- About Us
San Diego's First Cabrillo Celebration, 1892
By Sally Bullard Thornton
Copley Books Award, San Diego History Center
1984 Institute of History
During the 1880s, San Diego experienced a tremendous boom followed by a drastic drop in the economy. In January 1892, as an effort to assist in San Diego economic recovery, Walter G. Smith, the then editor of The Sun, urged city fathers to promote the area by holding a celebration. The event would commemorate navigator Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo's discovery of San Diego Bay three hundred fifty years before on September 28, 1542. The celebration would afford citizens the opportunity of acquainting visitors with the city's attributes.1
Although Smith's idea lay dormant until July 16, 1892, when Mayor Mathew Sherman called together a large number of prominent interested citizens, the group moved quickly to expedite plans for the celebration. Smith pointed out that this seemed to be an appropriate time to celebrate Spain's discovery and that it would be wise for San Diego to take the lead as the birthplace of Alta California. Mayor Sherman then appointed a general committee to formulate ideas for the festivities and in turn to select subcommittees to work toward the promotion of activities through the development of a guest list of very important people.2
Elisha S. Babcock, manager of the Hotel del Coronado, offered to contribute one-tenth of the cost of bringing an Indian tribe to entertain visitors.3 Fund raisers set their goal at $5,000 and began their appeal for financing the celebration. They hoped to secure $1,000 from the city and county.4 With the expectation that the celebration would "attract the attention of the entire country to the remarkable inducements for investments . . .",5 the common council allocated $500. They also felt the press would prove highly beneficial with heavy coverage providing wide exposure for the events.6 By calling attention to the area, the press had the ability to attract many visitors and potential residents to city and county business, agricultural, and commercial attributes.7
Rapid response to invitations made planning easier. Both the Diegueno and Luiseno Indian tribes told Father Antonio Ubach they would be anxious to participate for their food and expenses. According to The Sun, the "bucks and squaws" planned to wear costumes of olden times while singing, dancing and playing their ancient, native games. Tule from Mission Valley would be used by the Indians for the construction of their huts.8
The official invitation list included professional news people, members of the diplomatic services, the judiciary, the army and navy, distinguished foreigners, and men of the federal and state governments.9 President Benjamin Harrison pledged his cooperation to insure success10 by ordering all vessels in the Pacific Squadron to take an active role in the event.11 California Governor Henry H. Markham assured the committee he would conduct the formal ceremonies12 with General W.H.L. Barnes of San Francisco as the orator along with the other respected state and national speakers.13 Commanding General A. McDowell McCook of the Department of Arizona promised that he and his staff of thirteen officers would attend in full uniform on September 28 and 29 to participate in the review.14
A letter from Mesa Grande to Father Ubach from two Diegueno chiefs of the Anto La Chap and Cenon Duro tribes reported that the young Indians, in their many hours of daily practice to defeat the Luisenos in dances and games, had developed sore feet.15
In mid-September members of the famous Twenty-fourth Regiment Band from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico arrived at the depot. They were met by a crowd of residents headed by Police Officer Jose Cota. The twenty-nine musicians, under the leadership of Jose Cuenca, played as they marched to the Albemarle Hotel where they would live while in San Diego.16
Large colorful posters, printed in San Francisco, were distributed along the Santa Fe line from Portland to San Diego.17 Bombs carrying promotional materials exploded about one hundred feet above the heads of approximately 5,000 startled people at Redondo Beach. A scattering shower of leaflets also distributed by the Santa Fe Railroad announced the celebration of the forthcoming San Diego events.18
To include the county's cattle era in the celebration, city officials found it necessary to expand the program to three days. Beginning with the Indians on opening day, the program could now accommodate vaquero or cowboy games and exhibitions on the closing day.19
The excitement began to mount as the people observed a pavillion, covering a ground space of 200 x 125 feet, with a framework of poles and ropes centered by an eighty foot pole supporting a fifty foot evergreen canopy being erected in the Plaza. Enclosed by a high board fence, it was more difficult to view the Indians constructing their tule huts around the inner portion of their 200 x 300 foot allocated area on A and Fourth Streets. A 125 foot central circle provided space for their dances and games.20 The Luiseno Indians from Oceanside preferred to walk rather than ride in cars to San Diego.21
Details began to fall into place when the Knights Templar grand commander sent a dispensation allowing the local commandry to participate in the celebration parade.22 The Los Angeles Times stated that tickets for the grand banquet at the Hotel del Coronado designed to honor visiting governors, admirals, generals, editors and other notable guests, would be available for sale in other cities.23 They further announced a spectacular naval display that would emphasize the modern navy with at least three United States cruisers, the San Francisco, the Charleston, and the Baltimore to be anchored in San Diego Bay. The ships would welcome the public aboard. Additionally, the Mexican Man-of-War, the Democrata, plus a sizable number of sailing vessels and yachts were to make up the grandest maritime representation that people would ever see.24
To complement the city decorations, Elisha Babcock announced that the Hotel del Coronado and grounds would be attractively adorned and brilliantly illuminated every evening. Also many triumphal arches consisting of palm and evergreens would be constructed about the place.25
Grand Marshall General T.T. Crittenden asked citizens to provide decorations consisting of branches of fruit trees, fan palms, flowers, and evergreens for their vehicles. By doing so they could be given a position in the parade gathering at Front Street, south of D on the twenty-eighth before 9:30 a.m.26
A sizable triple arch, thirty-seven and one-half feet high in the center with a fifty foot wide base was constructed and placed in front of City Hall on D Street. Resembling a large trestle, the main arch had a small arch with fifteen feet at the base and twenty feet high in the center on each side. The combined eighty foot span of frame work was to "be covered with evergreen and pepper boughs, bunting and flags, with a portrait of Cabrillo in the center."27
John C. Fischer also decided to assemble an immense arch spanning Fourth Street opposite his opera house. The arch would be decorated with the Spanish, Mexican, and American coats of arms and a picture of Cabrillo. In addition, the arch and plaza were to be lighted by 2,000 candle power electric lights.28
One week before the celebration it was announced that nearly every room had been reserved in the major hotels. Preparations to handle the overflow crowd were being made at the first class lodging houses.29 Residents were urged to help in the accommodation of more visitors by furnishing room and board in their homes.30
A telegraph message from Admiral Bancroft Gherardi of the Pacific Squadron indicated his willingness to participate in the program which would include a reception for the public on board the cruisers on the 29th; a searchlight night time exhibition; and daytime boat races between the crews. Also from each cruiser, a battalion and the Marines were to join the opening parade with United States and Mexican Regulars, the Naval Reserves, and the National Guard. At the evening banquet, the Admiral would return the toast given to the "American Navy."31
The Sun ran an article explaining that The Native Sons of the Golden West had obtained a live bear and wondered who could handle him as entertainment for the festivities. The organization would open their headquarters, and provide a float, depicting the fifty-four counties of California topped by the state seal, for the parade. The membership was desirous of having the bear chained upon the float as a part of the attraction.32
Plans for the Vaquero Tournament were printed in the newspaper. The program scheduled for the afternoon of September 30, the final day was to feature events such as:
1. Lassoing wild cattle, a la Mexican.
2. Tailing and throwing wild steers by cowboys on horseback.
3. Mounted caballeros picking up silver coins from the ground on a dead-run: also buried roosters; and other exhibitions of trick riding.
4. Bullfight in the true Spanish style.
5. Riding bucking broncos and vicious Mexican horses, the judge to name the horse each contestant to ride.
6. Jack rabbit coursing with a pack of trained greyhounds. There will be a chase between each number.
7. Riding wild bulls for a purse which is tied between the horns of each animal, and must be secured by the hands of the contestants.33
Marcos Forster of San Juan Capistrano would supervise the events and provide a carload each of horses and cattle. The animals were to include two of the most famous bucking horses from Mexico.34
Finally, the long anticipated day arrived. It was estimated that ten thousand people filled San Diego for the holidays. From the bay to the mesa, everyone dressed in their finest attire. The invigorating yet balmy air made moving about or standing comfortable.35
By eight o'clock, the harbor was speckled with colorfully decorated launches, yachts and rowboats, maneuvering about in an effort to avoid Cabrillo's ship. The vessel, a Chinese junk that had been remodeled around the hull, simulated an early Spanish caravel. Captain Joe Williams, a Portuguese fisherman impersonating Cabrillo, sailed her from Roseville and anchored just beyond the tip of the wharfs at the bottom of E Street.36
Eager spectators trained their Kodaks on the unusual craft. For three hours they had been gathering along the entire waterfront. By ten o'clock there was no standing room for blocks within the area where the landing would take place.37 The "caravel" anchored approximately one hundred yards from shore. Cabrillo and his men stayed there for at least two hours before the Captain and part of the crew rowed to shore in a smaller craft.38
The wearisome delay was upset by an incident at the D Street Boathouse. Part of the landing that ran out to the float collapsed with the added stress of the weight of many people. A half dozen of them, mostly ladies, received a frightful involuntary ducking which caused a lot of screaming. The rescue was expedited by those in boats and on the shore.39
At last it was eleven o'clock. Father Ubach and the Indians moved up to the waters' edge to receive the landing party. Strikingly clothed in black velvet with capes lined in yellow, Cabrillo and his two officers topped their costumes with black hats adorned with long white plumes. Completing the complement were six Spanish sailors, appropriately dressed in black outfits with white lace collars. They rowed the group from the "caravel" toward the anxiously awaiting shore-bound crowd. Then, carrying the Spanish flag, the landing party stepped smartly from the ship's boat to a gangplank. They proceeded on to the land where they planted the flag and, in the name of King Charles V of Spain, Cabrillo took possession of the country.40
As a part of the ceremony, Cabrillo greeted six Indian chiefs: General Mateo Pia of Patchanga, Pedro Pablo of Panama, Vicente of Temecula, Jose Manuel of Santa Ysabel and Cenon and Narcison of Mesa Grande. He talked to them in his native language (Portuguese) while they knelt and kissed the ground.41
The Indians appeared quite primitive and picturesque in their colorful costumes consisting mostly of body paint and feathers, and abbreviated G-string apron-like garments. Although the spectators may have been embarrassed by their native attire, the Indians remained stoic and indifferent to any criticism.42
Following the formalities, the participants and the governor's staff took their places at the head of the procession. Among the well over fifteen hundred people who joined them parading up D Street through the town were: mounted police; San Diego wheelmen; Mexican military band in cavalry full dress; Grand Marshal Brig Gen. T.T. Crittenden and staff in full dress; beautifully mounted on cavalry horses; First Cavalry Band; Regular Army in full dress uniform; sailors and marines of the cruiser Charleston; distinguished guests in carriages including Governor Markham, Governor Luis E. Torres of Lower California and staff, Admiral Gherardi and staff, General E.P. Johnson and Staff, First Brigade Major Hazard of Los Angeles, Mayor Sherman and city council; Company B. National Guard; Company A Naval Reserve; Grand Army of the Republic; San Diego Cadets; city Guard Band; Knights Templar; Knights of Pythias; Concordia Turnverein; Native Sons of the Golden West in lodge regalia with Japanese parasols, were accompanied by one-hundred-fifty school boys who held a standard inscribed "Young Native Sons" and carried a large American flag.43
Also in the parade marched the San Diego Newsboy Association, garbed in sashes and badges, bearing their association flag; the Ontario Band in blue and gold uniforms; Rurales of Baja California in attractive uniforms; cowboys with hats and spurs carrying pistols while riding elegant and spirited horses; four boys mounted on burros; Diegueno and Luiseno Indian tribe representatives, men attired in black and white calico, most with hats, women in bright calico heavily trimmed with ribbons; some men stripped to the waist, with their exposed parts painted bizarre colors while wearing Indian headdresses fashioned from grain stalks, ferns, leaves and mountain roses; various dignitaries in open carriages; more Indians in native costumes. Toward the end came elegantly mounted equestrians; Veteran Drum Corps; Escondido Band; Old Pioneers; a few unusually rigged trucks; three floats and wagons; Chula Vista had eleven wagons intricately decorated in historical motif trailed by thirty to forty wagons.44
Crowds of people lined the sidewalks. They filled the windows of the houses and business establishments, and even covered the roof tops in their attempt to view the enormous procession45 as it moved toward the Plaza for a final review. After that the participants dispersed and scattered through the city. In the afternoon, an audience, estimated at more than five thousand people, assembled at the canopied Plaza pavilion to be entertained by a literary program.46 A poem recited by its author, Hon R.M. Daggett, was the prime feature of the program.47
The evening offered many amusements for both visitors and residents. In the harbor, the Charleston and the Baltimore put on an interesting exhibition of searchlights which induced thousands to observe the show from the wharves. At the Plaza, the First Cavalry Band gave a concert for a huge audience. At the same time, people visited the fascinating Indian stockade.48
The Cabrillo Banquet at the Hotel del Coronado offered a brilliant scene. Splendid decorations graced the enormous dining hall. It was obvious that great care to detail was exercised in planning the toasts scheduled on the agenda.49 Tickets were priced at ten dollars each.50 Social gatherings and parties took place throughout the city. An elegant reception was given by the Knights Templar in their quarters.51
By day, the Indians arranged the costumes for their fiesta activities which consisted of games and dances.52 The preparation involved covering their bodies and faces with ninety-nine colored clays. After the task was completed, war paint was prepared and applied by the women. To achieve the right consistency for the paint mixture, the women chewed one or two colors, then spit the combination on the designated area of the man's body. In the final step, they proceeded to fashion the paint decoration in stripes and geometrical patterns. The men wore head dresses made of tule, horsehair, fur, snake skins, feathers and bird wings. They carried rattle snake rattles, crude weapons and bows and arrows. The women dotted their faces with the paint concoction and wore brilliant ribbons.53 Following the Thursday afternoon speeches in the Plaza, the Indians presented their fiesta.54
Unfortunately there had been no arrangements made for witnessing the event. There was no way to control the squeezing, pushing and cursing, both loud and muttered, by those in the crowd who anxiously sought a better vantage point. Consequently, most had a poor view of the sports with the exception of an occasional glimpse of waving feathers.55
While one man kept time with rattles contained in large pot-like instruments, the colorful warriors moved slowly, shoulder to shoulder, around the circle in the center of the stockade. Their chanting with a range of about three notes was slow and continuous. From time to time the musician let out a loud "ugh!" which prompted an Indian "yell" from the entire tribe. Then a heavily painted and feathered, agile brave would whirl around the center of the ring. Generally speaking, the Luiseno men and women were larger and had finer features than the Dieguenos. Luiseno men also had the appearance of being fine athletes.56
Aquatic sports took place in the bay starting early that same afternoon. The sailing race course was from the Pacific Coast Steamship Co.'s wharf to a stake boat on the Coronado side approximately a mile south of Glorietta Bay boathouse, then on to a beacon off National City, and back to the starting point. A schooner, sloop and two catboats participated, with the schooner taking top place. Members of the San Diego Rowing Club took part in three rowing races and a swimming contest.57
A race called "Lady's Passenger," featuring a single scull and a lady coxswain, was the first event with two sculls participating. Shortly after the race began, one of the sculls sustained a broken rudder which delayed the race and spoiled interest in it. The second race was very exciting. It took place between both the heavy and light weight four oar crews in outrigger shells. The light weights took the lead by four boat lengths.58 The swimming match had only three contestants. A stiff breeze and rough water caused the last event with four single shells to be handicapped in speed.59
Meanwhile, plans continued for the Thursday evening festivities. It appeared that nearly six hundred had accepted the invitations issued for the Cabrillo Ball. This noteworthy party turned out to be one of the merriest and most lavish parties given at the Hotel del Coronado since it opened.60 The thirty-piece, Twenty-Fourth Mexican Infantry Band provided music for dancing and listening pleasure. All of the military officers present wore their full dress uniforms with flashing buttons, glittering epaulettes, and jingling swords adding brightness and sparkle to the evening. The lovely ladies were beautifully dressed in spectacular gowns. The elegant supper decor was enhanced by the use of festoons filled with delicate smilax and an abundance of fragrant flowers.61
Friday, the last day, brought the Vaquero tournament which was undoubtedly one of the most exciting events in the three days of activities. In their rush to attend the tournament in Coronado, three hundred people, on the San Diego side, pushed on to the Santa Fe wharf ferry apron. Suddenly, with the stress of their weight, an ironic repeat of Wednesday's tragedy occurred. The wharf ferry apron collapsed into the bay, but fortunately those who fell with it into the water were uninjured. The accident prevented the wagons and horses from being loaded on board the smaller ferries. So the Silvergate, the largest ferry, moved along side the wharf and within two minutes, at least four hundred were aboard.62
The crowd at Coronado was estimated from between four and ten thousand persons.63 The contest to see who could snatch a twenty-dollar bill from a bull's horn was won by the bull.66 Three cattle ended up with broken legs and a horn was nearly pulled from the roots of another in the cattle throwing and tying contest. One horse turned a somersault when falling to the ground. Otherwise, the events proceeded as scheduled. Seating was insufficient to take care of the interested observers.67
Three evening events were offered on the final night of celebration. The First Cavalry Band benefit concert at the Fischer Opera House suffered from poor attendance. The Mexican Band free concert enjoyed a greater crowd. But the largest draw of all was the sensational fireworks exhibit at the Hotel del Coronado.68 The Pacific Ocean provided an enchanting backdrop, and the hotel the stage, for a quarter mile stretch of colored lights that were fired simultaneously. Blue and red lights reflected on the crests of the waves as they were fired from Marine chasers. The lights did not go out as they struck the water but continued to illuminate the darkness. Others continued moving like flying fish, skimming over the tops of the waves. For the grand finale a large group of land pieces were set off for the delight of bystanders.69
In the afterglow of the Cabrillo Celebration, banker Bryant Howard of the Consolidated National Bank said, "I think the outlook is encouraging. I think we will have a good business during the winter and spring ... I consider that the Cabrillo Celebration is one of the greatest advertisements San Diego ever had."70
1. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
2. The Sun, July 18, 1892. The mayor's general committee was comprised of: Col. Chalmers Scott, Gen. Eli H. Murray, Walter G. Smith, Col. E.J. Ensign, and Col. A.G. Gassen. Honorary committee members were: Gov. H.H. Markham, U.S. Senators Leland Stanford and Charles N. Felton, Congressman William W. Bowers, and Gen. A. McDowell McCook.
3. The Sun, July 18, 1892.
4. The San Diego Union, July 30, 1892.
5. Ibid., August 3, 1892.
6. Ibid., August 4, 1892.
8. The San Diego Union, July 29, 1892. Father Antonio Ubach was the resident priest who sponsored an Indian school, and established St. Joseph's Catholic Church at Third and Beech Streets. Tule are either of two large bulrushes growing on overflowed land in the southwestern U.S.
9. The San Diego Union, July 29, 1892.
10. Ibid., August 1, 1892.
11. San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, 1892.
12. The San Diego Union, August 11, 1892.
13. Ibid., August 18, 1892.
14. The Sun, August 22, 1892.
15. The Sun, August 25, 1892.
16. Ibid., September 14, 1892. The Albemarle Hotel was located on D Street at the southeast corner of Front.
17. The San Diegan, September 15, 1892.
18. The San Diego Union, September 16, 1892.
19. The San Diegan, September 15, 1892.
20. The Sun, September 16, 1892.
21. Ibid., September 19, 1892.
22. Ibid., September 20, 1892.
23. Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1892.
24. Ibid., September 24, 1892.
25. Los Angeles Herald, September 21, 1892.
26. The San Diego Union, September 23, 1892.
27. The Sun, September 23, 1892.
28. The San Diegan, September 23, 1892.
29. The Sun, September 21, 1892.
30. The San Diego Union, September 23, 1892.
31. Ibid., September 23, 1892.
32'. The Sun, September 24, 1892.
33. The San Diego Union, September 26, 1892. Coursing is the sport of hunting with dogs trained to chase game by sight instead of scent.
35. The Sun, September 28, 1892.
38. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
40. The Sun, September 28, 1892. . . .
42. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
43. The Sun, September 28, 1892.
45. Ibid. '-'
46. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
47. The Sun, September 28, 1892.
48. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
50. The San Diego Union, September 16, 1892.
51. The Sun, September 28, 1892.
52. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
53. The Sun, September 28, 1892.
54. Ibid., September 29, 1892.
55. The Seaport News, October 1, 1892.
57. The Seaport News, October 8, 1892. A schooner is a ship with two or more masts, all of which are fore-and-aft-rigged, the main mast being aft of and taller than the fore mast. A sloop is a single-masted, fore-and-aft-rigged sailing boat with a short standing bowsprit or none at all and a single headsail set at the forestay. A cat boat is a broad-beamed sailboat carrying a single sail on a mast stepped well forward.
58. Ibid. A coxswain is the steersman who steers and directs the racing shell. A scull is a small, light boat for sculling especially a racing boat. Sculling is the method of propelling a boat with one pair of short-handled oars by a single rower. A shell is a long, narrow racing boat propelled by oarsmen.
61. The Seaport News, October 8, 1892. Smilax is a climbing vine with glossy foilage that includes seasonal, small greenish-white flowers and dark purple berries.
62. The Sun, October 1, 1892.
64. The Seaport News, October 8, 1892.
65. The Sun, October 1, 1892. The buried rooster contest consisted of men on horseback pulling at roosters' heads while their bodies remained buried underground. In similar fashion, during the other contest, coins and handkerchiefs were also to have been snatched from the ground by men on horseback at a dead run.
66. The Seaport News, October 8, 1892.
67. The Sun, October 1, 1892.
68. The Seaport News, October 8, 1892.
70.The Sun, October 3, 1892.