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San Diego: A Brief History

Long before it officially became the “City in Motion” – really long before, as in 20,000 years or so – San Diego was indeed on the move, as it was first settled by hunting peoples of northeast Asia who initially crossed over the Bering Strait. Here’s a look at how it evolved from a scraper-maker culture into “America’s Finest City.”

It is believed that the coastal area of San Diego was the first settled, with people not occupying the desert until nearly 8,000 years later. These early inhabitants are now known as the San Dieguito people. Between 7000 and 1000 B.C., the San Dieguitos become assimilated with the La Jollan people. Then, between 1000 B.C. and 1000 A.D., the La Jollans are assimilated within the Yuman-speaking people, who invaded from the east. Over the next several centuries, additional Indian groups – primarily various Shoshonean groups – migrate to the northern San Diego area.

The first Europeans to reach San Diego came with Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who sailed his flagship from Navidad, Mexico, and arrived in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. He names his discovery “San Miguel” and declares it a possession of the King of Spain. Sixty years later, Sebastian Vizcaino arrives with his flagship, San Diego. Sent north from Mexico by the Spanish throne, Vizcaino names the area after the Spanish Catholic saint San Diego de Alcala. He maps the coastline as far north as Oregon, giving many locations the names by which they remain known today.

In 1697, the Jesuits founded a series of 23 missions in lower (Baja) California. The mission at La Paz followed in 1720. However, by 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish territories. Mission San Diego de Alcala was founded on Presidio Hill – the first of a chain of 21 missions to be established along the California coast – on July 16, 1769. In August 1774, the mission is relocated six miles east, to the present-day site of Mission San Diego de Alcala. In September, the first colonists arrive.

In November 1775, Indians attack and burn the new mission. The following year, after an investigation by the lieutenant governor, mission buildings are rebuilt. The first major group of non-soldiers arrives at the newly fortified mission in 1777. The first public school in San Diego was opened by Manuel de Vargas in 1795. When Mexico wins independence from Spain in 1821, the area comes under Mexican rule. In 1835, San Diego officially becomes a pueblo, when its first elected mayor takes office. However, this status is revoked in 1838 due to a drop in population (caused by a mass evacuation and a smallpox epidemic), and for the next eight years San Diego is governed as part of the sub-prefecture of Los Angeles.

After the Mexican War (1846-1848), the official boundary between the United States and Mexico is set. Around the same time, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill starts the California Gold Rush. In early 1850, San Diego County was created as one of California’s original 27 counties; the county’s population at this time was estimated at 798. In March, an act to incorporate the city of San Diego was passed, with Joshua Bean named the first mayor. Finally, in September of that year, California was granted statehood – even though it had only been part of the U.S. for two years, and was never officially a territory – as a free state under the Compromise of 1850.

Much of San Diego’s history can be still be glimpsed throughout the city. For instance, the first-known home built in Old Town (circa 1821) still stands, as the golf shop at the Presidio Hills Golf Course.

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