In March, 1769, a party of 219 men called the Sacred Expedition, led by Father Junipero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola, left Baja California, Mexico, to establish the first Spanish church in California. Two groups traveled, one by land and one by sea, meeting in July, 1769, on a hillside above a wide bay. It was a difficult journey; almost half the men died, more were ill, and one ship was lost.
Portola soon took Fathers Crespi and Gomez and the strongest men and left for Monterey Bay. Father Serra and the rest selected a site - at the base of a hill, beside a river, with a native American village on a nearby hilltop. On July 16, Father Serra celebrated the first mass beside a wooden cross. He named the mission San Diego de Alcala in honor of Saint Didacus of Alcala, the name explorer Sebastian Vizcaino gave the bay 167 years before.
San Diego Mission History 1769 through 1774
The location seemed perfect, with plenty of water, pasture land for the cattle, and trees to provide wood for cooking and building. The soldiers had a good view of the bay and could see arrivals in plenty of time. However, the San Diego Mission did not have an easy start.
The natives, worried because they had seen many men sick and afraid that disease might spread to their village, refused to visit or be converted. On August 15, scarcely a month after the founding, the natives attacked. The soldiers killed or injured several of them, making them even less likely to visit.
Portola came back after six months to find the San Diego Mission in trouble. Little work was done, and supplies ran dangerously low. A ship sent to Mexico for supplies had not returned. Portola sent a party to Mexico by land and decided the settlement could last until mid-March before they had to return to Mexico. One day before Portola planned to leave, the ship San Antonio appeared with supplies. Portola soon left again to look for Monterey Bay.
They struggled for the next five years. There was too much water or not enough, depending on the season. The soil was poor and crops were small. The natives, afraid of the soldiers, still refused to come. Two priests returned to Mexico. Finally, Father Luis Jayme arrived and took charge, moving the mission to a place with fertile soil and fresh water, six miles upriver. Calling it Nuestra Senora de Pilar, they established a new site there in December 1774.
With only four hand-picked guards at the new site, the natives began coming right away. By the end of the first year, there were more than 100 converts.