Archaeologists call for move to unearth fortress below San Diego Royal Presidio, transform into cultural center

The Sierra Museum, built in 1926 by George Marston, could be used to house and display the Royal Presidio artifact collection, say archeologists like Paul Chace. Photos by Will Bowen
The Sierra Museum, built in 1926 by George Marston, could be used to house and display the Royal Presidio artifact collection, say archeologists like Paul Chace. Photos by Will Bowen

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.

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The Sierra Museum, built in 1926 by George Marston, could be used to house and display the Royal Presidio artifact collection, say archeologists like Paul Chace. Photos by Will Bowen

“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,” said Chace, who 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 four 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?

Myra Herrmann, senior planner/archaeology, environmental analysis section of the city’s development services department; said the city hopes to do just that, but until it completes an analysis of the artifacts and oral histories it currently possesses, “you wouldn’t want to start an excavation or do a reconstruction.”

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Archeologist Paul Chace points out the location of the ruins of the Presidio chapel.

Herrmann said the San Diego Presidio Park Council meets at 4:30 p.m. the third Wednesdays of the month in Balboa Park, and shares Chace’s dream for the site.

“I don’t think anyone has a price-tag on what such a project would cost,” Hermann said. “And it would have to be accomplished in phases with several departments weighing in and securing funding.”

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 pre- sidios 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.

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this sculpture pays tribute to Native americans who resided at the Royal Presidio. Will Bowen

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.”

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