Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770, Day One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On this day in 1769, some 65 men, Spanish, Mexican and Indian awoke from a campsite at Tomato Springs in modern Irvine and “set our early in the morning—it must have been six o’clock,” wrote Father Juan Crespí, as they continued a trip along the coastal region of Alta California that was the first of its kind by Europeans.

The Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770, established for the purpose of determining sites for missions to convert native peoples into settled Catholic farmers and Spanish citizens, left San Diego on 14 July to travel up California as far as Monterey Bay.  The expedition’s supply ship was lost just getting to San Diego from a starting point in Baja California, but Captain Gaspar de Portolá had his orders and decided to march north.

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Our day started at 9 a.m. in downtown Tustin where three small buses took us down to San Clemente at the southern end of the county and from where we drove up as close as we could along the route of the Portolá Expedition.

His expedition included three diarists; the captain himself, engineer Miguel Costansó and Crespí, but Portolá recorded very sparsely and, while Costansó was more forthcoming in his recording it didn’t come close to the varied detail written by the priest.  In any case, it took about two weeks for the group to move at roughly 5-10 miles per day up the coast before in modern Camp Pendleton, it turned inland following native trails that passed by villages that were sited by water sources along hill and mountain ranges.

Today, in the first of two days of commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition, the Orange County Historical Society held a bus tour for about 80 persons that plied the route from San Clemente to La Habra, near the whole length of the county, and member historians Phil Brigandi, Eric Plunkett, and Chris Jepsen narrated the journey as closely along the route taken by the expedition as possible.

Tomorrow morning, Phil and Eric will join me and the Puente Hills Native Habitat Authority for a two-hour hike in the Powder Canyon area back of Schabarum Regional Park.  After that, I’ll give a presentation on the expedition, followed by Phil, Eric and I comprising a panel with Andy Salas, chair of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians as we discuss the expedition and its consequences.

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In bus #1, historian Phil Brigandi kept us well-informed and entertained through the day, sharing excerpts from the diary of Father Juan Crespí and discussing many elements of the journey, including the relations with natives, the food the party had, the landscape encountered and much more.

As for today’s tour, we met at 9 a.m. in downtown Tustin and headed down to San Clemente, with some heavy traffic at points along the way.  We exited at Avenida Pico, named for Pío Pico (who is buried at the Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum at the Homestead’s El Campo Santo Cemetery) and headed inland.

From there, we drove northwest up Avenida La Pata in fairly close alignment with the expedition’s route and made our way east of San Juan Capistrano by crossing Ortega Highway, named for one of the soldier scouts with the expedition, and following Antonio Parkway.

That thoroughfare parallels Trabuco Creek, so named because one of the expedition’s soldiers lost his trabuco, or gun similar to a shotgun, and, apparently, the moniker was to mock the poor soldado de cuero (leather jacket) and which begins in the Santa Ana Mountains and then merges into other watercourses before emptying into the ocean at Dana Point.

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At a trailhead along Trabuco Creek in Rancho Santa Margarita, Eric Plunkett gave us a fascinating overview of the expedition’s movement through the area, including encounters with the Indians who had a village nearby called Alauna.

We stopped at a trailhead along the creek in Rancho Santa Margarita and walked a short distance down to get a view of what is as close as we’re going to get to the landscape that existed a quarter of a millennium ago.  This section, a part of O’Neill Regional Park (which, when I was a kid living in Fountain Valley and Huntington Beach, was out in the wilderness, but now is a part of the ever-expanding suburbs of the area), is the best place to see the trail route in a fairly natural condition.

After that stop, we passed Lone Hill, where Crespí and other expedition members climbed up to the summit to see some of the Channel Islands and nearby areas.  We continued northwest on Santa Margarita Parkway which becomes part of Portolá Parkway, though we took a short stretch of the 241 Toll Road to get to the main portion of Portolá. 

In this relatively newly developed area of the Irvine Ranch, the name Portolá is everywhere (though pronounced without the accent on the “a” as it should be.)  There’s the Portolá Hills and Portolá Springs tracts and neighborhoods, Portolá Springs Elementary, Portolá Place Apartments, and so on.

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This view looking south down Trabuco Creek in what is now the southern part of O-Neil Regional Park is about as close to the landscape along the Portolá route, which went through this area, as we can get 250 years later.

We also passed Tomato Springs, which provided the only source of water locally for the expedition as it came through the area.  With this precious supply of water, the expedition stopped and camped “across from a dry lake on the opposite side of the two small springs.”  Crespí added “we thought we could see the sea far off, at what must be the San Pedro bight [curve in the coastline where the Port of Los Angeles is now] . . . however, it was very fog-covered and we were unable to be sure.”  From there they could look over the plain and the San Joaquin Hills to the south.

Then came the 27th and the early departure from the camp, though it was “very overcast and foggy,” and the expedition continued to stay close to the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains because of the likelihood of finding water coming down the canyons of the range.  While there was a lack of wood, Crespí wrote, “if this place can be dry farmed, it soil could support a city.”

Moving along, the expedition then came upon Santiago Creek, which was “a very large stream” coming down from the Santa Anas and then into “this large plain.”  The priest recorded that “this grand, fine and lovely spot . . . among all of those we have left behind, has the most amount of soil and most running water” and would be ideal for a mission.

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At a church in Olive, an old community in north Orange, we had a delicious box lunch and heard more from Phil about the expedition before venturing further onward through the north part of the county.

Interestingly, he noticed “a stake weir, made by the heathens, at the water that we saw, by which they had it split into two large glows each taking its separate course in among the trees here,” an early sign of water management by the native peoples.  After camping along the creek, the expedition moved on early on the 28th.  Scouts went ahead and then returned reporting that there was “a full-flowing river” nearby.

That watercourse was judged to come “out of the mountain range that must lie about two or three leagues (roughly 5 to 7 1/2 miles) away,” and ran northeast to southwest, though its origins in the San Bernardino range was much further distant.  Crespí also assumed it emptied into the ocean at the “San Pedro bight,” though this also was not true.  He mentioned many trees along its banks.  Our group stopped for lunch and more discussion by Phil at a church in the Olive community of Orange right along the south and east portions of the river.

Despite the lateness of the year, “we had some trouble fording it,” even though it was clear the river could floor in heavy rain years, such as the previous winter must have been if there was that much water in late July.  On the west side of the river was a village of natives, of which over 50 approached bringing sage gruel, toasted grass seeds, shell beads and netting.  In return, they were given beads and a handkerchief, with linens being highly prized by the Indians, who were called “very well-behaved and tractable.”

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A sample of the published transcriptions in Spanish and English of Crespí’s field draft and revised text of his diary during the expedition’s journey, edited after a huge amount of work by Alan K. Brown and published by San Diego State University Press in 2001 as A Description of Distant Roads: Original Journals of the First Expedition into California, 1769-1770.

Then, Crespí recorded that “we have felt three strong earthquakes within less than an hour today at noon.”  Notably, the priest judged the length by the fact that the “first and most violent must have lasted the length of Creed, the other two less than a Hail Mary.”  Yet, this location was now deemed the best so far for a mission and he wrote, “we christened this grand spot here The Most Sweet Name of Jesus of the River of Earthquakes.  When natives invited the Europeans to dance at their village, “we told them it was not our custom to dance.”

While scouts rode ahead to find more water (about twelve miles ahead) more natives arrived and “showed us nine cutlasses without hafts, along with four or five eyeless matting needles, and a thick spike about a half a yard in length.  These were clearly from Europeans and Crespí wondered if they were from New Mexico or Arizona or further northward perhaps from Spanish ship landings along the coast.

Crespí was so impressed by the Indians that, when a chief allegedly had tears of joy and happiness when he invited the Spanish to stay, but was told they’d return later, that the priest added, “would they allow me to, I would most gladly return in order to stay with these poor wretches for their conversion and the good of their souls.”

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This 1909 publication, which is in the Homestead’s collection and published by the Academy of Pacific Coast History, is the diary of Portolá, as edited by Donald Eugene Smith, an associate professor of history and geography at the University of California and Frederick J. Taggart, the Academy’s curator.

The expedition didn’t depart from the river until 2 p.m. on the 29th, but with difficulty in crossing and then kept a northwest course across the plain to the eastern edge of the Coyote Hills in modern Fullerton.  Moving further northwest, at “a small, very green hollow [canyon] with a small pool of water” and where a native village was located,” the expedition made camp, probably near Arovista Elementary School in Brea.  The site was called Santa Marta, though “it can only serve for a ranch because of the lack of water.”

On 30 July at 7 a.m., the group broke camp and proceeded north-northwestward, according to Crespí.  They traversed the La Habra Valley and the priest wrote “we went up a pass [la abra—an opening], and came into hollows [again, canyons] with very large live oaks, and sycamores.”  By then, the expedition was out three hours and went about three leagues (about 7 1/2 miles.)”

Constansó, however, wrote “we crossed the plain in a northerly [not northwest as Crespí said] direction . . . we ascended some hills which were quite rugged and high.”  All Portolá wrote was that “we proceeded for four hours on a good road, with the exception of two very steep hills.”

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In 1911, Taggart followed with the diary of Costansó, also issued by the Academy and from the museum’s holdings.

It is very unclear from these descriptions precisely where the expedition climbed up the Puente Hills and where it descended into the eastern San Gabriel Valley.  One theory is that the group ascended a bit west of where Harbor Boulevard becomes Fullerton Road and through Powder Canyon which comes out at the rear of Schabarum Regional Park.  Another suggests the expedition went up that way, turned to follow La Mirada Creek where the Hacienda Country Club is today and then turned up the Hacienda Road/Boulevard route.

Whichever it was, this was discussed at our last stop, the large and capacious foyer of the recently built La Habra City Hall.  Guests sat while I was asked to talk about the last stage of travel through the area and pointed out the varied theories of the route used to get over the Puente Hills.  I did observe that the 1930s plaque put by the Daughters of the American Revolution on Brea Boulevard just outside Brea Canyon was clearly in the wrong place, though it is the oldest historic landmark plaque in Orange County.

I also briefly outlined the expedition’s northern movement through the San Gabriel Valley (more tomorrow) and into Los Angeles.  From there, the group moved north, though scouts looking west for passage, realizing that the Santa Monica bluffs were a barrier, stumbled upon what we know as the La Brea Tar Pits.

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For this 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition and during its centennial year, the Orange County Historical Society has published this excellent 54-page treatment of the group’s travels through Orange County.

The expedition went up to modern Santa Clarita, through the pass leading to Saugus and then cut across west through the Santa Clara River Valley to Ventura.  It hugged the coast all the way to Gaviota Pass north of Santa Barbara and followed the coastal hill ranges through Vandenberg Air Force Base and past Guadalupe, the coast at Pismo Beach, inland to San Luis Obispo, back to the shore along Cambria and past modern Hearst Castle and then hit a barrier at the south end of Big Sur.

From there, the group turned east into the mountains and came out in the long corridor that U.S. 101 follows up to modern Salinas.  Though the Monterey Bay was a main goal and it was actually spotted, the expedition never believed it was there and pressed northward through Watsonville and Santa Cruz before turning inland through the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Finally, they traveled as far as near where Stanford University is, sighted the San Francisco Bay, which was not previously known to the Spanish, and stopped in modern Menlo Park.  It was 11 November, about four months into the journey.

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The last stop on today’s trip was La Habra City Hall, where I gave a talk on the final portion of the expedition’s passage through modern Orange County by moving through la abra [the opening or pass] in the Puente Hills and into the San Gabriel Valley near the Homestead as well as a brief summary of the party’s journey to the San Francisco Bay and back.
I said little about the return journey, other than that the expedition hurried southward, having missed any Monterey connections and relying on its own mules for food.  The group raced down to San Diego in half the time as the northward trek and passed through the Orange County plain from Whittier Narrows through modern Anaheim, the Tomato Spring, to San Juan Capistrano (not along the Santa Ana foothills as before) and out to San Onofre and points south.  They reached San Diego on 24 January.

Phil and Eric did tremendous work in plotting out the course through Orange County, which led to a short book published by the Historical Society, and did a great job, along with Chris, in leading the bus tour.  I was happy to be able to make a small contribution and look forward to tomorrow’s hike and panel.

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