History of San Diego

United States > US City Index > San Diego > History

The Earliest Peoples
Archaeologists have determined that the first inhabitants of this area settled here more than 20,000 years ago, in the area now known as Ranch Santa Fe. These indigenous peoples were hunter-gatherers, subsisting on local seafood, wild berries and acorns. By 7000 BC, descendants of these earlier peoples, the San Dieguito People, had migrated to the sandy shores of now affluent La Jolla and the then rocky riverbed of Mission Valley.

Spanish Influence
The simple life of these native peoples was forever altered when the Spanish Conquistadors overtook the Aztec civilization. The conquest for gold, land and religion brought Spanish explorers and religious leaders to the area. The fervent desire for more lands (and converts) brought them even farther to the north into what was then known as Alta California, today's Southern California.

While looking for a Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 and came ashore near Ballast Point in Point Loma. In honor of the feast day on which he landed, Cabrillo dubbed this area San Miguel, before sailing off to further explore the West Coast of California. The area is now the Cabrillo National Monument.

For nearly 60 years, the land named by Cabrillo remained the quiet domain of the local inhabitants who continued to live their simple lives fishing and gathering abundant native plants. And nothing much changed that way of life, even after Sebastian Vizcaino arrived from Mexico in 1602 and renamed the area San Diego de Alcala, in honor of his vessel, San Diego, and the Catholic saint of the same name.

In 1768, expeditions were once again organized from Baja (lower) California into Alta (upper) California in order to establish territorial rights along the California coast before the encroaching Russians. Secondarily, the Catholic church decided to establish a series of missions along a northerly advance from which to convert the native peoples. By 1769, a contingent of soldiers and Franciscan Brothers, including Father Juan Crespi, established a military camp on Presidio Hill, near what would later become Old Town. That summer, Father Junipero Serra would found the first California Mission on that site. The Mission San Diego de Alcala would later be moved to its current location in Mission Valley.

Even before East Coast colonists became engaged in the Revolutionary War with Britain, colonists were establishing a settlement in San Diego, first military men in 1774, then families in 1777. In 1787, the American ship, "Columbia" was the first to circumnavigate the world and global interest in California was sparked and its future would never be the same.

Transitional Times
Around the time of Mexico's war to win independence from Spain, a thriving settlement of 600 people was established in Old Town, and it's still a lively community today. By 1821, Mexico earned its independence, and within four years San Diego was named the official capital of both upper and lower Baja. This was a time of prosperity for the city, an overland route was established by famed trailblazer, Jedediah Smith, and the fledging city elected its first mayor or "Alcalde," Juan Osuna.

By 1835, San Diego was officially recognized as a "pueblo," or "city." That same year, Richard Henry Dana (a seaman and author), arrived in San Diego. His book, "Two Years Before The Mast " published in 1841, includes details of early San Diego and has become a seaman's classic read. Visitors can view the movie version every summer aboard the Star of India.

In 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico to gain rights to the western lands and within two years, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo was signed ending the war and setting the countries' current borders. San Diego became the southernmost city in the United States. Four years later it would also become the southernmost city in the newly admitted state called California.

An American City
By the mid-1800s, San Diego became an official county and acquired one of its most influential residents, William Heath Davis. He was so enchanted by the city that he purchased 160 acres by the bay and determined to build a fine city. For a while, his vision soared. Land parcels were sold and businesses moved in. Then disaster struck. A series of floods and then a fire put an end to his dream of "New Town." But his own home, the William Heath Davis House, is still the oldest surviving structure in San Diego, visitors visit the home, now a museum in the Gaslamp District.

Before long, a newcomer who moved from San Francisco in 1867, came to San Diego after hearing of its beauty at a lecture. Alonzo Erastus Horton renewed Davis' dream. With the purchase of 800 acres at .33 cents an acre, he became a city planner of sorts spending $50,000 to build a wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue. This structure would become the backbone of his fast developing city. Before long, he would also build his "Horton Hotel" at the site where the current US Grant Hotel stands today. At the dedication of the hotel, he also set aside half a city block as a plaza for his guests with the stipulation that it would revert to city ownership upon his death. Today, this half city block is the site of modern Horton Plaza shopping center, part of the City Centre Redevelopment Project started 100 years later and completed in 1985 at a cost of $140 million.

The prosperity of Horton's ventures brought all elements to the Gaslamp District. Prostitutes and gamblers, including Wyatt Earp, who ran three gambling house in San Diego during the 1880s, flocked to the bustling commercial area. Commerce soon moved north of this area which had become known as the "Stingaree District" (apply named due to the dangerous sting ray found in San Diego Bay). For a few years the Gaslamp District flourished, but by the end of the decade this once-thriving area began a steep economic decline, which would not be rectified until the downtown redevelopment undertaken in the 1970s. Now redeveloped, The Gaslamp Quarter boasts gourmet dining, live theater, great shopping and more.

But, across the bay on Coronado Island (which is actually a peninsula) during the 1880s, a success story was being launched. The undertaking to create a beautiful city separate from downtown was successful and the city of Coronado still ranks as one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the San Diego area.

In 1885, after San Diego was linked to the rest of the country by the Transcontinental Railway, Indiana railroad magnate Elisha S. Babcock and Chicago piano manufacturer H. L. Story made their way to the island and proceeded to purchase the land for the then unheard of sum of $110,000. With proceeds from the sale of some of the land, they built the ferry to the island and began the construction of world-renowned Hotel Del Coronado. Two years later the hotel was complete and immediately became, then as it is now, a favored vacation destination.

Military Town
By late 1899, the U.S. Army had established Fort Rosecrans which remained an active Army post until 1959 when the Navy purchased the site to develop a submarine base at Ballast Point. The establishment of the Army fortress ushered in an era of military influence on the San Diego scene.

In years to come, marking well the lessons from the Mexican-American War when the military recognized the value of its natural harbor and strategic location, San Diego would become home to American armed forces. The North Island Air Station was established when three pilots with three airplanes landed in 1912. A military presence escalated during WWI and the U.S. Navy designated San Diego its home port for the Pacific Fleet in 1919. The Marine Training Recruit Depot opened for raw-recruits in 1923 and, in 1941, pilots and navigators trained for the inevitable entrance into WWII.

At the end of WWII, captivated by the city, thousands of sailors decided to stay and make San Diego their home. Needing work to provide for their arriving families, the neophyte Aerospace industry was born. For decades to come, names such as Convair and Ryan Industries led the way in technological innovations from factories and research centers in San Diego.

To this day, the U.S. military presence is a dynamic part of the San Diego landscape and economy.

America's Finest City
The beginnings of culture in San Diego seem to stem directly from its entrenchment in promoting the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Since 1868, when the city fathers had designated land to be set aside as a city park, Balboa Park has existed, but it wasn't until plans for the Expo took shape that the city would have one of its most distinctive attractions. Construction began in 1911 on the buildings which would commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal with the first to be completed was the Administration Building. Sugar magnate John D. Spreckels presented the Organ Pavilion to the people of San Diego in 1914 and this organ, the largest outdoor organ in the world, is still played on Sunday afternoons.

Perhaps by accident, San Diegans acquired yet another world-famous attraction, the San Diego Zoo during preparations for the 1915 Expo. Animals being imported for display during the Expo were quarantined by Dr. Harry Wegeforth. His efforts to garner public support for a zoo led to the plans for the facility to be a showcase in newly developed Balboa Park.

On New Years Eve in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson presses a telegraph key which turned on the lights and set off a huge fireworks display that marked the opening of the Panama-California Exposition. The Expo, which was a huge success, brought thousands to San Diego, many of whom returned to make the city their home. Visitors still flock to Balboa Park to witness the magnificent architecture that now houses museums dedicated to a wide variety of interests, from anthropology to zoology.

A Modern City
By 1960, San Diego's population had topped one million people and tourism had become the city's third most important industry. Investments in the city's economy flourished: in 1961 the Mission Valley Shopping Center opened; in 1963, Jonas Salk created the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla; in 1964, the water-based theme park, SeaWorld opened its gates in 1967, the San Diego Stadium (now QUALCOMM Stadium) opened for sports fans of the San Diego Padres and Chargers, and in 1969, "The Big Blue," the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge linked the cities together.

During those years the city doubled, incorporating thousands of acres of surrounding suburbs and the outlying suburbs to the east, south and north flourished. Research, business and technology expanded in the area called the "Golden Triangle" in the northern part of the city including La Jolla and Sorrento Valley; San Diego's answer to the Silicon Valley. Ten years later San Diego became a city of two million people, the second largest city in California.

The Future
From its humble beginnings as an abundant natural resource for indigenous peoples to a Spanish, then Mexican colony to a dockside red-light district, to a military stronghold, to a city of culture and world renown, to a modern, bustling city - San Diego has witnessed both times of prosperity and decline.

Through it all, the breathtaking natural beauty continues to attract people from all around the world. Yet, just as it has always been, the true wonder of this city lies in its people, a truly divergent group who continue to look toward the future with hope, expectations, and genuine love for San Diego.