San Diego History

From a simple Spanish mission, San Diego has grown into a sparkling SoCal city.

There were already around 20,000 people living in the San Diego area when Europeans arrived. It’s thought the first coastal human settlements appeared here as much as 20,000 years ago.

But when explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed ashore in 1542, he wasn’t going to let a few thousand inhabitants stop him from claiming the area for Spain.

Unfortunately for Cabrillo, he didn’t get to enjoy his new conquest, dying four months later in the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.

Sebastian Vizcaíno arrived 60 years later, naming the area after the Spanish monk San Diego de Alcalá.

In 1769, Father Junipero Serra established the first of several Catholic missions on a grassy knoll beside the Presidio, the Spaniards' fort and settlement.

By the 1820s, the population had risen to over 600, and residents began building homes outside the Presidio in what’s now known as Old Town.

Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and San Diego fell under Mexican rule for the next 25 years.

In 1846, the USA declared war on Mexico and California became part of the USA.

San Francisco furniture dealer Alonzo Horton knew an opportunity when he saw one. Snapping up 325 hectares (800 acres) of land for US$265 in 1867, Horton created New San Diego.

The new town boomed, helped by a local gold rush in the 1870s and the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1885.

In the 20th century, both world wars brought a large military presence to the city, while a move from agriculture to manufacturing saw the economy flourish.

By 1970, San Diego had become California’s second-largest city, with a population of 700,000.

That figure has since doubled and San Diego today is home to a young, educated and cosmopolitan population.

Did you know?
• In 1906, an 8.25-magnitude earthquake rocked San Diego, killing 700 people.
• Americans flocked across the border to Tijuana during Prohibition to drink and gamble.
The Cat in the Hat author Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel) lived in La Jolla for nearly 40 years.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.