Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770 at the Avila Adobe, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

After last Sunday’s hike and panel sponsored by the Homestead in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition of 1769-1770, the first land-based trek by Europeans of California, attendee David Kipen contacted me and asked if I and Andy Salas and Matt Teutimez of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians would join him at an event this evening at the Avila Adobe at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

David, widely known for his community-based projects like the Libros Schmibros bookstore in Boyle Heights and his recent book, Dear Los Angeles, among much else, worked with Chris Espinosa, the general manager of the monument, to put together the event, which included readings from the diary of Father Juan Crespí and commentary from Andy, Matt, and David.

About forty-five people gathered in the oasis that is the courtyard of the Adobe in the middle of a bustling urban environment to hear the readings and discussion.  I was honored to be able to read extensively from the Crespí account, focusing on roughly a week in late July and early August 1769 as the expedition moved from a campsite where a bridge (la puente as specifically stated in the priest’s diary) crossed San José Creek westward.

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Arriving at the Plaza a little before 5 p.m., we found people dancing to music under the shade of one of the enormous Moreton Bay fig trees planted at each side of the historic center of Los Angeles by Elijah H. Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman.  The south facing tree, out of view to the left, fell this past spring, but the other trees still stand.

I shared with the audience some remarkable details from Crespí about how he and his compatriots were “struck with wonder at seeing such lushness upon all sides” as they headed towards a gap between the Puente and Montebello hill ranges, known to us now as the Whittier Narrows.  Wild roses and grapevines and oak, sycamore and willow trees were just some of the cornucopia of plant material that amazed the expedition as they headed toward the San Gabriel River, which burst from underground at the gap because amassed granitic material at the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon forced the water to travel below the surface for several miles.

Because Crespí called the spacious and well-watered valley, the San Miguel, the river was given that moniker, as well.  Highly impressed with the Narrows and the La Puente area, the latter of which actually more preferred for a future mission, though the former became the first site of Mission San Gabriel, the group pressed onward after a layover on the 1st of August.

On 2 August, a quarter of a millennium ago today, the group of sixty-three moved west and “came to a little low range that we had had in view in this direction, and here left the valley, going into a hollow [canyon] . . .”  The priest then wrote that “on going about three hours, in which we must have made about three leagues as well, we came to the water found by the scouts yesterday, another river with another very green lush valley.”

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From the northeast part of the Plaza is this view, nicely framed by trees and plants, of the Pico House hotel, built by the last governor of Mexican California and a neighbor and compadre of the Workman and Temple families, Don Pío Pico.

This site appears to be about where the Downey Recreation Center is situated along the river and where North Broadway and North Spring Street meet in Lincoln Heights.  Crespí went on to observe that “this river is a bit smaller than the last ones [San Gabriel and Santa Ana] . . . [and] it flows from north-northwest.”  Moreover, Crespí added that “there is a dry creek to the northeast, with a very large bed, closing with the river here,” this being the Arroyo Seco.

Crespí went into some detail about the beds of both watercourses bordered by trees and filled with dead trees, pine cones and nut shells and that both entered a valley that he called the “one that bears away the prize” compared to what he’d seen elsewhere.  There were, again, many grapevines and roses and “to southward there is a great extenst of soil, all very green, so that really it can be said to be a most beautiful garden.”  It should be noted that the Los Angeles River flowed into the Pacific at Ballona Creek in those years, the course shifting to San Pedro Bay after floods in 1825.

Continuing with his paean to the valley near the river, Crespí wrote “good, better than good, and grand through the previous places have been, to my mind this spot can be given the preference in everything, in soil, water and trees” for establishing a mission.  The name chosen for this terrestrial paradise was Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula, so denoted because of a feast day associated with St. Francis of Assisi and a chapel of the name Porciúncula—Crespí was, after all, a Franciscan priest.

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A plaque for Los Angeles Plaza at its north side.

As to the native peoples who occupied the village of Yangna along the river, the cleric wrote that “at once on our reaching here, eight heathens came over from a good-zied village encamped at this pleasing spot among some trees.”  He reported that they brought baskets of sage and grass seeds to share with the Spaniards, while “all brought their bows and arrows, but with the strings removed from the bows.”

Fascinatingly, Crespí continued:

they threw three handfuls of these beads at each of us.  Some of the heathens came up smoking upon Indian pipes made of baked clay, and they blew three mouthfuls of smoke into the air toward each one of us.  Then their chief made a speech, and they all sat down with us.

Clearly, this was an important ceremony of welcome for the strangers who came into the midst of the native peoples and were treated kindly, especially considering the supplies that were supposed to be available at San Diego were lost when a ship delivering them vanished.

Then, the priest wrote that

Our Captain [Portolá] told me that when they scouted here, in a ravine about half a league to the westward they came upon about forty springs of pitch, or tar, boiling up in great surges up out of the ground, and saw very large swamps of this tar, enough to have caulked many ships with.

This we know as the famous La Brea Tar Pits, later used extensively for coating the roofs of adobe houses after the pueblo of Los Angeles was established a dozen years later, in late summer 1781.  It is notable that Crespí added that “we all felt four quakes at dawn today” and that “there have been fourteen” since they reached the Santa Ana River, called the Earthquake River because of an estimated 6.9 tremor that even made a marked impression on the indigenous people.  But, the priest concluded, “now that we have learned about these pitch springs here, we attribute the cause [of the quakes] to them.”

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A portion of the front of the Avila Adobe, built in 1818, and in the courtyard of which was tonight’s event.

On 3 August, the expedition broke camp at about 6:30 a.m. and continued a westward movement and reached another village not far away at which residents came out and “commenced howling at us as thought they had been wolves,” something experienced earlier in the trek.  Keeping to the policy of hewing close to mountains and hills because of water expected to be in the vicinity, a springs was encountered on the plain between the Santa Monica Mountains on the right (north) and the Baldwin Hills to the left (south) and a campsite established.

The following morning, also 6:30, the move continued west, where another pair of springs, denoted San Rogerio, were found on a high tableland with roses and watercress growing around the spot.  From this vantage point, about where the Veterans Administration facilities (the former National Soldiers’ Home) are near Westwood, Crespí wrote that “the sea can be made out about a league and a half [maybe four miles] away” and that the water from the springs emptied into the ocean.  Here, as so often, a prime mission site presented itself to the enthusiastic cleric.

When it came to the next line of travel, however, there was a problem as Crespí talked about a point known from prior sea voyages, but “the scouts went out to explore it, and they say there is no way past the range falling steep to the sea; they say many high rough mountain ranges run along” the coastal area.  This meant the Pacific Palisades blocking a coastal route, but, the friar wrote, “in one of those directions we shall have to go, in whatever way God shall assist us in doing.”

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The location in the Avila Adobe courtyard of the panel presentation.

After camp was established, a half-dozen natives approached bearing more food and gifts and then went home.  The next morning, 5 August, the expedition laid by longer than usual and did not depart until mid-afternoon “taking a northward course through the mountains” and “entering them through a narrow little hollow,” or canyon. The priest then wrote that “we went over a high pass, and thence down to a very large valley, all burnt off by the heathens [for propagation of seeds and other land management purposes].”

The route was Sepulveda Pass where the traffic-choked Interstate 405 runs today and where the Getty Center sits like an Acropolis overlooking the Westside and the expedition then came into the valley Crespí denoted as Santa Catalina de Bononia (or St. Catherine of Bologna).  After some three hours, the group “set up camp beneath a large live oak upon the south side of the valley here, close to a very large pool of very pure [and hot] water at the foot of the mountain range.”

This spot is now Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino, where “we came upon two large villages of very fine, well-behaved, and very friendly heathens, who must have amounted to about two hundred souls.  Again, abundant food was shared and gifts exchanged.  Crespí described what we know as the San Fernando Valley and several watering places within it.

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A display panel in the courtyard about the history of the adobe.

Again, however, there was a dilemma; namely that, the valley “is all fenced in by high mountains, and there is no way along the seashore.”  Once more, the natives assisted, and the chiefs of the villages “sent four heathens with the scouts to show them the watering place they spoke of and the way by which we might get out of this valley.”

Additionally, Crespí spent time describing how there were

regular houses here at this spot, and they have some underground ones that are very large, being like a sort of porticoes within and with a small doorway like a chimney hole through which they go in and out, to protect themselves from the cold.

A brief note of tribal government was recorded “there being at all of the villages three or four chiefs, with one chief who is head of all the others and gives them orders.”  The priest also recorded that “we began to see very well carven [sic] wooden flutes that they play on.”

A remarkable occurrence is when the indigenous people

told us that upcountry—pointing northeastward—there were people like us—pointing to the soldiers—with guns, swords and horses—pointing to our mounts—and there were three Fathers like ourselves (pointing to our habits; that two or three of themselves had been there; that it was reached in thirteen days’ travel from sunrise to sunset, and there was a sea close by, and many large animals, which, from their commentary and gestures, we thought must have been buffaloes . . . whether this is New Mexico or not, who can say[?]

If the direction was northeast and there was a sea, it almost seems like this could have been the Great Salt Lake in modern Utah, but this is a tantalizing part of the diary that can only speculate on possibilities.

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Another view of the courtyard venue just before we began the program.

On 7 August, the expedition headed north and got to what is now Van Norman Reservoir across the valley in modern Granada Hills and where the priest stated that there was “water enough for a town,” whether irrigated or not, he added parenthetically that “let this watering place be kept in mind for a more thorough survey of the location, showing whereabouts is best suited for a town.”

On the 8th, the expedition went up a pass that led to modern Saugus and continued to the Santa Clara River and followed that watercourse to the sea at Ventura.  It hewed to the coast past modern Santa Barbara, went up Gaviota Pass and then across to modern Vandenburg Air Force Base and mainly up the coast as far as the southern reaches of Big Sur.  Forced to go east into the Salinas Valley, the party continued on to Santa Cruz, having missed their intended destination of Monterey, where more supplies were awaiting but were missed, and then inadvertently finding themselves at the southwest reaches of San Francisco Bay near present Stanford University in mid-November.

Desperate to get back to San Diego without those supplies, the expedition, which took four months to get to their northern extremity, rushed southward to return to San Diego in about half that time.  After reaching Ventura, the group cut across where Conejo Pass is and came into the southwestern San Fernando Valley and headed straight over to Cahuenga Pass and to the Los Angeles River.  Rather than go east into the San Gabriel Valley, however, the expedition went southeast around the Montebello Hills and got to the southern side of Whittier Narrows.  Then, it was a straight route through modern Orange County and to the coastal route that led down to San Diego.

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A pleasant surprise to the evening was that artist Pete Morris (a.k.a., The Metro Da Vinci) quietly sat off to the side and painted this watercolor of our panel in progress!

Tonight was a lot of fun as well as informative for the audience, who were especially impressed, it seemed to me, to hear Andy and Matt explain so eloquently and passionately about the native peoples, their culture, their use of plant materials, and other aspects that are touched upon by Crespí but not given the context that these tribal members gave.  The fact that most questions asked by the audience were about the indigenous people is testament to the importance of having those voices heard as much as possible because the European perspective has been so dominant in the historical record.

Thanks to the folks at El Pueblo and especially to David Kipen for inviting the rest of us and then giving the bulk of the time to us to share Crespí’s recollections as well as to give the perspective of the descendants of those natives who encountered and welcomed the Spanish, even as resulting decades brought tragedy and yet showed indigenous resilience.

Sadly, there was relatively little local public recognition of the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition, but tonight was a fine capstone in a fitting setting to a week’s worth of events with which the Homestead was honored to take part.

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