Set above Old Town, San Diego’s forty-acre Presidio Park is a National Historic Landmark preserving the first permanent European settlement on the West Coast and the site from which exploratory missions embarked into California's interior.
Twenty-one missions would be built throughout the territory in order to convert the local population, and a zealot, Friar Junípero Serra, was chosen to manage the Franciscans who would run them. The Junípero Serra Museum, housed in a Spanish mission-style structure that sits on the top of the hill, however, isn’t one of them.
Although I'd been to Old Town numerous times, I hadn't yet made it up the hill to Presidio Park. When I finally did venture up there to walk the trails, I learned a lot. For starters, I learned that Father Serra did plant a cross on the hill, and said mass there after he landed in 1769. He and his military entourage proceeded to build a settlement that included the presidio (fort), a small chapel and homes where a sizable Kumeyaay village had previously been.
Serra’s first true mission would be the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá, located on San Diego Mission Road five miles north of the presidio. The Kumeyaay, though receptive somewhat to the padres, were a tad discomforted by the conquistadors, and in time revolted only to be subdued.
Two hundred years after Spain claimed the area for her own she had a stronghold in colonial America and from the presidio spurred the growth of Alta California. Alas, her reign would be short-lived; by 1822 the throne had abandoned the territory. When the Mexican government secularized the great missions, rich rancheros came north to claim the spoils, virtually enslaving the Kumeyaay. Old Town developed as Mexico encouraged foreign trade.
Sadly, the natives didn’t fare much better under Commodore Robert Stockton’s rule ten years later when he arrived and assumed the hill and fort for his garrison. You can learn more about the city’s first settlers through the Museum of Man’s Kumeyaay exhibit. Better yet, make the drive to Lakeside to visit the tribe’s Barona Cultural Center and Museum.
Trails through Presidio Park take you past the ruins, Padre Cross, a bronzed statue of the padre himself, past the Indian – an expressive statue of a Kumeyaay brave with his conquered catamount – up to Inspiration Point, the Arbor, and crests at the Mormon Battalion Monument.
This monument honors the Mormon men and women who volunteered to enlist in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War, effectively opening stage routes west and securing those Mexican territories for the States. Brigham Young was looking for help with his westward migration plans and enlisting his followers in the army paid for wagons, horses, and other necessities for his grand exodus. Thirty-three women, many serving as laundresses, and fifty-one children accompanied the Battalion (~550 men earning the church a total of $30,000 in donated salaries), the only religiously based unit ever established in the country’s military history.
If you go
Presidio Park is on Jackson St. and is open daily 6:00am to 10:00pm. The Museum, operated by the San Diego History Center, is open Saturday and Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. September 7, 2015 - June 2, 2016, with hours expanding to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. thereafter. The Mormon Battalion Historic Site on Juan St. on Old Town offers tours daily from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.