The Portola Expedition

by Tayor Coffman

This article is copyright 2011, all rights reserved; renewed 2013

The year 1969 marked the two hundredth anniversary of a historic trek through the Cambria-San Simeon area, a journey often called (by English speakers) The Sacred Expedition. It was in 1769 that a Spaniard named Gaspar de Portola and a large group of men and livestock made their way up the rugged Baja California peninsula, northward from Loreto. The Franciscans in the group established a single mission along the way in a remote place called Velicata; it was the only trace left by that religious order in all of Baja. But the real aim of the Sacred Expedition was to find the harbor of Monterey, still hundreds of miles north, named and described by Sebastian Vizcaino on his voyage of more than 150 years earlier, in 1602-1603. In fact, the Portola group was speaking of the “Monterey Expedition,” a term rarely seen in later annals.

Junipero Serra

Previously in Vizcaino’s explorations, that mariner had also anchored in San Diego Bay. The trekkers of 1769 had readily identified the harbor so-named, and the first of twenty-one Franciscan missions in Alta California would soon be established nearby. Junipero Serra, “Father Presidente” of the one Baja outpost and of the first nine missions founded in what’s now simply California, would be staying behind in San Diego to do the initial honors. Farther north, meanwhile, a great unknown awaited the questing Portola and his men, relieved only by Vizcaino’s intermittent place names.

Fast forward to 1969, to the bicentennial of the Portola trek. Cambria’s own Paul Squibb, a beloved citizen and local historian, produced a 32-page booklet called Captain Portola in San Luis Obispo County, 1769-1969. Despite its thin, almost innocent appearance, Captain Portola packs a lot of historical punch. My own copy is well thumbed, as I’m sure the few others are that still exist. Paul Squibb noted that his Portola booklet contained “Portions of the Diary of Father Juan Crespi O.F.M.” Those initials mean “Order of Friars Minor.” Squibb also said the booklet offered “Quotations from Father Crespi’s own diary currently under translation by Alan K. Brown of the University of Arizona.”

What neither Squibb nor Brown could have known in 1969 is that more than thirty years—a grinding three decades—would pass before Brown’s translation would be fully published. When it was, in 2001 as a bilingual volume, it would bear a most unusual title: A Description of Distant Roads. Those are Juan Crespi’s own words. So are the thousands of translated passages presented by Dr. Brown in a book weighing almost six pounds and containing more than eight hundred oversized pages.

The book’s subtitle, chosen by Brown with modern readers in mind, was Original Journals of the First Expedition into California, 1769-1770. The second word, “journals,” is specific. Even though the Spanish equivalent of that word is diarios, the Crespi and related texts aren’t diaries in the usual sense, as Brown explained. They’re journals, officially kept, we might even say professionally kept. That was the spirit of them, their administrative nature and purpose.

Along with Juan Crespi’s efforts (he doubled as chaplain for the group), a journal was being kept on that same trek by Miguel Costanso; the latter wasn’t a priest, like Crespi or Junipero Serra, but a layman—a member of the Royal Corps of Engineers. Costanso’s journal has long been admired for its clarity, its practicality. His journal was newly translated in 1983, also by Dr. Brown; so was a biography of Gaspar de Portola that accompanied the Costanso text. The Portola-Costanso book originally appeared in 1970, in Spanish only. Its translated title is Gaspar de Portola: Explorer and Founder of California. Excerpts from Costanso’s journal are as quotable for 1769 as are Juan Crespi’s entries in Distant Roads.

A great advantage of the Crespi material is that now, after years of intermittent toil by Dr. Brown—he was long an admired professor of Old English at Ohio State University, for whom California’s past was an avocation—the second trek made by Portola, Crespi, and the other men, dated 1770, is also part of A Description of Distant Roads. Several versions of the Crespi and the Costanso “diaries” of 1769 have been published since the nineteenth century. However, the 1770 portions have been mostly excluded until now.

The reason for the two dates—1769 and 1770—is that on their journey up the coast in the first of those years, the Portola group failed to recognize Monterey Bay, even though at one moment they were standing on its very shores. As the San Diego historian Richard Pourade said in 1968 in his book The Call to California, “They were right on the bay—but did not recognize it.”

The expedition returned from the Monterey and other northern areas to San Diego. By then it was 1770. The men reconnoitered and began retracing their steps up the coast, with a clearer sense of their object. So far as the Cambria-San Simeon area goes, Portola and company passed through it four times: twice in 1769, to and fro, and twice in the same manner in 1770. The standard accounts before 2001, when Distant Roads finally appeared, cover the first to-and-fro phase but not the second one.

Also, as Dr. Brown makes clear, the 1769 and 1770 phases of the expedition were sub-units of a single, multi-faceted effort. True, it took two treks up and down the California coast for the group to complete its work, yet it was all part of the same pursuit, the same adventure.

The life of an editor like Alan K. Brown, who died in 2009, can involve much more than being a translator. It can also mean traveling far afield once certain documents have come to light. The journals of Juan Crespi—those that survive; not all of them do—are partly in the western hemisphere, partly overseas. Through most of Brown’s hefty edition, he distinguishes between M for Mexico City and R for Rome. Furthermore, M usually applies to the field draft of Crespi’s descriptions, whereas R usually applies to a later revision, also written by Crespi. Brown’s use of the documents in Mexico City and those in Rome gives us as complete a picture as we’re ever likely to have. It’s humbling, therefore, to read in his introduction, “There can be no question but that, for over two and a quarter centuries [1769-2001], the loss of most of Juan Crespi’s own words was a setback for the record of history.”

That is to say, the journals in Mexico City and in Rome, which have made A Description of Distant Roads possible, are fragmentary at best—even when reproduced at nearly six pounds and 800-plus pages.

Its imposing magnitude aside, A Description of Distant Roads works best as a bilingual source book, on par with a dictionary or encyclopedia. It’s handier to follow the Portola expedition through San Luis Obispo County by using Paul Squibb’s little booklet of 1969. Dr. Brown’s exhaustive translation of Distant Roads can be consulted as needed; the same is true of his translation from 1983 of the Costanso journal. The Squibb booklet starts on September 2, 1769, near the south end of the county: “From Guadalupe Lake to Oso Flaco Lake.”

By September 8 the marchers were at Morro Bay, which they called San Adriano and where, as Squibb noted, they “saw a great rock in the form of a morro.” That and another mention of “this morro” should be enough to assign the name to the Portola expedition. Earlier, the landform itself (unnamed) appeared minutely on a map drawn in 1602 for the Vizcaino voyage and first published two centuries later; Alan Brown alluded to Vizcaino this way in the Crespi book. But never mind Myron Angel and other writers who’ve associated Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Morro Bay, as though the name dates from as far back as 1542. It surely doesn’t, and it’s high time for this old tale to be laid to rest. Nor does the variant Moro carry much weight. That spelling, with its single r, stems in part from the Moro y Cayucos land grant of the Mexican period and may well translate simply as “blue roan horse” (although some still believe it means a Moor or Muslim). What, then, of the Crespi journals in Distant Roads? In this instance they relate that Portola and his men saw a rock “que forma a modo de morro.” The English version alongside the Spanish speaks of “a high, round island rock in view [to us] in the shape of a sort of head.” Make that a helmeted head, giving the appearance of a giant soldier.

The Expedition of Gaspar de Portola in the Cambria area

Over the next two days, September 9 and 10, 1769, the expedition went from Morro Bay, past Cayucos and Villa Creek, and a short ways inland to the banks of Santa Rosa Creek—“a very deep hollow,” as Miguel Costanso described the setting—quite near today’s Coast Joint Union High School, reasoned Paul Squibb.

“We placed our camp on the height above the hollow,” Costanso further noted, “which was named [by the travelers] Little Bear Hollow, el Osito, because some mountain Indians coming down to visit us brought along a cub of this species which they were taming, and offered it to us. They must have amounted to sixty men.”

Crespi, in the revised version of his journal (the part now kept in Rome), had this to say about the little bear. “Along with them they brought a small young grey-bear that they had caught in a cave. It was still a cub and must have been about the size of the largest sort of dog, yet still so young that its hair would bristle whenever any of us came near it.” In his Mexico City draft, Crespi said: “I named this spot San Benvenuto, Saint Benevenutus, [suitable] for a good-sized mission.” In his Rome version, he spoke of “The pine grove of San Benvenuto.” He also mentioned the many bears inhabiting the area.

The next day in 1769, September 11, the party marched from the pine grove on Santa Rosa Creek, toward the ocean, and, once there, up what must have been a well-established coastal trail. They went as far as Pico Creek. Arroyo de San Nicolas, says the Squibb booklet; and Crespi’s fuller details in Distant Roads confirm it. However, “San Nicolas,” like “San Benvenuto” for Cambria, was destined to be forgotten. Crespi also noted that the marchers left the pines behind (those in Cambria) and that they “crossed another good-sized stream with a good flow of running water”—probably San Simeon Creek.

Once ensconced at Pico Creek, Crespi added several lines to his journal. He could see a woodland nearby, similar to the one at San Benvenuto-Cambria. “Beyond this spot or watering place, some pine trees once again run onward not very far from the sea.”

September 12 found the Portola group heading from Pico Creek toward the main part of San Simeon. I’ve checked the various journals to see which gives the best description of San Simeon Point. Miguel Costanso’s crisp phrasing is the one: “We came to a point of land abrupt to the sea.” Paul Squibb’s version reads: “We came to a point of land running into the sea.” Squibb had part of the Costanso text to work from, a translation much earlier than Brown’s of 1983. But it’s surprising that, for their part, neither one of Crespi’s texts for 1769, whether the Mexico City or Rome version, contains a description of San Simeon Point, surely a distinctive landform by most standards.

Crespi more than made up for this oversight. Just inland from San Simeon Bay, apparently along what today is called Arroyo del Puerto—in the heart of the Hearst Ranch—the landscape moved him to pen the following: “While passing through, I thought one of these watering places, where two streams of water meet and there is a great deal of trees, to be a good spot for a fine little mission, with [good] soil and water, about two and a half or three leagues from San Benvenuto, and I named it in passing San Juan de Dukla, Saint John of Dukla.”

Dukla, a town in southern Poland, had a Franciscan who lived in the fifteenth century and who became the St. John in question (although he wasn’t formally canonized until 1997). His invocation by Crespi is a prime example of how one devout priest could honor another, regardless of Old World boundaries. We can let our imaginations run wild, meanwhile, in wondering what San Simeon—in all its guises: point, bay, rancho, creek—would be called now if “San Juan de Dukla” had endured from 1769.

Paul Squibb’s next entry, for September 13, is headed “Near the Mouth of San Carpojo Creek, Also Called Carpoforo.” San Carpoforo proves to be Italian. Yet the name doesn’t appear in either one of the Crespi versions; nor does it appear in the text portion of the Squibb entry. Instead, Santa Humiliana is found in both Squibb and Crespi for the deep canyon where the Big Sur country starts, near Ragged Point—part of what’s called the South Coast (albeit north of the North Coast, a term confined in this regional context to San Luis Obispo County). Earlier in the trek, near today’s Pacific Palisades, the expedition scouts had found “no way past the range falling steep to the sea,” meaning the Santa Monica Mountains along the Malibu coast. Now an even greater obstacle loomed: the sheer ramparts of the Santa Lucia Range.

From San Carpoforo (locally and more recently “San Carpojo”), the Portola group therefore turned right and climbed northeast, higher than they had at any place thus far since leaving San Diego; they passed inland into the modern era’s Monterey County. They’d be back in San Luis Obispo County three months later—in December 1769—by then having chanced upon San Francisco Bay, ironically, rather than their original goal of Monterey Bay.

We can consult Crespi again, in A Description of Distant Roads, to find him southbound, returning to San Diego, and speaking of San Simeon on December 24: “We set out, after the two of us [priests] saying Mass, early in the morning from here at Saint John of Dukla, keeping along the shore.” Further on for the 24th, he said of the future Cambria: “On going three leagues we left the shore and went up to the grand spot and stream of the San Benvenuto pine grove.”

On Christmas Day, 1769, Crespi again referred to San Benvenuto as “the grand spot and pinewood.” On the 25th as well, the group may have marched as far as Morro Bay, which Crespi described better than he had while going up the coast in September: “We came to a stream and small-sized [Indian] village belonging to the Ensenada del Morro, the embayment of the Head, at the shore.”

The Squibb booklet offers this for December 25: “The First Christmas at Cambria; Then Almost to Cayucos.” And yet the Portola group supposedly went farther than Cayucos—went as far as Morro Bay, as just noted. “Three leagues’ march,” said Crespi, whereas the distance from Cambria to Morro Bay is more like eight leagues, requiring a second day’s march. Hence a good-sized discrepancy in the Crespi journal for this date. Dr. Brown warned in Distant Roads that such would happen at times. The foregoing is a prime example.

Through the remaining days of December 1769, the group retraced many of its September steps in San Luis Obispo County. This meant going down Price Canyon, between the Edna Valley and Pismo Beach—the domain of the strongman called The Goiter, El Buchon in Spanish, whose name was coined by the expedition for the large tumor on his neck. The Squibb booklet for December 29 includes this passage: “The Buchon [is] the man so renowned and feared in all these parts [that] we conceived him to be a sort of little King over these widespread good heathen peoples.” A few years later, the Anza expeditions would call this same man El Buchon as well, or “Big Throat” to them.

The Buchon’s influence was evidently felt as far up the coast as Cambria and San Simeon, from whose inhabitants the goitered chieftain exacted tribute, much as he did from native peoples well to the east and the south. Ironically, the name of the street in downtown San Luis Obispo that recalls him, Buchon, is pronounced softly by everyone, as though it were French: Boo-shawn. The name in fact warrants a strong Spanish inflection, with sharply accented emphasis on the second syllable, as the Portola group (and the Anza group also) would have said it: Boo-CHONE. Nothing less ethnic will do honor to that departed noble.

By January 24, 1770, Portola, Crespi, Costanso, and the rest of their party reached San Diego. It was from there, roughly three months later, on April 17, that Juan Crespi began keeping “A Journal of the Second Journey Overland: Between the Harbor and New Mission of San Diego, and the Harbor of Monte Rey.” The marchers were nearly a month in getting back to the Cambria-San Simeon area; May 14 found them reaching “the San Benvenuto pinewood.” The next day, May 15, they marched as far as San Simeon. This time, Crespi mentioned San Simeon Point, though not by name: “It must have been a good three leagues’ march beyond the San Benvenuto pinewood to San Juan de Dukla. The stream here lies next to a point of low ground that reaches a good way out to sea.”

On May 16, on reaching Santa Humiliana (the future San Carpoforo), they “saw a bear of great size right at the shore.” Some of the men pursued it, “but it climbed up a cliff and immediately escaped into the mountains, where they were unable to get a shot at it.” That would have been a grizzly bear, like the ones seen in Cambria the year before, not a smaller black bear. The more docile black species didn’t colonize the area until the larger, always ferocious grizzlies were hunted to extinction, decades later.

The time had come again for the Portola group to veer inland and cross the daunting Santa Lucias into Monterey County. As Crespi recorded for May 18, 1770: “We set out about a half past six in the morning from this spot named [by Vizcaino in 1602] for Saint Lucy, following a northward [and northeastward] course, and finished climbing the highest part of the mountains.” A week later they recognized a place they’d overlooked on the first trek, the long-anticipated Monterey Bay.

Gaspar de Portola

Juan Crespi’s journal soon ended. It had served its purpose. There’s no parallel Costanso journal for these later months in 1770, and Paul Squibb’s booklet doesn’t go past the Portola group’s initial return to San Diego in January of that year. Numerous mission sites—that is, prospects for missions—had been noted by Crespi over the long marches they’d made. At least two of the sites were in the Cambria-San Simeon area, the places he called San Benvenuto and San Juan de Dukla. Junipero Serra’s second mission, San Carlos de Borromeo, would soon be established near the north end of the intervening Big Sur coast.

The most important thing for now, before any new missions could be founded anywhere, was the Portola group’s recognition of the landmark that Sebastian Vizcaino had glowingly praised, well over a century before. As Crespi could finally put it, at long last in the spring of 1770:

“This is Monte-Rey Harbor!”

5 Responses to “The Portola Expedition”

  1. B&J says:

    They definitely stopped at Santa Rosa Creek near the present day high school. Look in the paragraphs next to the picture captioned, “The Expedition of Gaspar de Portola in the Cambria area” for more about this. They then proceeded down the creek to the ocean but, considering it was September, there may or may not have been water in the creek there.


  2. Did they stop at Santa Rosa inlet for water?

  3. Did they stop at Santa Rosa Creek!??

  4. B&J says:


    We have a theory as to why Portola failed to recognize Monterey Bay.

    When Vizcaino described the bay as offering a sheltered anchorage, he was probably referring to the southern portion of the bay near the present city of Monterey. The present day harbor at this location is protected from the sea by a small hook of land at Pacific Grove.

    Vizcaino’s observations were made from his ship since he never set foot on the land there. Portola’s view of the bay was from the mouth of the Carmel River. The “hook” is not very apparent from that point so it would have been easy for Portola to overlook it.

    There is no basis in fact for this theory. We’re just trying to cut Portola a little slack!


  5. lyle engeldinger says:

    Wonderful. Thank you for your work. You have added much to my growing understanding of de Portola’s journey along the California coast (roughly) ending in Palo Alto near Stanford University and next to the great San Francisco Bay and turning around and retracing to some extent his path back to San Diego. I often visit Monterey Bay and I can understand why de Portola did not think of Monterey Bay as a great harbor as described by Vizcaino, and moved on.

    As an 8 year old, I would often ride my bike from my home near Woodside, CA to the City of Portola Valley (west north west of Stanford University). At that age I had no idea that I was moving along some of the same ground de Portola traveled.

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