Everything You Need to Know about the Beginnings of San Diego

Everything You Need to Know about the Beginnings of San Diego

San Diego is known as the “Birthplace of California.” Here’s what you need to know about the land and the people who shaped it.

San Diego’s Indigenous Peoples

Humans are believed to have inhabited San Diego since around 20000 BCE. Nomadic Asian tribes followed bison, mammoth, and Caribou across the area we now know as the Bering Strait. At the time, experts believe this area contained grasslands measuring a thousand miles from one side to the other.

Anthropologists suggest these tribes of hunters migrated south, following ice-free tracts into the American continent. Experts believe that the coastal regions of San Diego were settled as early as 20000 BCE, with desert regions settled around 12000 BCE.

The region’s first known inhabitants, the San Dieguito people, were a Paleo-Indian cultural group. Anthropologists believe La Jollan people are descendants of the San Dieguito. Indeed, the site of La Jolla beach lies adjacent to an archaeological site once inhabited by these ancient tribes.

Yuman tribes began settling in the region between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE, assimilating with the La Jollan cultural group. Experts believe the Diegueños, Yuma, and Kamia are all descended from the Yuman people.

San Diego under Spanish Rule

Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492. European settlers began populating the region over the course of the next century. Vasco Núñez de Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean in 1513. Fellow Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés arrived soon after, establishing a temporary colony in Baja, California.

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In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay on his flagship, the San Salvador. He named the region San Miguel, declaring it the property of the King of Spain. However, he died four months later without fulfilling plans to begin settling the area.

In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino arrived on his flagship, the San Diego (which means Saint James in English). He began surveying the area, mapping the coast as far as Oregon. Vizcaino named the region known today as San Diego, San Diego de Alcalá, in honor of the Spanish Catholic saint.

In the late 1700s, Spanish settlers began arriving in large numbers despite resistance from indigenous tribes.

San Diego under Mexican Rule

San Diego ceased to be a Spanish territory after Mexican Independence in 1821. The region remained under Mexican rule for the next 25 years, along with the rest of California. In 1846, the United States declared war against Mexico.

During the war against Mexico, the United States sent naval and land expeditions to conquer California. According to military records, they met little resistance when capturing San Diego Bay. However, when the US tried to take regions of southern Alta California, the Californios struck back.

Following a successful uprising in Los Angeles, another quickly followed in San Diego, driving out the American garrison so swiftly, they did not fire a single shot. Mexican partisans held the city until October 24, 1846, when US forces recaptured it.

Over the ensuring months, Americans were trapped inside the old town, with skirmishes occurring daily, and snipers shooting into the pueblo every night. Cattle were driven away by Californios in the hope of starving the Americans out. It was not until the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in January 1847 that the Mexican-American border was established and the Mexicans finally relinquished San Diego to the US.

San Diego Becomes Part of America

California became America’s 31st state on September 9, 1850. In the same year, San Diego was incorporated as a city and San Diego County was created. The old town of San Diego was located near Presidio Hill, on the site where the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park now stands. Logistically, its location was far from ideal, lying several miles away from navigable waterways.

It was William Heath Davis who proposed developing an area beside the bay, several miles south of the old town, called “New San Diego,” though he garnered little investment for several years. It was not until Alonzo Horton arrived in San Diego in the 1860s that the shoreside “New Town” of Downtown San Diego really took off, becoming the governmental and economic heart of the city we see today.

In the early 1900s, San Diego hosted two World’s Fairs, showcasing regional achievements and inviting investments. Though they were only intended to be temporary, many of the Spanish/Baroque buildings constructed for the event at Balboa Park still stand today as the park’s central features. They have been painstakingly maintained and rebuilt, retaining their original features and architectural style.

The menagerie of exotic creatures showcased at the 1915 exposition grew to become what we now know as San Diego Zoo. The world-famous attraction draws more than 3 million visitors annually.

Today, San Diego’s miles of white sand and year-round good weather draw tourists from all over the world. Known as “America’s Finest City,” San Diego is the second largest city in California. It is home to world-class attractions such as Legoland California, Sea World San Diego, and of course San Diego Zoo and Balboa Park.

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