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San Diego: early history

Updated on May 31, 2007

San Diego is the oldest European settlement on the West Coast of the United States. The city wasn't incorporated until 1850, but the history of Europeans in the San Diego area begins much earlier.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived in San Diego Bay in 1542, claiming the area for Spain. It is thought that he landed his ship at Ballast Point, near the entrance of the bay (photo below). The next European to arrive was Sebastian Vizcaíno, a Spaniard who named the area San Diego after Spanish saint San Diego de Alcalá. The next group of Europeans arrived in 1769, at which time Mission San Diego de Alcala is founded. It was the first of 21 missions established along the California coast. In 1774 the first colonists arrived in San Diego -- Spaniards from what is now Baja California, Mexico.

1786 -- First French ships arrive (two traveling together).

1793 -- First British ship arrives, and becomes the first non-Spanish vessel to enter San Diego Bay.

1800 -- First U.S. ship arrives.

1821 -- 1846 -- San Diego is under Mexican rule after Mexico wins their independence from Spain.

1826 -- First American arrives in San Diego by land -- from the Utah area.

1846 -- U.S. declares war on Mexico; marines take San Diego. In 1848 a peace treaty is signed between the two countries, and the Mexico-USA border is formed south of San Diego.

1850 -- San Diego incorporates as the City of San Diego, with a population of 798, not including the Indian population. The first mayor is Joshua Bean, brother of Judge Roy Bean. Later in 1850 California becomes a state.

1852 -- Last major Indian uprising in San Diego.

1868 -- Land is set aside for a city park, now known as Balboa Park. Today the park is 1400 square acres, and sits beside downtown San Diego.

1868 -- The newspaper, Weekly Union, is launched. Later, after a merger with another paper, this becomes the San Diego Union-Tribune, which is still the largest newspaper in San Diego.

1870 -- Gold is discovered in Julian, a mountain town north and east of San Diego, setting off a small rush. Most of the gold is exhausted by 1876, with more than $2 million produced.

1882 -- First telephone operation begins; population is still less than 3,000.

1885 -- Transcontinental railroad arrives, connecting the city with the East Coast.

1886 -- First electric street lights installed in present day Gaslamp Quarter.

1880-1887 -- San Diego County population booms from less than 5,000 to nearly 40,000.

1888 -- Hotel del Coronado opens on Coronado Island. It remains a landmark hotel, hosting many U.S. presidents and movie stars. The Marilyn Monroe movie "Some Like it Hot" was filmed at the hotel.

1903 -- Marine Biological Association of San Diego founded (later called the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

1919 -- San Diego becomes the home base for the Pacific Fleet of the U.S. Navy.


San Diego Historical Society (great photos here)

City of San Diego

University of San Diego

San Diego Union-Tribune

County of San Diego

Ballast Point


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    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 4 years ago from The High Seas

      My wife and I both love San Diego. In fact, I live there at the moment, anchored out on a sailboat.