Old Town San Diego

Houses in Old Town

Minutes north of downtown San Diego lies a historic state park restored to its original condition with authentic buildings and docents in period garb.

Before European settlers arrived in the area of present-day San Diego it was inhabited by the Kumeyaay Indians who lived near the San Diego River. The river was a vital source of sustenance to the Kumeyaay and provided them with all they needed for a spartan existence. Life for the Kumeyaay quickly changed as European settlers began arriving in the 18th century.

The Natives And The Spanish

Spain was the first European empire to lay claim to Southern California by establishing a series of 21 missions that were run by the Jesuits. The Royal Presidio, built in 1769, was the first such mission. The native Indians living near the various missions worked with the Jesuits to farm the land, raise cattle, weave clothing and blankets, and trap animals for their pelts.

Despite restrictions placed on the missions by the Spanish government there was a thriving trade in goods from Europe, China, and America with animal pelts procured by the Indians.

Relations between the Kumeyaay and the Spanish were good in the years immediately after the settlers arrived but over time conflicts developed that destroyed the goodwill that had existed. In addition to cultural conflicts the indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by diseases carried by the newcomers that the natives had no defenses against. Entire villages were wiped out as the population of the native Indians sharply declined.

Mexico Takes Over

Control of San Diego changed hands in 1821 as Mexico, having won its independence from Spain, sent a detachment of troops and took over control of the town in 1822. By this time San Diego had become a well known port where ships regularly stopped to trade goods and stock up on supplies.

Houses made of adobe, used in place of scarce wood, were built by the new Mexican inhabitants and eventually formed the heart of the town. The houses were laid out so the streets formed a standard grid pattern with a plaza at the center. There the locals would hold various community events, including bullfights and fiestas. Two homes from that era, built by Jose Antonio Estudillo and his brother-in-law Juan Bandini in 1827, have survived to this day.

America Takes Over

The Mexican-American war began when the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846 and subsequently occupied San Diego. For the next two years there would be a series of battles between the countries with control of the town shifting back and forth. Tension between inhabitants of San Diego was inevitable as allegiances changed with the fortunes of war. The war finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Gudalupe Hidalgo in 1848 which established the current border between the two nations and San Diego becoming part of the United States.

The Gold Rush

Before the ink could dry on the peace treaty San Diego underwent another tumultuous event that would change its history, and all of California’s, when gold was discovered in the town of Coloma in January of 1848. Gold-seekers from around the world flooded into San Diego en-route to the hills where they sought their fortunes.

In the town old structures were refurbished and new accommodations quickly built. Prefabricated wood dwellings, brought by ship around Cape Horn, began to appear in 1851.

Old Town Fades Away

When California gained statehood in 1850 San Diego was incorporated as a city. As the gold rush eventually died out by 1856 San Diego also settled down and became a more provincial city. It endured a series of natural disasters in the 1860’s that include a flood, an earthquake, and a smallpox epidemic.

In 1867 a builder from San Francisco, Alonzo Horton, founded New Town, a short distance south of Old Town San Diego and the site of present-day San Diego. As government offices began moving there from Old Town and businesses followed New Town gained in prominence with Old Town San Diego slowly losing its importance. A devastating fire in 1872 that destroyed the courthouse and seven other buildings sealed Old Town’s fate with New Town taking over as the region’s political and financial hub.

Old Town’s Restoration

Sugar baron John D. Spreckels bought part of Old Town San Diego in 1907 and began the first in a series of restoration projects. During the 1930’s, as interest in the town’s Spanish and Mexican heritage increased, more work was done to recreate Old Town’s appearance as a “Spanish Village”.

Old Town was named a State Historic Park in 1968 that today boasts a series of original and restored structures which includes museums, shops, and restaurants. There visitors can take a break from the fast pace of modern San Diego and imagine the lives and activities of those who lived in the original settlement in a bye-gone era.