For most of the 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish ships dominated the Pacific. But her rivals Russia and England were busy contesting that dominance. Who would be the first to settle California?
This article is a continuation of a two-part series on the exploration of California. Click here to read the first part.
Russia and Vitus Bering
In 1725 Russian tsar Peter I (“Peter the Great”) ordered an expedition to sail along the coast of Siberia in hopes of finding a land connection with North America. He chose Vitus Bering, a mariner of Danish descent, to lead the expedition. Bering sailed north along the Siberian coast, entering the strait that bears his name in 1728. Bering concluded that there was no land connection with North America as the Russian king had hoped. Later, Bering led a second expedition that sailed as far south as today’s Astoria, Oregon in 1741. They made landfall on what is most likely the southern end of the Alaska peninsula, and brought back a large number of fox, seal and otter skins. Excited by the news, Russian fur hunters began to travel down the coast of Alaska in search of valuable pelts, and by 1803 they had explored as far south as California. A permanent Russian settlement was established at Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast in 1812.
England and James Cook
The Russians weren’t the only power challenging Spain for dominance. After the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) which involved all of the major European states, Britain emerged as the preeminent geopolitical force. As part of the peace settlement, Spain agreed to cede Florida to the British, who had also captured a large portion of Canada from the French.
With the possession of a large portion of North America, the British focussed greater attention on the Pacific, both in terms of sea exploration and in search of the Northwest Passage. In 1778, Captain James Cook, the intrepid explorer who had sailed throughout the South Pacific ten years earlier, arrived on the Oregon coast. Prior to his arrival, he had become the first European to make formal contact with the Hawaiian islands. Cook’s hope was to reconnoiter Spanish defenses along the Pacific and find a way to sail east to the Atlantic. From Oregon, Cook headed north and eventually mapped the coast all the way to Alaska, paving the way for British occupation of the Pacific Northwest coast. Cook’s adventures were cut short when he was killed by Natives in Hawaii in 1779.
The Spanish Return to Alta California
By the beginning of the 1700’s a new royal family was on the throne of Spain — the Bourbons. Originally from France, the Bourbon kings soon began to bring a new vision to managing the empire and facing competition with their rivals. One of the most earth-shaking Bourbon reforms was the decision to expel the Jesuits from all Spanish territories. The Jesuits, a Roman Catholic religious order with priests and brothers spread all over the world, had been enthusiastic and successful missionaries.They were also very independent-minded and clashed with some of the Bourbon policies. For the king of Spain, this meant the Jesuits had to go.
In 1767, José de Gálvez, a young lawyer from southern Spain, was appointed inspector general of New Spain, in other words, all the territories which today make up Mexico and the American Southwest, including both Californias. As part of his duties, Gálvez ordered the Jesuit expulsion, with the help of the governor of Baja California, Gaspar de Portolá. Within a very short time, all Jesuit missionaries had been forced to leave the peninsula. Portolá placed their mission outposts under the control of the Franciscan order, who had also been present in the Americas since the early 1500s. He then undertook a series of other projects to strengthen the Spanish position in the areas under his charge, including the plans to finally settle Alta California. Russian interest in the Pacific had caused alarm in Spain, thanks in part to a book titled Muscovites in California published in 1759. In late 1767 King Carlos III gave instructions to the viceroy to investigate Russian activities along the north Pacific coast, thereby validating Gálvez’ plans.
Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra
As part of an overall plan to strengthen Spanish control of Northern New Spain, including Baja California and Sonora, Gálvez’ idea was to launch a two-pronged land and sea expedition north from Lower California. The expedition was approved in 1768 and in January of 1769 the first ship, the San Carlos, set sail from Loreto, followed by the second, the San Antonio, in February. Gálvez placed the trusted Portolá in command of the expedition, with Fr. Junípero Serra in charge of the religious delegation.
The first detachment of the land expedition departed at the end of March and reached San Diego almost two months later. The second group began its march on May 5, reaching San Diego on July 1, 1769. Portolá and a small group of soldiers, accompanied by two Franciscan friars (Frs. Crespí and Gómez), proceeded north by land with orders to find the port that Vizcaíno had praised 165 years earlier.
Gálvez hoped to establish both a military and civilian presence in Alta California. His goal was to deter the Russians and British from staking their own claims in Alta California. While he intended to establish forts (presidios in Spanish) along the coast, Gálvez knew that there would never be enough Spanish troops for a real defense. He therefore put his trust in the time-honored Spanish practice of creating militias made up of Indian allies. In order to do so, he hoped to attract local Indians to Christianity by founding missions overseen by Franciscans. Spanish officials hoped that by adopting Christianity, Native peoples would be more prone to adopt a Hispanic lifestyle and see themselves as partners in the competition against Spain’s rivals.
By November the expeditions had not only reached Monterey but had gone as far north as the San Francisco Bay. Just months after their return to San Diego, Portolá would lead another trek north to Monterey, while a parallel group, including Fr. Junípero Serra, would arrive by sea. In June of 1770 the first presidio and mission were established at Monterey.
Even though they were successful in establishing a base of operations in Monterey and locating the San Francisco Bay, the goal of Spanish officials was to eventually bring settlers and livestock into the area. Rumors of an English voyage to the North Pole and continued Russian activities in the Pacific Northwest urged Spanish officials to look for a reliable way to connect their outposts in Northern Mexico to Upper California.
But the paths that Portolá’s expeditions had taken were too hazardous for a large group of civilians, and other possible routes were also considered dangerous because of the mountainous and desert terrain and the instability of relations with the local indigenous people.
Juan Bautista de Anza and the Colonization of California
The man entrusted with the task of finding a safe passage was Juan Bautista de Anza, a veteran frontier commander whose ancestors came from the Basque region of northern Spain. In early 1774 Anza set out with 34 men from Tubac, at the time the northernmost part of Sonora (now part of Arizona).
Thanks to help from Yuma and Cochimí Indians along the way, Anza and his men were able to navigate the inhospitable and dry areas between Arizona and California. They arrived at Mission San Gabriel outside of present day Los Angeles in March of that year. In May Anza reached Monterey, before returning home to Tubac, a round trip of almost 2,000 miles in five months.
Anza’s remarkable success secured approval for a new expedition, this time with a group of 240 men, women and children, along with hundreds of head of livestock. The colonists were to be recruited from the poorer regions of Northern Mexico with the aim of establishing civilian settlements in Upper California. The group left Tubac in October of 1775 and reached Monterey in March of 1776. Anza continued on to explore the San Francisco region, selecting a site for a presidio and mission, successfully establishing a Spanish presence in Upper California.
In 1777, José Joaquín Moraga, Anza’s second-in-command, led a group of these same settlers to a site between Monterey and San Francisco in order to found the first civilian town in Upper California, El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, known today as San José.
California Settlement Timeline
1741: Vitus Bering arrives in Alaska.
1768: James Cook rounds Cape Horn.
1769: Gaspar de Portolá and company arrive in San Diego, establish first Alta California presidio and mission. Portolá later reaches Monterey by land. Cook arrives in Tahiti.
1770: First presidio and mission established at Monterey.
1774: Juan Bautista de Anza leads first expedition overland to Monterey from Tubac.
1776: Second Anza expedition brings settlers to northern Alta California.
1777: Pueblo of San José founded – first Spanish town in Alta California.
- Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz, Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535–1846.
- Iris Engstrand and Donald Cutter, Quest for Empire: Spanish Settlement in the Southwest.
- Glen J. Farris, So Far from Home: Russians in Early California.
- David Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America.
*These books are offered through the Amazon Associates program. A small percentage of any purchase you make will go to support this website. Thank you!
George del Castillo says
I found it interesting that you suggested that the inculturation of the native Americans was not just to save their souls, labor for farming, ranching and other domestic requirements but also to be soldiers against the Russian and English incursions. Nice one Damian.
Damian Bacich says
Thanks for your comment, George. Jack S. Williams, one of the greatest experts on Spanish military policy in Alta California, has written about the topic of Indians as potential military auxiliaries for the Spanish crown. There was precedent in Spanish colonial history: the Jesuit missions in Paraguay often had large native militias that fought for the King of Spain, even defeating Portuguese slave expeditions.
Fernando R. Zazueta says
Always so interesting to learn about our early history and how the Russians and English vied with the Spanish for control of California. Thanks, Dr. Bacich.
Damian Bacich says
Thank you. There is so much to know, I was barely able to scratch the surface!