Trekking along the San Mateo County coast may become a history lesson as well as a recreational activity should an effort to guide hikers along a trail taken by an 18th-century Spanish expedition continue to gather speed in the coming years.
Dubbed the Ohlone-Portolá Heritage Trail Project, plans to connect trails along the 90 miles Captain Gaspar de Portolà and a 60-person expedition traveled through San Mateo County in 1769 have been in the works for some five years since retired civil engineer Paul Reimer first proposed the idea, said Sam Herzberg, senior planner with the San Mateo County Parks Department.
In recognition of the 250th anniversary of the expedition, a committee comprised of some 60 agencies has been exploring how to both tell the story of the monthslong expedition that charted a path for future Spanish colonization of Northern California and depict the way of life of the Ohlone tribes living there for thousands years before the Spanish explorers’ arrival, he said. Alongside representatives of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, Caltrans and Ohlone tribes, among other groups, Herzberg has been working on a feasibility study for an interpretive trail offering a glimpse of California history to those who take it.
Drawing from Portolà’s diary and those of two other men on the 1769 expedition, historians and planners are piecing together among the first meetings between Europeans and the Native Americans living in what would later become California, said Herzberg.
“We think that there’s a real opportunity to tell the history of California and about this first encounter with the Native Americans,” he said.
Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo County Historical Association, said the men in Portolà’s expedition were exhausted by the time they reached the land that would later become San Mateo County. Having started their journey in January of 1769 in Baja California with the goal of meeting a ship in Monterey, the men were battling illness and fatigue by the time they made it to the county’s coastline, near what is now the Año Nuevo State Park, in late October after overshooting their intended destination, he said.
Postel said the expedition encountered Native American villages at almost every creek along the county’s coastline and did not report hostility with the groups, which were said to have offered a helping hand as the men dealt with illnesses such as scurvy. When the expedition finally made it to Sweeney Ridge near what is now San Bruno, it was finally able to see the Bay to the east and the land before them, which was dotted with smoke from the fires of even more Native American tribes, explained Postel.
“When they came up into what we call San Mateo County today they were encountering a place where there was lots of people,” he said.
But the expedition never spotted the Golden Gate, the strait connecting the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean and, instead of continuing north, traveled south along the Crystal Springs Valley until they arrived at a spot near what is now Woodside, said Postel. Though a scouting party was sent to the eastern side of the Bay, it never traveled far enough north to see the Golden Gate, so the group made its way to Monterey, where a mission and presidio were formed, he said. Postel added Portolà deemed the journey a failure in his diary, noting the Russians could take that part of the world.
But another in the expedition, Pedro Fages, returned to the region and traveled far enough north to see the Golden Gate, a discovery which helped the Spanish hone their maps and ultimately begin to establish a trade and military presence in northern California, said Postel.
As part of the feasibility study for the trail, planners have been studying who owns the property on the 90-mile path and considered various interpretative methods to share the stories of those who traveled along the path centuries earlier, noted Herzberg. He said 45 miles of the proposed path consists of existing trails and many of the segments that would be required to connect the trails lie on public property, which could ease the planning process.
He said planners have been working for years to foster a regional trail plan and the trail could leverage segments of the California Coastal and San Francisco Bay trails, among others. Expected to be up for review by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, June 25, the trail’s feasibility study is expected to set a vision for the trail as the various agencies involved in its planning work to implement it, explained Herzberg.
For Postel, the effort to memorialize a pivotal moment in California history and honor those who preceded it marked an opportunity to help Californians understand those who helped shape the state’s modern history. Though Portolà’s expedition involved peaceful interactions with the Native Americans, Postel noted many other Spanish expeditions to follow it were less peaceful and were often accompanied by the spread of devastating diseases among the Native Americans, who had lived there for thousands of years.
He looked to the trail as an opportunity to help residents imagine what life was like in another chapter of the state’s history as they take on a wide array of recreational activities.
“To understand a crucial piece of our past is really a great thing,” he said. “It advances the cause of understanding California history.”
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