Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Glimpse of Loreto's History

Following the last several weeks of socializing, numerous parties and celebrations, when I saw a notice that the Loreto Historical Society was sponsoring a lecture “Loreto, Gateway to Alta California – The Expedition to San Diego, 1769” by a friend of mine, Tom Woodard, I decided to take in the event.

First of all, I was not aware that there WAS a Loreto Historical Society, but I was interested in what Tom would have to say on a topic that I wanted to know more about.  I did have a very basic understanding of the historic role that Loreto had played as the home of the first Jesuit Mission in all of the Baja founded in 1697, and that how from here, over time, there had developed a chain of Missions the length of the peninsula and beyond, into what is now Northern California. 

So I headed into town, one early evening this week, to the Caballo Blanco Bookstore, where the lecture was to take place.  This store is a fixture in downtown Loreto, owned and operated by Alberto and Jennine, long time residents of Loreto, and they cater to a mainly English speaking clientele with a wonderful collection of reading materials in their homey and colorful shop. With big windows overlooking one of the main streets in town, the front room, with it’s thatched roof, is lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves crammed with hundreds and hundreds of new and used paperbacks of every description.

Behind that room is another that is stocked with  more new editions, making up an impressive collection of books on various subjects mainly relating to the Baja in general, and anything to do with Loreto in particular.  Further back in the room are colorful examples of Jenina’s other avocation as an artist in several media, making Caballo Blanco both a literary and artistic focal point for the surrounding community.

On this evening, when I arrived about 20 minutes before the lecture was to start, the front room was filled to capacity with more than 50 still empty chairs.  In the back room half a dozen people were visiting and I was able to browse through the book that the evening´s presentation was based on and learn something more about it from Alberto.  I then made my way to a side room where I spoke with Tom, who was going to be doing the lecture, and got a brief preview of some of the fascinating history described in the book.

Noticing that the chairs were starting to fill up quickly, now that it was getting close to the start time, I made my way back to the back room and bought one of the several copies they had available of the book for myself and then found a seat in what would soon be a standing room only turn out.  In the crowd I was pleased to see a number of familiar faces from Loreto Bay, as well as many more from the ex-pat community in and around Loreto itself.

 Tom began the evening with a brief introduction to the Loreto Historical Society, which is now in it’s formative stages, but has ambitious goals including acquiring Casa de Pedra, a landmark stone building just half a block from where we were sitting, which is one of the oldest private buildings in the town dating back to 1808, and ultimately converting it into a Visitor Center. 

On a more philosophical note, Tom made an eloquent case for the importance of celebrating the unique and historic role that Loreto has played in the development of the Baja and Western North America, and how, by using this history, we can promote and spread the word about Loreto and ultimately attract more visitors to this special place.

Tom then began with a detailed and enthusiastic summary of the book (Gateway to Alta California, the Expedition to San Diego, 1767 by Harry W, Crosby, Sunbelt Publications) which he considers one of the best on the subject of early Loreto and Baja history.  The book is divided into two parts, the beginnings of Loreto and the early presence of Spain in the Baja, followed by the incredible journey from Loreto north the length of the peninsula to Ensenada and beyond to San Diego.

One of the most striking facts that he quoted from the book was the extreme difficulty the early Spanish explorers had just crossing the Sea of Cortez to the Baja from the mainland.  For example, on November 30th, 1767 the first direct representative of the Spanish Government arrived in California (as the Baja was then called) in over 30 years. 

That voyage had first started five months earlier in July from San Blas, a port on the mainland about 300 miles to the south east of San Jose del Cabo, where they eventually made landfall, but this first attempt was turned back after only a few days by storms.  A second attempt at the crossing was made in late August which encountered a chubasco (or violent storm) that forced them back again by the first week of September.  The third (and ultimately successful) attempt set out October 19th and took 40 days to make the crossing.  Although their destination had originally been Loreto, when the expedition finally made it onto dry land on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, they decided to cover the remaining 250+ miles to Loreto overland, which took another 10 to 12 days of hard travel by horseback.

Driven by the agenda of the Spanish Government in New Spain (Mexico) that in turn took it’s orders from the Spanish King, this was the beginning of momentous times in Loreto’s history.  For mainly European geo-political reasons, the Jesuits, who had founded the first Mission here 70 years before, had fallen out of Royal favor in Spain and it was decreed that they were to be replaced with Franciscans. 

Then there was to be a mobilization of all of the meager resources available from the dozen missions that had been established during that time in the southern half of the Baja began and a major expedition was to be planned to travel by land up the peninsula through “terra incognita” all the way to present day San Diego, California, a distance of approximately 450 miles, much of it across the brutally rugged mountainous spine of the peninsula during a seven week period in the spring of 1769.

This meticulously remarkably researched book contains first-hand accounts of this trek, day by day, including detailed maps and even photographs taken by the author, who had remarkably travelled over 600 miles by burro retracing the course of the journey as part of his research for the book.  This 1769 Expedition was a truly epic undertaking at the time, with dozens of men, almost two hundred animals carrying tons of supplies, and a herd of cattle to sustain the company, all travelling hundreds of miles over some of the harshest and most barren territory imaginable. 

Amongst the many challenges, one of the most critical was the search for water en route, and often required the daily of digging water holes in the rocky arroyos to collect what ground water they could find.  This search for water also forced their route to pass through mainly mountainous terrain where scarce water could be found, rather than the more easily traversed coastal area that was more arid.  Progress became easier when they reached Ensenada on the west coast of the peninsula, about 100 miles south of the modern border, and from there the remainder of the journey to San Diego took them just over a week.       

The purpose of this expedition was to lay claim, in the name of the Spanish crown, to what is now California, and elements of this force eventually travelled as far north as San Francisco – truly a monumental endeavor that changed the future course of the history of western North America.  And it all began in what was then a tiny settlement here in Loreto!  No wonder those of us lucky enough to have found this special place and call it home, feel that it is privilege to be “Living Loreto”!