San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco

The Discovery of the Bay of San Francisco, 1769

In the beginning of the year 1769, Don José de Galvez, visitador general of Spain and member of the council of the Indies, sent an expedition under command of Don Gaspar de Portolá to take possession of and fortify the ports of San Diego and Monterey in Alta California. The expedition consisted of two sea and two land divisions with the rendezvous at San Diego Bay. By the first of July, 1769, the divisions were assembled at San Diego and on the 14th, the march to Monterey began. On the last day of September, the command reached Monterey Bay, but failing to recognize it from the description furnished them, passed on and discovered the bay of San Francisco. The expedition then returned to San Diego, and in the spring of 1770, another attempt was made and Monterey was reached on May 24th. This time they recognized the bay and on June 3, 1770, the presidio and mission of San Cárlos Borromeo de Monterey  were founded with appropriate ceremonies. [Note 1]

In a previous work I stated that José Francisco Ortega, sergeant and pathfinder of the expedition, was the discoverer of the Golden Gate and of the Straits of Carquines.[1] As commander of the expedition, Portolá is entitled to the credit for whatever the expedition accomplished, but it is nowhere claimed that Don Gaspar was the first white man to look upon the waters of the great bay. From the summit of the Montara mountains, Portolá sighted the high headland of Point Reyes and recognized what was then called the Port of San Francisco, afterwards known as the ensenada or gulf of the Farallones. He descended the mountain on the north and camped at its foot, in the San Pedro Valley, while he sent his scouts forward to explore the coast up to Point Reyes [Note 2], giving them three days for the reconnaissance. The scouts returned late at night of the third day and reported that they could not reach Point Reyes because some immense esteros (esteros inmensos) intervened which extended far into the land. The day following the departure of the scouts, some soldiers received permission to go into the mountains to hunt for deer. These returning after nightfall, reported that on the other side of the mountain there was a great estero or arm of the sea.

The question of actual discovery of the bay lies between the party of hunters and the scouts. Let us first consider the claims of the hunters. Costansó, engineer officer, cartographer, and diarist of the expedition, says in his diary, under date of November 2d, that the hunters set out in the morning after mass and did not return until after nightfall. They reported that from the mountains north of the camp they had seen an immense arm of the sea or estuary which thrust itself into the land as far as the eye could reach, inclining to the southeast (que se metia por la tierra adentro cuanto alcanzaba la vista tirando para el sudeste). These hunters of the deer, whose names are not given, probably saw the bay of San Francisco about noon of Thursday, November 2,1769.

Under date of Wednesday, November 1, 1769, Father Crespi, priest and diarist of the expedition, writes: "In this little valley of the Punta de las Almejas del Angel de la Guarda, we celebrated mass, * * * and after this the sergeant (Ortega) with his party started for a three days' exploration."

His entry for the next day, November 2d, notes the report of the hunters concerning the great estero, and says: "We conjectured also from said news that the explorers would not be able to reach the opposite shore which is seen to the north (the Marin coast) and would therefore be unable to inspect the point which we believed to be that of Los Reyes, because it was impossible within the period of three days to make the circuit necessary to go around the estero whose extension was so magnified to us by the hunters."

Costansó, moreover, under date of November 1, says: "Our comandante ordered the explorers to examine the country to a certain distance, allowing them three days for such examination." He also says in his entry of the next day, that in view of the report of the hunters the explorers could not in three days "descabezar" (behead) an estero of such great extent as that described.

From San Pedro Valley, Crespi's "Vallecito de la Punta de las Almejas del Angel de la Guarda," to Point Lobos is, as the crow flies, thirteen miles. From Point Lobos to Telegraph hill [2] is six miles. According to Crespi, Ortega started immediately after mass—say at eight o'clock in the morning of Wednesday, November 1st. He would travel at the rate of one league per hour, at least, and five hours of travel would bring him to Point Lobos where his further progress towards Point Reyes would be arrested by the waters of the Golden Gate.

He had been given three days' time to explore the coast up to Punta de los Reyes, say twenty leagues distant. Here in half a day's journey, with only five of the twenty leagues accomplished, he had come to the end of the land, with the objective point of his order still in the distance before him. What was he to do? Return to the commander and report that he could not get through? Certainly not until he had satisfied himself that the terms of the order were impossible of execution without boats to carry him over the water. Ortega was thirty-five years old and had served for fourteen years as a soldier on the frontier; he was the explorer and pathfinder of the expedition and upon his experience, sagacity, and courage his commander depended. He had exhausted but one-half of the first of his three days. Perhaps it was possible for him to descabezar this body of water that impeded his progress? It was clearly his duty to try, and I do not think there can be any doubt as to what Ortega would do. The language of both Costansó and Crespi indicates that Ortega connected the water which had barred his progress with the estero seen by the hunters. A ride of half or three-quarters of an hour would bring him to the mesa, back of Fort Point, whence the central and northern portions of the bay and the Alameda and Contra Costa shores would be in full view, while a further ride of three-quarters of an hour would carry him to Telegraph hill, from the summit of which the greater part of the bay of San Francisco would spread before him. On this theory then, Ortega would, by two or half past two o'clock of the afternoon of November 1st, have seen that part of the bay lying north of Yerba Buena island, and by or before four o'clock the greater part of the whole.

I am of the opinion therefore, that José Francisco Ortega was the actual discoverer of the bay of San Francisco, and that he saw it some twenty hours before the hunters of the deer.

The second day of Ortega's expedition was probably spent in exploring the shore of the bay and the third in his return, by the route of his coming, to the camp at San Pedro.[Note 3]

That the commander realized the impossibility of reaching Punta de los Reyes by proceeding up the ocean shore is shown by the fact that the day after Ortega's return he took up his march for the south end of San Francisco Bay and made an attempt to reach Point Reyes by the contra costa.

1. The March of Portolá and the Discovery of the Bay of San Francisco. [back]
2. Loma Alta, the high bill north of Yerba Buena cove. [back]
Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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