Today, the California Pacific International Exposition Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers when the group of men left San Diego in search of Monterey on July 14, 1769.
From California Its History and Romance by John S. McGroarty, published in 1911:
Thus on July 14, 1769, began from San Diego the historic march of Don Gaspar de Portola and his men on the vain and fruitless search for Monterey, but which resulted in the discovery of another and a greater harbor that made the name of Portola immortal.
Never was there port so elusive as that same Monterey that now the whole world knows so well. The trouble was that Cabrillo had made an error in his reckonings when he placed Monterey on his map, and, because of this, Portola was led a sorry chase when he set out from San Diego.
For weeks and weeks the party marched through valleys beautiful with oak and sycamore, redolent with the perfume of wild flowers and vibrant with the songs of thrush and linnet and mocking-bird; for weeks and weeks they climbed the brown hills shining with the splendor of the dawn, royal with sunset’s purple and diademed with the jeweled stars of night — but still no sign of Monterey gleaming in glory among her cypressed shores.
And it came to pass that on the first day of November in that fateful year, 1769, Portola ‘s expedition had marched far beyond the spot it was seeking.
Every morning and every last look at evening from the hills showed still no crescent cut of shore or estuary that could be hailed as Monterey even by the wildest flight of the imagination.
Sickness and weariness had made pathetic inroads on Portola ‘s ranks, the men who still remained strong carrying on litters those who could no longer keep up the heart breaking pace.
At last the brave little band reached that spot from which the fascinated traveler of today, trekking from the south, may look out upon the great ocean, beholding Point Reyes to the northward and the rocky islets of the Farallones in the cobwebs of the mists, off shore.
There Portola pitched a camp and sent Ortega, his sergeant, to explore.
Some soldiers who were left in camp resolved to go forth on a forage, which they did, and as they returned, near evening, they fired their guns to apprise Portola that they came with great news.
They reported having seen a vast arm of the sea which stretched far inland.
Was it Monterey, at last? New hopes inspired the expedition and the coming of morning was most eagerly and restlessly awaited.
The rest of the story is soon told. Pushing east ward, next day, across the hills, Gaspar de Portola and his companions looked down, not upon Monterey, but upon the dancing waters of the Bay of St. Francis and the bronze portals of the Golden Gate!
In imagination we can see them still — that little band of immortal pathfinders — dumb with wonder on the brown and windy hill, drinking in with enraptured eyes the far-flung splendor of the mightiest harbor in all the world.
There stands Portola, wide-eyed and swart of face under his plumed hat. Beside him are his officers, Moncada, Fages, Costanso and Ortega in short velvet jackets, slashed breeches, bright sashes and gold lace; the two brown-robed, sandaled Franciscan Fathers, Crespi and Gomez; the soldiers in their leather coats; the rough, sombreroed muleteers and the half-naked Indians brought from Baja California in the far south.
Backward now marched Portola to San Diego with the disheartening report that he had failed in his effort to establish a Mission at Monterey.
But when he told of the tremendously greater harbor he had found, Father Serra was wildly elated.
“Ah,” he cried, “the challenge that Galvez flung at me has been answered. Our Father St. Francis has made known his port to us. We shall name it San Francisco in his honor, and we will build a Mission there.”
Portola ‘s expedition had been absent on its great quest for a period of eight months; it returned to San Diego early in March, 1770, sadly the worse for the hard experience which it had undergone.
It had left behind it a path of grief, and the majority were poor wanderers incapacitated by sickness.
The Governor was deeply discouraged and had been buoyed up alone by the hope that he would find cheering news upon his return to San Diego.
But in this he was terribly disappointed. During the eight months of his absence Father Junipero had accomplished practically nothing more than the ceremonious foundation of the first Mission.
Not one Indian neophyte had been secured from the hundreds of natives in the surrounding country.
The camp had been frequently attacked by the savages who wounded many and had slain one of the Mission defenders.
There had been a great deal of sickness, and the new Mission establishment was on the verge of starvation.
Don Gaspar de Portola, the Governor, was not slow to grasp the true situation and to make up his mind what action to take.
He ordered all hands on board the San Carlos that the entire expedition might return at once to Old Mexico while it was still possible to do so.
Serra was dismayed, and pleaded with all his soul against the abandonment. At last they gave him one more day to remain — just one little day more — and then he must put away his dream and sail south with the ships.
Now Galvez, in New Spain, had promised to send a relief ship in due time to San Diego, but the time had long passed and no one hoped for it any more.
Doubtless it had been lost, they said, as others of their ships had been lost. Certainly it had not come when Galvez said it would come.
It might be he had kept his word and had sent the ship, but it was with the fishes at the bottom of the sea these many months.
A child might know as much. But the situation had one indomitable soul still to reckon with. Junipero Serra could not give up; he would go to God for help and pray to Him for succor across the blue waves.
On the morning of that “last day” he climbed to the topmost pinnacle of Presidio Hill and stormed the white gates of Heaven with supplicating prayers for San Diego, even as the garrison was feverishly packing whatever was worth the carrying away.
The record of that day is told in Smythe’s vivid history of San Diego:
“Father Serra went up to the hilltop on that fateful morning and turned his eyes to the sea as the sun rose. All day long he watched the waste of waters as they lay in the changing light.
“It was a scene of marvelous beauty, and as he watched and prayed, Junipero Serra doubtless felt that he drew very close to the Infinite. So devout a soul, in such desperate need, facing a scene of such nameless sublimity, could not have doubted that somewhere just below the curve of the sea lay a ship, with God’s hand pushing it on to starving San Diego.
“And as the sun went down he caught sight of a sail — a ghostly sail, it seemed, in the far distance. Who can ever look upon the height above the old Presidio, when the western sky is glowing and twilight stealing over the hills, without seeing Father Serra on his knees pouring out his prayer of thanksgiving.”
Thus was wrought what, in the tents of the faithful, is called a “miracle,” and by what better name shall the Gentiles call it?
Did not Junipero Serra ask for another day, and did not the day bring the ship to “starving San Diego?”
And what does that day mean to California and the world? It means that, had it never been, the wonderful Franciscan Missions of California had never risen, standing as they do today, most of them in ruin, but still the most priceless heritage of the Commonwealth.
Came never that day on Presidio Hill with Junipero Serra on his knees, there would have been no Mission San Diego de Alcala in the Mission Valley, no Pala in the mountain valleys, no San Luis Rey, no San Gabriel or Santa Barbara’s towers watching above the sea, no San Luis Obispo or Dolores or any of the twenty-one marvelous structures that dot El Camino Real — “The King’s Highway” — between the Harbor of the Sun and the Valley of the Seven Moons, and which to see, untold thousands of travelers make the pilgrimage to California every year.
With the arrival of the relief ship confidence and courage were again restored.
All thought of abandoning the great emprise now faded from everybody’s mind.
Father Junipero, who had declared to Portola that he would remain alone in California, now found his companions willing and glad to remain with him.
He preached a great sermon to them at Mass, strengthening their faith in God by his own sublime faith and moving them to tears of gratitude had come.
Plucking up a wild rose from its stem he said: “Even the roses here are like the roses of Castile.”
The California Pacific International Exposition Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of the Golden Gate.