When it comes to thinking big, there is nothing like looking into the oblivion of the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean, named so for how calm and peaceful it is. The vista is so vast; you can slightly see the curvature of the Earth. I’ve lived here all my life and knew San Diego had a diverse history, but I never cared to take the time to learn about it. All of the history books and audio lectures I've consumed over the years never gave me the thrill that studying San Diego has, probably because the way I learned about the area’s history was much more practical than just reading a book or listening to a lecture. Here, I can actually visit the sites and have a better perspective of what the individuals I’ve read and heard about went through. It’s convinced me that more people should better understand their own local history in this way.
Though I will try to keep the story as simple to understand as possible, these stories are not simplistic. These stories are full of natural and human events, with all of its complexities, untold motives, and emotions that ultimately brought us all to the point we are at today. Hundreds of thousands of people have helped to develop San Diego into the metropolis that it is today, so there is a lot of context to cover. Real life dramas, featuring people who actually lived, loved, and left their mark, will be told. Some of these people are national figures while others have almost been forgotten. When people pass away in these stories, we will move on to the next story, but know that the people we read about, and their loved ones do not. This story is an amalgamation of many individual stories, chopped up and edited for your consumption.
San Diego’s history is usually divided into four eras, depending on who inhabited the area during that time: The Kumeyaay, Spanish, Mexican, and American eras. The American era is obviously the best documented, and we are still living it, so that should be fun to interpret! Much of these stories are influenced by pop culture of the past. For instance, faith was extremely influential during the time of Spanish reign, and many Spanish writers wrote faith based novels that would go on to inspire future generations to dream bigger. It is important we understand these stories, so when appropriate, I will fit them into context.
Despite the fact that the Kumeyaay inhabited the area for the longest amount of time, about 12,000 years before the Spanish settled, much of that history was unfortunately lost in time. What is left are fragments of such histories, changed or altered by the perspectives of later eras and usually racially charged, as the Kumeyaay were once seen as inferior to San Diego’s later inhabitants. The early story of the Kumeyaay is full of tragedy and great loss. At one point after the Mexican-American War, native men, woman, children and infants were literally hunted down and killed on site as some early American settlers attempted to completely eradicate the natives from land that used to belong to them. Before then, the native’s heritage and history had been slowly degraded by Spanish influence. It’s important to preserve what is left of it and I’m happy to be able to help out in doing so.
Because of the scanty information, the chapter on the Kumeyaay, before 1542, was also the most difficult to research. They kept no written records, and the ceremonies and stories that are recorded by a few historians are probably not the same as they were hundreds of years ago, but they definitely give one a pretty good understanding of what their life may have been like. Also, I don’t think it would be fair to simply end their story once the Spanish take over. In fact, much of the story of the mission era is the story of the Natives conversion to Christianity, and though they lost most of their land and freedom, they are sovereign today and have contributed to San Diego’s continued growth. So throughout San Diego’s history, I will follow their progression as they cope and adapt to the ever changing landscape from freedom, to religious persecution, to genocide, to developing their reservations into successful business ventures. The story of the Kumeyaay is ultimately a story of triumph through a brutal yet noble struggle for equality that has been waged since the times of the Spanish era and continues to this day in the form of legal court battles and political campaigns. The subsequent Spanish, Mexican, and American eras are in turn, very well documented, with previous historians laying down common narratives.
Every era has greatly influenced San Diego’s culture. For instance, you can’t hike through Mission Trails without seeing old paintings or carvings on rocks left over by the Kumeyaay. While visiting San Pasqual Valley, I came across ancient grinding stones, used to mix food and store water. Entire sections of the County, from Mission Trails, though Mission Gorge, down Mission Valley before passing through Mission Bay and Mission Beach, are all named after the Mission that the Spanish first erected in 1769 on a little hill, next to the valley. The Spanish also were the ones who first named the bay after one of their Saints, San Diego de Alcala. Later, the original town center, and Mission would be named after the man. That town center, now dubbed Old Town, is rich with historic Mexican culture, and many in the area still speak Spanish. It is a combination of that culture, with the power of Americanized commerce and military influence today that dominate the county, and will ensure that there are plenty of stories to tell.
With that said, in this edition, I will be so bold as to suggest an older era into the narrative. The Kumeyaay, Spanish, Mexican, and American people chose to settle and defend this coastal area for various reasons, but one reason was common among them all: San Diego was a wonderful, natural harbor, with a cool climate, and abundant natural resources, which allowed all four eras to live and thrive. The mountains to the east, Point Loma to the north, and Coronado to the west protect the bay from heavy winds and storms. The ground and rain water that flows down from the mountains in rivers provided an ample amount of fresh water to drink. How did land, that only a few million years ago, was completely submerged underwater come to have all of these attributes? In order to understand this, we need to cross disciplines into geology: The natural history of San Diego.
Understanding San Diego’s geological history was actually easier than I thought it would be. Wind, water and fault lines, acting over millions of years, slowly changed the coastal landscape into what it is today. Once the ocean levels fell and mini-fault lines raised the northern portion of the county’s coast, coastal eddies and winds blowing inland from the southwest eventually curved the bottom portion of the county into its current shape, and also gave birth to the Silver Strand and Mission Beach areas.
I will get into more detail about San Diego’s geological past in the next chapter, but I want to further justify my reasons for adding a geological era in the first place. I believe history is more than just the stories we pass down. Just as I found the story of the Kumeyaay in fragments, despite thousands of years of dominance over the land, San Diego’s geological era dominates the rest in timescales, but is also fragmented, and takes some interpretation. I’ve noticed that whatever the historical subject is, we usually tend to begin our histories without explaining much about the geological history of the land. It’s important that we understand the lay of the land before we start letting people dance on it.
My goal is simple: Tell a full account of San Diego’s history, its land and its people, from geological times to the present. I also hope to link these events to the larger context of world history, and how events in San Diego link to larger events in the world, like World War 2 and the Space Race. I am also a big fan of origin stories, so one of these chapters will tell the many backstories leading up to Cabrillo’s voyage, from ancient Chinese myths, to dead people with healing powers, to Hernán Cortés and his escapades. I hope you learn a lot, and find the stories simple to understand.
Some of these stories are mature and can be vicious at times. While I will try to keep these stories as classy as possible, I don’t want to whitewash our history, because I don’t think hiding our past from view is helpful to the reader, or anyone looking to find historical lessons. History is an opportunity to learn from the actions of others. It’s an opportunity to analyze mistakes from the distance and safety of time to see what could be done better in the future. If we are smart, we take what we learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present in order to affect the future in a positive way. It’s my hope that the reader can take away not only a few interesting tales, but maybe even a few life lessons.
I am still on the edge of the pier. The sun is now gone, though the western sky is still lit. I turn around to look at the moon again, now glowing bright as the eastern sky begins to darken. As I stare at it as if I’ve never seen it before, it feels as though I can actually see it slowly drifting over me and I think about all the other people around me watching the sunset, and the moon rise. I then think about the fact that as much as the landscape and residents of San Diego have changed in the last couple hundred years, one consistent thing is that people from all of these eras, from the first inhabitants up to me, have probably been watching sunsets from this coast for thousands of years, marveling at its beauty. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Human nature changes very rarely, and in some ways, it’s comforting. So why write a book about San Diego? I believe that humans have probably been telling each other great origin stories from the start of our species. It’s part of what it means to be human. I'm simply continuing that tradition.