By Albert Simonson and Ed Huffman
Thomas Savage, an able assistant to famed early historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, had access to
the provincial archives of the Mexican colonial government in Monterey, California.
Bancroft used these records for his multivolume, 1886 – 1890 “History of California.” Although
the provincial archives had the first known map of inland San Diego, Bancroft excluded the
map and the report which accompanied it. The map may well have seemed to be of minor importance
in his time, but visitors who now enjoy public access to this scenic area will enjoy knowing the facts
of this journey of exploration in the Laguna Mountains and Cuyamaca State Park.
The map and the report describe a route followed by presidio “leatherjacket” soldiers and
their native guides to find a more direct route to the strategic Yuma crossing of the Colorado River.
Hostile Natives had earlier destroyed two missions at the river and closed access to the Sonoran
mainland supply route.
The provincial archives were moved from Monterey to San Francisco where Bancroft and Savage
oversaw later meticulous copying of archive documents. The old documents were later lost in the1906
San Francisco fire, but the Bancroft Library at Berkeley has a contemporary manuscript copy of the
map “taken from the original” and also a later manuscript copy by Savage’s copyist of the report, both
in Spanish. This neatly written report was preserved as an entry in a lined, paginated ledger.
The writer in 1783 was a career presidio soldier with the rank of ensign, second in
command at the San Diego Presidio. His extraordinary life and career were described by Ronald L. Ives
in his book “Jose Velasquez: Saga of a Borderland Soldier”, published postmortem in 1984 by
Southwestern Mission Research Center at Arizona State Museum, Tucson.
The report complements and supports the map, although there is some conflict where
spoken native names were rendered or misrendered into written Spanish.
We were given access to a high-resolution scan of the map, but it is not easily reproducible. We have chosen, for clarity, to present it with enlarged English language text. From the Bancroft Library, we purchased the copy of the map and report, identified as BANC MSS C-A 2, p. 404 through 408 and used it as our guide. The Bancroft map evidently had been lightly traced in pencil (except for the handwriting) and then retraced in sepia ink.
The following report begins with a brief introduction of the Velasquez journal by the presidio
commander addressed to the Spanish born governor, Pedro Fages. During the previous year, Fages had
passed through the mountains and desert of the same region and had reported on campaigns, terrain,
and encounters with native “Camillares”, now called Kumeyaay or, in Mexico, Kamia.
The translated Velasquez journal is presented in Italics after the following introduction by the
1783 – June 22 – San Diego
Jose Zuniga to Fages, about the reconnaissance of the camino of the Colorado River by the ensign Don Jose Velasquez – His return – Includes a diary of his journey and the plan drawing of the mission San Diego:
He reports that the ensign Don Jose Velasquez set out from that port on the 30th of May last to reconnoiter the camino to the Colorado River through that part of the country which the Reverend Father Fermin had noted, and of his return on the 3rd of June. In addition to the attached diary he adds also his account of the active forces and lists of the deployment of the troops during the present month. I have here the diary to which reference is made.
In compliance with the order which my Commandant Don Joseph de Zuniga passed to me on the 30th last to reconnoiter the camino which, by report of the Indians, was said to be convenient for crossing of the sierra, I set out from this royal Presidio at sundown on said day.
We passed by the rancheria of Las Choyas and slept after four leagues, which I note in the margin.1
The 31st, at sunrise, we resumed our march by a good camino: we took a siesta near the rancheria of Natoma: 8 leagues. 2
At three in the afternoon the march was resumed by a poor trail with inclines and rocks. We slept at the place called la Madera, according to what the Indians said. 5 leagues 3
This place is a small valley which forms a plain in the middle surrounded by the highest ground, and on two sides it has pines with nuts. Although this might be good timber, it could not be brought out because of the distance and the bad camino. 4
There we came upon a rancheria. I inquired of its Captain where the pass or camino was to descend to the other side. He pointed out that there were two caminos, one to the north and the other to the southeast. I asked him if he wanted to give me a guide to follow the latter. He and two others, to whom I gave gifts, got ready quickly, and on the first of the month we resumed our march through very hilly and rough terrain. We veered toward the north. At four leagues we encountered the drop-off to the same camino that comes from San Sebastian, near the ascent to Cunama. 5
Having recognized beyond any doubt where we found ourselves, I did not want to descend for remembering well that when I came from San Sebastian, I had wanted to climb up this same slope and could not. 6
Having determined to turn back, I asked the heathen Indians if they knew whether there was another camino to the south. They answered no, whereupon I determined to turn back. I asked the soldiers how they wanted to return. They all answered, by San Luis, so as not to retrace the long and bad terrain we had covered. I realized that they were right because from this presidio to the ridge of the sierra by the way we took is twenty-one leagues, sooner more than less, and from the said ridge to here by the camino of San Luis would be fourteen or fifteen leagues at most. 7
Having tethered our animals, we took a siesta near the rancheria of Cunama. Having in sight a mountain pass toward where the sun sets, I asked the heathens if it was good to descend to San Luis. They answered that it was. About three o’clock in the afternoon we set out after our siesta, and at sundown we stopped at the point of San Luis Box Canyon. 8
On the second day of June we marched and about ten o’clock we reached San Luis where we rested until two o’clock. Then we set out and arrived at this presidio about seven in the evening. 9
In all we traversed through the sierra we saw various Rancherias of heathens mild mannered and affable, water very scarce, grass in abundance. 10
The attempt of Velasquez to reconnoiter a direct trail to the river was doomed to failure.
Topographic factors prevented the opening of that route until the advent of motorized equipment and
deep wells. The Sonora Trail remained perilous at Yuma Crossing, hindering further colonization of “Nueva” (Alta) California.
Velasquez was an experienced old military commander already in “Antigua” (Baja) California.
He rode from Monterey to Mexico City in the dead heat of summer to report to the viceroy on the
rediscovery of that port. At times, he reported on various potential mission sites, among them San
Vicente Ferrer, at kilometer 200 of the coastal road in Mexico. For that mission, the Bancroft Library has
a detailed site map in his own hand, showing watercourses, arable land, and even a proposed building
site and irrigation intakes. 11
Velasquez had received narrowly defined orders for his exploration of San Diego area
mountains. His report provides us terse, but sufficient information for retracing portions of his route
with confidence; others remain approximate. In either case, his observations enrich our perception of
these mountains as uncharted wilderness with sparse trails connecting “heathen” but friendly villages.
1. Velasquez and his detachment of soldiers rode south from the royal presidio (on the map: R P)
through present downtown San Diego, then turned north of east at the native village (on the map: villages) of Las Chollas at the mouth of Chollas Creek. After 4 leagues (10 miles), they made camp.
2. Topography channeled their journey along the alignment of Imperial Avenue, then Broadway and State Route 94. A vital water source was at Meti (later San Jorge and now Spring Valley), a spring for which the same historian H. H. Bancroft laid up a rock surround behind his adobe. What he called his “Garden of Eden” can still be visited at Bancroft County Park, off Bancroft Drive. To the south lay the Sweetwater River. Its Spanish name on the map must have derived from the herd of many presidio horses at Rancho del Rey pastures along the river, from present National City up to Cuyamaca.
The soldiers had an easy ride east along a string of grasslands north of the Sweetwater. Secuan was and still is a native population center. The native name “Natoma” has been documented but the travelled distance does not match it, and that name is not shown on the map. “Madama” appears on the map instead, and may be a rendering of Mataragui or Matar-awa (open-land-house, later Viejas Valley.) The distance travelled would put their midday rest near the western part of that valley, where there is an idyllic creek side woodland called “The Williows”, the site of a popular resort of early Alpine.
“Jevama” is problematic. Possibly the name is Secuan, since a “Camino de Secuan” was shown in that area on an 1846 diseno for Land Case 249 SD (Bancroft Library). Confusion of the native sounds for S and J occurred elsewhere, as in the corruption of nearby Jamatayune to Samagatuma, near Guatay. This explanation is hardly compelling, but we find no plausible alternative to this well-travelled route.
3. The ascent from Viejas to Descanso was difficult. Once arrived, they would have seen a fine upland valley, the running Sweetwater River, and abundant oaks. This is probably the westerly area designated in the map by the letter “A”. It is doubtful that Indians, among themselves, would have called it “Madera”, since it was already known by the native name Nawa-tay-ee, (house-big). This name endures in corrupted form at nearby Guatay. On the basis of distance travelled, the soldiers may have stopped for the night along Samagatuma Creek, near Valle de Pinos, now Pine Valley, or less probably at Corte Madera. On the map, the two southerly areas marked “A” touch, but are not coterminous. This would accurately represent the watershed of the Sweetwater River, but Velasquez was not positioned to observe that Pine Valley does not drain into the Sweetwater as his map shows. Judge Benjamin Hayes made detailed notes on the natives at Samagatuma, albeit almost a century later. They still lived as they had since time immemorial.
4. This description suits well both Pine Valley and Corte Madera, but Pine Valley was and is much more accessible. Velasquez was naturally impressed by the tall straight pines, absent at lower elevation and so useful for roof rafters. Rafter timber was otherwise available only by coastal transport from the north at great cost. We rule out Corte Madera and excursions much farther east because the greater distance would exceed the stated distance.
5. Velasquez was probably pleased to be in compliance with his orders by heading east southeast as the map shows. Then, however, the native guides veered to a crooked route north, probably through coniferous woodland along Kitchen Creek, visible from a highway turnout on Sunrise Highway downhill from Morris Ranch Road. Velasquez wanted to head east but the native guides knew there was no good trail where Interstate 8 now runs. Native artifacts have been documented along this Kitchen Creek and there is no reason to doubt the existence of a trail in such a convenient location between population centers. The ascent is shown as “al registro” (to the lookout) on the map. They would have reached a panoramic lookout area north of present Desert View Picnic Area, near Mount Laguna village. From that lookout, Velasquez could see a panorama of the corridor that he knew and drew as “Arroyo de San Sebastian.” A dark area to the east, now called San Sebastian Marsh (near the Salton Sea), was the place where Pedro Fages a year earlier had assumed the post of governor of the Californias, a place well known to Velasquez. Clearly visible after winter rains was the Carrizo Corridor, dark in the tawny desert, leading to the place Fages names San Felipe, now Vallecito. On his map, Velasquez sketched in a mountain traverse connecting the arroyos of San Sebastian and San Luis, a route already known to him. It passed north of Cunama Village and south of North Peak (written as “cumbre de la sierra”) which looms over the northwest quadrant of Cuyamaca Lake, formerly a meadow. The trail from the desert crosses Sunrise Highway at a place marked with a monument memorializing the Fages Trail. Velasquez mapped a westward descent along Boulder Creek, but he clearly showed that this time they took a more southerly route (“por donde volvimos”), instead of the usual, probably ancient, trail. His certainty implies an extraordinary sense of topography based on his long known career of exploration and of evaluating many potential mission sites in both Californias.
6. Velasquez was now certain he could not fulfill his assignment, recognizing the same slope he had earlier failed to ascend. He had been in that desert and San Sebastian as recently as September 10, 1782, as Ives points out. Sebastian Tarabal’s amazing life included the guiding of de Anza. The place bears the name of this indispensable native guide called, “El Peregrino” (wanderer).
7. Their distance estimates correlate well with straight line distances. The fact that the soldiers knew the distance back to the presidio shows that the San Luis route was known to them from previous deployments.
8. The soldiers probably continued northwest from the lookout, at least as far as Storm Canyon overlook platform, since his map shows their continuing track due west to Cunama. Native villages did not always have permanent locations. Fages in his journal placed Cunama near the ridge of the Laguna Mountains. The Velasquez map placed it in the middle of the intermountain plain. We might reasonably suppose it to be the same as a village called Aha-kwi-amak (Cuyamaca, i.e. water beyond). Eugene Hero Rensch, an erstwhile curator of Cuyamaca State Park, having had access to old timers of his day, placed this village just north of Stonewall Peak, by a meadow favored by deer, where much artifactual evidence of habitation exists. To the west, Velasquez saw “un puerto” (pass or saddle). Still today this mountain pass is mapped as “La Puerta Springs” offering direct passage to the known San Diego River route, a pass even today used by park visitors for riding and hiking. His word choice gives us confidence about the location, since the word would not suit any alternative topographical feature. Velasquez and troop probably took their siesta near the turnoff to the Stonewall Mine. Then they continued to the “punta del cajon de San Luis”, (beginning of San Luis Box Canyon), now submerged by El Capitan Reservoir.
9. San Luis was an early name for the San Diego River and also for a riverside native village. The writer’s use of the words “this presidio” suggests that the report was written after his return to the presidio. He writes little about the return trip, as it was a known route of little interest.
10. Although Fages and Velasquez had engaged in prolonged and severe hostilities at the Yuma crossing, both reported that the mountain natives were friendly. Fages mentioned in his 1782 journal that they offered him “mescal”, roasted agave heart, as he rode through.
11. In his ride south from Monterey, Velasquez maintained a remarkable speed of 45 miles per day while making observations useful to us even today. Between that port and San Diego he noted 68 native villages with average populations somewhat less than 100, with a concentration along Santa Barbara Channel. He noted coastal features like redwood trees and tar seeps. At least one of his earlier reports was transmitted in turn to Viceroy Bucareli, the Council of the Indies in Spain, and even the king, who received it with “particular satisfaction.” The cited biography by Ives conveys an impression of a man who interacted well with natives, leatherjacket soldiers, and clergy, along with superior officers and officials. He was the right man for the job.