Cannon at Presidio, 1928
  • Cannon at Presidio, 1928
  • San Diego Historical Society photo
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  • Families of the California Presidios: 1769-1834
  • The Presidio, Max L. Moorhead, University of Oklahoma Press, 1975; Life in California, Alfred Robinson, Da Capo Press, 1969


Miguel Costanso designed the garrisons of Alta California. Unlike the massive, imposing structures of the Middle Ages, Costanso’s presidios would never win awards. “Old-world military engineers,” writes Moorhead, “deplored their archaic plans and shoddy construction, even their situation in respect to surrounding topography.” But the presidios, with walls 10 to 12 feet high and 4 feet thick, “served their purpose well. The defensive capabilities of the frontier presidio were never seriously challenged.”

“Presidio” comes from the Roman praesidium, a “fortified garrison of troops.” Spain built the coastal presidios to fend off invasion from its major rivals, England and Russia. “The forces sent to hold California.against these two nations seem ridiculously small,” writes Campbell, and the territory couldn’t have been more isolated. Spaniards called it “este ultimo rincon del mundo,” the last corner of the world.

Sebastian Vizcaino named the bay after San Diego de Alcala, on November 12, 1602. When Junipero Serra established the mission — July 16, 1769 — he kept the name.

At first the structure, on Presidio Hill, was “little more than a crude camp in a non-Christian land.” San Diego had 23 soldiers (90 members of the Serra/Portola expedition died of scurvy).

Only 75 soldiers, from San Diego to Monterey, guarded 400 miles of coastline.

Don Jose Camacho, who visited San Diego in 1778, said the presidio's strength was its two four-pounder cannons. One defended “the open country to the north” (Mission Valley), the other the south. “The presidio wall is all of adobe, having many openings or portholes where one can fight without exposing the body to the enemy.” Camacho also said the soldiers worked “constantly” in “repetitive jobs.”

Soldiers stationed at the presidios often brought their families. Others intermarried with native women. Soon the presidios became “more than just forts; they were fortified settlements, . providing the basis of governmental, social, and economic activity in the region.

“From 1769 to 1778 in San Diego, the men and their families lived in homes that were more like huts in a temporary stockade. All the presidios began as palisade structures. These one-story dwellings were made of palisada and roofed with reeds, branches, leaves, and sod. Palisada were poles lashed together with willows and reeds that were then plastered with mud. It was called ‘wattle construction.’ ”

Several visitors described the dwellings as “hovels” that leaked badly in winter. Richard S. Whitehead writes, “Obviously such construction left much to be desired when...the wet mud dripped down on the occupants.”

The same was true of adobe walls, which eroded in the rain. The San Diego chapel had its walls plastered at least 12 times.

Honoria Tuomey writes, “Adobe is at once the charm and tragedy of the Spanish structures.”

As families arrived and bloomed, living quarters improved, though in many ways remained primitive. Soldiers lived in barracks. Married soldiers and families lived in “apartmentlike” quarters at the north and south sides of the plaza. “Although people often spoke of the ‘governor’s house’ or the ‘sergeant’s house,’ there were no separate houses at all, just rooms partitioned off in the rectangular structure surrounding the central plaza. Even very large families were housed in one or, at best, two rooms.” For windows, the buildings had hide covers (wooden shutters eventually replaced them). The doors were often “pieces of hide stretched over sticks.” In the beginning, no door had a lock. “There was nothing to be stolen. In the 1770s, doors with locks appeared.”

Furnishings were few and made “ ‘of the rudest fashion and of the meanest kind.’ The sala in a well-to-do home would have low chairs, a table or two placed near the light of a window, and an aparador (cabinet) to house plates.

Candles were never abundant and lighting was limited by today’s standards.” People slept on plank beds, adobe benches or on rawhide stretched across wooden frames. In large families, the sons “threw their blankets wherever they liked, outside or on the covered corridor that circled the interior plaza.” Families purchased sheets, blankets, and pillows when they could afford them. But “even in the simplicity of these homes, one would find satin pillow covers edged with lace or embroidering, passed down through the generations, covering the rawhide. To have a nice bed was the pride and ambition of a housewife.”

Alfred Robinson, an American, visited San Diego in 1829. “This was to be our home,” he wrote, in Life in California, “and though it did not altogether coincide with the idea I had previously formed of it, yet if their walls were cold and their floors damp, their hearts were warm and the abundance of their luxurious entertainment more than compensated for any disappointment.”

Dirt floors were “cheap and durable.” But floors were also bare, in the early years, because “rugs and carpets were considered unsanitary.” The dampness bred mold and mildew and, like the rawhide in the beds and doors, became a breeding ground for fleas. Robinson complained that all of San Diego “is infested with fleas, and it is a rare thing to find a house without them.”

Campbell notes that fleas were one reason why the “neophyte indians burned their huts periodically at the missions and rebuilt new ones.” An exit off Interstate 5, at Camp Pendleton, commemorates old San Diego’s infestation: Las Pulgas, in Spanish, means “the fleas.”


  1. After 1771, the viceroy mandated that married men must bring their families, and expeditions were sent with not only young men but single women as well. Known as Californios, they created an identity for themselves separate from the mission priests, Indians, Anglo-Americans, and Mexicans.
  2. When Monterey’s presidio was established, the importance of San Diego’s fortification was diminished. San Diego’s harbor and climate were exceptional, but the surrounding country was not as fertile as that of the presidios to the north, so it became more of a way station.
  3. The only method of heating was an open bnasero(pan) of coals sitting in the middle of the room, but this was used seldom. It was thought weakening to the health to sit by a fire.
  4. Customary was the periodic blessing of a house. As [California historian Hubert Howe] Bancroft phrased it a century ago, “It was better than insurance and not so expensive.”
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