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San Felipe History pt. 2

By Ronald Saunders

This is the first in a series of installments that tell the story of San Felipe; a story whose human history began more than two hundred years ago.

With the command of three ships, the Spaniard, Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, became the first European to sail into the northern waters separating mainland Mexico and the Baja peninsula. His mission was to sail into that body of water and explore the surrounding lands as far north as possible. He achieved this by reaching the Colorado River, which incidentally, refuted the claims that Baja California was an island. It was he who named the gulf, 'Mar de Cortez' (Sea of Cortez) in honor of Hernando Cortez, the conquistador of Mexico. While exploring both interior coasts of the gulf he passed San Felipe Bay, although his diary makes no mention of it or its environs. In other years ships would also sail to the Colorado River but they too would make no note of San Felipe Bay.

The following year, 1540 Melchior Diaz, a captain under Francisco Coronado, found his way overland to the mouth of the treacherous Colorado River and promptly christened it "Rio de Tison". (The Firebrand River)

In time the Spanish rulers of Mexico ultimately came to realize the peninsula offered no riches. Consequently, there was no urgency to take the land or the natives by force. Instead, they resorted to another method - the church. For a period of nearly two hundred years, from the middle 1500's to the early 1700's Baja California (Norte) was left alone, unexplored and unsettled while the church under the Jesuit missionaries gained strong footholds in the southern peninsula region. For over 100 years northern exploration was nearly impossible since it took all the missionaries' energy just to secure their initial southern settlements. Consequently, investigation of the northern peninsula did not begin until the early 1700's.

Between 1721 and 1767 San Felipe Bay had been discovered and explored primarily through the explorations of the Jesuit missionaries Ugarte, Consag and Link. Their primary missions were to find areas in the northern peninsula that might have usefulness to the missionary cause.

On May 15, 1721 Father Pedro de Ugarte sailed from Loreto carrying on board 13 Californians, 6 Europeans, and an English pilot. After a hazardous journey to the mouth of the Colorado, Ugarte's voyage conducted a thorough geographical exploration of the gulf. The good padre has been given credit for naming all islands, harbors, bays, and ports of the northern gulf, including San Felipe Bay. Although Ugarte's diary, like that of Ulloa's, did not specifically mention San Felipe de Jesus, it is speculated his party reached the bay on August 23rd, the church feast day of St. Phillip and Ugarte named the place in the saint's honor.

Twenty-five years later, Father Fernando Consag, a Jesuit missionary in Baja California, gave a thorough account of San Felipe Bay. Under orders of the Father-Provincial in 1746, Consag set out from Mission San Ignacio to explore possible mission sites northward to the Colorado River. His party provides the first description of San Felipe. His diary reads: "We next came to the Bay of San Phelipe de Jesus, the cape of which lies north and south from one another. That of the north terminates in some black mountains…and found it to afford a shelter against the north wind, even for large vessels…"

This last observation had significant implications for San Felipe's use as a port for supplying needed items to missions located on Baja's northern interior.

Consag went on: "The shore is sandy, and on the north side is a creek, which at full and change of the moon has a depth of water sufficient for boats, but at other times dry." Consag here is undoubtedly referring to the small tidal lagoon found today at San Felipe (at the south end of the malecon).

A further entry states: "At the foot of a flat eminence it [San
Felipe] affords plenty of water, but thick, disagreeable, of an ill smell, and noxious in its quantity. Its effects on those who drink it resembles the symptoms of scurvy".

Although disagreeable, the water must have been potable, since Consag identifies San Felipe as one of the few spots on the eastern gulf coast with drinking water. He concludes his remarks by a warning to all future travelers, "all the way from San Phelipe to the River Colorado there is neither bay nor watering place."

Consag's discovery that San Felipe Bay provided both boat protection and drinking water made San Felipe unique among the bays of the peninsula's east coast. His diary entries and his map provided useful and readily available information of San Felipe Bay and its suitability as a shipping port to missions in the interior.

It was during this period the missionaries first came into contact with the natives of northern Baja. It is estimated nearly 20,000 Indians populated this region at the close of the eighteenth century. This section of the peninsula was divided among native groups, each having a specific land area. The Kiliwa, a subgroup of the California Yumans, occupied the region from the mouth of the Colorado River south to approximately Valle de Trinidad. Approximately 1300 of them made their home on the timber-clad heights of the San Pedro Martir mountain range. A warlike people, they feuded constantly with neighboring tribes; especially those tribes to the west who restricted their travel to the Pacific. They were primarily hunters and gatherers, and to a lesser degree farmers. The Kiliwa made yearly migrations to San Felipe where fresh water was available at the bay, additionally, the Indians needed an outlet to the gulf in order to supplement their diets with seafood. The presence of drinking water and the availability of seafood made San Felipe a desirable place for temporary settlement. However, it was never a place of permanent settlement for any of the Indian groups. Artifacts found at the site testify to their presence there.

First came the Jesuits, then the Franciscans and finally the Dominicans who, by the last quarter of the 18th century, succeeded them for control of the peninsula. The Dominican missionaries found these Indians much more warlike than their southern neighbors. Mission records characterized them as ungodly children: "unquiet, proud, fickle, quick tempered, treacherous, warlike and difficult to govern."

Another Jesuit missionary, Father Winceslao Link, made an arduous journey from San Borja intending to reach the Colorado River by land. The following is his account of San Felipe: "Our neophytes who went to the beach yesterday, returned at nightfall. Most of them lacked the strength to traverse the entire sandy stretch. Some of the more energetic reached the Gulf itself and on the beach discovered a native settlement near a water well. All the pagan Indians fled except two women they brought to us at midnight.

Father Consag's initial exploration of San Felipe, supported by Father Link's account, literally placed San Felipe on the map. The presence of water and a protective bay became known to all travelers and potential settlers.

(to be continued).

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