Sharing the History of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770 in Whittier, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After leaving what is now the La Habra area of north Orange County, the Portolá Expedition, comprising of over fifty Spanish soldiers and priests and Indian retainers, headed northwest towards the Puente Hills.

As mentioned last night, there were three diarists in the group, leader Gaspar de Portolá, engineer Miguel Costansó, and priest Father Juan Crespí.  While the first two were rather perfunctory and matter-of-fact in their recording for their journals, Crespí wrote a great deal more, perhaps with the idea of establishing missions and converting the native “heathens,” as he called the indigenous people, to Christianity.

Leaving San Diego in mid-July, the expedition moved up the coast as far as modern Dana Point and then turned northward into the narrow valley leading through today’s San Juan Capistrano, Lake Forest, Irvine, Orange, Anaheim and Fullerton.  After camping at or near what is now Hillcrest Park in that city, the party pressed on.

Crespí recorded that, on 30 July, the route led them through what we call “La Habra” or la abra (an opening) “up a pass, all grass grown and sheer soil, and came into hollows with very large live oaks, and sycamores, and through these . . . we came down to a very wide-reaching , green, exceedingly spacious valley of dark , very level friable soil, all burnt off by the heathens.”

Portola Puente Hills Pass.jpg
The images here are excerpts from a translation and transcription by Alan K. Brown of field drafts and revised versions of Father Juan Crespí’s diary on the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770 and published by San Diego State University Press in 2001.

The priest added that they soon came to a stream that scouts found, noting “it is a very large stream of running water flowing through the midst of a very green swamp very much clad in all sorts of plants and green grasses, and here we made our camp.”  The watercourse was San José Creek, which ran along the southern edge of the eastern San Gabriel Valley.

Adding that there was “level black soil that could not be bettered,” Crespí continued to describe the abundant landscape along the creek, including so many grapevines “looking as though someone planted them there,” many wild roses, and other plants.”  The water in the creek was, in the height of summer, a yard and a half wide and three-quarters of a yard deep.  He added that the watercourse terminated in a river to the west.

As to the valley, it was “flat, dark, very grass-grown soil . . . [and] surrounded by mountains which on the northern side are very tall and dark, with many wrinkles.”  He repeated that “for grand grazing there is no bettering the whole of its soil.”  Then, the priest noted that there was another earthquake experienced, one of several over the course of a few days.

When it was time to move on the next day, the 31st, Crespí reported that

because of its miriness, in order to be able to cross the stream here it was necessary to make a bridge.  And I named it the Bridge at the stream of the extremely long level of Saint Michael (La puente del arroyo del valle de San Miguel.)

Notice the use of the term “la puente” for bridge, though today’s Spanish speakers use the masculine article, not the feminine, as in “el puente.”  The place name for the rancho and later the city of La Puente comes from Crespí’s description of the bridge built across San José Creek as the Portolá Expedition headed west through what was then termed the “San Miguel Valley.”


In making their way westward, Crespí wrote that the expedition was “struck with wonder at seeing such lushness upon all sides.”  They came across enormous bunches of roses, of which the priest added that “from horseback, I myself plucked more than four dozen of them,” and “the grapevines are countless in number.”  Moreover,

twice we came to woods so dense that it was necessary for the soldiers to clear a way through on account of the thicket of various sorts of trees, willows, very large grapevines entwined in the trees and bearing very large clusters, cumin, and holythistles, all of it very tall, and many other kinds of weeds and plants that we did not recognize, a very pleasant sight to see.

He noted that there were many rabbits and a herd of antelopes and that the natives told the expedition about “a great many bears in the very tall mountain range running along on the north here.”  A little further along, the party came to another stream with a large bed, though not much water, and having much sand on its banks giving evidence of floods.  This may well have been Big Dalton Wash, coming southwest from the San Gabriels.

After a while, the expedition came to a spot where the “low range running along the south side,” meaning the Puente and Montebello hill ranges, “has a gap, through which this valley connects with the long, spacious plain which we left behind on the 29th.”  This is the Whittier Narrows and the party stopped to make camp next to a little channel of water.

When soldiers left to go hunt an antelope, they returned saying they’d found

another very full-flowing, wide river, much larger than the one [Santa Ana] behind us, and they say this river takes it rise upon that very spot from an exceedingly copious spring which boils up out of the ground in great thick surges, giving rise to this large river.

What the soldiers found and described was the Río Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River, and its phenomenon of coming from San Gabriel Canyon and, because of the immense deposits of granite and other material at the mouth (which is why sand and gravel companies have operated in that area for so many decades), then disappearing below the surface for a long distance before surfacing again in those “great thick surges.”


The Río Hondo remained the path of the San Gabriel River until massive flooding in the winter of 1867-68, not quite a century after Crespí’s account, led to the creation of the new San Gabriel channel that now flows southward into the Pacific where Seal Beach meets Long Beach.  The Río Hondo, meanwhile, continues to turn westward and flow into the Los Angeles River, though in 1769, it went directly into the ocean at today’s western edge of Long Beach.

For Crespí, the existence of the Río Hondo meant that the Whittier Narrows had a “crowning excellence” in terms of its location and amenities, namely water, plant material, and animal life.  He added that “the Saint Michael Bridge stream, which we set out from, empties into this river.”

With all of this, the priest concluded that

the place of San Miguel, of all the spots we have passed through, is the one with the most running water and the largest plains.  I called this the River of the big San Miguel Plain.  Thus there are two sites here for possibly locating a mission: either here at this river, or at the Bridge, whence we set out; but the finer spot is the Bridge of the Stream, with its valley as described before.

From Whittier Narrows, the expedition continued further west and came to another river, the Los Angeles, which then headed south and then turned sharply west and emptied into the ocean where Ballona Creek runs today at Playa del Rey.  In 1825, the current channel of the Los Angeles River was created by flooding.


Because 2 August was a feast day of Porciúncula (referring to a chapel used by St. Francis of Assisi), Crespí named the spot next to this river Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula.  A dozen years later, the pueblo of Los Angeles was established at that location.

The Portolá Expedition reached its northernmost point in the San Francisco Bay area a few months later and then made the return journey south.  After crossing the Los Angeles River in mid-January, the party went south and east around the Montebello Hills and camped at Whittier Narrows very near where it had done so six months prior.  Crespí again praised this location as “a very grand one,” before the party continued its journey south to San Diego.

In September 1771, a little more than a year-and-a-half later, Junipero Serra sent two priests, Somera and Cambón, to establish a mission at the Whittier Narrows and Mission San Gabriel was so established.  Predictably, its proximity to the Río Hondo was a great liability when flooding ravaged the region within a few years.  The mission was moved to higher, dryer ground at its current location by early 1775.   If, however, Crespí’s advice had been taken, Mission San Gabriel could well have been Mission La Puente and been established much closer to the Homestead!


As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the Homestead will be working on more detailed planning for the weekend commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition on 27-28 July.  Look for more information here, on our website (, and on our social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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