Sharing the History of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770 in Whittier

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The name can be found in a number of places in greater Los Angeles.  In Irvine, there’s a Portola High School, Portola Parkway, and Portola Hills area.  Costa Mesa even has a Portola Coffee Roasters coffee bar.  La Habra has a Portola Park.   At UCLA, there’s a Portola Plaza.  Inexplicably, there is a town of Portola in Plumas County northeast of Sacramento, for reasons that are obvious below.

Yet, if we went out and asked 100 random people what the name means, how many would know (though, this probably goes for lots of place names out there)?  Well, there’s at least an opportunity this year to inform at least some of them about Gaspar de Portolá (yes, accent on the “a”), whose name is associated with the first European land-based exploration of California.

The Portolá Expedition, comprised of over 50 Spanish Army soldiers, Roman Catholic priests, and native Indian retainers, traveled up the coast of California from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay and back from May 1769 to January 1770.  In late July, the group moved through north Orange County and into the San Gabriel Valley very close to where the Homestead was later established and then west through the valley to where Los Angeles was founded a little over a decade later.

A likeness of Gaspar de Portolá from a medal struck to commemorate the 1969 bicentennial of the namesake expedition.

This July, the Homestead will, with the Orange County Historical Society and other partners, host a weekend program commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition.  Tonight, as a sort of early prototype, I gave a presentation to a group of retired teachers, many of them history buffs, in Whittier.  It was an opportunity to try out some approaches for what might be done as we continue planning for late July.

Among these is a focus on the remarkable diary of Father Juan Crespí (yup, accent on the “i”), whose name is best known locally for the Catholic boys high school that bears his name in Encino.  There were two others who kept journals in the group, including its leader and engineer Miguel Costansó (uh-huh, accent on the last “o”—these men were all from Catalonia, the area of northeast Spain which has a strong independence movement).

Crespí’s diary, however, is far more detailed and descriptive than the others (Portolá had a lot more on his mind as the head of the group, while Costansó probably was more focused on his duties, as well.)  For the missionary, however, he had two major concepts in mind:  what were the native peoples like? Where would the missions to christianize and civilize these natives be located?  Related to this, he had a keen sense of the landscape, including water sources, plant and animal types, and other aspects that would tie in directly to the question of missionary activities that were to follow.

The translated and transcribed opening portion of Father Juan Crespí’s journal on the expedition, starting at San Diego on 14 May 1769.

In 2001, a very helpful book was published by San Diego State University and edited by Alan Brown called A Description of Distant Roads: Original Journals of the First Expedition Into California, 1769-1770 and which uses Crespí’s field diary and subsequent amended versions.  I have used Brown’s work extensively over the years, mainly when talking about the Portolá group’s movement into the San Gabriel Valley from north Orange County and Crespí’s observations, best characterized, perhaps, by a term he used about his experiences: “struck with wonder.”

Tonight’s talk expanded the use of the diary to discuss the travels of the expedition from San Diego, up the Pacific coast, to what is now San Juan Capistrano, and then inland through modern Irvine, Orange, Anaheim, Fullerton and La Habra.  There are all kinds of interesting statements made by the friar.

One is how 200 “heathens” (as he called the natives to distinguish them from Christians like himself) greeted the expedition at what is now the area near the Mission San Luis Rey at Oceanside and how impressed he was that they were friendly, unlike the “unruly” natives at San Diego, whose attitudes were almost certainly hardened by more contact with the Spanish.  Later, in what is now Lake Forest, but which was historically El Toro, he found the natives there to be so likable and tractable (that is, easy to control) that he wrote that “they have won my heart completely.”  Elsewhere, he noted that “splendid things could be done” with natives, though they, of course, would beg to differ if they knew what that meant.


Mention of the length of time of three earthquakes encountered in late July 1769 at what is now the Santa Ana River, but which Crespí denoted as El Río de los Temblores, or “Earthquake River.”

That Lake Forest/Irvine area had excellent soil, a decent water supply and was such a superior location to those to the south that Crespí wrote, “if this place can be dry farmed, its soil could support a city.”  A century or so later, wheat was grown in large quantities there and, then, once irrigation and then imported water came, orange groves sprung up in multitudes.  There are cities, now, of course, but a different kind of harvesting is going on there today!

On 28 July 1769, as the expedition stopped next to the largest river they’d yet seen, it experienced three earthquakes, the first of this natural phenomenon encountered by them.  In trying to explain the duration of the seismic activity, Crespí wrote:

The first and most violent must have lasted the length of a Creed [that is, the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed], the other two less than a Hail Mary.

After all, the priest didn’t have a timepiece by which to measure the tremors, but they certainly left a big impression as Crespí decided to name the river, El Río de los Temblores (Earthquake River), though we now know it as the Santa Ana River.

He also observed something remarkable with the natives at this location: they showed him broken cutlasses (short swords), needles and an iron spike.  He wondered, naturally, where these came from.  Further south, near today’s shuttered San Onofre nuclear power plant, the indigenous people showed the expedition what the priest said were Castilian beads and he guessed that perhaps they were acquired from Sebastian Vizcaino, who traveled by ship up the California coast nearly 170 years prior.

Another excerpt discussing indigenous people, denoted “heathens” by Crespí, at what is now the Mission San Luis Rey area near Oceanside.

After camping in modern Fullerton, probably at or near Hillcrest Park at the base of the Coyote Hills, the expedition headed, in Crespí’s words, to the northwest and “went up a pass” or opening in the Puente Hills.  Going through la abra, corrupted later into “La Habra,” where Portola Park could well be very close to the route the expedition took, the route likely went along the Hacienda Road corridor through the hills.

Crespí and his compatriots then gazed upon a very long and deep valley that he christened “San Miguel.”  We’ll pick up the story tomorrow with more about the Portolá Expedition’s incursion into the area near the Homestead.

2 thoughts

  1. My name is Dan Stracner, and I’m the editor of “Heights Life” magazine in La Habra Heights. I’d like to ask Paul Spitzzeri a question about his excellent article about the Portola Expedition, preferably on the phone.

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