The Portolá Expedition in Orange County

2019 marks the 250th anniversary of the first Spanish overland expedition up the California coast. Unlike the British (and later the Americans), Spanish policy aimed to convert the native population into peaceful, hard-working, Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the empire. In all this, the missions were a primary tool, with only a small military force provided for their protection. 

The first explorers traveled north in two divisions – three ships, and two land expeditions marching up through Baja California. Meeting up in San Diego, the exhausted overland travelers found one ship had vanished and the other crews sick with scurvy. But the commander of the expedition, Capt. Gaspar de Portolá, had his orders. He gathered up the healthiest of the men and barely two weeks after his arrival resumed the march north, leaving Father Junípero Serra behind to found the first Alta California mission at San Diego (July 16, 1769). Traveling with Portolá were soldiers from Mexico and Spain, muleteers, servants, and a group of Indian neophytes from the missions of Baja California – about 63 men in all. Their goal was the bay of Monterey. 

The men of the Portolá expedition would leave their mark on the history of California in many different ways. Some passed through the story but once. Others played important roles for years to come, serving as Spanish officials, frontier soldiers, and some of the first California rancheros

Catalonian-born Captain Gaspar de Portolá (1717-1786) was charged with leading Spain’s advance into Alta California. His determination to carry out his orders to plant Spanish settlements at San Diego and Monterey was key to the success of the march north. But his stay in Alta California was brief. In July 1770 he left San Diego and returned to mainland Mexico. 

Fr. Juan Crespí (1721-1782), the official diarist of the expedition, served as a missionary in Mexico before coming first to Baja California and then on to the Alta California. He and his fellow Franciscan, Fr. Francisco Gómez, served as chaplains to the Portolá expedition. He spent most of the rest of his missionary career at Mission Carmel. 

Lt. Pedro Fages (1730-1796) was commander of the few Catalonian Volunteers healthy enough to make the march north from San Diego. When Portolá left California in 1770 he was appointed military commander, serving until 1774. He returned to California as governor (1782-1791) and during his tenure made the first rancho concessions in Alta California in 1784, including Manuel Nieto’s Rancho Santa Gertrudis, which took in most of Orange County west of the Santa Ana River. 

Sgt. José Francisco Ortega (1734-1798), a Baja California military veteran, served as chief scout of the expedition. He was later assigned to assist in the original founding of Mission San Juan Capistrano in October 1775, though it was disrupted a week later when news arrived of an Indian attack on Mission San Diego. He retired in 1795 to his Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio, north of Santa Barbara. The Ortega Highway across the Santa Ana Mountains was named in honor in 1929. 

Orange County readers may wonder at the absence of José Antonio Yorba from this list. While long associated with the march of Portolá, modern research reveals that he did not come to California until 1771. He is mentioned in Fr. Serra’s correspondence in 1774 as one of three Catalonian volunteers who had decided to remain in California. “I do all I can to encourage them, in order that, by their diligence at work, and by their economy, they may serve as an example to the others.”

Back on the trail north, the expedition advanced slowly, sometimes less than four miles in a day, stopping every four or five days for a rest while the scouts continued to explore the country on ahead.  

Just where Portolá and his men walked and rode across what is now Orange County in 1769 can never be precisely defined. In some places, their route seems clear. In others, we can only guess. The expedition probably crossed the Orange County line somewhere in upper Talega Canyon on July 23, 1769. Moving northwest, they soon entered Cristianitos Canyon and followed it north before turning northwest to cross the hills near Trampas Canyon. Dropping into San Juan Canyon, they camped on high ground at the mouth of Gobernadora Canyon near the new community of Sendero. 

The next day, the expedition started north up Gobernadora Canyon, but after a league or so veered to the left to follow Wagon Wheel Canyon up to its head. Turning north-northwest, they camped along Trabuco Creek, probably not too far south of Lone Hill in Rancho Santa Margarita. 

After laying over a day, the expedition started northwest again, crossing rolling hills and several small creeks in the Lake Forest area before finally coming out on the flats near the northern end of the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. They had expected to make a dry camp, but Fr. Gómez noticed a patch of green in the hills to the northeast which turned out to be Tomato Springs. They camped on a flat below, near today’s Portola Springs Elementary School. 

Continuing northwest on July 27th, the expedition traveled along the foot of the hills past the mouth of Peters Canyon before climbing a small pass between Red Hill and Lemon Heights. Continuing northwest they reached the Santiago Creek, where they camped near today’s Grijalva Park in Orange. 

The next day the expedition continued generally northwest, reaching the Santa Ana River about where Glassell Street crosses it today. They camped on the south side of the river. 

The next day the expedition traveled northwest through the Placentia area before crossing the Coyote Hills above Fullerton. They camped that night along Brea Creek. 

On July 30th, their final day in Orange County, the expedition crossed the La Habra Valley, still heading northwest, crossing the county line near where Hacienda Road comes down out of the Puente Hills. 

Little of the Portolá route through Orange County became part of the famed El Camino Real, which tended run along the flats here, where the expedition kept more to the foothills. But a number of the names bestowed both by Fr. Crespí and the soldiers survive. Trabuco Creek marks where one of the soldiers lost his gun – in Spanish, his trabuco. The Santiago Creek was named by Crespí, while the soldiers named the river beyond Santa Ana. La Habra may stem from the pass (abra) where the expedition crossed the hills out of Orange County, and the Puente Hills were named for the bridge (puente) the men built to cross a creek on the other side. 

Pushing on slowly north and northwest, the expedition somehow passed their intended goal of Monterey without immediately recognizing it and continued on all the way to San Francisco Bay – at that time still unknown to the Spanish. By then it was November, and illness and rainy weather had begun to take their toll on the men. They turned south, again passing what they now knew had to be Monterey Bay, traveling at two and three times the pace of their slow march north. Supplies were now an issue. All along the way south they ate the weakest of their mules, one by one. They finally reached San Diego on January 24, 1770, having covered some 1,200 miles. 

Part of Portolá’s orders were to try to establish peaceful relations with the Indians the men met along the march. In his brief journal he mentions again and again visits from the Indians and distributing gifts of beads and cloth brought along for just that purpose. The expedition seems to have been careful to camp away from village water sources (especially where supplies were scarce), sometimes only taking enough water for the men and not the livestock. 

Fr. Crespí mentions that some of the Indians in Orange County began shouting on seeing the Spanish approach but that there was never any show of force, the Indians always approaching them unarmed, making speeches and offering gifts. But sadly, these amiable relations were short-lived. Once the Spanish settled in an area, be it a mission or a presidio, the soldiers often came into conflict with the Indians, much to the frustration of the padres. Yet the story of the Portolá expedition shows that it did not always have to be that way.

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In July 2019 the Orange County Historical Society will offer a bus tour along the Portolá route through the county, with stops and talks along the way. See their website for more details or to sign up.

This historical marker stands above Portolá Springs Elementary School in Irvine. Tomato Springs was located in the low hills to the right. The expedition camped a short ways west of this little hill.

This historical marker stands above Portolá Springs Elementary School in Irvine. Tomato Springs was located in the low hills to the right. The expedition camped a short ways west of this little hill.