For more than 10,000-years (over 600 generations,) the original inhabitants of the region were known as the Kumeyaay people. Other native people there are known as the La Jolla.
The first European expedition known to visit the area was a Spanish sailing expedition led by the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (in 1542.)
Later, the Mission Basilica Saint Didacus of Alcalá, on a site known as ‘Kosoi’ overlooking a bay, was the first Franciscan mission there (also the first in the broader region.) It was founded in 1769 by Spanish missionary Fray Junípero Serra. It was not always successful and occasionally met with opposition from the native people.
Never-the-less, the mission and surrounding town grew. A military installation was built nearby. Captain George Vancouver visited in November 1793, and reported it “to be the least of the Spanish establishments. … With little difficulty it might be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance”. (NPS)
In 1810, the force numbered about 100 men, of whom 25 were detached to protect the four missions in the district. The garrison level was maintained until about 1830. After 1830, however, the military force soon declined rapidly. The last of the troops were sent north in 1837, and the facility was completely abandoned as a military post. (NPS)
“In the town at that time the inhabitants, soldiers and citizens numbered between 400 and 500. Quite a large place. At that time there was a great deal of gayety and refinement here. The people were the elite, of this portion of the department of California. In the garrison were some Mexican, and not a few native Spanish soldiers.” (Davis)
The site of the town was by no means favorable for a seaport town. The military site (known as the Presidio) was located on the hill above the river, at the outlet of Mission Valley, merely because the place could be easily fortified and defended. The town grew up upon the flat below Presidio Hill, because it was originally only an overflow from the garrison itself.
From 1830 onward, the town grew rapidly and was soon, for the time and country, an important commercial and social center.
When William Heath Davis first came in 1831, he found it quite a lively town. Davis and his partners did a large business with the missions for many years. (Smythe)
William Heath “Kanaka” Davis, Jr. (1822 – 1909) was a merchant and trader. Born in Honolulu in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi to William Heath Davis, Sr (a Boston sea-faring ship-owner) and Hannah Holmes Davis, a daughter of Oliver Holmes (another Boston ship-master and a relative of Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes.)
The shipping trade to the Coast and to Hawaiʻi was almost exclusively in the hands of Boston firms from its beginnings to the days of the Gold Rush. Davis’ grandmother on his mother’s side was a native of Hawaiʻi, and her husband, Oliver Holmes, in addition to his trading operations, was at one time Governor of Oʻahu.
Davis’ nickname “Kanaka” refers to his Hawaiian birth and blood; he was one-quarter Hawaiian. He first visited California as a boy in 1831, then again in 1833 and 1838. The last time he joined his uncle as a store clerk in Monterey and Yerba Buena (now San Francisco). He started a business in San Francisco and became a prominent merchant and ship owner.
For many years, he was one of the most prominent merchants in San Francisco, and engaged in some of the largest trading ventures on the coast. He moved to southern California in 1850, around the same time California became part of the United States.
In March 1850, Davis purchased 160-acres of land and, with four partners, laid out a new city (near what is now the foot of Market Street.) He built the first wharf there in 1850.
The town took the name of the surrounding Mission Basilica Saint Didacus of Alcalá (the “Mother of the Alta California Missions”) – today, we call it San Diego.
Whenever a ship came to anchor, saddle-horses were at once dispatched from the Presidio to bring up the Captain and supercargo. Monterey being at that time the seat of government of California, and the port of entry of the department, all vessels were compelled to enter that port first. After paying the necessary duties, they were allowed to trade at any of the towns along the coast, as far south as Lower California.
Davis was one of the founders of “New Town” San Diego in 1850, though he did not live there for long (and the venture turned into a failure.) He believed that a town closer to the waterfront in San Diego would attract a thriving trade.
He later wrote “Messrs. Jose Antonio Aguirre, Miguel Pedrorena, Andrew B Gray, TD Johns and myself were the projectors and original proprietors of what is now known as the city of San Diego.”
An economic depression in 1851 put an end to their plans, and New Town rapidly declined. Although these men had the judgment to choose the best spot for the city and the imagination to behold its possibilities, they lacked the constructive capacity required for its building. Hence, their effort goes into history as an unsuccessful effort to take advantage of a genuine opportunity. (SanDiegoHistory)
For more than a hundred years Old Town was San Diego. It began with the founding of the fort and mission in 1769; it ended, as a place of real consequence, with the fire of April, 1872, which destroyed most of the business part of the town.
In 1867, Alonzo Horton arrived in San Diego from San Francisco. He also decided the best place for the city to develop was down by the waterfront and, determined to build a new downtown on the site of Davis’ failure, Horton purchased at auction land on the waterfront. The new settlement which had sprung up was called Horton’s Addition, or South San Diego. (now known as Downtown San Diego.) (Smythe)
San Diego’s William Heath “Kanaka” Davis House is the oldest surviving structure in the New Town area. It was one of the first houses built in 1850 in the New Town. A pre-framed lumber “salt box” family home; it was shipped to California by boat around Cape Horn. (It was never the home of Davis, whose own home at State and F Streets was a duplicate of the surviving one. By 1853, most of the houses constructed by Davis were moved to Old Town or used for firewood.)
The original plaza for New Town is not today’s Horton Plaza, but New Town Plaza, which still exists and is bounded by F, G, Columbia and India Streets. Davis eventually settled in San Leandro. He died in Hayward, California on April 19, 1909. (Lots of information is from San Diego History Center.)
The image shows Point Loma and the Silver Gate, San Diego (San Diego History Center.) In addition, I have added other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.