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History of Old Town San Diego
supplementary information for the walking tour of Old Town

The story of Old Town goes back to the 16th Century.

In 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, sailing under the Spanish flag, became the first European explorer to visit San Diego. But his visit had no immediate effect on the area, for Spain was too busy with the riches of her Mexican colony to bother with upper California. Eventually, however, the situation changed. Russians and Englishmen began to explore the area, and it became apparent that if Spain did not take over the California coast, someone else would. So in 1769, 227 years after Cabrillo's visit, Spain decided to set up a string of colonies along the Pacific coast. Soldier Gaspar de Portola and Roman Catholic padre Junípero Serra came north from Mexico to establish Spanish colonies, forts, and missions. Mission San Diego de Alcalá, on Presidio Hill, became the first in a series of twenty-one missions stretching 600 miles from San Diego to Sonoma, just north of San Francisco.

Five years after its founding, the mission was moved six miles east, but the remains of the original mission can still be seen on the hill. (The reason it was moved was to be near a better water supply, and also to keep the soldiers at the fort from pursuing the Indian women at the mission.) Although the mission was moved, the fort, or presidio, remained, and in the 1820's many retired soldiers and their families moved down from the fort on the hill to build what is now called Old Town.

In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain, and San Diego, along with the rest of California, became a province of Mexico. Soon the Mexican government began to take over the mission lands -- a process hastened by the secularization of the missions in the 1830's. Mexican officials divided up former mission lands and cattle among their friends to create ranchos. The San Diego mission alone contained 3000 square miles of land, 8600 cattle and 19,000 sheep, enough to be turned into eighteen good-sized ranchos. Ships from Boston rounded Cape Horn, entered San Diego Bay, and traded goods from the East Coast for cattle hides and tallow. (The hides would eventually be converted into shoes, the tallow into candles.) Ranchos became the backbone of San Diego's economic and social life.

In 1846 the United States and Mexico went to war. After several months of back-and-forth fighting between the Americans and the "Californios," Commodore Stockton secured San Diego for the United States. Four years later, California joined the Union as the 31st state.

For a time thereafter, Old Town continued to grow and prosper. In 1867, however, financier Alonzo Horton arrived from San Francisco and decided that the town would be better located nearer the bay. He bought 960 acres of bayside land and began to promote his "New Town."

A few years later, in 1872, a disastrous fire wiped out the heart of commercial Old Town. It never recovered. Horton's New Town became, and remains, San Diego's "downtown."

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Copyright © by Carol Mendel

Walking tours in this series:

Balboa Park

Cabrillo National Monument

Downtown San Diego

The Embarcadero

La Jolla

La Playa

Mission Bay Park

Mission Beach

Old Town

Shelter Island

Sunset Cliffs

Need a map for getting around the San Diego area?

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Check out the San Diego Visitor's Map,
a pictorial map showing major roads and visitor attractions throughout San Diego County.