Plans for the Occupation of Upper California A New Look at the "Dark Age" from 1602 to 1769


José de Gálvez

In this rare portrait of José de Gálvez the Visitador General is seen shortly before his death (c. 1787). As a vigorous administrator of Spain's interests in America, Gálvez was responsible for planning the expedition to occupy and settle the ports of San Diego and Monterey.

MEXICO CITY'S venerable cathedral bells tolled. Their thunderous tones reverberated across the crowded Zócalo in the heart of the city. Shoppers and street vendors paused in their busy activity perhaps to ponder just why there should be the wildly ringing chimes at that time of day. If they paused long enough, they would soon learn that a new province, Alta California, had been added to the Kingdom of New Spain as the North American Spanish Viceroyalty was called.

Later, making their way from the nearby palace to the Cathedral, the leading dignitaries of the Kingdom could be seen headed for a Thanksgiving mass which was being said on that mid-summer day in 1770, celebrating an event already a year old that had taken place on the far northwestern frontier of the viceroyalty—the founding of Alta California. The gala occasion was capped by a fine reception at which the men who had been administratively concerned with the bold step of adding a northern province were gathered to receive congratulations in the name of King Charles III for having advanced the frontier another several hundred miles to the north. These men were the Viceroy Marqués de Croix and the peripatetic Visitor General José de Gálvez. It was a day of satisfaction.

To the man on the street who knew little or nothing of events of the realm, the question must have occurred concerning Upper California—just where was it? and why was it being occupied? In a period of considerable change, initiated in part by the presence of José de Gálvez, some may have taken the news in stride; but to others there must have been some questioning of the logic of what to the common man must have seemed a not well-thought-out, perhaps even a foolhardy undertaking. To modern Native Sons of the Golden West, looking back on those events of 1769 and 1770, it seems that it was a move long overdue. To the historian imbued with the same hindsight, it has also seemed that the move was sudden, almost too sudden. More recent and more perceptive appreciation of the events surrounding the historic action show it as the grand culmination of longstanding interest in the Pacific Coastal area north of modern Mexico.

Interest in occupation of Upper California, today's state of California, was evident in the early colonial period. Not with the initial explorations of Hernando de Alarcón, Melchior Díaz and Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, for they represented the era of the search for riches, geographical fantasies, and legendary people. But after the Big Search was over, things settled down to a pattern of interest in areas for what they were rather than for what they might prove to produce by way of the fabulous. Spain successfully occupied the Philippine Islands in 1565, and, under the leadership of the Basque priest, Andrés de Urdaneta, found a way back from these islands discovered by Magellan, a route that led along the coast of California. Beginning in the second half of the l6th century, regular commercial trade was established between Acapulco on Mexico's southwestern coast and the great depot of the Far East at Manila. The winds and waters of the Pacific Ocean brought heavily-laden, ponderous, treasure-bearing galleons along the coast of California, headed to the safe haven of their home port to the south. These galleons were near the end of a long, scurvy-ridden passage from west to east, and made their customary landfall somewhere along the California coast and occasionally higher. It was not long before California assumed some importance as a possible stop for the beleaguered behemoths of the Pacific on their annual voyages. Would it not be convenient to establish a cabbage-patch on the coast for much needed fresh supplies? The possibility of occupying the area for a reprovisioning stop for the galleons was the first of several reasons which would successively surface in official thinking about the California area. There was clearly one drawback in this thinking. If one had made it as far as the coast on one of the big galleons and had suffered the hardships of a six-month passage with rotting provisions, insufficient water, and sundry maladies, once reaching the coast, it was only a matter of a few more weeks to anchor in Acapulco and cash in on the long-awaited profits of a successful voyage.

Arrival in the Pacific of the North European challenge to Iberian supremacy was a second factor which turned official eyes in the direction of California. In 1578 and 1579 Francis Drake, English gentleman or heretic pirate depending on the point of view, entered what the Spanish had considered a Spanish lake—the Pacific Ocean. He sacked the undefended coastal cities of two continents and preyed on the virtually defenseless shipping along the American coasts. Overloaded with booty to the point of making his vessel unseaworthy, Drake paid a famous visit to the coast and in "his bay" left behind testimony of his presence by his symbolic act of possession—the Plate of Brass, discovered many years later. After a brief stay to caulk and boot-top his vessel, thereby restoring its seaworthiness, Drake made a very rapid circumnavigation of the globe, arriving in the Thames in an unbelievably short period of time. So fast was this long trip that the Spaniards felt that Drake had found the great strait that all European nations had hoped to find through the northern part of the continent and that he had come home via the "Northwest Passage" or the Strait of Anian. By whatever name the legendary strait might be called in the two hundred years that it was sought, it became an important factor in the possible occupation of California. Reports, both apocryphal and mistaken, of finding evidence of such a water course, became epidemic. Attempts to find the western entrance to the strait were as frequent among Spaniards as were similar efforts to find the eastern entrance by English mariners. Mythical as the strait proved to be, it is concrete evidence that man can be guided more by what he thinks the facts to be than by what they really are. Galleon commanders were given orders to take more northerly landfalls when approaching the coast and to be particularly on the lookout for the fabled strait; but when at least one commander managed to lose his vessel in response to these orders, edicts were promulgated that coastal exploration was no longer to be carried out by treasure-filled, unmaneuverable vessels, which nearing the end of their protracted navigation were not in condition to carry out such reconnaissance, nor had crews possessed of the needed vigor.

Conventional history makes the next major expedition that of Sebastián Vizcaíno, the man who gave the name San Diego de Alcalá to Upper California's southernmost port on November 12, 1602. Vizcaíno completed his voyage of exploration in 1603. Then followed the "Dark Ages." Upper California's traditional history is largely blank from that day until the arrival of the Portolá—Serra colonizing expedition in 1769. The documentation of the intervening period, some of it only recently retrieved, nevertheless gives a different view of the era under consideration.

It is clear that the intention of Vizcaíno's exploratory expedition of 1602-03 was preliminary to colonization, and not as a final exploration of the hitherto imperfectly known coast. To this end, upon his return to Mexico, Vizcaíno made plans for his eventual colonization of California. His patron, the Count of Monterrey, rewarded the clever Extramaduran merchant navigator with overall command of the Manila galleons of a subsequent year. The purpose was not, however, to stimulate the Oriental trade, but to stage from Manila the anticipated occupation of Upper California. Unfortunately for the long-awaited event, the Count of Monterrey was promoted to the Viceregency of the Kingdom of Peru and was replaced in Mexico with a man of different visions and aspirations, not to mention a relative or two who needed gainful employment. Despite suggestions to his successor by the Conde de Monterrey, the Marqués de Montesclaros was not quick to act concerning the California Coast. Perhaps he did not like to preserve the name of his predecessor in a plan to occupy Monterey Bay. Such a move was ill-appreciated by the Conde de Monterrey who thereupon wrote to the king clearly pointing out the still pressing need for occupation of Upper California and the indispensability of the now deposed Sebastián Vizcaíno for any such project. This forced the Marqués de Montesclaros to write in turn justifying his actions. Vizcaíno was shunted off with an appointment elsewhere.

Map showing San Diego Bay

Map showing San Diego Bay, made in Spain in 1603 from charts drawn by Vizcaíno's cartographer.

By August 19, 1606 the pendulum had swung in Vizcaíno's favor. A royal cédula of that date instructed the Viceroy to revive the California plan; a haven for beleaguered mariners was to be established at Monterey. Appropriate settlement and development were envisioned, with Vizcaíno in charge. Orders would send the explorer first to Manila with the 1607 vessels, at which point he would gather the resources for occupation. The inevitable communication lag of yesteryear prevented completion of the plan in 1607—news arrived too late. In an effort to get off the hook, the Marqués de Montesclaros answered indicating the unsuitability of Monterey Bay, particularly in view of its location near the end of the Manila galleon run, rather than in mid-passage. He concluded that the ever-elusive islands of Rica de Oro and Rica de Plata should be sought to remedy the problem of over-extended navigation. He further indicated that Monterey would be exposed to attack by foreigners.

Conflicting opinions circulated concerning the desirability of Monterey as a port of call as opposed to the Pacific islands. Everyone who wished got into the act, other alternatives were suggested, and the upshot was a new royal cédula of Phillip III, of September 27, 1608 which brought about a long term suspension of the order of 1606 for occupation. The first major plan for occupation had reached all but the final stage, though Father Antonio de la Asención who had been with Vizcaíno tried to keep the project alive for over a decade.

Though it is not easy to distinguish between Upper and Lower California in these early decades, it is clear that the great Jesuit figure of Pimería Alta, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, was an early proponent of a plan for occupation of Upper California, perhaps as a natural extension of the work being done by the Black Robes in both Baja California and in Sonora-Arizona. In what Father Ernest J. Burrus calls Kino's Plan for the Development of Pimería Alta, Arizona and Upper California [Tucson, 1961], the devout Tyrolean Jesuit wrote of extending missionary activity to the "Cocomaricopas, the Yumas, the Quiquimas, and others, and also those of Upper California as far as the opposite coast on the South Sea ..." [p. 32]. His suggestion to found on the banks of the Río Colorado close to the head of the Mar de California a town of some 300 to 400 families would serve as a forerunner to greater northward penetration to the land of the Moquis [Hopi], "and along the northern coast on to the regions known as Gran Quivira, and the Gran Teguayo, as far as Cape Mendocino and the Land called Yeso." [p. 33]. Other bait laid out by Kino in his letter to the Viceroy of New Spain was the commercial advantage of establishing trade between Upper and Lower California by utilization of the China galleon, while readily admitting that he was "already carrying on friendly trade with the natives of Upper California, who send or bring me many blue shells [abalone] from the opposite coast on the South Sea, the annual trade route of the Philippine or China galleon." Kino's death in 1711 and the virtual cessation of mission advance further northward also brought an end to a promising plan for California development.

Save for the activity of Kino, the archives have yet to yield any new information before 1715, but at that date an oidor from the town of Tula, some sixty miles north of Mexico City, reactivated the dormant California proposition. He was Juan Manuel de Oliván Rebolledo, economist and priest, who directed a petition to the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies. In this solicitude, Oliván Rebolledo stressed the need to occupy "the very spacious and pleasant" port of San Diego and to colonize the Port of Monterey, which actions ought to have been motivated "among other reasons so that they would not be settled by the enemies of the crown," particularly in light of the fears generated by the attempt of the previous year. Fortunately, that intrusion of 1714 by Lord Clipperton had been nipped in the bud by an attack on Clipperton as a result of which he had been taken prisoner. But Oliván Rebolledo wanted the old cédula of 1606 placed in effect again. However, he left the matter to the discretion of King Phillip V. This perhaps resulted in the 1716 decree for extension of the conquest and a junta in Mexico which squelched the plan.

The question of the risk of foreign occupation of California was momentarily considered in March, 1718, but apparently nothing came of it. Viceroy Marqués de Valero was instructed that if there were any danger of foreign occupation of California, he was to take appropriate measures to forestall it.

Though the writings of Admiral Joseph González Cabrera Bueno can hardly be considered a "plan" for occupation of California, this native of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in his Navegación especúlativa y práctica published in Manila in 1734 did make extended reference to the California Coast. In Chapter IV of González Cabrera's book, a subsection entitled "Derrota desde el Cabo Mendocino, hasta el Puerto de Acapulco por la Costa" (Coastal Sailing Directions from Cape Mendocino to Acapulco), kept the idea of California alive before a limited reading public, while preserving the previously established placenames. This notable work by González Cabrera became part of the available Californiana used in subsequent planning.

Three years after publication of the Navegación especúlativa, and most assuredly unrelated, there was a proposal for exploration in the direction of California, a plan originating in the Sonora area. If nothing else, it introduces a familiar name to the roster, that of Juan Bautista de Anza, but in this case it is the senior Anza, progenitor of the hero of California colonization. Early in 1737, Anza requested permission to make an exploration to the Colorado River. Apparently this trip was never completed, but the idea of exploration of California from the east was to continue as a live issue.

On the 12th of May 1744 the matter of California's permanent occupation, the unfulfilled desire of former Spanish sovereigns, was brought up by the Council of the Indies. The plan called for reduction of the natives to the "pale of the church and the dominion of His Majesty, Phillip V." Brought into consideration were the great expenditures to the Royal Treasury which had already been invested, the ripeness of the spiritual fruit, not to mention the temporal fruit, the great convenience to the Philippine trade, and the impediment that such a settlement would be to any foreign nation which might wish to deal a mortal blow to the Provinces of New Spain by colonizing California. The decision of the Council was to set about immediately, without delay due to expense, establishing fortified towns as appropriate good ports might be found. It was also ordered that missionaries for Christianization of the Indians be sent, with the target area for this enterprise being where "California joins with the continent or mainland." Finally, at the suggestion of the Marqués del Castillo, former President of the Audiencia of Guadalajara, and for the safety and security of the Pacific Coast, the plan called for two heavily-armed sloops to patrol those coasts.

In 1747, three years later, the Provincial of the Jesuit order in New Spain became interested in the fate of California, though his geography seems faulty by modern standards. Motivated by fellow Jesuit Father Fernando Consag's notable exploration to the head of the Gulf of California, the Jesuit leader became interested in missionization of the Pimas Altos and beyond. Apparently favorable action was anticipated with positive support from King Fernando VI and the Council of the Indies, and subsequent orders to the Marqués de la Ensenada. The ideas were Kino-oriented. Other Jesuits were soon to take up the idea—Fathers José de Ortega, Andrés Burriel, Francisco Javier Alegre.

The two previously mentioned proposals of 1744 and 1747 were preliminary to the most extensive pre-occupation plan, for in consequence of these, various meetings were held in Mexico City. One of the delegates was Don Fernando Sánchez Salvador, Alcalde de la Santa Hermandad and Captain of Armored Horse of the Provinces of Sinaloa, Sonora, the Pacific Coast and the Indian Frontier. This native of the Spanish Province of La Rioja wrote four representations, all concerned with development of the northern frontier of New Spain. Indeed, it was as a result of Sánchez Salvador's extensive project that evidence of the earlier projects was sought in the archives. He proposed the occupation of the Tres Marías Islands off the Nayarit coast. These islands—María Madre, María Magdalena and María Cleofas—had been left unoccupied, and this neglect posed a threat to the coast. The area of the Gila and Colorado Rivers was to be the locale for forts or presidios in suitable places for the purpose of preventing the French or the English from "occupying Monterey and invading the neighboring coasts of California which are at the mouth of the Carmel River." The forts would also serve to contain the Apache and other Indians. Though we can hardly agree with the Captain's geographical concepts, we cannot doubt his interest in California. It was sufficient to stimulate the Viceroy to seek out the ancient cédula of 1606, which could not be found in Mexico; consequently it was felt that it would be in Simancas in northern Spain. The Viceroy appeared to have desired to have this old document which authorized the proposal of occupation of the Colorado River and the total settlement of the Californias, especially since all of this land lay along the exposed coast stretching for over 350 Spanish leagues between Acapulco and Monterey. As was nearly always the case, the matter of Sánchez Salvador's proposal stretched out for nearly a decade, for a note of 1758 indicated that "although the Council up to the year 1758 issued some provisions for those establishments, they did not take effect . . . ."

Portrait of Carlos III

Portrait of Carlos III, the reigning Spanish monarch from 1759 to 1788. This clever and ambitious member of the Bourbon family instituted administrative reforms, reorganized the military, fostered both immigration to the Peninsula and emigration to the Americas, and, in general, gained a new prestige for Spain among European nations.

Since Captain Sánchez Salvador's proposal is doubtlessly the most important of the proximate precursors to the José de Gálvez plan, it would be well to examine it in some detail concerning the California area, though his scheme encompassed all of the northern frontier on the west coast. It is evident from a cursory examination of his representaciones, particularly his fourth representation dated Mexico City March 2, 1751, that the petitioner was on much firmer ground when discussing geographical concepts of Nayarit, Sinaloa and Sonora. He was not even far off when he spoke of things concerning Lower California, the Gulf of California and the Gila River area. Where his precision dropped off markedly is when he began commenting on the coast of Upper California. He had, in this regard, recourse to the navigation treatise of Admiral José González Cabrera Bueno, the aforementioned Navegación especúlativa y práctica, published some 17 years earlier in Manila. He seems to have been uninfluenced by Vizcaíno's reports. In describing the course of the Colorado River, Sánchez Salvador was convinced that "it flowed from north to south to join with the sea or Gulf of California, but issuing forth prior to its terminus an arm which runs toward the west, and doubtless goes to the opposite shore of the Gulf, which branch appears to be the River of the Philippine [ships] which they call the Carmel River." Relying on Admiral González Cabrera Bueno as authority the petitioner indicated that the Río Carmelo was intermediate between the Port of Monterey in 37° (almost 1/2° off) and Cape (Point Concepción (over 1° off); "that it was fordable (because he saw it in the dry season); and that it has crystaline water which comes from some very high sierras (since from there one can see the Sierra Madre)." Independent of the Carmel River there were other watering places and a very great plain which frequently had fresh water. He added that the Carmel River had along its banks the plentiful foliage of poplars and other trees native to Castilla. The Indians of the Carmel River were gentle and friends of the Spanish. Still borrowing from the Canary Island-born admiral's treatise on navigation, Sánchez Salvador made available the not very accurate information that following the coast southward to 32°30' there are watering places, lagoons, and an immense canebrake, which information was a proof of the dampness of the country even though it was the driest time of the year, "which is when the Philippine [vessels] hit that coast."

Even if only a portion of the Sánchez Salvador plan had been adopted, for example the occupation of the Gila and the mouth of the Colorado River, this would have brought occupation of California as a normal subsequent step. The Colorado River held the key to frontier control—the threatening French who had already arrived overland in New Mexico and were thought to be bypassing that province for a direct connection with the Pacific Coast; the control of the mounting Apache menace; the need for an advance base for protection of the coast from attack by sea. The latter seems to be doubtful, but must be considered in the light of his geographical misconception of the twin mouths of the Colorado River—the normal one and the Carmel River—both of which were taken to be navigable.

Captain Sánchez Salvador felt that bold measures for occupation were necessary. He pointed out that in over a century after the initial efforts of occupation, the Spanish frontier had advanced only 150 leagues northward from Cape San Lucas, having arrived as far as Mission San Ignacio. Another 150 leagues lay between that mission and the projected Colorado River establishments, and if it took as long to extend the frontier for that second half of the interval between Cape San Lucas and the mouth of the Colorado, then the French would easily win the prize. Sánchez Salvador, from his own experience, was certain that the second half would be more difficult than the first half had been. The scarcity of water along the gulf coast would make the search for appropriate sites most difficult. The Captain had sailed the entire coast of the Gulf of California, "keeping very close to the shore with 18 vessels," and found no evidence of any water courses. The best he had done was to find a couple of springs at a distance of a few hundred yards from the shore, at which he and the people with him had imbibed, though even then it was necessary to hold their noses to do so.

Despite the seemingly sustained interest generated by the representaciones of Fernando Sánchez Salvador, California was not yet destined to be occupied. In fact, in spite of his strongly attested interest, his plan seems to have been given little, if any, consideration at the time of Gálvez and his final plan for organizing the 1769 expedition of occupation, which has frequently been called the Sacred Expedition, though possibly incorrectly.

A final evidence of pre-Serra interest in California is found in a petition of Dominican Father Juan de Iriarte to the Council of the Indies for permission to explore across to the coast of California. This Dominican's request for permission was referred by the Council of the Indies to King Charles III on September 2, 1768. Again the latest news of the California Coast was dredged up. The Council of the Indies by this time "knew how urgent it was to prevent any foreign nation from establishing itself along the California Coast." Reference was made back to the plans of May 12, 1744 and that of August 22, 1747, which both proposed that missionaries enter the area for service where "California joins with the continent at the mouth of the Colorado River." The first result of the Iriarte petition was to request reports from the Viceroy of New Spain and the Archbishop of Mexico of confirmation of what the Father reported. The final result was that the King authorized an edict dated November 4, 1768, apparently ratifying Father Iriarte's plan. By this time the California plan, that project espoused by Visitor General José de Gálvez,, was already so far advanced that the Iriarte plan of exploration was either cancelled or not remembered. The final and by this time the tenth plan for California's occupation was about to begin. But it was certainly not, as has been easily supposed, some sort of novel project with fanciful goals. It was no madcap scheme of an insane genius. The occupation of Upper California was not a sudden impulse, though this in no way denies the critical role played by José de Gálvez. If despite nine other plans, California settlement had not yet materialized, it took interest by someone highly placed to ignite the fuse which had resisted the match. Still, there were certain forces at work at this particular time which made the occupation of Upper California not only a possibility but also a reality.

Ascending the throne as the second Bourbon King of Spain was Fernando VI whose short reign was followed by that of his half brother, Charles III, considered by many to be the most outstanding of the Bourbons. It was his reign which brought about the Bourbon reforms, including augmentation of revenues, strengthened defense, greater efficiency and organization, and an alertness to world affairs. Dynastic connection which linked Spain to France brought involvement in European affairs as well as new problems overseas. Briefly, the Seven Years War brought French overseas possessions in North America to an end with the Treaty of Paris. Spain became heir to an area hitherto French, Louisiana west of the Mississippi, while England succeeded to French Canada and Louisiana east of the Father of Waters. The map of North America was further remade by Spanish loss of the Floridas. Spain and England faced each other across the Mississippi.

Into this new lineup an intrusive figure seemed to be entering. The Russian bear had moved across Siberia and had made a few tentative explorations of the Alaska area. Though Spain and Russia had not maintained diplomatic relations for some years, in 1760 they were reestablished with the Marqués de Almodóvar being sent as ambassador to the Court of Peter III. He soon learned of Russian explorations in the Pacific Northwest. A more alert Spanish ambassador, Vizconde de Herrería, replaced the Marqués and Catherine was enthroned in Russia. The Vizconde blew the whistle on the Russians by reporting that Catherine insisted on continuing Russian expansion in American Siberia. Diplomatic channels were not the only sources of information nor of fear of Russian activity. Military and administrative sources also were alerted, particularly the Visitor General José de Gálvez and the Viceroy Marqués de Croix, who had been in New Spain since 1765 and 1766 respectively. It only took the slightest suggestion to bring forth action.

The master plan thought up by Gálvez and Croix resulted, therefore, from the permanent foreign dangers, whether from pirates, traders, merchants, or colonists. It was based on Vizcaíno's ancient explorations and his evaluation of such key points as he, 165 years earlier, had considered to have a priority in Spanish occupation interest. These were San Diego in the south, Monterey (capital designate) in the center, and the Bay of San Francisco [later known as Drake's Bay and earlier known as Bahía de Don Gaspar] to the north. The final plan, as carried out in 1769, was responsible for settlement of Upper California and this event brought forth the ringing of the Cathedral bells in Mexico City that mid-summer day in 1770.


Archival materials utilized are found in the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid in the section titled Estado, bundle 2848 and in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla in the section Audiencia de Guadalajara, bundles 133, 135, 137. Additional manuscript material is found in the Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico, D.F. in the section Cédulas Reales, year 1616.

Materials concerning Fernando Sánchez Salvador are available in the printed documentary collection entitled Documentos para la historia de Mexico, third series, Mexico 1856, published by the Imprenta Vicente García Torres, and embracing pages 638-666.

The pioneer maritime treatise of Joseph González Cabrera Bueno, Navegación especúlativa y práctica. . . was first published in Manila in 1734.

Recent pertinent published materials include:

Ernest J. Burrus, Kino's Plan for the Development of Pimería Alta, Arizona and Upper California (Tucson, 1961);

W. Michael Mathes, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean, 1580-1630(San Francisco, 1968);

Theodore E. Treutlein, San Francisco Bay. Discovery and Colonization, 1769-1776 (San Francisco, 1968).