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National Historic Landmark SAN DIEGO PRESIDIO

Location: San Diego County, in Presidio Park near Old Town, San Diego.

Ownership and Administration. City of San Diego; Park and Recreation Department.

Significance. San Diego Presidio commemorates the beginning of mission effort and European settlement in California and on the Pacific coast of the present United States. Father Junípero Serra said mass at the site on July 1, 1769, before an assemblage of 126 persons, who were the survivors of 300 who had originally set out from Baja California by land and sea to occupy Alta California. After the Te Deum, Gov. Don Gaspar de Portolá ceremoniously took possession of California for Spain.

From then until 1776 the San Diego Presidio (a fort until it was legally established as a presidio in 1774) was the base of operations for expeditions that explored new routes and founded new missions and presidios; and from 1776 until 1837 it continued to be the seat of military jurisdiction in southern California. Under Mexican rule, after 1821, it was also the residence of the Governor, from 1825 to 1829.

The religious ceremony of July 1, 1769, was followed by the formal founding at the presidio, on July 16, of the first mission in Alta California, San Diego de Alcalá. The colonists suffered greatly during the first few months. After a damaging Indian attack in August, they erected a crude stockade on Presidio Hill to protect both mission and colony. By January 1770, the settlement was on the point of starvation. On March 19, just when all hope seemed lost, a supply ship sailed into the bay and saved the California venture from total ruin. By the end of the month the colonists had finished the stockade of the presidio, mounted two bronze cannon, and erected wooden houses with tule roofs.

The commandant's residence was situated in the center of the presidio. On the east side of the square were a chapel, cemetery, and storehouses; on the south side were the gate and guardhouse; and around the other two sides were barracks. To remove his Indian charges from the unwholesome influence of the presidial garrison and obtain a better water supply, in 1774 Father Serra moved the mission to another site, 6 miles to the northeast, the present site of San Diego Mission. In 1778, the original wooden walls and buildings of the presidio began to be replaced with adobe structures.

San Diego Mission
San Diego Mission, the first of the 21 California missions, in 1853. From a lithograph by Charles Koppel. (Courtesy, Bancroft Library, University of California.)

When Capt. George Vancouver reached San Diego in 1793, in the first foreign ship to visit the city, he was not much impressed from a military standpoint. His visit, however, along with others, stimulated the Spanish to strengthen it. In 1795-96, an esplanade, powder magazine, flagpole, and several houses for soldiers were added to the presidio, and Fort Guijarros—the first harbor defense work—was erected on Point Loma. It included an adobe magazine, barracks, and a battery designed to mount 10 cannon.

As the Spanish period drew to a close, the garrison of San Diego Presidio increased, 50 cavalrymen being added in 1819 to the force of about 100 soldiers—some of whom were detached to Los Angeles pueblo and the four missions of the district. The total Spanish population of the San Diego District in that year was about 450, in addition to about 6,800 Indian neophytes. Under the Mexican Government, the size of the military force and the condition of the presidio declined rapidly after 1830. In 1836, Richard Henry Dana found the presidio in a deplorable state and Fort Guijarros in ruins. The following year the Mexicans sent the last of the troops north, and by 1839 the presidio was in complete ruins. Much stone and adobe were removed from it to erect houses in the new pueblo of San Diego, founded in 1835.

Present Appearance. George W. Marston saved the presidio site from complete oblivion in 1929 by donating about 37 acres, including the site, to San Diego for park purposes. The city formally accepted the gift in 1937. Presidio Park, which has been formally landscaped, includes the Serra Museum as its principal architectural feature. This museum, built in 1929, houses a large collection of archeological and historical objects related to early California and Spanish history. The museum library contains both original and published records of the history of the city and the region.

The former site of the presidio is in front of the museum. Construction of the San Diego River dike and the Mission Valley Road destroyed part of the presidio site, and another section lies beneath a park road. However, some vestiges of the structures that once formed the presidio still remain in the form of grass-covered mounds, which suggest part of the outline of former walls and buildings.

In the center of the old presidio stands the Junípero Serra Cross, erected in 1913 from bits of brick and floor tile found on the spot. It bears this inscription: "Here the First Citizen, Fray Junípero Serra, Planted Civilization in California, Here He Raised the Cross, Here Began the First Mission, Here Founded the First Town—San Diego, July 16, 1769." [10]

NHL Designation: 10/09/60

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005