Although Spain had claimed as its own the New World frontier of Alta California for more than two centuries, it was not until 1769 that, faced with the threat of a Russian advance into Alaska and southward, an expedition was sent to establish, once and for all, Spain's claim to the territory.
Leading that expedition was Don Gaspar de Portola, captain of dragoons and governor of Alta California.
After a long and arduous journey, by both land and sea, the members of the expedition arrived in San Diego--in Alta California. The crews of the two ships--the San Antonio and the San Carlos--had suffered terribly on the voyage and were decimated by scurvy. After resting and regrouping, a party of 63 left San Diego on July 14, 1769. Scouting for the group was Sgt. Jose Francisco Ortega, for whom Ortega Highway is named. Also in the group were two priests, Juan Crespi and Francisco Gomez, and Miguel Costanso, an engineer and cosmographer.
Various members of the expedition--including Portola, Crespi and Costanso--kept journals, and it is from these that historians have been able to plot the route and tell the story of these exploring Spaniards.
IN HIS NARRATIVE of the expedition, Costanso the engineer gave this description of the daily procession:
On the marches, the following order was observed: At the head went the Commandant with the officers, the six men of the Catalonian Volunteers who joined the expedition at San Diego, and some friendly Indians, with spades, mattocks, crowbars, axes, and other implements of pioneers, to chop open a passage whenever necessary. After them came the pack-train, divided into four groups with their muleteers, and an adequate number of presidial soldiers for their escort with each group. In the rear guard, with the rest of the troops and friendly Indians, came the Captain Don Fernando Rivera, convoying the horse-herd and the mule-herd for relays.
The soldiers of the presidio of Loreto in California, of whom justice and fairness obliges us to say that they worked infinitely on this expedition, use two sorts of arms, offensive and defensive. The defensive are the leather jacket and the shield. The first, whose make is like that of a coat without sleeves, is composed of six or seven thicknesses of white skins of deer, tanned, impenetrable to the arrows of the Indians since they are not discharged from a close range. The shield is of two thicknesses of raw bull hide. It is held with the left arm, and with it, lances or arrows are deflected, the trooper defending himself and his horse. They use, beside the aforesaid, a kind of apron of leather, fastened to the pommel of the saddle and which lays over each side, which they call "armas" or protection, which cover their thighs and legs so as not to be hurt when running in the thickets. Their offensive weapons are the lance, which they manage dexterously on horseback; the broadsword, and a short flintlock musket which they carry thrust into and made fast in its sheath . . . .
It must be well understood that the marches of these troops with such an expedition, and with such obstacles through unknown lands and unused trails could not be long ones . . . . The rests were arrived at by the need of four in four days, more or less, according to the extraordinary fatigue brought on by the greater roughness of the road, the toil of the pioneers, or the straying of the beasts.
PORTOLA AND HIS MEN crossed into what is now Orange County on July 22, 1769. A campsite was chosen by a stream near the canyon known today as Los Cristianitos--and for a very good reason. In his diary, Crespi wrote:
The soldiers on scout duty told us on reaching here that yesterday they had seen a girl infant in arms that was dying. We applied to the Governor for two or three soldiers to go with us, and we two Fathers went to the village to see if we could find this infant, and baptize it if it were in danger. Although we did find it in its mother's arms, scarcely able to take the breast, she could not be persuaded to let us see it.
As well as we could, we gave her to understand we would not harm it, only wash its head with water, so that if it died it would go to Heaven. Father Francisco Gomez baptized the child, as well as he could with her clutched to her mother's breast; she was named Maria Magdalena, and I have no doubt she will die and we have come just in time that this soul may go to Heaven . . . .