Kumeyaay - Spanish Contact

By : Mike Connolly
Campo Tribe

The first permanent European settlement in Kumeyaay territory was established in San Diego in 1768. Early contacts occurred in 1540 when the Spanish explorer Alarcon explored the Colorado River up to the Gila River. This was the territory of the Quechan, linguistically and culturally related to the Kumeyaay. On September 28, 1542 the first explorers landed in San Diego. It was a Spanish expedition led by the Portugese explorer Cabrillo. After establishing communication through signs, he was informed by the Kumeyaay of other whites being reported from the interior. (Probably a reference to the Alarcon expedition). By that evening many of the people who had fled at the approach of the Europeans had returned. Cabrillo reported Indian fishermen casting their nets by that night.

Tensions were high, and Cabrillo’s crew did not escape this first landing unscathed. Several of his men were attacked and three were wounded. November 12, 1602. Vizcaino, on an exploratory expedition stopped at San Diego. The Kumeyaay were wary and, while not attacking, kept their arms at all times in the presence of the Spaniards. On July 16, 1769 the Franciscan Father Junipero Serra founded the San Diego Mission.

The Spaniards were weak and sickly. Kumeyaay appropriated their meager property freely. Sections of sail were cut for the cloth and ropes were taken. Only food was left, as the Kumeyaay believed it contributed to the sickly state of the Spaniards. As the Spaniards tried to hold on to what little they had, friction increased with the Kumeyaay. Finally, by August 12, a two-day battle ensued as a small group of Kumeyaay sought to seize all the Spanish possessions, including those aboard their anchored ship. The Spanish were not taken, and another raid was undertaken on August 15. This, too, was unsuccessful and the Kumeyaay took a more tolerant stance regarding the foreigners.

Gradually the Missions attracted a few converts. While some were curious to acquire Spanish knowledge, some were to become genuinely devout followers of the Catholic Church. On March 12, 1771, the Presidio (or fort) was started above the Kumeyaay village Cosoy. On October 10, 1771, the tolerance of the Kumeyaay was broken by a terrible attack by Spanish soldiers on the wife of a Kwai-pai (Chief). The Kwai-pai ordered an attack on the soldier but was himself killed when the other soldiers rallied, thinking the assault was was a general uprising. In 1772, Don Pedro Fages made the first crossing of the Kumeyaay lands from the Pacific by a European.

The Resistance

In 1774 the Mission was moved up Mission Valley to the Nipaguay Village. This was to put a distance of six miles between the Mission and the Presidio. It was done to secure a more reliable water supply and to help prevent friction between the Kumeyaay converts and the Spanish soldiers. In 1775, relations with the Spanish had once again become strained. On November 5, at one A.M., several hundred Kumeyaay launched an attack on the Mission. Originally planned as a two pronged attack on the Mission and the Presidio, the warriors attacked the Mission before the other group was prepared to strike. As a result, the Presidio was bypassed and all the warriors converged on the Mission. The Mission was destroyed. At least forty Kumeyaay Sh’mulqs had supplied warriors for the battle.

By October 17, 1776 the rebuilt Mission was again ready for occupancy. On August 13, 1777, three soldiers were attacked in the valley of San Juan Bautista just north of San Diego. One was killed and two barely escaped. In 1778 Lt. Ortega, Commander of the Presidio, had heard the Indians of Pamo were arming for an attack. He launched a pre-emptive strike into Kumeyaay territory capturing four men. The Jalo Rancheria was also attacked by a group of Christianized and non-Christianized Kumeyaay. Despite the recurring nature of the attacks on the Spanish, the Kumeyaay generally followed a mixed policy of resistance and accommodation.

In 1776 Fr. Francisco Garces charted the Sonoran overland route to California. Following Coyote Canyon out of Borrego Valley to the San Carlos Pass in the San Jacinto Mountains. Anza was taken over this route which opened the Sonora-California land route to the Mission San Gabriel and on to Monterrey. The resistance of the Kumeyaay was seen as overwhelming to the Spanish at times. In 1779 Lt. Colonel Fages summed up the Kumeyaay attitudes as follows, "Indeed this tribe, which among those discovered is the most numerous, is also the most restless, stubborn, haughty, warlike, and hostile toward us, absolutely opposed to all rational subjection and full of the spirit of independence."

In 1780 the Missions at Concepcion and San Pablo were founded on the lower Colorado River. Settlers were brought in and land was appropriated without any consideration for the Quechan land claims. The Quechan Chief Palma felt that this was a betrayal of the friendship he had struck with Anza and ordered the Missions attacked. On July 17, 1780 the Quechan attacked, starting with San Pablo. On October 18, a truce was negotiated with Chief Palma and on December 3, 1780, the last prisoner exchange took place and the Spanish withdrew. No pueblos or missions were ever reestablished by the Spanish on the Colorado River.

The securing of the lower Colorado River denied the Spanish more than a few Missions. They could not follow the Anza trail, thus losing a direct link from Sonora to Alta California. This also meant that the eastern flank of the Kumeyaay lands were protected by the Quechan resistance. In 1785, Velasquez tried to find a more southerly route to bypass the Quechan and reestablish the overland route to Sonora. His poorly documented route definitely made it to Jacumba and he did reach the desert. On his return, however, he was attacked by the Kumeyaay. He survived, but a direct route to Sonora was still considered infeasible.

From 1794 to 1798 a major expansion in territory pushed the Kumeyaay boundary back from El Cajon, Santee, Jamacha & Jamul. In 1795 Friar Juan Mariner set out on an expedition to the Kumeyaay lands. Pushing through the northeast from San Diego he reached Santa Ysabel and Warner’s Hot Springs and then traveled down the San Luis Rey River. By 1796, the fortifications for the San Diego Presidio were completed. In 1798 the Mission San Luis Rey was founded. Spain and England went to war in 1797. When the word reached San Diego a fort was built above Ballast Point to help protect the harbor. The threat from England to San Diego never amounted to even a small part of the ongoing threat from Kumeyaay attacks. In 1800, 200 Kumeyaay attacked a command under Alferez Grijalva as he was traversing Kumeyaay territory from the Mission San Miguel in Baja California.

Recognizing the Kumeyaay were a continual threat to security, as well as a refuge for runaway converts from the Missions, Friar Jose Bernardo Sanchez and Alferez Jose Joaquin Martorena left San Diego. He traveled in a wide arc from San Luis Rey to San Miguel through the Kumeyaay territory in an effort to establish better relations. In 1810 an extension of the Mission San Luis Rey was created at San Antonio de Pala. On September 16 of this year the Mexican revolution started. While civil war was waged in the mainland of Mexico, the Kumeyaay began extensive raids on the Spanish. From 1815 to 1820 repeated raids struck deep into the occupied Kumeyaay territories. In 1818, an extension of the Mission San Diego was created at San Ysidro. By 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, but it wasn’t until 1822 that San Diego was officially put under Mexican rule.