DECEMBER 11, 1602: MIGUEL VENEGAS, a Mexican Jesuit who wrote a history of California in 1758, records General Sebastian Vizcaino’s famous first impression.
“The general ordered several persons to survey a forest lying on the Northwest side of the bay [Point Loma]. In this forest they found tall and by straight oaks, and other trees; some shrubs resembling rosemary, and a great variety of fragrant and wholesome plants: the high grounds commanded a view of the whole harbour which appeared spacious, convenient, and well sheltered. The forest borders on the harbour towards the N.W. and is about three leagues in length, half a league in breadth. And to the N.W. of this wood is another good harbour [Mission Bay].”
NOVEMBER 27, 1793: GEORGE VANCOUVER. A British sea captain mapping the California coast, Vancouver anchored at Ballast Point, looked north, and saw “an uneven surface…some bushes grow on it, but no trees of a large size.” Where did they go? Historian William Smythe heard that a fire decimated the forest and that natives used stumps for firewood.
“The port affords excellent anchorage, and is capable of containing a great number of vessels; but the difficulty, nay almost impossibility, of procuring wood and water under its present circumstances, reduces its value as a port of accommodation.”
First impressions tell as much about the viewer as the area. Although Vancouver told his Spanish hosts the surveys were for mankind’s edification, detailed descriptions of fortifications and military strength make his ship, the Discovery, the spy satellite of its day.
“With little difficulty San Diego might also be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port; where, at this time, there were neither works, guns, house, or other habitations nearer than the Presidio, which is at the distance of at least five miles from the port, and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon.
“Should the ambition of any civilized nation tempt it to seize on these unsupported posts, they could not make the least resistance, and must inevitably fell to a force barely sufficient for garrisoning and securing the country.”
1829: ALFRED ROBINSON was one of the earliest of the New England traders in California: “On the lawn beneath the hill on which the Presidio is built stood about thirty houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans, not so well constructed in respect cither to beauty or stability as the houses at Monterey, with the exception of that belonging to our ‘Administrator,’ Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion, then in an unfinished state, bade fair, when completed, to surpass any in the country.”
A clerk for the Brookline, Robinson rode to Mission San Luis Rey to sell Father Antonio Pcyri goods from the ship. Robinson offers one of the first written descriptions of North County.
“We saw no habitations on the route, and the soil was one continued waste of barrenness, entirely destitute of cultivation. A few scattered trees adorned the road, and now and then a deer was seen running over the hills, or a hare, or rabbit sat basking in the sun, among the low shrubbery. This, with the exception of a passing traveler, or a casual glance at the sea, was all that met the eye during a ride of forty miles. The great number of hills it is necessary to surmount makes the way very tedious, and to the traveler they seem almost endless, until at length he perceives from the top of one of them, far beneath, in the centre of a beautiful vale, the Mission, with its cultivated grounds and gardens.”
JANUARY 27, 1847: PHILIP ST. GEORGE COOKE led the Mormon Battalion from Santa Fe to San Diego. After months of hardship— “half naked, and half fed, and living upon wild animals”—they saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time: “So placid was the sea that it shone a vast space of seemingly transparent light, which, by contrast, gave to the clear sky a dusky shade. What a strange spectacle was that! The earth more aerially clear and bright than the cloudless heavens.” Cooke added that his men, unaccustomed to the ocean’s roar, “had trouble sleeping”
JUNE 7, 1848: RODMAN M. PRICE A purser on the Cyatte, a U.S. sloop-of-war, Price didn’t think much of San Diego, except for its natural harbor. And he heard the backcountry was “sandy and arid, and incapable of supporting any considerable population.”
Price looked south: “Geographically and commercially, lower California [i.e. Baja] must become very valuable. It will be a constant source of regret to this country, that it is not included in the treaty of peace just made with Mexico. We have held and governed it during the war, and the boundary of Upper California cuts the head of the Gulf of California, so that Lower California is left entirely disconnected with the Mexican territory.
“Cape St. Lucas is the great headland of the Pacific Ocean, and is destined to be the Gibraltar of that coast...As a possession to any foreign power, I think Lower California more valuable than the group of Sandwich” — Hawaiian — “islands.”
AUGUST 26, 1853: CAPTAIN GEORGE H. DERBY went by several names, among them “John Phoenix” and “Squibob.” One of California’s first humorists, he was also a topographical engineer, hired to shift the San Diego River back to Mission Bay:
“The Bay of San Diego is shaped like a boot, the leg forming the entrance to the sea and the toe, extending some twelve miles inland at right angles to it, points southward to the latter end of Mexico, from which it is distant at present precisely three miles.
“The three villages that make up the great city of San Diego are the Playa, Old Town, and New Town. At the Playa [the southern shore of Point Loma from Ballast Point to the old Naval Training Center] there are but few buildings at present, and these are not remarkable for size or architectural beauty of design.