Portola Expedition

The Portolà expedition was the first recorded Spanish (or any European) land entry and exploration of present day California, United States, and paved the way for Spanish colonization of the region. It was led by Gaspar de Portolà, governor of Las Californias, the Spanish colonial province (part of New Spain), that included California, Baja California and other western areas of present day Mexico.


The territory that is now California was claimed by the Spanish Empire in 1542 by means of the laws regarding right to discovery when Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo explored the Pacific Coast of North America. This initial exploration by Cabrillo laid claim to the coastline as far north as forty-two degrees north latitude.[1]

Cabrillo was followed by Sebastián Vizcaíno, whose coastal explorations in 1602 surveyed several California locations for future colonization, including San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey. However, for the next 160 years, the Spanish Empire did little to protect or settle this region and accomplished almost no exploration by land. The little settlement achieved was the establishment of several missions in Baja (Lower) California by Jesuit Catholic friars.

Then, in 1767 Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuit order from the Spanish kingdom. Don Gaspar de Portolà was appointed governor of California, sent to dispossess the Jesuits and replace them with Franciscans who would set up their own network of missions in California.[1]

Gaspar de Portolà

Portolà came from a military background and immediately before being appointed the new governor of the Californias, he was a captain of the dragoons of the Regiment of Spain. In fact, when he first sailed to Baja California as the new governor he brought with him 25 dragoons and 25 infantrymen in order to help him with his expulsion of the Jesuits and, eventually, the further exploration of the rest of California. His military background would prove to be very helpful during the expedition.[1]

Decision to send expedition

By the late 1760s the Spanish king and a handful of other European rulers began to realize the importance the Pacific coast of North America would have in maritime trade and activity going forward. The Russians had been advancing south from their strongholds in present day Alaska, and the British had been pushing west in Canada and were approaching the Pacific coast. In order to secure Spain’s claims in California, the king wanted to explore and settle the coastline so that he could create a buffer zone to protect Spain's territories from the dangers of invasion. Upon hearing about the king’s desire to explore Alta California, the visitador-general, Don José de Galvez offered his services and volunteered to lead the exploratory expedition by sea. Then, as governor, Portolà offered to lead the group by land that would compliment the marine expedition, and by 1769 the voyage was under way. Their original assignment was to travel to the bay of Monterey and establish a settlement there.[2]


The first leg of the expedition departed Loreto in Baja California on March 24, 1769. The expedition was divided into four parts. Two crews traveled by sea, and two groups marched north on land. The San Carlos and the San Antonio were the two ships captained by Vicente Vila and Juan Pérez. They were followed by the San José, departing from San Blas. The first land group was led by Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada and the second by Portolà himself. Third in command Lieutenant Pedro Fages later succeeded Portola as governor. An engineer and cartographer, Miguel Costansó, made maps and drawings to describe the journey. The members of the expedition were a diverse group, including soldiers, Catalonian volunteers and local natives.[3]

Also included in the expedition were Franciscan friars, led by Junípero Serra, charged with the establishment of Catholic missions and scouting locations for later missions. Friar Juan Crespi acted as chaplain for the expedition, and kept a detailed journal (as did Fages and Costansó). The Franciscans ultimately founded twenty-one missions at or near the Pacific Coast of what is now the state of California, in addition to one mission in Baja California. The string of California missions began at San Diego.

The crews set out simultaneously but the ships arrived in San Diego first in April of 1769 and had been struck with illness during the voyage. Many of the crew members were very sick and the men immediately began to set up a camp and makeshift hospital to administer to the ill. Unfortunately, many men died and the ships' crews were left severely under strength. Rivera's column arrived one month later in good health and moved the camp slightly more inland to the location that would later become the Presidio of San Diego.[1] When Portolà arrived in San Diego on July 1, he decided that although many men had perished the march would continue to Monterey as soon as possible.

After two weeks of recuperation, Portolà resumed the northward march with a consolidated group of 64 soldiers, friars, and scouts. The San José followed by sea, carrying extra supplies for the long march. Serra stayed behind in San Diego, charged with care of the sick - most suffering from scurvy. Serra established Mission San Diego de Alcalá just two days after the expedition’s departure. While Portolà moved north, more died and, by the time he returned several months later, only twenty people remained at the camp in San Diego.

The party reached the Monterey Bay on October 1, but didn't recognize it as their destination because it did not seem as grand as Vizcaíno's descriptions. Continuing north along the coast, hoping to find the great port, Portolà reached the Golden Gate and discovered San Francisco Bay on October 31. he knew it was not Monterey, but was in fact an even grander harbor. This marked the end of the voyage north, and Portolà named the bay after San Francisco. The expedition then turned around and headed south to return to San Diego by January of 1770. In total they traveled approximately 1,200 miles (1,900 km) and became the first Europeans to survey the great bay of San Francisco and countless other important strategic locations.[2]

The exploratory expedition was followed the next year by a second trip to find Vizcaíno's port of Monterey, with the intent to establish a permanent settlement. Fages, Costansó and Crespi again joined Portolà in the land party and Serra also went north this time, aboard the San Antonio. They returned to the wooden cross left on a hill the year before, and this time (perhaps on a clearer day) realized that the site did indeed overlook the place Vizcaíno had described. Portolà founded the Presidio of Monterey on that hill, and Serra founded the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo a little ways to the south.[4]

Interactions with Native Americans

For the most part, it was reported that interactions with Native American tribes in Alta California were peaceful and not too much conflict arose. Many were described as welcoming and helpful, as they offered guidance and supplies to the Spanish explorers. Friendly encounters with the native people had been a goal from the onset of the expedition. The Spanish brought many items and trinkets with which they traded for supplies and used to create peaceful relations. The fact that they used space to carry so many glass beads and other items, rather than food or more crucial supplies, in order to pacify the Native Americans shows how committed they were to creating peaceful relationships with the native people.[2] The long term goal was to eventually civilize, settle, and convert the region to Christianity, so it was important that they had peaceful coexistence during the expedition.[2]


The Portolà expedition is remembered as the first discovery by Europeans of the Bay of San Francisco, although it is occasionally disputed that European sailors had seen it from the ocean. It is generally accepted that the Portolà expedition was the first European discovery by land of San Francisco Bay. It is also important in that it, along with the later de Anza expedition, established the overland route north to San Francisco which became the Camino Real. That route was integral to the settlement of Alta California by the Spanish Empire, and made it possible for the Franciscan friars to establish a string of twenty-one missions, most of which served as the nuclei of permanent settlements and converted thousands of Native Americans to Christianity.[5]


Further reading

  • The Discovery of San Francisco Bay: The Portolà Expedition of 1769-1770 (The Diary of Miguel Costansó) Edited by Peter Browning, ISBN 0-944220-06-1
  • . GEO. BUTLER GRIFFIN and Fray Juan Crespi. Publications of the Historical Society of Southern California , Vol. 2, No. 1, Documents from the Sutro Collection (1891)

See also