Serra’s San Diego

Iris H.W. Engstrand, Ph.D., has written several books on California and Western American history including San Diego: California’s Cornerstone (1980) and Spanish Scientists in the New World: The Eighteenth Century Expeditions (1981). She is Professor and Chairman, Department of History, University of San Diego.

The complete text of Serra’s San Diego is presented here, but the hard copy (available on site in the Research Library) also has many images.

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In just over two hundred years, settlement by Europeans has transformed San Diego from a region sparsely populated by Indians to an expanding urban metropolis. On July 16, 1769, Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary, planted a cross on today’s Presidio Hill and founded Mission San Diego de Alcala. Soldiers who accompanied the missionaries later served at the Royal Presidio of San Diego, a fortress which contained the mission. The ruins of the Presidio foundations can still be seen as grass-covered mounds in present day Presidio Park. The mission site was moved from the presidio area in 1774 to a location near the river six miles inland in Mission Valley. These two institutions – presidio and mission – formed the nucleus of Hispanic life during San Diego’s early years.

Although Father Serra maintained his California headquarters in Monterey, he was always cognizant of the activities and problems of San Diego, the vital southern port of the province. The interrelationship of the mission, presidio, and Indian villages frequently commanded his attention and he often visited San Diego during his fifteen years as Father-President of the California missions,

The Junipero Serra Museum, designed and built in Presidio Park in 1929, commemorates the Hispanic period in California (1542-1846) with special emphasis upon Mallorca, the birthplace of Serra and several other Spaniards who served in San Diego. The museum’s exhibits illustrate the discovery period, Spanish and subsequent Mexican colonization programs, Indian culture at the time of European contact, and artifacts recovered from presidio excavations. Father Serra’s life is a significant theme in San Diego history and it is fitting that his name be honored at the exact place where Upper California began.


At dawn on November 24, 1713, the crisp sunlight of late autumn shone brightly on the thick stone walls of a modest Mallorcan home. Antonio Serra proudly announced the birth of a son by hanging a laurel branch on the front door. His wife, Margarita Rosa Ferrer, rejoiced that her child was perfectly formed. Later that day the Serra family and friends gathered at St. Peter’s church in Petra for the baptismal ceremony. They named the boy Miquel Joseph.

As he grew into adolescence, young Serra attended a primary school conducted by the Franciscans (Order of Friars Minor) in his native town of Petra. He was bright and attentive although frail and suffering from bouts of ill health. When Serra reached the age of fifteen, his parents took him to Palma, capital of Mallorca, to study theology at the cathedral there. This awesome Gothic structure built at the edge of the bay commanded a position of respect on the small island. As Serra excelled in his studies and experienced greatly improved health, the future course of his life became clear. On September 14, 1730 he joined the Convent of Jesus outside of Palma as a novice and made his profession in the Franciscan Order on September 15 of the following year. He chose the name Junipero to honor a brother companion of St. Francis, founder of the order. From 1731 to 1737 Serra studied philosophy and theology at the Convent of San Francisco and entered the priesthood in 1738.

Father Junipero Serra spent much of his time in Palma teaching philosophy at the Franciscan convent. He is described as being about five feet two inches in height (of medium stature for the times) with swarthy skin, dark hair and eyes, and a forceful, sonorous voice. Those in his company knew him to be optimistic, zealous, and dynamic – a man of action. His students, most of whom were young men studying for the priesthood, found his lectures inspiring. Among his most eager listeners were Francisco Palou and Juan Crespi, later to be his fellow missionaries in California.

Serra, always dedicated to his faith, continued his own studies while teaching and received a doctorate in theology from Palma’s Lullian University in 1742. He remained there as a professor until 1749. In that year, several of his former students convinced their mentor that he should follow his own teachings and join them as missionaries among the Indians in America. Consequently on April 13, 1749, accompanied by Father Palou, Serra left his successful career in Palma for the port of Cadiz in southern Spain, He would never see his family or Mallorcan homeland again. The journey to Veracruz, Mexico, began in late August and lasted a difficult ninety-nine days. It was a tired but enthusiastic group of Franciscans that trekked on foot the 250 miles overland to Mexico City. They spent the evening of December 31, 1749, at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, beginning on the next day a new year and a new venture in Spain’s magnificent viceregal capital.


New Franciscan missionaries arriving in Mexico trained for several months at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City. In the summer of 1750, Serra and Palou were assigned to the Sierra Gorda missions among the Pame Indians some 175 miles northwest of the capital. Between 1750 and 1758 Serra learned the Otomi language of the natives and joined fellow Franciscans in building four mission churches. The Spanish padres introduced domestic animals, agriculture, and a system of commerce.

Serra returned to the College of San Fernando in 1758 and served in various roles ranging from choir director to college counselor. He traveled and preached extensively in numerous areas surrounding Mexico City including Mezquital, Zimapan, Valladolid (today’s Morelia), Puebla, Oaxaca, and the Huasteca. Although generally robust, Serra suffered at times from asthma and from the swelling and painful itching of his feet and legs perhaps caused by mosquito bites. Scratching caused varicose ulcers that worsened over the years.

In mid-1767, Father Serra was appointed president of the fourteen missions in Baja California that had been founded by the Jesuits. The first, Nuestra Senora de Loreto, had been built on the Gulf coast in 1697. The mission chain extended about 600 miles from San Jose del Cabo in the south to Santa Maria de Los Angeles in the north (still some 500 miles south of San Diego). The Jesuits had been abruptly expelled from Spanish possessions by King Carlos III in the late 1760s for complex political reasons. The Franciscans moved as quickly as possible to take over the missions left without priests in Baja California. Serra assembled thirteen Franciscans to commence the difficult journey. Among them were his former students Palou and Juan Crespi, who had joined Serra in Sierra Gorda. They all set sail from San Blas on March 14, 1768, reaching Loreto on April 1. They took possession of the former Jesuit headquarters and assessed the problems at hand.


When the Franciscans assumed control of the extensive but sparsely populated Baja California missions, Alta California was still solely in the hands of Indians. Despite the entry of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo into the port of San Diego in 1542, and the recommendation of Sebastian Vizcaino in 1603 that Monterey be occupied, Spain had chosen not to pursue settlement. By the late eighteenth century, however, the threat of Russian expansion south from Alaska, an increase in funds from Spain, and the zeal of Serra’s missionaries combined to spark a renewal of the northward thrust.

In mid-1768, while at the west coast port of San Blas, Mexico, Jose de Galvez, a high-ranking officer of King Carlos III, formulated a plan for occupation of San Diego and Monterey. With viceregal approval, Galvez selected the personnel and wrote out lengthy instructions to leaders of four separate expeditions designed to reach San Diego in 1769. He appointed Catalonian-born Gaspar de Portola, then serving as Governor at Loreto, as overall military leader and Father Junipero Serra as head of the new missions to be founded. Two small packetboats were fitted out at San Bias for the sea-going division. The San Carlos, commanded by Vicente Vila, left La Paz, Baja California, on January 9, 1769, and the San Antonio, under Juan Perez, set sail from the same port on February 15. After considerable delays from contrary winds and currents, both ships reached the port of San Diego by the end of April. A majority of crew members were suffering from illnesses.

The first overland party was led by Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, Captain of the Loreto presidio, with Father Juan Crespi as diarist. Father-President Junipero Serra accompanied the second overland group which, under the leadership of Portola, set out from Mission Santa Maria in May. Both expeditions drove pack animals with equipment, food and Indian personnel recruited from former Jesuit missions. Father Serra kept a diary en route noting, on May 14, the founding of Mission San Fernando Velicata – the only Franciscan establishment in Baja California. The swelling and sores on his legs and feet became extremely severe and hindered his travel until a black muleteer lessened the pain with an ointment generally used on the animals.


All four groups were united in San Diego on July 1, 1769. They moved their camp from a place near the bay to present-day Presidio Hill. On July 16, 1769, accompanied by fellow Franciscans Juan Vizcaino,, Fernando Parron, and Francisco Gomez, Father Serra blessed the site as Mission San Diego de Alcala, the first mission in Alta (Upper) or New California. They built a brush chapel and within a short time began construction of a small adobe church. Their early days were spent primarily in caring for the sick and dying crewmen of the San Carlos and San Antonio.

Just two days prior to the founding of the mission, on July 14, Portola left San Diego with an expedition of sixty-three men in search of Monterey. The port had been described by Vizcaino in 1602 as well protected and appropriate for California’s capital. Failing to recognize Monterey, the party continued northward and discovered the expansive bay of San Francisco on November 1, 1769. Portola and his weary soldiers returned to San Diego at the end of January, 1770, without having achieved their original goal. Serra was disappointed at their lack of success but was glad to have the extra protection.

While Portola was in the north, the originally friendly Indians began to resent the Spanish intrusion. They became defiant, pestered the sick at night, and stole anything they could find, especially cloth. As they watched continual deaths diminish the Spanish garrison, they planned an attack. During the first encounter, three natives and one of Serra’s Indians were killed, and several others, including Father Vizcaino, were wounded. After the battle, Spanish soldiers built a stockade around the mission building and the Indians were forbidden to enter. Hostilities lessened but the priests had little success in gaining converts.

The shortage of food at San Diego became extremely critical during February and March, 1770. The Spaniards subsisted on wild geese, fish, and other food exchanged with the Indians for clothing, but the ravages of disease continued. Supplies from Baja California temporarily eased the drain on San Diego’s scant provisions, but within weeks acute hunger and increased sickness threatened to force abandonment of the port. Both Serra and Portola remained steadfast in their desire to fulfill the orders of their superiors, but the lives of their few remaining soldiers were at stake. Reluctantly, Portola resolved that if no relief ship arrived by March 19, the birthday of the expedition’s patron saint San Jose, they would leave the next morning.

Father Serra proposed a novena, a nine-day period of prayer that would end on the crucial day of San Jose. No ship came into sight by the morning of March 19, but at three o’clock in the afternoon, as if by a miracle, the sails of the San Antonio were seen on the horizon. joy filled the hearts of all in camp even though the ship sailed past the entrance of San Diego Bay on its way to Monterey, where Juan Perez assumed Portola was waiting. The San Antonio lost an anchor in the Santa Barbara channel near Point Conception and several crewmen, upon going ashore, fortunately learned from friendly Indians that Portola’s expedition to Monterey had long since retraced its route southward. Perez headed toward San Diego bay and four days later joined the thankful survivors at the mission. The San Antonio brought corn, flour, and rice to the starving men.

The establishment of California’s first permanent settlement in San Diego was truly an epic of faith and courage, The administrative planning of Galvez, the military leadership of Portola and Rivera, and the spiritual enthusiasm of Serra and his fellow priests had enabled Spain finally to gain a foothold on the Pacific coast of North America. Nevertheless, the next several years were often difficult and disappointing since provisions were scarce and local Indians were not always receptive to the Spanish goals of civilization.


Father Serra remained in San Diego until April 14, 1770, when he and Father Vizcaino embarked for Monterey aboard the San Antonio commanded by the Mallorcan Juan Perez. Fathers Parron and Gomez remained in San Diego with some soldiers who served as a mission guard and helped with the work, The rest of the Spanish contingent headed northward by land. Serra reached Monterey on May 31 and found the overland party on hand to greet him – this time having easily recognized the port. The royal presidio and Mission San Carlos Borromeo were established on June 3, 1770.

During his California career, Serra maintained his headquarters at the San Carlos Mission (later moved to Carmel in August, 1771) but did not neglect any part of his extensive province. Missions were quickly founded at San Antonio de Padua (July, 1771), San Gabriel Archangel (September, 1771) and San Luis Obispo (September, 1772). Lieutenant Pedro Fages, military commander of Alta California following Portola, thought Father Serra’s plans for additional missions were too ambitious given the small number of soldiers available for their protection – there were seldom more than 100 soldiers throughout the entire province. The goals of the religious and military leaders were often divergent and the areas of jurisdiction sometimes overlapped. Antagonism resulted from a number of issues.

On a trip to San Diego in the fall of 1772, Serra and Fages agreed that present-day Ventura would be an excellent location for a mission. Serra went ahead with plans for its establishment, but Fages refused approval for lack of troops. To clear up the matter of future missions and other problems with the military, Serra went to Mexico City to confer with Viceroy Antonio de Bucareli. He sailed on board the San Carlos in early 1773.

While in Mexico, Serra was requested by the viceroy to document the needs of the missions and the relative roles of the religious and military leaders. Serra explained that his plans included new missions, especially since, in 1772, the Dominicans had replaced the Franciscans in Baja California, freeing a number of priests for service in Alta California. He knew, however, that the province needed help from Mexico. He favored an increase in the military force, particularly by married soldiers and their families, and wanted a port of supply maintained at San Blas. He supported the opening of an overland route from Arizona to California and asked for mules and livestock to supplement the mission herds. In the matter of jurisdiction, he believed the missionaries should have the right to govern the mission Indians as a father controls his family. He also wanted authority over the mission guard.

Based upon Serra’s suggestions, Bucareli issued a new set of regulations for California effective January 1, 1774. Serra’s priests were given full charge of the mission Indians but the soldiers remained under the military governor’s direction. Of major significance for San Diego was the elevation of its military post to the rank of presidio with a sizable company headed by Lieutenant Jose Francisco de Ortega. Fernando de Rivera y Moncada succeeded Pedro Fages as lieutenant governor of California with headquarters at the Monterey presidio.

Serra boarded the newly completed schooner Santiago that sailed from San Blas on January 24, 1774, with supplies for California. It was forced to put in at San Diego instead of Monterery so Serra decided to visit the mission and then proceed northward on the overland trail. At that time San Diego’s mission and presidio occupied the same grounds. Father Palou described the settlement as being:

“… situated on a high elevation about two gunshots from the beach, looking toward Point Guijarros and the mouth of the port…. Within the stockade is the church or chapel, constructed of poles and roofed with tules, as is also the habitation of the two missionaries. [It is] partly of adobe and partly of wood and roofed with tules. Likewise, within the stockade is a similar structure that serves as the barracks for the soldier guards and as a storehouse for the supplies. For defensive purposes, within the stockade, are two cannons of bronze, One looks toward the port, and the other toward the Indian rancheria. On one side of the stockade, in the wall, is an opening for the foundations of a church thirty varas [one vara = 33 inches] long. For this some stones and four thousand adobe bricks have already been prepared. The foremen of the work are the Fathers, and the workmen are the neophytes [Indians in training].”

The military force at the San Diego presidio in 1774 consisted of some thirty men. On the roster were such well-known names as Carrillo, Lopez, Alvarado, Ruiz, Verdugo, Dominguez, Vallejo and Reyes. Rations were always scarce and the wives of soldiers made tortillas from the small supply of corn for their own families and the single men. Beans and sometimes a little fish or meat supplemented the meager diet. Crops were planted near the river with hopes for more abundant provisions. For the first few years, life in San Diego proceeded at a slow pace.


Since the land below the presidio either lacked water for irrigation or was subjected to extensive flooding when the river overflowed its banks, the missionaries and military officials believed the mission should be moved to a site further inland. Father Luis Jayme, a native of Mallorca, proposed to Father Serra that the mission be moved both for agricultural reasons and for separation of the Indians from the presidio soldiers. The new site was selected approximately six miles inland on lands called Nipaguay by the local Indians. Construction of a small church was completed there in December, 1774.

During these years, Serra’s recommendation that an overland trail connecting Tubac in southern Arizona with Monterey was implemented by Captain Juan Bautista cle Anza, a competent and experienced frontier soldier. Father Serra, who visited San Gabriel in mid-April, 1774, overtook Anza’s exploration party near Point Conception on April 28. This meeting of two leading figures in the drama of early California allowed them to exchange ideas about the future of Spain’s remote outpost. Serra then continued on to Monterey while Anza planned his second expedition to bring settlers to San Francisco. Serra spent the latter part of 1774 and most of 1775 surveying the area around Monterey for possible mission sites.

A link with Baja California was formed with the founding of two Dominican missions south of Ensenada. Nuestra Senora del Rosario established in 1774 and Santo Domingo in 1775 served the frontier region. These missions, however, were not under the protection of San Diego’s presidio.


Despite apparent progress and a record baptism of sixty Indians at Mission San Diego in October, 1775, the Spaniards faced a serious uprising. The natives were unhappy about the mission’s location at their Nipaguay site and resentful about the intrusion into their lands. On the night of November 5, approximately 600 Indians burned the mission buildings and, during the fire, killed Father Luis Jayme. Two others died and many were wounded but the mission guard prevented further destruction. Plans to attack the presidio failed and fortunately a lack of organization coupled with a fear of reprisal caused the natives to abandon their revolt. Fathers Fermin Francisco cle LaswM, a Spanish Basque, and Gregorio Amurrio from Calahorra were reassigned to aid Vicente Fuster, San Diego’s surviving priest, in rebuilding the mission.

These Franciscans first returned to the presidio with their converts and resumed construction of the chapel on the hill. Father Serra conducted a memorial service for the martyred Luis Jayme in Monterey. Governor Rivera and Lt. Colonel Anza toured the local Indian villages seeking to dispel discontent and became satisfied that the uprising had subsided. Father Serra sailed for San Diego on the San Antonio in June and secured the aid of the ship’s commander and his sailors in mission construction. The converted Indians, together with the sailors, made adobe bricks, dug trenches, and gathered stone. The new church at the mission was completed in December, 1776.

Anxious about progress in the north, Father Serra left San Diego in the early fall of 1776 and founded Mission San Juan Capistrano on November 1. From there he visited the San Gabriel and San Luis Obispo missions. Fighting heavy winter winds and rain, he journeyed on to San Antonio de Padua and reached Monterey in mid-January 1777. The weary priest rejoiced to find that the presidio and mission at San Francisco (September 17 and October 9, 1776) as well as Mission Santa Clara (January 12, 1777) had been established in his absence.

Father Serra and Governor Rivera were constantly at odds over the founding of new missions. The zealous padre felt that Rivera was overcautious and needlessly opposed to the new settlements. Rivera, on the other hand, wanted to protect his men and the missions with sufficient troops. In mid-1776, Spain reorganized the government of its northern provinces and Monterey succeeded Loreto in Baja California as the seat of the governorship.

Lieutenant Colonel Felipe de Neve, an experienced career officer from Bailen in southern Spain, was appointed governor of both Californias. Rivera returned to Loreto as second in command. Neve traveled overland from Loreto to visit each mission and presidio and to select sites for civilian towns (pueblos). Even though Serra in 1773 had urged that respectable Spanish families be brought into California, he had planned for their settlement around presidios or at the missions under the guidance of priests. Serra believed that pueblos without proper supervision were a questionable improvement and would bring harm to the Indians. Neve, however, planned the founding of San Jose (1777) and Los Angeles (1781) — towns that were independent of mission jurisdiction.


In May, 1777, Serra received official word from Rome that he had been given the power of administering the sacrament of confirmation to the Indians of California, a power usually reserved for Bishops. In August, 1778, he sailed south to San Diego and spent the months from September through November confirming some 600 Indians in the area, By this time Serra was sixty-five years old, suffering from asthma and the sores on his legs, but undaunted in his enthusiasm. He departed from San Diego on the mission trail to administer confirmation at each mission until he reached Monterey on December 23. He had completed a 450-mile trek during which he had confirmed 1,897 people, discussed mission policy with each priest, and dealt with whatever problems had arisen with the Indians. San Diego was still considered one of the poorest regions with its land described as “most sterile, barren, and unfruitful, lacking humidity as well as irrigation facilities.” In 1781 the presidio housed about 125 persons and was still dependent upon supplies from a transport vessel.

By June, 1783, Serra was suffering from severe chest pains but wanted to visit all of the missions before his privilege of confirmation expired the following year. He sailed from Monterey to Santa Barbara, visited Mission San Buenaventura (finally founded March 31, 1783), and then sailed on to San Diego in September. He knew his health was failing and feared he might not see San Diego again. He stayed for a month, noting in his journal on September 25, 1783, that he had completed fifty-three years as a Franciscan. He spent the next few weeks confirming Indians and on September 29 conducted a special ceremony at the presidio chapel. With the assistance of Father Lasuen, he confirmed four Indians from the mission and thirty-four persons living at the military establishment.

Father Serra sadly said good-bye to San Diego on October 7, traveling the familiar trail to San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel. Hampered by chest pains and the swelling of his legs, he slowly journeyed northward stopping at each of his missions – baptizing, preaching and confirming. He reached Carmel on December 15 and rested there until spring. He visited Santa Clara and San Francisco in April and May, 1784, bringing the total number of his confirmations in California to 5,275 persons.


At Carmel, although weakened and exhausted, Serra continued his duties as Father-President of nine flourishing missions. His authority to confirm expired on July 16, so he lessened his activities. Believing death to be imminent, he wrote to all his missionaries, advising them of the arrival of a supply ship from San Blas and bidding them farewell. Toward the end of August, 1784, the venerable Fray Junipero, then past seventy, suffered his final illness. He sent for Father Palou at San Francisco to administer the last rites, and shortly after taking communion on August 28, quietly passed away. He was buried the next day beside the grave of his fellow Mallorcan Father Crespi at his beloved Mission San Carlos Borromeo on the Carmel River.

The Father Superior at the College of San Fernando in Mexico relayed the news of Serra’s death to the Franciscan order at Palma de Mallorca, commenting that “such was the kindness that [Serra] always showed the poor Indians that he amazed not only people in general but also persons of high standing, all saying that he was a saint and that his ways were those of an apostle . . .” Three years after Serra’s death, Governor Pedro Fages, who once considered the Father President despotic and opposed to the rightful role of the military, wrote that “the rapid, agreeable, and interesting progress [of California] is the glorious effect of the apostolic zeal, activity, and indefatigable efforts” of Father Serra and his missionaries.

Father Maynard Geiger, in his biography of Serra, summarized the dual nature of the priest’s character. “Idealism and realism lived as twins in his soul. He always insisted on the best thing obtainable but was realistic enough to be satisfied with second-best attainment if nothing else could be done. . . . The dreamer and the worker intermingled in him…. Militant, aggressive, dynamic, visionary, detailed in administration, Serra at all times was in his forward thrust, but he was patient, forgiving, forbearing, and hopeful when his full ideals could not be realized.” One of Father Serra’s last statements was typical of the philosophy he held throughout his life: let what we are doing be done well.”


Following Serra’s death, Father Palou served as interim president of the California missions until Father Lasuen, head of Mission San Diego for ten years, was appointed to the post in 1785. The mission chain continued to expand, eventually numbering twenty by 1821 when Mexico declared its independence from Spain, One additional mission, San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, was founded by the Mexican government in 1823. All of the Upper California missions were secularized in the mid-1830s by Mexico – taken from the Franciscan order and turned over to non-religious administrators. Although the Indians were to receive a large portion of the land, much of it formed the basis for large ranchos granted during the later Mexican period.

The Royal Presidio of San Diego continued to function on the hill overlooking the harbor throughout the Spanish and early Mexican periods. In 1790 it housed 190 persons of whom ninety-six were adults. A school was conducted within the presidio walls for the children and the fortress resembled a small community. The defense of San Diego was bolstered by the building of Fort Guijarros or San Joaquin on today’s Ballast Point in 1797, yet security of the port was never tight. Jurisdiction of the presidio extended as far as Mission San Gabriel to the north until the founding of Santa Barbara presidio in 1782.

At about the same time as Mexico’s independence (1821-1822), soldiers and their families began to move from the hill to the flat lands between the presidio and bay, The homes and garden plots they established formed the nucleus for the pueblo of San Diego, officially designated as such in 1834. The presidio, costly to maintain, declined in importance since the danger from Indian attacks had lessened. There was little concern by the Mexican government about foreign invasion. As the soldiers built houses in the pueblo, they carried away tiles and adobe bricks from the presidio buildings for construction purposes.

During the 1830s, the presidio was slowly abandoned. Boston visitor Richard Henry Danacommented in Two Years Before the Mast about his visit in 1834 to “the old ruinous presidio, which stands on a rising ground near the village, which it overlooks …. Twelve half clothed and half starved looking fellows composed the garrison; and they, it was said, had not a musket apiece.” By 1846 the presidio was essentially in ruins and played no significant role in the Mexican War, which resulted in California’s annexation to the United States.


On November 23, 1913, San Diego celebrated the bicentennial of Father Serra’s birth by erecting, out of remaining presidio tiles, the giant cross now on Presidio Hill. At the ceremony, which marked closely the place where Upper California began, Father Theophilus Reichardt commented that “the time of vandalism that unroofed the missions and carried away doors and tiles, and exposed the walls to wind and weather, rain and ruin, is gone forever. A fond reverence for the historic past … has taken root in our people.”

One of the persons then deeply affected by California’s past was George White Marston, a prominent businessman who had arrived in San Diego in 1870. Always a promoter of park development, Marston had been working toward preservation of the site since 1907. With others he had made an original purchase of fourteen lots and continued to acquire land in the area until he personally owned twenty acres. In 1925 he hired John Nolen, a city planner and landscape architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to commemorate the first Spanish settlement by developing Presidio Park. Nolen’s associate, Hale J. Walker, drew a sketch of a structure with a tower, but William Templeton Johnson actually designed the building envisioned by Marston as a museum. Well respected in San Diego for his architectural expertise, Johnson favored Spanish colonial and mission styles. Plans for the park and museum were ready in the fall of 1928.

The building was completed on July 16, 1929, the 160th anniversary of Father Serra’s dedication of Mission San Diego de Alcala at the site. A magnificent ceremony was held before an admiring crowd of twelve thousand people. The effect was exactly what Marston and Johnson had envisioned. Historian Gregg Hennessey has observed that the Junipero Serra Museum represents “the finest example of Mission style architecture in San Diego. A truly beautiful structure with an appealing simplicity of design and resolute character, it reflects the strong cultural sense of Spanish colonials who had a firm understanding of their place in the world and their duty in life.”

To complement the mission style, Marston furnished the museum with authentic fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth century Spanish pieces. Separate items of furniture were purchased in Seville, Granada, Madrid, Burgos and Catalonia. Some of the outstanding pieces include a ten-foot long seventeenth century walnut table, a decorative cabinet and writing desk called a vargueno, and a large armario with lattice work doors and carved drawers. Marston’s collection today is one of the finest of its kind in the west and, along with several recent additions from Mallorca, provides an important link with Serra’s homeland.

The grounds around the museum were originally landscaped under Marston’s supervision. The park’s expansive lawns are enhanced by numerous plants and trees representing a variety of native and imported species. These include several kinds of eucalyptus trees from Australia; the Peruvian pepper tree; pine trees from southern Europe, the Canary Islands, and Monterey, California; the lemonade berry; and the Catalina ironwood from California’s Channel Islands.


The San Diego History Center initiated the Presidio Excavation Project in 1965 to discover and identify what lay below the grounds. Since the museum was not built upon the old presidio ruins, it was expected that the foundation walls would be uncovered. The project was undertaken as a cooperative effort between the Historical Society and local colleges with approval of the City of San Diego.

Research into archives in Spain, Mexico and California failed to unearth any maps or drawings of the original presidio, so digging began in the area thought to be the soldiers’ barracks. The chapel complex was excavated by students from San Diego State University, Mesa College, and selected volunteers under the direction of Dr. Paul H. Ezell. Members of the locally prominent Bandini and Estudillo families had been married in the chapel and it was used as late as 1841 by the people living in the pueblo – today’s Old Town.

In addition to chapel foundations, students unearthed animal bones, sea shells, potsherds and other material revealing the dietary habits of the first settlers. Detailed drawings of the chapel were made and the foundations covered over for protection. Excavations were also made into burial sites in the presidio cemetery located at the side of the church. An important discovery made in February, 1968, was the grave of pueblo settler Henry Delano Fitch who died in 1849. Other graves were also found.

Mesa College, in 1976, began to search for the main entrance into the presidio on the northwestern side of Presidio Drive. Many additional artifacts have been uncovered which are on display in the Serra Museum with explanatory information. The San Diego History Center, under an agreement with the City, provides interpretative services of the areas under investigation and escorts groups of twenty or more touring the presidio area. The park itself is an outdoor museum that is continually evolving. Each new discovery contributes another piece to the puzzle and helps tell the story of Serra’s San Diego.


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___. The Missions and Missionaries of California. 4 vols. San Francisco, 1908-1915.

Engstrand, Iris H.W. San Diego: California’s Cornerstone, Tulsa, 1980. Geiger, Maynard, O.F.M.Franciscan Missionaries in Hispanic California, 1769-1848. San Marino, 1969.

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