By Jan Siegel
I do not like repeating myself, but it really is true that if you check far back enough, most things in California have a San Juan Capistrano connection. And here is another example. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Portola Expedition. This was the first time that western civilization was recorded in Southern California.
For many years, many “Californios” claimed that their ancestors came to Alta California with the Portola Expedition. If all who said they came did come, the number of people who traveled with Portola would have numbered in the thousands. All the diaries of the period—Serra’s, Palou’s, Crespi’s, and Portola’s—gave only a few names and numbers of personnel. The numbers would become very important for future historians.
It was not until the early 20th century that calling this trek the Portola Expedition was used. Originally, it was referred to as the Monterey Expedition. In the 19th century, as interest in Mission life developed as a result of Herbert Howe Bancroft’s efforts in identifying early Californios, the Expedition became the “The Sacred Expedition,” or “The Serra Expedition.” It really was the Monterey Expedition, because the event was two-pronged. One group went by sea, one by land. However, there were two ships and two land groups that ventured into Alta California. It was one of the land treks that was led by Gaspar de Portola. Because of illness and death of the crew and soldiers during the march from Baja to Alta California, the two land parties eventually formed one group led by Gaspar de Portola.
The purpose of the expedition was to defend Spanish possessions at San Diego and Monterey. Once San Diego was established, the first trek to Monterey proved to be unsuccessful. Portola had missed the harbor at Monterey, but did find San Francisco Bay. Portola returned to San Diego, and on his second expedition he located Monterey Bay and established a colony along with Father Junipero Serra.
But who were the people on this expedition? While the list of crew members on the two ships was incomplete, the numbers and assignments of men in each ground party were reported but only as numbers, not individually named. There were no rosters or muster rolls giving the names of the individuals. All that changed in 1970, when a Californian historian, Fr. Francisco Guest, discovered in the Mexico City National Archives a box of uncatalogued papers relating to military affairs. One volume of 800 pages dealt with specific supplies issued to those who had been assigned to the Monterey Expedition. The credentials of this list were written by Jose Francisco de Ortega, Jose Maria Gorigora and Francisco de Aguiar y Manzano—three men who had been known to have been on the Expedition. This information was published in 1976. In 1977, Harry W. Crosby, historian, was doing research on a Portola Expedition soldier, and he went back to look at the file that Fr. Guest had found. What Guest had not recorded was that this file included a list of all soldiers and muleteers who had participated in the Monterey Expedition. Catalan Volunteers were listed on a separate roster. Once all the names were recorded, the number of participants exactly matched the numbers of men issued supplies and rations!
And here is where the San Juan Capistrano connection comes together. Two of the soldiers listed were Andres Cota and Pablo Antonio de Cota. The Cotas are seven times great uncles to longtime San Juan Capistrano resident and college professor Alana Jolley, who was also the former Mission Museum director. Jolley has been researching her father’s family and found this family history and connection. On Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. at the Community Center, Alana will tell the story of the Cotas and their connection to our community.
Currently, the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society has an exhibition on the Portola Expedition, which includes all the names of the participants. The exhibit runs through April. You can spend a Moment in Time at the Historical Society reflecting on this historic event.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.