Mysteries of Brea Canyon: Portola Expedition
Brandon Ferguson

Mysteries of Brea Canyon: Portola Expedition

If you've ever sped north through Brea Canyon Road on your way to the 57 freeway, or less likely to Diamond Bar, you've noticed a few things: massive oil derricks standing like silent sentinels along the cliffs, flotsam and jetsam dumped in the surrounding foliage, and flattened road kill. But there's an easily overlooked nugget of American history you might miss as you're tailgated by a deadly processional of traffic along the winding road--a small concrete obelisk adjacent to some rusting oil tanks. 

Mysteries of Brea Canyon: Portola Expedition
Brandon Ferguson

Those who bother to pull onto the sandy shoulder will notice a marker which indicates none other than famed explorer Gaspar de Portola along with 60 men camped on that spot July 31, 1769. 

For those rusty on their fourth grade history, Portola was an explorer who led an expedition of Alta California as part of Spanish efforts to establish missions in the pre-Golden State. For a discussion on the oppression of indigenous people wrought by the mission system, we refer you to head Mexican-in-charge, Gustavo Arellano

The marker was placed in its current spot in June of 1932 by a parlor of the Native Daughters of the Golden West. The Weekly contacted Sherry Farley, a third generation member of the Native Daughters, which serves to preserve California history. It was among the groups responsible for the bells motorists see lining El Camino Real.

Farley tells us the marker was placed east of the actual campsite due to private property restrictions. It was her understanding Portola chose the spot because of a grove of pepper trees (long removed) which provided shade during the summer heat.

We asked our friend Chris Jepsen over at the Orange County Archives if they had any info backing the historical claims of the Native Daughters and he found us some diary passages of Father Juan Crespi who was on the Portola trek. The good father wrote about climbing a steep hill, then descending in to a fertile valley with a small pool upon the banks of which lived many friendly "heathen." 

Jepsen also supplied an article titled the "March of Portola" written by late historian Don Meadows who traced the path described in Crespi's diary. Meadows referenced the Indian Village in Crespi's diary as being located in Brea Canyon, though he wrote the actual camp site was located in what is now Fullerton's Hillcrest Park.

In a 1965 article published in the Pacific Coast Archeological Society Quarterly, author Helen C. Smith wrote that there was some dispute about where the actual Indian village was located, though she agreed the explorers traversed what is now Fullerton's Hillcrest park. Archeological activity unearthed Indian artifacts on a hilltop near Brea Canyon including fragments from a milling stone and a "mano"--a large rock used for grinding seeds and nuts.  

So there you have it. That marker you're risking you're life to get a better look at probably doesn't mark the exact spot where Portola camped. But for the curious minded, it may get you digging-- and if you manage to avoid getting hit by a car or bitten by a rabid raccoon-- it could prove rewarding.

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