There has been human inhabitation in the area which is now San Diego for at least several thousand years and for likely over ten thousand years. The native Kumeyaay, or Tipai-Ipai, resided here before western colonisation and the descendants of this native American people still live in the area today. Around ten villages were established in the San Diego area by the native Americans although they remained separate from each other.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a Portuguese explorer, on a Spanish expedition, and he was the first European to discover what is now known as San Diego Bay in 1542. He initially called the area San Miguel because of the corresponding saint’s feast day and he initially found the locals welcoming. This didn’t though last and shortly afterwards the locals attacked Cabrillo’s men although the Spanish didn’t initially retaliate and tried to make peace. The visit from the Europeans was though short-lived as Cabrillo died through illness later on during his journey and the area that the locals called Guacamal didn’t receive any more European visitors for another sixty years.
In May 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino sailed under the Spanish flag in an attempt to map the Californian coast. Vizcaino and his men sailed in three ships with the flagship being the San Diego and they arrived in the area on 10 November 1602. The bay in which they sailed was named San Diego Bay both after the name of the ship they sailed in as well as it being close to the feast day of Didacus of Alcalá, or Diego in Spanish, on 12 November. This was the first time that the settlement had been called San Diego and there was no link made to the previous name of San Miguel.
Vizcaino didn’t further explore the area and he returned back to Spain and reported favourably about the area and how friendly he had found the locals. The Spaniards estimated that the native population was around 25,000 during this time but despite the potential trade advantages the Europeans decided to instead focus their attentions on other more pressing local conflicts and also exploration into Asian countries. The Spaniards didn’t return to the area again until 1769 in what was to become known as the ‘Sacred Expedition’.
The settlement of San Diego was formally created in 1769 when it was established as a mission by Father Junipero Serra. The mission was the first in California and which was known as Mission San Diego de Alcala. Due to problems with access to water a new mission was built a few miles to the east a couple of years later and although there was a general friendliness some tensions remained with the locals. These issues soon became apparent when the mission building was destroyed by native Indians in 1775 when they also killed the Spanish guards and Christian religious settlers including Father Luis Jayme who became the state’s first Catholic martyr.
The guiding principles of the Californian missions were important both to the church and to the Spanish state but the soldiers frequently made it difficult for the priests and unsettled the latter’s relations with the natives. There were severe punishments and floggings for the men involved in the destruction of the first mission although another was constructed in 1777 and relations continued to improve. Many of the natives regretted their previous behaviour with an estimated 20% of the wider population also converting to Christianity.
After a troubled start the mission was very successful and grew in size and by 1797 was the wealthiest in California and it also owned most of the land in the area. The capital of California remained Monterey as the non-Indian population was still just over 150 in 1800 and the San Diego area remained relatively isolated. Both natives and converts struggled to deal with the diseases which the settlers had brought over and for which the locals had no immunity to. This lack of resistance led to the death of many native Americans and made it hard for the mission to support itself.
An earthquake hit the area in 1803 which damaged the mission church that had already started to slowly diminish in power. The end of the mission’s power came in 1821 when Mexico became independent from Spain following an eleven year war, with San Diego becoming part of Alta California. The mission had its substantial amount of land taken away from it by the new Mexican Government and it finally closed in 1835. The building was lost but it was reconstructed in 1931 and rebuilt to what it looked like in 1813 and visitors are very welcome today.
Much of the former mission land was given to rich and loyal citizens of the new nation despite the rules which were meant to prohibit this. Pio de Jesus Pico, who later became a Governor of Mexico, was very questionably given 35 miles of coastline as well as substantial tracts of inland areas.
Following independence the Mexican Governor of California was Jose Maria Echeandia and he named San Diego as his base in 1825. Echeandia remained as the governor until 1833, other than for a short period in 1831, and he supported the redistribution of lands from the missions. These ranch years proved though to be lawless, there was a large increase in the amount of smuggling and the economy struggled given the lack of certainty. The population of the city fell from around 500 in 1821 to just 150 nearly twenty years later and little of the former wealth remained.
On 11 May 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico and although San Diego was at first easily captured in October 1846 there was a local rebellion and the Americans were forced back out of the city. These local skirmishes continued for several months but the Mexican-American War eventually ended leading to the February 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ceded the territory of California to the United States.