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Early San Diego: On the Edge of Empires

Remembering San Diego's Past

After the gold rush, San Diego residents led by Alonzo Horton began building the community we find today, what Sarah Livingstone Allen-Hubon termed “the New San Diego” south of Old Town in 1868. Sarah’s account also reminds us that San Diego continued and remains today home to thriving communities of native peoples. As developers attempted to draw tourism to San Diego’s breathtaking landscapes and magnificent beaches, they also extolled its long and complex history. Many recalled its heyday as a mission, wishing to protect and romanticize its Spanish architecture and culture. The timing for this particular exhibit coincides with the San Diego Maritime Museum’s completion of the replica of the San Salvador, the first Spanish ship under the command of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo to sail into San Diego harbor in 1542.

W.O. Andrew, Bird’s-Eye View of San Diego Bay Region, San Diego?: John R. Berry, 1887

This 1887 view provides a wonderful glimpse of the transformation of the city during the late nineteenth century from “Old Town” to the right to the rise of the new town in the middle and remnants of “La Playa” to the right where foreign traders once erected their hide house.

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Sarah Allen Hubon, Account of Mrs. Frederick Hubon’s Memories of Coming to San Diego in 1869, Hubon Family Papers: MSS 0663, Box 1, Folder 14

Sarah Livingstone Allen-Hubon recalled arriving in “our beloved San Diego” in 1868. She remembered: “I was a sad and lonely woman when we arrived at the ranch, as there was not another house in sight.” She added: “during our stay at the ranch I saw only one woman, the children were out playing when they saw her in the distance, her skirts blowing in the breeze, they came running to say ‘There’s a woman coming mama, there’s a woman’ but when she came nearer we found that she was an Indian and we couldn’t understand each other.” Betraying her suspicion and fear of native peoples, she was relieved when her husband gave up farming and bought a plot in the city from Mr. Horton (of plaza fame) for $250. She still considered San Diego as part of the “Wild and Wooly West.” “I have lived to see the wilderness of 1868 turn into this beautiful city of San Diego and have seen civilization advance.”

San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Information Relative to the City of San Diego, California, San Diego: Office of the San Diego Daily Union, 1874

Hoping to inspire immigration and investment, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce produced this promotional tract displaying the city’s promising future and allaying fears over issues like a lack of water. Here they depicted photographs touting the port’s historical past including the old mission.

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Kate Bancroft Journal (1874) Bancroft Family Papers: MSS 39, Box 4, Folder 2

When fourteen-year-old Kate Bancroft travelled to San Diego with her father, she recalled: “We went up on the hill and saw the presidio or where it used to be. There are only a few adobe walls left. The mission used to be there with the presidio, but it was moved out farther, probably on account of the Indians.” Her memories and sketches of these sites are tangible reminders of the end of Spanish rule.

Nolan Davis, California’s Old Mission Scenic Tour, San Diego: 1916

While the Panama–California Exposition was at its peak the U.S. Grant Hotel sponsored this map describing California’s missions for those tourists who might have been misguided by the Spanish Baroque architecture in Balboa Park.

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Translated by J. R. Moriarty and M. Keistman, A New Translation of the Summary Log of the Cabrillo Voyage in 1542., La Jolla, CA: San Diego Science Foundation, [pref. 1963]

James R. Moriarty of UC San Diego and Mary Kiestman of the San Diego Science Foundation translated the logbook summarizing Cabrillo’s expedition. The purported author of this account was Juan Páez de Castro, a sixteenth-century court historian who gathered information about the history of the Indies. The original copy of this translation is in the Naval Museum in Madrid. Here we note the section where the expedition stopped in San Diego.

Model of the San Salvador

The San Diego Maritime Museum is painstakingly constructing a replica of the San Salvador, the ship Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into San Diego harbor in 1542. Museum staff spent years in archives around the world researching sixteenth-century shipbuilding to construct a vessel that resembles as closely as possible the galleon Cabrillo might have sailed. The replica will be completed in 2014 and will sail in San Diego Bay. You can build your own model like the one displayed here by downloading pdf instructions and materials online at

See the Panama-California-San Diego Exposition in 45 Minutes: Most Interesting Motion Picture Ever Made, Kansas City: [printed by] Ackermann-Quigley, [1915?]

San Diego hosted the Panama–California Exposition between March 9, 1915, and January 1, 1917 in celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal. Many locals hoped the city would be the first port of call in the United States for ships traveling north, connecting San Diego at last to global trade. Seeking to connect the port to its historic past, developers argued over whether Balboa Park should display the popular Pueblo Revival or Mission Revival architecture reminiscent of San Diego’s actual history. Instead they went with the more elaborate Spanish Baroque style prevalent in urban Spain.

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