CA History ‘Round The Town: De Portola

Most adults spend a lot of time driving – errands, commuting, going to activities, or visiting. One of the things I’ve always liked to do in the car – even before I started driving – was to the read street names. Often times it can be like “driving through a history book.” When I’m waiting at a stop sign or light, I’ll quiz myself and see if I can remember something important related to the name of the street and cross street. It’s fun!

[Please do NOT be a distracted driver. Always travel safely. And never search on your phone for historical facts while driving!]

Anyway – I live in Southern California, so a lot of street names are in Spanish or are named after important people, places, or things in California history. Gazette665’s historical theme of month for April 2016 is California History ‘Round The Town and I’ve picked 5 street names from around the city and will share about the importance of that name in California History.

Today it’s De Portola Road…

De Portola RoadeDe Portola Road in my city runs through residential area and all the way out to the countryside (washboard dirt road – yeehaw!) and then becomes paved again to run through wine country. So who was De Portola? (Aside from being someone famous enough to get roads named after him.)

California’s First Spanish Governor

In the mid-18th Century (1700’s) Spain needed to make some money. The Seven Years War in Europe had strained the Royal Spanish treasury, and King Charles III wondered if his colonies in the New World might provide some wealth.

Jose De Galvez was sent off to Mexico to look for ways to make some money. Whether he intentionally lied or only reported faulty information is somewhat debatable, but Galvez reported that Russian fur trappers intended to seize California. (In reality the Russians had fur trading outposts in Alaska, but hadn’t moved south quite yet.) However, Galvez strongly suggested that California should be colonized by Spanish / Mexican settlers to ensure that the territory would remain part of Spain’s empire.

Galvez – as the king’s representative – chose Gaspar de Portola to be California’s first territorial governor and to lead an expedition to found the colony. Both soldiers and Catholic missionaries would form the expeditions. The soldiers would establish military presidos (forts) to protect new colonists and keep the Russians away while the Franciscan Fathers would establish missions and teach the native people about God.

Gaspar De Portola

Gaspar De Portola

Gaspar de Portola was a good choice for the leadership role. He had spent the majority of his life as a soldier and was known for his trustworthy character and prudence. Born in Spain on January 1, 1716, de Portola served with the Spanish army in Europe before traveling to colonies in Mexico.

The Sacred Expedition

In July 1769 several expeditionary groups set out from the towns and ports of Mexico and headed north toward California. Governor de Portola traveled in the second of the groups traveling by land and Junipero Serra – a Franciscan missionary – went along in De Portola’s caravan. Rendezvousing at San Diego with the other groups and the supply ships, Father Serra established the first of the California Missions and De Portola prepared for the next goal of the journey.

Ordered to establish a presido at Monterrey Bay, De Portola and his soldiers started on their trek through California. The coast had been mapped by previous explorers, but De Portola was the first known white man to lead a land expedition through California. Unfortunately for the governor, either the maps were really bad or he and his men needed a few lessons in trailblazing because they camped on the shores of Monterrey Bay, but were convinced they had not found it.

In a long search for the “hidden in plain sight” bay, De Portola actually discovered another important location in California which had been previously hidden from the explorers at sea. De Portola discovered San Francisco Bay, but didn’t realize it’s strategic importance at the time. He also experienced a California earthquake and a grizzly bear attack.

When De Portola and his exhausted men returned to San Diego, they found a desperate situation. Supplies were dangerously low, and De Portola and Father Serra debated about abandoning the colony. In a chain of events that the Spanish decided were miraculous, supply ships arrived and the colonists stayed.

Leaving California

On a later expedition, De Portola did recognize Monterrey Bay, and a presido and mission were established there. In 1770 with the bay found, forts built, and missions established, De Portola felt his orders were accomplished, and he returned to Mexico, probably never realizing the importance of his explorations and settle establishments.

Six years later, he became governor of a state in Mexico. In 1784, De Portola returned to Spain and commanded a unit of dragoon cavalry. Appointed in 1786 to oversee all castles and strongholds for the King of Spain, De Portola fulfilled that duty for only a few months. He died in October 1786.

There’s A Road Named After Him Because…?

  1. De Portola was the first Spanish governor of California.
  2. He led the Sacred Expedition, which was the first colonization / missionary efforts in California.
  3. He explored California by land and established a Spanish military presence in the colony.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Don’t forget – there are other California History resources available on Gazette665. You can find them all HERE.


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