Commander Fages and his men.
by Albert Simonson
Once I was driving up Interstate 8 and saw a billboard which asked that very nineties question: “Got Milk?” In the background was El Capitan Mountain, very impressive when seen from the shopping center at Los Coches Road, near Lakeside. Farther up the hill, I saw El Capitan Reservoir off to the left. But I don’t think it was the billboard that reminded me to pick up some milk on the way home. It was the deep water of “El Cap”.
Probably the first non-Indians to pass through El Cap was presidio commander Fages and his soldiers. It was 1782, and they were on their way home, too, from the mission of Purissima Concepcion at Yuma. By present Highway 78 east of Julian, they camped in a valley and named it San Felipe. The name stuck.
The next day, they rode abut 25 miles, passing through a village of Indians in Cuyamaca. The Indians were very friendly and unarmed. Fages gave them some glass beads.
The next morning, April 20, they reached the stream of San Luis, now called the San Diego River. There, at a point now covered by the waters of El Cap, they found an Indian village already called Capitan Grande, or Big Chief. This area is now the Capitan Grande Reservation, but the descendants of the big chief and his people were relocated in the 1930’s to Viejas and Barona when the dam was built.
Continuing 10 miles downstream toward what would later be called Santa Monica (now Lakeside), the soldiers passed three herds of brood-mares and pasturing cattle which belonged to San Diego Mission. At a village near Lakeside, Indians were busy milking cows. Perhaps one of the Indians asked Fages, “Got milk?” What is certain is that the soldiers were given milk, and they enjoyed it thoroughly after the hard crossing of desert and mountains.
The remarkable part of the story is that this occurred only thirteen years after the sick and exhausted tiny group of missionaries and soldiers first arrived at San Diego. The missionaries were frustrated that the natives were damnably slow to pick up Catholicism. But the story shows that natives lost no time in picking up the cutting-edge technology of horses and cattle.
Otherwise, how would they have got milk?