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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After a two-hour morning hike with more than 30 hardy hikers in the Powder Canyon area of the Puente Hills to discuss the two possible routes of the Portolá Expedition through the area, we headed over to the Homestead for the next part of the program to commemorate the 250th anniversary of that party’s trek through California.

This consisted first of my presentation about the expedition’s movement through our area, titled “Struck With Wonder” because Father Juan Crespí used that phrase to express the feelings of the group’s members as they came across the lush landscape in what they called the San Miguel Valley, soon renamed the San Gabriel Valley.

The talk set the scene for the second part of the program, a panel presentation featuring Phil Brigandi and Eric Plunkett from the Orange County Historical Society and Andy Salas, tribal chair, and Matt Teutimez, tribal biologist, from the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians.  Phil and Eric were asked to participate because of their extensive labors in mapping out the expedition’s movement through the county was the focus of a Saturday bus tour.

Andy and Matt were at the panel for a vital reason: ensuring that the native perspective be part of the discussion specifically and the commemoration of the expedition more broadly.  While there were three diarists in the party, Captain Gaspar de Portolá who led the expedition; military engineer Miguel Costansó, and Crespí, and their words form the historical written record, the point of view of the indigenous people are, of course, not recorded.

Phil and Eric explained their motivations for engaging in the extensive work of mapping out the expedition’s travels through modern Orange County.  They talked of the passion and excitement they felt in being able to bring alive the expedition through utilizing the diaries and moving over territory that was sometimes directly in and more often very close to the route taken by the Portolá party.

Eric Plunkett discusses the work he and Phil Brigandi (second from the left) did in tracing the route of the Portolá Expedition through Orange County and into the San Gabriel Valley at yesterday’s panel discussion.  Matt Teutimez and Andy Salas of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians are at the right.  This and the next three photos were taken by Gary Leonard.

There were some surprises and some frustration, as well, whether it was being unable to determine the route taken through the Puente Hills in the latter case or being able to track some of the natives mentioned in the diaries and who lived within the mission system at San Juan Capistrano later as among the former.

While the two were vitally interested in the route and in tracking its movement through the county, they also were as concerned to make sure that they brought the people involved to life, whether it was the Spaniards who made up the majority of the expedition (there were also some christianized Indians from Baja California who played important roles) or the native people encountered along the way.

Bringing out the stories of the individuals in both the party and among the indigenous “heathens” they encountered was brought out emphatically on the bus tour and during the panel presentation, as well.  Phil and Eric were the authors and compilers of the Society’s publication for the anniversary and The Portolá Expedition in Orange County, 1769-2019, an excellent 54-page summation, is now available on Amazon.

A point that was important for Phil to make was that Portolá was under strict orders to have the members of the party behave with restraint and respect for the native people and this was carried out diligently.  The goal of the expedition was to scout out locations for missions to convert natives to Catholicism and develop them as Spanish citizen-farmers.

Phil Brigandi discussing the expedition.

Antagonisms had to be minimized to achieve that objective and Portolá carefully recruited soldiers and others to maintain the highest level of order and discipline—characteristics tragically lacking later among the Spanish and Mexicans.  Phil asked the rhetorical question of how different the situation would have been if Portolá’s standards had been maintained afterward.

The conversation shifted to discussion of the native people and Andy and Matt spoke passionately and eloquently of the need to remember that the Kizh-Gabrieleño were a large population of indigenous people with extensive networks of communication and trade, a strong spiritual system underpinning their lives on the land they occupied, a time-honored way of managing the land to maximize the resources available to them, and other elements that belie the perception that they were a “primitive” people.

Andy noted that he and Matt were mestizos (Spanish/Mexican and Indian) and that the former side of their heritage included ancestors who were in the Portolá Expedition and this added a particularly interesting element to their discussion of the native people and the Spaniards who encountered each other a quarter of a millennium ago.

He also talked about the work that he and his fellow tribal members have done to bring attention to the presence of their ancestors throughout the region, including on monitoring projects for construction projects, for example, and how educating regional residents on the Kizh was the main purpose for their efforts.

Matt Teutimez explaining elements of Kizh society.

Andy also strongly reinforced the idea that welcoming strangers, as his ancestors did for the Portolá Expedition, has always been a crucial aspect of Kizh life.  This friendliness and assistance helped the party to survive as they lacked supplies needed in an unfamiliar land because the supply ship that was supposed to meet them in San Diego never arrived.

Matt talked about the relationship of the Kizh to the plant and animal resources available to them, including how natives showed the Spaniards to make use of chia, which was harvested in late July as the expedition came through the area.  He went into fascinating detail about the nutritional value of the seed and how it could be used with water, for example, to provide additional sustenance.

He also went to some length to discuss the native spirituality and how there was a foretelling of the coming of men like the Spaniards in Kizh tradition, which explained a great deal of why the natives were so welcoming to the expedition.  Additionally, he talked of how certain elements of native thought dovetailed with aspects of Christianity, but that there was a dark underbelly to this connection as the mission system wreaked havoc on the Kizh and other tribal groups in California.

The panelists and moderator standing in front of one of three stained glass windows in the Homestead Museum Gallery foyer.  The trio were created in 1982 by John Wallis Studios, a Pasadena firm that restored and replicated windows in La Casa Nueva, and concern the building of la puente, the bridge that crossed San José Creek, likely just west of the Homestead and other aspects of the encounters between natives and the Spaniards.

Andy also highlighted this painful chapter, speaking of the devastation brought about by the Spanish and Mexican attempts, through the missions, to dismantle native society in all its manifestations and in often brutal and horrific treatment wrought on natives by the Spanish and Mexicans, as well as Americans after the seizure of California.  Yet, he pointedly referred to the fact that the Kizh are still here through their descendants and that the education of the public about what has been passed down, largely through oral sources, can help the region’s residents have a better appreciation for the past.

There were many questions from the appreciative audience and this carried over to a reception held out in the picnic area adjacent to the Workman House.  The Kizh brought artifacts for display and discussion and Andy and Matt were particularly busy talking with attendees.

While this two-day series of programs were a commemoration, not a celebration, of the travels of the Portolá Expedition, what we can celebrate is the success the weekend had in bringing the history of the trek and of the people, the Indians, whose involvement in it has not been recognized enough in connection with the expedition.

Attendees at the reception after the panel presentation.  Photo by the author.

One of the attendees at the panel was David Kipen, whose myriad activities in Los Angeles arts and culture are numerous and diverse.  David is leading a Portolá anniversary event Friday evening at the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street and the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and has invited some of us involved in yesterday’s panel to participate.  So, look for a post on that at the end of the week!


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