Archaeologists call for move to unearth fortress below Royal Presidio


By Will Bowen

“The San Diego Royal Presidio is the most significant archaeological site on the entire West Coast and the City of San Diego is just using it to grow grass!” laments Paul Chace, Ph.D., a local archaeologist who has taken it upon himself to promote the study and development of this historic site located on the hill in Presidio Park overlooking Old Town.

“The Presidio, founded by Spanish soldiers, sailors and missionaries, and in use from 1769 to 1834, was the first European settlement on the Pacific Coast. It marks the origin site of our city. Buried beneath the grass on Presidio Hill is a large fortress about 300 feet square, with walls, bastions, living units, chapels and a cemetery where more than 200 of our first citizens are buried.

“This site needs to be studied and interpreted and brought to the attention of the world as a World Heritage site,” Chace insists.

Chace is not alone in his evaluation of the importance of the Royal Presidio. Tim Gross, Ph.D., a professor of archaeology at the University of San Diego, said, “The most significant archaeological landmark in San Diego has to be the Presidio. There is a city and its history buried up there that needs to be brought to light.”

Archaeologist Jack Williams, Ph.D., who conducted the last excavations at the Presidio, called it, “One of the most important and best-preserved Spanish colonial sites in the entire Western United States.”

But if the Royal Presidio is so important, why is it buried under 4 feet of earth and covered with grass? Why hasn’t it been unearthed, restored, and turned into an educational and cultural center that could benefit the city of San Diego?

Looking back

The San Diego Presidio was the first of four military forts (presidios) built by the Spanish military in California in the 1700s. The other presidios are at Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco, but they were built later. At its heyday, the San Diego Presidio housed upwards of 100 leather-jacketed soldiers and 500 civilians, including Native Americans from various tribes in upper and lower California. Although there were “pure-blooded” Spanish, as well as other nationalities (including English and Russian), living at the presidio, most of the soldiers and civilians were from Baja California or Sonora.

Historian Steve Van Wormer describes them as, “Largely of a pioneer stock who had adapted to the deserts of Northern Mexico in Sonora and Baja and who brought this desert culture with them to San Diego.”

“For the first 60 years of operation,” Chace explained, “everyone had to live inside the walls of the fort made from adobe bricks. But after the Mexican Revolution, which freed Mexico from the rule of Spain, the Presidio was not funded and it fell into disrepair. Soon after that, the people of the Presidio began to move down the hill to live in Old Town. By 1835, the Presidio was totally abandoned.”

The Presidio was also the first site of interaction between Native Americans and Europeans in California. When the Spanish arrived, they were confronted with a large Native American village at the foot of Presidio Hill called “Cosoy.”

Although there were some instances of conflict, the Native Americans were soon integrated into the daily life at the Presidio. Native American expert Richard Carrico discovered that the first five marriages at the Presidio were between Hispanics and local Native American women and the first six burials were Native American.

Through the years, the fortress at the Presidio has been subject to six archeological investigations. In 1999, after the last one, the city reburied the entire site under 4 feet of earth to try and protect it from vandalism and the elements. Since then, there has not been any further excavation, but the existing collections of archaeological artifacts have been subject to a small amount of study.

Paleontologist Mark Roeder has cataloged thousands of fish bones found at the Presidio. Roeder speculates Indians were fishing for the Spanish using tule boats in the local kelp beds with the most favorite fish being sheephead.

Aaron Sassoon and Susie Arter of the Zooarchaeology Lab at the Museum of Natural History in Balboa Park have been analyzing bird bones from the Presidio. They believe raising chickens was an import activity at the Presidio. Also in the collections are thousands of cattle bones, ceramics and shell fragments.

Abel Silvas, (aka) “Running Grunion,” is a Native American performance artist and storyteller who is also a descendant of the original inhabitants of the Presidio. He is the spokesman for some 80,000 San Diegans who are also descendents. Silvas would like to see a marker for the graves of people buried at the Presidio erected on the site. Currently, there is only one marker there for a man named Sylvester Plattie. Unfortunately, the current city policy is not to put up such markers or memorials, Chace said. The problem of the lack of development of the Presidio by the city as a resource dates back to when George Marston bought the land to protect the site and built Juniper Sierra Museum in 1920s. Marston tried to give his park it to the city, but for many years, San Diego officials refused to accept it.

There are some people who say — off the record — that the city does not want to promote the Presidio because its points out that San Diego was developed by meztizos from Baja California and Sonora, who were the first settlers and soldiers, and by the local Indian groups with who they intermarried and not Anglo Saxon entrepreneurs, cowboys and pioneers.

To confront these issues, Chace conducts a monthly sharing circle in the second-floor meeting room above El Fandango restaurant, 2734 Calhoun St., San Diego in Old Town State Park from 6-7:30 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month to discuss the past and future of the Presidio. Attendees have included historians, archeologists, natural scientists, city officials, park rangers, Native Americans, Presidio descendants and concerned citizens.

“Everyone is invited. There is coffee and Mexican beer provided to all, free of charge,” Chace said. “We would like more of the public to come to our meetings, get involved and share their opinions about this important site.

“The Presidio should be an important historical and culture resource center in San Diego on the order of a United Nations-type of world-class site. I invite those interested in the realization of this dream to join me in my quest.”

Reach Paul Chace at (760) 743-8609 or e-mail him at