A Brief History of Presidio San Diego

Perched on a hill high above Mission Valley is Presidio Park. The site of the first European settlement in what is now the United States, the park has been claimed for a mission, fortified as a Presidio1, occupied by the governor of Mexico, and enshrined as the Junipero Serra2 Museum for those rare San Diegans who don’t get altitude sickness at 100ft above sea level.

The Presidio was established in 1769 on the most prime piece of real estate in the not-yet-a-city. Early real estate agents noted: “sweeping view of the ocean… waking up to romantic sunrises over the Native American village in the valley… wonderful facilities for aiming massive bronze cannons at both the bay and the natives… safe from the tides and troubles of the bay front”. The location just can’t be beat, especially at the low price of planting a flag. As the Kumayaay say “There goes the neighborhood”.

Disgruntled by their now-marred view of the hilltop and the impact it would have on their property value, the Kumayaay immediately attacked. After a quick battle, the Spanish walked away with quite the defensive foothold, and promptly issued ordinances on grass length and acceptable religions. Having soon run out of rules to make and other fun Conquistador past times, the Spanish consulted “La Guía Conquista de San Diego”, the local guide for conquistadors. Out of the plethora of options available, they chose to build a bustling cultural center just outside the walls, the Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

Of course, as it turns out, it was NOT the ideal location for a mission. While the idea of “let’s turn these natives we distrust into Spanish-speaking taxpayers” SOUNDED great to the Spanish, what they didn’t consider was that it also meant “Let’s gather people we don’t trust and bring them to the walls of our fort”, which the local permit office would have told them if only they’d been consulted. So after only five years, in 1774 the mission was relocated down the valley where it stands today. But the presidio itself remained.

Obviously few colonists were brave enough to take a cruise to a beachside city with wonderful weather and incredible agriculture, but those that did all stayed close in the shadow of the presidio for security. And so life continued for years until one day, a brave settler looked at the hill and said “no”.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” his neighbor asked.
“No. I’m not going back up that hill again. It’s been a long day and I’m tired. I’m staying down here” responded the settler.
“We..we can do that?” his neighbor whispered.
“I’ve already done it. See, I’ve put down my bag” replied the lazy hero. “I’m going to create a tourist trap and open a Mexican restaurant [after which the country Mexico would eventually be
named]”.

And that’s how Old Town3 was founded, at the foot of Presidio Hill. By 1835, the Presidio was no longer needed, fell into decay, and suffered through those horrible lean years where something is a bit out of fashion, but not so out of fashion that it’s retro and cool again. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the site passed from ruin to relic, that a local businessman, George Marston, stepped in to preserve the site. Motivated by a love of history and the dream of a Junipero Serra themed roller coaster, Marston purchased the hill in 1909. But by then, precious little was left aside from the original jogging trails and picnic benches, and his dream of a Father Serra inspired mascot wouldn’t happen until 1958 when the San Diego Padres, MLB team, history aficionados, and all-around idea-stealing bastards, appropriated Marston’s idea for their mascot.

Today the original ruins have all but vanished. And yet, in the spectacular yet functional view of Mission Valley, in the rollercoaster-less Serra Museum, in the rather strenuous hill, history is still very much alive.

1. Presidio is the Spanish word for “fort”. But I couldn’t very well say “Fortified as a fort” now could I.
2. Father Serra’s greatest ability in life was posthumously naming things after himself. You’ll find his name all around historical sites in San Diego, and being as forward thinking as he was, he got in on the game early. Naming rights for a non-profit in San Diego nowadays can range in the millions.
3. “New Town” would have been a terrible name for a tourist trap.

Presidio San Diego 1

Presidio San Diego 2

Presidio San Diego 3