer of the land to the government was to not to be made automatically, however. When members of the City Council of San Diego received notification of the Proclamation, they declared it an illegal act claiming that the United States government could not seize the land as public domain. According to the Council's interpretation, all of Point Loma was part of the Pueblo lands as defined in the Fitch map of 1845. The land was so transferred, they argued, when San Diego became part of the United States and was further confirmed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. [15]

When California became a state on September 9, 1850, pressure had mounted to settle the Mexican claims as American squatters moved in and challenged titles to the land. [16] In an attempt to solve the problem, Congress set up a commission in 1851 to settle these claims. The city submitted its case to this commission and on February 14, 1853 the claim to the Pueblo of San Diego (No. 589) was filed. [17]

The claim was heard on Jan. 22, 1856, and judgement reached: "In the case of the President and trustees of the City of San Diego vs. the United States, the Board of Commissioners for the settlement of land titles in California decreed that the title to the lands of Point Loma was vested in the City of San Diego." [18] As was usually the case when land grant claims were decided against the government, the decision was appealed to Federal Court. On June 8, 1857, Judge Hoffman for the Southern District of California on the motion of the United States District Attorney, dismissed the appeal and confirmed the findings of the Commission thus making it final. [19] The following year the City Council ordered a survey and map made of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego which was accepted and registered by the United States Government Surveyor General. [20] According to law, then, the city had undisputed title to Point Loma.

Several years later, however, the Army renewed its interest in fortifying San Diego Harbor. In a report issued May 31, 1867, the Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast once again recommended Ballast Point as the preferred site for fortifications. [21] And once again the Commissioner of the General Land Office reported that in his opinion the land in question "is private property belonging to the City of San Diego." [22] He suggested in a letter to General Barton Alexander, Chief of Engineers of the Military Division of the Pacific dated August 15, 1867, that Alexander apply to the City of San Diego for a grant of land to be used for defensive purposes. [23]

San Diego was by now moving from a sleepy pueblo into a place with serious hopes of becoming a western terminus for the transcontinental railroad—the Southern California equivalent of San Francisco. The first edition of the San Diego Union expressed the hopes of its citizens that:

We...may see the waters of our bay fretting beneath the burdens of heavy commerce—to hear the shrill whistle of the iron see our bay surrounded by mammoth manufacturing and mercantile houses, princely residences, domes and spires of churches and schools of learning—the streets teeming with prosperous and industrious people, and our lovely valleys lifting to our genial skies flowers and fruits, in tints as varied and gorgeous as our incomparable sunsets. [24]

As part of this scenario, the city officials also envisioned San Diego as an important military post. Therefore, when application was made to formally convey to the government the southern portion of Point Loma for the building of fortifications and to establish a naval depot and harbor, the City Trustees were now happy to comply. [25]

On August 10, 1868, the city deeded to the United States Government, Point Loma lots 1 to 26 inclusive but not including lots 12, 18, and 26 which had passed into private ownership. [26] The deeded land was approximately the same area originally set aside as a military reservation by the Presidential Proclamation of 1852 with the exception of the excluded lots. The matter might have ended there except for the fact that the Ballast Point, the land that the Army needed for its fortifications, was lot 12, one of those not included in the deed. [27]

Meanwhile, in the absence of military activity, whaling companies had begun their seasonal operations on Ballast Point. In January of 1870, General George H. Thomas, commanding the Pacific Military Division, wrote to the Secretary of War voicing his concerns about the "landgrabbers and others" [28] who were attempting to dispossess the government of its land and suggesting the Army take possession of Ballast Point. His plan was approved and on March 7 he ordered all persons not government employees to vacate the land. [29]

General Alexander, for his part, pressed forward with his claim that the land in question belonged to the government. In a letter to the Chief of Engineers on January 25, 1870, he stated his opinion that since there was once a fort at this location, the Mexican government had intended it to be a military reserve and should therefore be considered as such when the United States took possession. His interpretation neglected to the mention the fact that the fort had been abandoned since 1835. [30] Commissioner Joseph S. Wilson of the land office was requested by Alexander to reverse his previous opinion that Point Loma belonged to the City of San Diego thereby invalidating its right to subdivide and sell land to private parties. On August 8, 1870, Wilson, citing not legal evidence but "representation made by eminent military authorities," [31] reconsidered his position and stated that the title "is in the United States as successor to the Mexican Government." [32]

The new decision was affirmed by the Secretary of the Interior on January 31, 1872, and the Surveyor General altered his map to exclude all land south of a reservation line, one and one half miles north of Ballast Point. When a patent on its Pueblo lands was finally issued to the City of San Diego on April 10, 1874, these boundaries were used, thus excluding the southern end of Point Loma. [33] The hapless souls who held title to the disputed lots continued to be assessed and pay taxes on them as late as 1883. If a claimant to a lot undertook to improve it, however, he was warned by a government guard to desist. Should the claimant not heed the warning, the guard was under instruction to call on military authorities at the San Diego barracks for assistance. [34]

Lt. John H. Weeden, of the Board of Engineers, who was sent to San Diego to make preliminary preparations for the construction of the battery on Ballast Point, gave his opinion on the rightful ownership of Point Loma in a letter to Colonel R. S. Williamson of the Army Corps of Engineers. On August 20, 1874, he wrote:

The foregoing abstracts contain the salient points of all the documents, with their dates referring to the matter, which are in our possession. If you my dear Colonel, can tell whether the land belongs to the United States or to the City of San Diego, you are a better lawyer than I. Although I incline to the opinion that, whatever may be the law of the case, the government has not the shadow of a claim in equity. [35]

The legalities of the situation seemed not to have concerned the Army, however, which apparently considered the matter settled. Col. Williamson, in forwarding the information to the Chairman of the Lighthouse Board, summed up the situation of 1874 when he wrote: "Whether the title to the land in question is in the Government or not, the Government has military possession of it, and have commenced the erection of a fort there." [36] If possession is nine-tenths of the law, then the law was obviously on the side of the United States Army.

Point Loma and the Military

Interest in fortifying Point Loma did not originate with the United States Army. Cabrillo had noted in 1542 that the harbor of San Miguel, later renamed San Diego, was "a very good enclosed port." [37] Sebastian Viscaino, sent to explore the coast of California in 1602, was similarly impressed and reported in his log that San Diego Bay "must be the best to be found in all the South Sea, for besides being protected on all sides and giving good anchorage, it is in latitude 33 1/4°." [38]

Just as the Spanish gave little thought to colonizing Southern California until the 1700's, they also found no reason to fortify the port of San Diego until late in that century. At that time, British, Russian and American activity in the north called attention to the vulnerability of the Spanish claims to California. A dispute with Britain over fur trading activities resulted in a treaty between Britain and Spain in 1790. To oversee Spanish compliance with the treaty, the British sent Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy to the Pacific. During the course of his travels he visited California three times, one of those visits being to San Diego in November of 1794. [39] In writing of the situation there, he observed:

The Presidio of San Diego seemed to be the least of the Spanish establishments.... With little difficulty it might be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port; where at this time there are neither works, guns, houses or other habitation nearer than the Presidio, five miles from the port and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon. [40]

Diego de Borica, appointed governor of California in 1794, became increasingly aware of the threat to California as British fur trading activity increased, despite the treaty, and rumors of an imminent British invasion spread. A state of war existed between Spain and France at the time and the Russians had also begun encroaching into Spanish territory. Responding to this combination of circumstances and acknowledging that the Spanish presidios had been set up to counter Indian attacks, not to repel any major invasions, the Spanish began to bring in reinforcement troops and to mount additional guns. As part of this effort, work was begun on a fort at Punta De Los Guijarros in 1797. [41] The Presidio provided brick and tile for construction while other materials and workmen were brought in from Monterey and Santa Barbara. [42] Little is known about the precise configuration of the fort. Historical descriptions differ and all that can be said from remaining archaeological evidence is that a formidable eighteenth century Spanish fortress once existed on that part of Point Loma now known as Ballast Point. [43]

In 1803, an incident occurred involving Ft. Guijarros and the Yankee brig Lelia Byrd. After engaging in some contraband dealings with the local inhabitants, the ship was seized and put under armed guard. Having overpowered the Spaniards, the crew raised anchor and attempted an escape at which point the the fort opened fire. [44] The brig returned the fire with her six three-pounders and continued the engagement for about an hour with no serious damage on either side. [45]

Except for this incident, knowledge of the the activities of the fort is limited and it is difficult to separate actual events from local legend. [46] By 1839 the fort had fallen into disrepair and in 1840 the remnants of the fort were sold to Juan Machado, a local landowner, for $40. [47]

American interest in fortifying San Diego harbor with Point Loma as a base had begun immediately after California statehood It was during this period that the dispute between the City of San Diego and the United States government over the ownership of Point Loma was played out through land grant hearings and in the Federal Courts. Though the military had argued for the building of fortifications in San Diego for over twenty years, the vagaries of politics prevented any appropriations for the project until 1874 when $50,000 was allocated by Congress for that purpose. [48] By that time, the land title question had been settled, at least to the satisfaction of the Army.

Work began in 1874 on earthen seacoast batteries for fifteen guns of the largest caliber to protect the harbor. [49] By the time the money ran out the following year, an 80-foot wharf, a stable, a stone house and carpenter shop had been constructed and the site for a battery had been cleared. From 1875 to 1890 Congress made no more appropriations for seacoast defense and the unfinished site sat unused with only a watchman hired to maintain the property. [50]

The turn of the century brought a change of political philosophy in the United States and, as the country became involved in expansionist foreign policy, more emphasis was placed on military preparedness. [51] Projects which had been postponed for decades became high priorities and providing proper defense for the West Coast achieved new significance. As a result, in January 1897, construction on what was to become Ft. Rosecrans began in earnest.

Emplacements for two 10-inch seacoast guns on disappearing carriages were built during the next several years and a third emplacement was completed in February 1898. [52] In April of that year, Capt. J. J. Meyler, engineer officer in charge of construction, received orders to organize a corps of 120 volunteer citizens to mine San Diego harbor. Approximately 80 men—carpenters, electricians, civil engineers, surveyors, boiler-makers, steam engineers, boatmen, mechanics and a few soldiers from the local Engineer battalion—responded to the call. They placed fifteen electrically controlled mines in the channel each weighing between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds. The minefield was protected by two smooth-bore muzzle loaders of Civil War vintage and was patrolled by the Revenue Cutter Corwin. [53]

Construction of fortifications continued through 1900 during which time Batteries Wilkinson, McGrath and Fetterman were completed. From 1901 to 1904 post buildings were erected of both frame construction and brick. The post was officially designated Fort Rosecrans by the Adjutant General's Office in 1899 in honor of Major General William S. Rosecrans, United States Army.

The first detachment of soldiers, Battery D, 3rd Artillery, arrived at the fort in early February 1898. From that time through World War I, the garrison was active in training soldiers, patrolling the Mexican border, housing and interning military prisoners and training the California National Guard. Fort Rosecrans was placed on caretaker status in 1922 because of manpower needs overseas and was reactivated in 1941 with the advent of World War II. As part of these wartime activities, Battery Ashburn, which consisted of two 16-inch guns in casemates, was built just north of the Old Lighthouse that had been designated as Cabrillo National Monument. The battery was completed on Aug. 26, 1943.

With the close of the war, Fort Rosecrans was once again placed on caretaker status and its armament stripped. Though headquarters for Army Reserve components in San Diego are still located there, the reservation was transferred to the Navy Department on July 1, 1959. [54]

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Last Updated: 02-Mar-2005