On September 28, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Portugal, sailing under the Spanish flag, sailed into San Diego Bay. While exploring the northwest shores of Mexico, Cabrillo became the first European to reach California. Cabrillo’s observations may have informed Diego Gutierrez’s draft of the first map of America to include the name California (pictured below), which references Baja California, or Cape California, at the far southern part of Baja. This image is displayed in the Inventing America section of the Library of Congress online exhibition 1492: An Ongoing Voyage.
By 1888, Harriet Harper observed a more refined San Diego. In her Letters from California, she describes San Diego as:
curled up in the arms of her beautiful bay…[with] long lines of yellow graveled streets… many wooden houses…[and] utter innocence of flower and foliage…. An electric railway runs past my windows; steam motors take you in any direction. The principal streets have electric lights and cement pavements, and there is an encouraging amount of building going on…all conditions are favorable for a future great city.
“VII: The Place of Ramona’s Marriage—A Trip into Mexico” in Letters from California by Harriet Harper. Portland, ME: Press of B. Thurston & co., 1888. “California as I Saw It:” First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900
This 1915 cityscape shows the continued growth and prosperity of San Diego in the early twentieth century.
- For more information on early exploration of the Americas visit 1492: An Ongoing Voyage, an online Library of Congress exhibition.
- The Library of Congress Digital Collection “California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 contains many accounts of nineteenth-century San Diego. Search the collection on San Diego to retrieve items similar to the works quoted above.
- Search on San Diego in Parallel Histories: Spain, the United States, and the American Frontier, a bilingual, multi-format English-Spanish digital library site that explores the history, geography, and culture of Spain and the interactions between Spain and the United States from the 15th century to the present for information on the exploration and early settlement of that area.
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell contains transcriptions of songs from the gold rush era, including “Joe Bowers”and “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”