Old Town San Diego is considered the “birthplace” of California. San Diego is the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in California. It was here in 1769, that Father Junipero Serra came to establish the very first mission in a chain of 21 missions that were to be the cornerstone of California’s colonization. Father Serra’s mission and Presidio were built on a hillside overlooking what is currently known as Old Town San Diego. At the base of the hill in 1820’s, a small Mexican community of adobe buildings was formed and by 1835 had attained the status of El Pueblo de San Diego. In 1846, a U.S. Navy Lieutenant and a Marine Lieutenant, raised the American flag in the Old Town San Diego Plaza.
Life in early San Diego wasn’t luxurious or comforatable. The town had many ups and downs and was subject to the ebb and flow of commerce and a constantly changing economy. What is most notable about early San Diego is the blending of cultures that took place over the years. San Diego’s geography, natural port and good climate all conspired to attract settlers, sailors and merchants to the young town. War, gold, and ambition conspired to have them leave in a constant ebb and flow over the years.
When young New Englander Richard Henry Dana sailed to California in 1835 as a common seaman, in hopes of regaining his health from a bout of measles, he described San Diego as “decidedly the best place in California.” New England captains purchased cowhides and tallow along the California coast for manufactured goods sold to missions like San Diego. Only a few years later, American troops, bolstered by the Mormon Battalion in 1846-1847, took control of the city, raising the American flag. Two years later, gold was discovered in Sutter’s Mill, inspiring large numbers of San Diego’s inhabitants to rush northward hoping to find El Dorado. When Dana returned decades later, he lamented: “the entire-hide-business is of the past,” noting how “the beach of San Diego is abandoned and its hide-houses have disappeared.”
Through it all though, the one constant is that San Diego was a cultural crossroad where European, Mexican and American cultures met, lived, clashed and loved together.