Gaspar de Portola

Gaspar de Portola

(c. 1723-1784)

Gaspar de Portola was born into a noble family in Catalonia, Spain. The first historical record of his life is his enlistment in the Spanish army in the 1730s. He served Spain for the next 30 years, rising to the rank of captain while fighting in Italy and Portugal. In 1767 he was sent to serve as governor of the province of California.

Portola’s most important assignment was to establish a Spanish presence in upper California, preferably at a site reported by the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino in 1603. The Spanish were becoming concerned that the English and the Russians would come down from the north and seize parts of California.

Portola arrived in Mexico and set about organizing an expedition. It was to have four units; two detachments would go by sea and two others would proceed over land. Two ships left Lower California (modern-day Baja California) early in 1769. The first land party left Velicanta in Lower California in March. Portola set out with the second detachment in May.

Traveling with Portola was Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest (see no. 85). By the end of June, Portola had reached the point near what would one day become San Diego; the other three detachments soon joined his party. Portola established the first of many presidios—military forts—in California, and Father Serra founded the first of many Franciscan missions, San Diego de Alcala, on July 16, 1769.

Portola then proceeded northward overland with 40 men. In August they camped near a river they named Porciuncula, in honor of Spain’s Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula. The area where Portola’s camp was established would become the city of Los Angeles.

By October, Portola reached the Bay of Monterey; although this was the place reported by Vizcaino, Portola and his party did not realize it. Instead, they continued farther north to San Francisco, where his party explored the region; in fact, they were the first white men known to have looked down on San Francisco Bay.

The party turned back, and after a difficult journey arrived in San Diego at the end of January, 1770. By now Portola was convinced that he had found the site reported by Vizcaino, and he made a voyage by ship back to Monterey Bay that May.

At nearby Carmel, Portola established the presidio on June 3, 1770, and Father Serra founded the mission of San Carlos Borromeo. Six days later Portola sailed back to Mexico. In 1776, he was made governor of the city of Puebla, east of Mexico City. Eight years later he died, either in Mexico or in Spain.