Gaspar de Portolà was born in the province of Lleida, in Spain, in 1716. Don Gaspar served as a soldier in the Spanish army in Italy and Portugal. He moved to New Spain where he received several promotions. Don Denevi, the author of Junipero Serra (1985), argues that Portolà was a "pleasant, genial man".
King Carlos III became very concerned about the possibility of other world powers such as Russia, England, France and Prussia threatening Spanish territories in the Americas. He thought the best way of protecting and expanding his control of this region was to dispatch additional missionaries and colonizers.
Since the beginning of the century, Jesuits had been working in the Americas. Don Denevi argues: "For seventy years, more than six hundred Jesuits had toiled in Baja California, steadily moving northward, evangelizing everyone in their path, never abandoning a mission. With patience and devoted zeal, they had accomplished what Cortes had been unable to do with the sword - Spanish domination over the native populations."
Carlos III questioned the loyalty of these Jesuits to the Spanish monarchy. In January 1762, he issued a so-called Pragmatic Sanction, which limited considerably the privileges of the religious orders in Spain. This was seen as an attempt to reduce the power of the Pope and the Church. The Jesuits were extremely hostile to this move and the king claimed they were behind attempts to assassinate him.
On 27th February, 1767, Carlos III issued a royal decree known as the Pragmatic Penalty of 1767, that led to the Jesuits being expelled from Spain. All their possessions were also confiscated. The king also wanted the Jesuits removed from territories he controlled in the Americas. He wrote to Carlos Francisco de Croix, viceroy of New Spain, on 24th June, 1767: "Repair with an armed force to the houses of the Jesuits. Seize the persons of all of them and within twenty-four hours transport them as prisoners to the port of Vera Cruz... If after the embarkation there should be found one Jesuit in that district, even if ill or dying, you should suffer the penalty of death."
Gaspar de Portolà was appointed as governor of Baja California with orders to expel the Jesuits from the territory. When the Jesuits rebelled against this persecution, he dealt severely with the rebels, hanging the leaders. The viceroy defended his actions by claiming that: "It is done... for motives known to the royal conscience of the sovereign, and which have to be acknowledged by the vassals of His Majesty, who have been born to obey and not to mix in the high affairs of government."
Carlos Francisco de Croix suggested to Carlos III that the Franciscans should attend to the people of Baja California. It was also agreed that the missionaries should push on quickly into Alta California in order to build a chain of missions that would stop other countries to try and colonise this territory. When asked to organise this campaign, the College of San Fernando de Mexico unanimously selected Junipero Serra, to carry out this task. Serra became president of these missions and Francisco Palóu was appointed as his deputy.
On 14th March, 1768, Serra and his small group of 15 missionaries left the port of San Blas on the small ship, Concepcion. The missionaries reached Loreto, two hundred miles up the east coast of Baja California on 1st April. They received a warm welcome from Gaspar de Portolà, who had been told to work closely with the missionaries. Inspector General José de Gálvez had been sent to New Spain with orders to organize the settlement of Alta California. Gálvez began to arrange what became known as the "Sacred Expedition". It was decided that three ships, the San Carlos, the San Antonio, and the San José, should sail to San Diego Bay. It was also agreed to send two parties to make an overland journey from the Baja to Alta California.
The first ship, the San Carlos, sailed from La Paz on 10th January, 1769. The other two ships left on 15th February. The first overland party, led by Fernando Rivera Moncada, left from the Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá on 24th March. With him was Father Juan Crespi, who had been given the task of recording details of the trip. Also in the party were 25 soldiers, and 42 Baju Christian Indians.
The overland expedition, led by Gaspar de Portolà was to include Junipero Serra. However, Portolà was concerned about the swelling of Serra's infected and tried to persuade him not to accompany the expedition: Serra replied that "I trust in God that he will give me strength to arrive at San Diego and Monterey." In order not to slow the party down, Serra suggested that Portolà should go on ahead. Francisco Palóu commented: "He said farewell, causing me equal pain for the love I felt for him and for the tenderness that I had owed him."
Serra, accompanied by two others, left on 1st April, 1769. "I undertook from my mission and the royal presidio of Loreto in California bound for the ports of San Diego and Monterey for the greater glory of God and the conversion of the pagans to our holy Catholic faith." He recorded that "I took along no more provisions for so long a journey than a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese." He reached Misson Santa Gertrudis on 20th April. Dionisio Basterra, was all alone at the mission. When Fernando Rivera Moncada had passed through he had requisitioned his interpreter, servant and guard. Serra remained with Basterra for five days.
On 28th April, after two days of strenuous travel, Junipero Serra arrived at Mission San Borja, where he was greeted by Fermin Francisco de Lasuen. Serra wrote: "My special affection for this excellent missionary detained me here for the next two days which for me were very delightful by reason of his amiable conversation and manners." Although it was in an isolated spot with a shortage of water, Lasuen had managed to convert several hundred Indian families living in the area.
On 1st May Serra joined up with Gaspar de Portolà at Santa Maria. Serra met the Cochimí people who had settled in this area. He was amazed that they were able to survive in the conditions. There was little water and virtually no arable land or pasture. On 11th May, Serra and Portolà, headed north and arrived in Velicatá two days later, where they met up with the advance guard of the party. Serra commented: "I praised the Lord, and kissed the earth, giving thanks to the Divine Majesty that after desiring this for so many years, He granted me the favour of being among the pagans in their own land."
Gaspar de Portolà recorded in his diary: " The 11th day of May, I set out from Santa Maria, the last mission to the north, escorted by four soldiers, in company with Father Junipero Serra, president of the missions, and Father Miguel Campa. This day we proceeded for about four hours with very little water for the animals and without any pasture, which obliged us to go on farther in the afternoon to find some. There was, however, no water."
Junipero Serra later recorded: "Then I saw what I could hardly begin to believe when I read about it or was told about it, namely that they go about entirely naked like Adam in paradise before the fall. Thus they went about and thus they presented themselves to us... Although they saw all of us clothed, they nevertheless showed not the least trace of shame in their manner of nudity."
Fernando Rivera Moncada and his party that included Juan Crespi reached San Diego on 14th May. He built a camp and waited for the others to arrive. The San Antonio, reached its destination in fifty-four days. The San Carlos took twice that time and the San José was lost with all aboard. The seaman on the ships suffered from scurvy and large numbers had died on the journey.
Junipero Serra left Father Miguel de la Campa to create a mission at Velicatá and the rest of the party moved on to San Juan de Dios. He was now having serious problems walking: "It was only with great difficulty that I could remain on my feet because my left foot had become very inflamed, a painful condition... Now this inflammation has reached halfway up the leg. It is swollen and the sores are inflamed. For this reason the days during which I was detained there I spent the greater part in bed."
Gaspar de Portolà pleaded with him to remain but Junipero Serra insisted on going on: "Please do not speak of that, for I trust that God will give me the strength to reach San Diego, as He has given me the strength to come so far... Even though I might die on the way, I shall not turn back. They can bury me wherever they wish and I shall gladly be left among the pagans, if it be the will of God." Eventually it was agreed that he should be carried along the trail by the Christian Indians from Baja California.
Serra received treatment from one of the soldiers, Juan Antonio Coronel. He heated some tallow and green desert herbs and spread the mixture over Serra's foot and leg. He later told Francisco Palóu: "God brought it about (through Coronel) and I was enabled to make the daily trek just as if I did not have any ailment. At present my sore foot is as clean as the well one."
On 26th May, some of the party's Christian Indians, captured a man who had been following them along the route. Serra immediately ordered the man to be released and fed him with figs, meat, tortillas and atole (a thin porridge of corn and wheat). He told them his name was Axajui and that he was a member of a tribe who were planning to ambush and kill the missionaries and soldiers. Axajui was sent back to inform his people of the good treatment he had received. The strategy worked as they were allowed to continue on their journey unharmed.
Serra also recorded that a few days later they were approached by a couple of women: "I desired for the present not to see them (fearing that they went naked like the men)... When I saw them so decently clothed... I was not sorry at their arrival... They were talking as rapidly and effectively as this sex knows how and is accustomed to." The women offered the men some "doughy pancakes" that they had been carrying on their heads.
As the expedition moved on through the month of June, the terrain became gradually more attractive. Junipero Serra noted at Santa Petronilla that the land was "so loaded with grapes that it is a thing to marvel at. I believe that with a little labour of pruning them, the vines would produce much excellent fruit." On the 20th they saw the Pacific in the distance. That night they arrived on the shores of Ensenada. Serra commented: Here, if the water could be properly utilized, great plantings could be made and enough water was at hand to supply a city." The party was now only 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of San Diego.
On 23rd June the party met a large party of Native Americans. Serra records: "The people were healthy and well built, affable, and of happy disposition. They were quick, bright people, who immediately repeated all the Spanish words they heard. They danced for the party, offered fish and mussels, and pressed them to remain... We were all enamored of them. In fact, all the pagans have pleased me, but these in particular have stolen my heart."
José Francisco Ortega, chief scout of the party, went on ahead to San Diego. He arrived back on 28th June, with news that the last leg of the journey was extremely difficult due to the hundreds of gullies they still had to cross. Serra later told Francisco Palóu that he crossed each one with a prayer on his lips. When he arrived at San Diego Bay Serra was reunited with Fernando Rivera Moncada and Portolà, who had gone on ahead.
Junipero Serra later recalled: "It was a day of great rejoicing and merriment for all, because although each one in his respective journey had undergone the same hardships, their meeting through their mutual alleviation from hardship now became the material for mutual accounts of their experiences. And although this sort of consolation appears to be the solace of the miserable, for us it was the source of happiness. Thus was our arrival in health and happiness and contentment at the famous and desired Port of San Diego."
Gaspar de Portolà was named as governor of San Diego. Junipero Serra was impressed with the area. As Don Denevi, the author of Junipero Serra (1985), has pointed out: "Reconnoitering the grassy plains around Presidio Hill where the expedition was encamped, the padres noted that fresh water and arable land were plentiful. Fields could be sown with grain, fruits, and vegetables. Willow, popular, and sycamore trees dotted the river banks. Wild grapevines, asparagus, and acorns grew in abundance. Deer, antelope, quail, and hares were abundant, as were the more ferocious wolves, bears, and coyotes. In addition to the abundance of food on land, the Indians, from rafts made of tules, fished for sole, tuna, and sardines and gathered mussels."
Portolà and his expedition, consisting of Father Juan Crespi, Fernando Rivera Moncada, José Francisco Ortega, Pedro Fages, sixty-three soldiers and a hundred mules loaded down with provisions, headed north on 14th July, 1769. Portolà reached the site of present day Los Angeles on 2nd August. The following day, they marched to what is now known as Santa Monica. Later that month they arrived at what became Santa Barbara, Portolà's party walked across the Santa Lucia Mountains to reach the mouth of the Salinas River. The fog obscured the shore and they therefore missed reaching Monterey Bay. The men had walked over a thousand miles from Misión San Fernando Rey de España de Velicatá.
Portolà and his men now marched north and reached the San Francisco Bay area on 31st October. It has been claimed that José Francisco Ortega, his chief scout, was the first European to see the bay. He explored and named many localities in the region. Running short of provisions and forced to live on mule meat, they decided to return to San Diego to replenish supplies. The men arrived back on 24th January, 1770, remarkably, every member of the expedition had survived. Portolà and Juan Crespi had recorded the places they had stayed, the tribes they had met, possible mission sites, and the animals and wildflowers found.
Inspector General José de Gálvez had sent orders that their next task was to locate Monterey Bay. On 16th April, 1770, Junipero Serra, left the San Diego harbour on the San Antonio. The following day, Portolà's land expedition, that included Father Juan Crespi and Pedro Fages marched north. José Francisco Ortega was left in charge of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
Portolà successfully arrived at Monterey Bay on 24th May, 1770. A three-man party was sent out to explore the rocky coast south to Carmel Bay. A few days later the San Antonio arrived in the bay. The journey had been slow and difficult. Over the next few days Serra began planning the building of Mission San Carlos de Borromeo, named in honour of Saint Charles Borromeo. Portolà left Fages behind to establish a settlement that they called California Nueva (New California). During this time, Fages explored by land San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, the Carquinez Strait and the San Joaquin River.
On 9th July, 1770, Portolà sailed from Monterey Bay to San Blas on the San Antonio. He left Pedro Fages and forty soldiers in charge of Spain's latest settlement. Junipero Serra remained in Monterey. Carlos Francisco de Croix wrote that Serra: "The President of those missions, who is destined to serve in Monterey, states in a very detailed way and with particular joy that the Indians are affable. They have already promised him to bring their children to be instructed in the mysteries of how holy Catholic religion."
In 1776, Portolà was appointed the governor of Puebla. After the appointment of his successor in 1784, he was allowed to return to Spain, were he served as commander of the Numancia cavalry dragon regiment. Later he was appointed King's Lieutenant for the strongholds and castles of Lérida.
Gaspar de Portolà died in October 1784.
The 11th day of May, I set out from Santa Maria, the last mission to the north, escorted by four soldiers, in company with Father Junipero Serra, president of the missions, and Father Miguel Campa. This day we proceeded for about four hours with very little water for the animals and without any pasture, which obliged us to go on farther in the afternoon to find some. There was, however, no water.