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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Well, there wasn’t much said or done locally about the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition, the first land-based trek by Europeans through California, though there has been more talked about and plans made for events in Northern California in the fall, which is when the 60+ member party reached the Bay Area.

This weekend, however, the Homestead joined the Orange County Historical Society, the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority, and the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians in presenting a slate of events and activities to commemorate this important historical element of our regional and state history.

As discussed in last night’s post, this included yesterday’s bus tour, organized and carried out by the Orange County Historical Society and which took participants through the county from San Clemente to La Habra.  Historians Phil Brigandi and Eric Plunkett undertook a tremendous amount of research on the expedition and the trail for the tour and an excellent 54-page publication, The Portolá Expedition in Orange County, 1769-2019 that was distributed to attendees, but which is now available on

Volunteers from the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority lead our group along the two-hour hike in and near Powder Canyon in the Puente Hills between La Habra Heights and Hacienda Heights.  Here, one of them talks about the remarkable work the Authority does with limited resources and about the natural and cultural history of the area.

The pair and Society president Chris Jepsen narrated the story of the party through the county and I chipped in with a short presentation at the end of the day about the expedition’s leaving the area and heading over the Puente Hills into the San Miguel, now San Gabriel Valley.

Today, we took up that part of the story with a morning hike, coordinated with the Habitat Authority, in the Powder Canyon area of the Puente Hills.  Though we didn’t actually head out until 8:30, a half-hour later than intended, the group of over 30 intrepid hikers climbed up the Black Walnut Trail, with a few stops in the shade for rest and opportunities to hear about the great work the Authority does with limited resources.

The idea was to get to some Edison towers and get a panoramic view of the San Gabriel Valley, but, unfortunately, dead mustard stalks limited our gaze to the northeast and east, rather than the west and northwest where the expedition traveled.  Still, we got at least a glimpse of the kind of vista that the members of the Portolá party experienced as they gazed out at the terrain.

It was warm and humid, but the more than 30 hikers seemed to have a great time hearing about the area and the Portolá Expedition’s passage through the Puente Hills, though exactly where remains elusive.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Phil and Eric were confronted, in their analysis of the three existing diaries from Gaspar de Portolá, Miguel Constansó, and, Father Juan Crespí, by a frustrating lack of clarity on where the expedition went as it climbed up the Puente Hills from Orange County and descended into the San Gabriel Valley.

One possibility is that the party went up what is now the route of Hacienda Road/Boulevard while another is that it traveled just to the west of today’s Harbor Boulevard which then turns into Fullerton Road.  These alternates depend on how the diaries are read and understood.  Here are the three accounts, with the length typical for the trio:

Portolá: The 30th, we proceeded for four hours on a good road, with the exception of two very steep hills.  We halted in a very large valley where there was much pasture and water.

Costansó: We crossed the plain in a northerly direction, steadily approaching the mountains.  We ascended some hills which were quite rugged and high; afterwards we descended to a very extensive and pleasant valley where there was an abundance of water . . .

Crespí: [T]aking a due north-northwestward course[,] [w]e went down the knoll and crossed the large valley I spoke of . . . we went up a pass, all grass-grown and sheer soil, and came into hollows with very large live oaks, and sycamores, and through these, on going three hours in which we must have made three leagues [7.5 miles or a little more], we came down to a very wide-reaching, green, exceedingly spacious valley of dark, very level friable soil, all burnt off by the heathens [indigenous Indians].

The question of where the “two very steep hills” were, whether the party went north (and was this true north?) or north-northwestward (and what was this relative to what a compass would read), where the pass was that Crespí mentioned, and which hollows [or canyons] were traveled through are the elements of the mystery of the route.

In any case, it is significant that Portolá mentions a buen camino, or “good road,” which certainly would mean an Indian trail of regular use.  Through any hill range, it would be expected there would be such thoroughfares to make convenient connections between natives from the coastal plains, for example, and the inland valleys.

While the first part of the hike up the Black Walnut Trail was through mostly exposed terrain (though a bit cooler or less warm than later) up to a summit, the second half was downhill and through much more shade, as in this section of the trail.

Note also, that Portolá stated that the trip through the hills was four hours, but Crespí wrote that it was three.  The expedition’s leader mentioned “two very steep hills” whereas Constansó talked of “some hills which were quite rugged and high” and the priest said nothing about hills, instead talking about a pass and hollows, or canyons.

Finally, there is that crucial distinction by what the military engineer, Costansó, meant by “a northerly direction,” distinct from Crespí saying that they went “north-northwestward.”  From the campsite, determined by Phil and Eric to be along Brea Creek near or just southwest of Arovista Elementary School, northerly could be interpreted to favor the route through the hills where Powder Canyon is, while north-northwestward could mean either going directly up towards that canyon and then a turn through a canyon that leads to Hacienda Road or heading to the pass (la abra, known as “La Habra” today, or “an opening”) that goes up the Hacienda route.

Another consideration is how to reconcile the accounts and the movement through the Puente Hills with the next campsite, in terms of stated time and distances.  Again, let’s look at these statements:

Portolá: We proceeded for four hours . . .  we halted in a very large valley . . . here we had to construct a bridge to cross the gully [San José Creek].  I consider this a good place for a mission.

Costansó: [No distance or time was given by the military engineer] This valley must be nearly three leagues in width and very much more in length.  We pitched our camp near a ditch of running water, its banks covered with watercress and cumin.  [On 31 July] We left this camping-place at seven o’clock in the morning, and crossing the ditch over which we had to lay a bridge on account of the depth.

Crespí: Going about a league [2.5 miles or a little more] through this valley, we came to the water the scouts had found; 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 good grasses, and here was made our camp.  [After a very lengthy description of the watercourse and the landscape including mention of the San Gabriel Mountains and San José Hills] This swamp and watering place here lies upon the east of this valley, and because of its being miry, a bridge had to be made to get across the aforesaid stream.  In every way a very grand, excellent spot for a very large plenteous mission.  I called it La puente del arroyo del Valle de San Miguel [The bridge of the stream of San Miguel Valley]

The problem of very brief statements by the expedition leader, the slightly more expansive comments by the engineer and the lengthy expositions by the loquacious priest presents itself here, too.  Only Crespí discusses distance, talking about a roughly two-and-a-half mile trek once the group descended from the hills.

At the junction of the Black Walnut [at the right] and Powder Canyon [behind the photographer, me] trails, we stopped to discuss the two possible routes used by the expedition through the hills.  Here Eric Plunkett lays out the case for the Powder Canyon route.  At the left in the red shirt is Phil Brigandi, who talked about the Hacienda Road route, which is to the west. 
Coming over Hacienda Road, there is a bowl in the hills that would be part of that distance heading northwest and, perhaps, a bit west, but if the expedition came out Powder Canyon and then turned west, the line of travel would be straighter in that direction.  Crespí, however, was not always the most precise with his reckonings, so there is that to consider.

From the camp site at the bridge (and. yes, la puente is in the original Crespí manuscript reflecting the use of the feminine article by the Catalan-speaking friar) crossing San José Creek and headed west or west-northwest.  This trip took the expedition to the Whittier Narrows area and the Rio Hondo, the older course of the San Gabriel River, which was shifted to its current course a bit east in the floods of the winter of 1867-68.)

Once more, let’s read the accounts:

Portolá: The 31st, we proceeded for four hours; near the camp we found much water with a great deal of pasture which had grown [so tall] that the animals had to jump in order to get through it.  Here we rested [for one day].  We experienced six or seven earthquakes [after a major tremor of perhaps an estimated 6.8 or 6.9 on the Richter scale, which was not developed until the 1930s].  In this valley we discovered, on the south side between two mountains [Puente and Montebello hill ranges], a spring that flowed like a river, giving evidence of deep soil.

Costansó: We left this camping-place . . . and, crossing the ditch over which we had to lay a bridge [echar puente] on account of the depth, we travelled for two leagues to the west-northwest through fields of dry grass and thickets, which detained us for a long time as it was necessary to clear a path at every step.  We crossed a very muddy stream and camped farther in in an open clear spot in the same valley and close to a gap which was seen to the west . . . we experienced another violent earthquake. [1 August]: Soldiers, on their return, said that they had seen a river of fine waterfrom sixteen to seventeen yards [varas in Spanish] wide—that rises near the gap of the valley to the south . . . and, at the most, half a league distant.

Crespí: We set out from here at the Saint Michael bridge and stream, keeping on through this valley course westward, and were struck with wonder at seeing such lushness on all sides [much description of a bounty of plant life, as well as antelopes and many hares] . . . On going about two leagues [5 or a bit more miles] over this plain, we came across another stream with a good-sized bed and its little flow of water running in it.  By the great deal of sand it has along its banks, it must, in season, carry very large floods.

It was a march of a bit over four hours, in which we must have made three leagues and a half [close to nine miles] across the plain here, and stopped once more upon it, about half a league distant from the low range running along the south side; and from here, due in this same southerly direction, the range has a gap . . . We set up camp close to a little channel of very fresh, pure water running through a low spot . . . What provides the crowning excellence to this spot is that, at the opening in the above-mentioned range toward the south, out of a very large pool between some knolls there begins to rise a good-sized river . . . the San Miguel Bridge stream, which we set out from, empties into this river and I saw the stream flowing close to the river, and it is a big one . . . Thus there are two sites here for possibly locating a mission: either here at the 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.

While there is the usual variance in length and detail, though Portolá wrote more here than he generally did, there is the general understanding that the expedition left its camp site at the puente and headed west (Crespí) or west-northwest (Costansó).  The reference to “much water,” “a very muddy stream,” and “a little channel of very fresh, pure water,” might refer to one watercourse, though “muddy” and “pure” seem at odds.  Big Dalton Wash does come from the San Gabriels southwestward into the San Gabriel and this may be what was encountered, especially because the priest mentioned the “great deal of sand” that meant the stream would “carry very large floods.”

The Powder Canyon Trail is one of the numerous routes through our hills and their canyons used for millennia by indigenous peoples and would constitute the buen camino [good road] identified by Portolá, Costansó and Crespí in their expedition diaries.  We spoke a great deal on the hike of the interaction between the natives and the Spanish during the trek.
Beyond this, the expedition camped and then allowed for a day of rest on the 1st of August.  Note, as well, how all three men described the discovery of the San Gabriel River, about a half a league (1.25 miles or so) south at the gap between the Puente and Montebello hill ranges, known today as Whittier Narrows.  Portolá wrote that it was “a spring that flowed like a river,” Costansó observed it was “a river of fine water,” and Crespí noted that it was “a good-sized river” that emerged “out of a very large pool between some knolls.”

The San Gabriel actually came out of the deep and wide canyon of that name and, because of all the debris washed down from the mountains went underground for several miles only to emerge, probably by flowing against a fault that pushed it to the surface.  Crespí, on the return trip to San Diego in mid-January 1770, observed that “this good-sized river begins to rise out of a large pool, the water boiling up out of the ground in very big surges.”

Another view of the Powder Canyon Trail—the canyon got its name from an explosives factory, which manufactured “Satanite”, that operated there after moving from the Hollywood Hills, during the 1910s.

These were elements of the trip that were covered today during the hike that ended by following the Powder Canyon Trail, largely shaded by towering oaks, back to the trail head and where our two-hour excursion ended.  Then it was to the Homestead and the presentation and the panel that completed the weekend of the commemoration of the Portolá Expedition.  A summary will be posted tomorrow.