Civilization in San Diego dates back to the nomadic Native Americans who once inhabited the area. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator hired by Spain, explored the coast of California and sailed into the region’s harbor in September 1542. He named the port San Miguel, since the arrival coincided with the eve of the feast of St. Michael the archangel. Here he found an excellent harbor for shipping, a temperate climate and an abundance of fertile soil.
The name San Diego came from Sebastian Vizcaino, who thought the harbor and surrounding area was unnaturally beautiful. He renamed the port San Diego de Alcala after a saint from Madrid. At this time the area remained virtually undeveloped and still retained its indigenous presence.
Not until Father Junipero Serra began his first mission, San Diego de Alcala, did the Spanish first begin to take hold of the locality. The original site of the mission is present-day Presidio Park, but with a lack of water and poor soil, the site was later moved 5 miles east. Father Serra went on to form more missions up the Southern California coast, but it should be remembered that he started here.
In 1812, California underwent a change when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. San Diego was still regarded as an agricultural center rather than an aspiring city such as Los Angeles, 100 miles to the north. Not until 1850, when the United States gained control of California, did both the cities of San Diego and Los Angeles become incorporated.
Growth continued to be slow with more people attracted to fledgling-city Los Angeles, 100 miles to the north. One of the most influential people who helped build San Diego into what it is today was Alonzo E. Horton. He arrived in 1867 and bought 1,000 acres, on which present-day downtown now rests. He looked toward the future with hopes to create a city on the bay. With the first development of those 1,000 acres, a gradual change shifted from Old Town to the area near the water; businesses and people gradually moved from the Old Town area to the acreage closer to the bay. But it was not until a fire destroyed a major building in Old Town that the change became permanent.
Today you can see what Horton’s vision has accomplished: one of America’s most beautiful coastal cities serving as the foundation for aspiring towns across the nation.