California history starts where California began... and that is what we now call Baja (Lower) California, Mexico. When the Spanish under Cortez discovered California in the 1500's, they thought it was an island... one described in a book that was ruled by a queen named Calafia. After Cortez failed to colonize the new land, the Jesuit missionaries starting in the 1680's were given free reign to 'civilize' the natives and occupy the land before the Russians or British did.
The first successful mission was finally founded in Loreto in 1697, and became the capital of California for over 100 years. A chain of missions and satellite missions (called 'visitas' or visiting stations) connected by a well built road for foot and pack animals (called the 'Camino Real' or Royal Road) was constructed by the Jesuits and their Indians.
A marker along the Jesuit El Camino Real as seen today:
The King of Spain had been fed rumors that the padres were collecting gold and pearls and not disclosing their discoveries or paying their king his share. King Carlos had ordered them removed by force in 1767, and it was finally carried out in 1768.
There was no time to mine gold or dive for pearls when all efforts were in trying to feed the natives that were removed from their way of life and converted to mission duty. The Franciscans replaced the Jesuits and continued the push north into Alta (Upper) California to prevent the Russians from gaining any more of what Spain wanted.
Before the Jesuits were forced off the California peninsula, a story goes that they built one final mission to store and hide their treasures. That one day they would return for them... and that has caused many to seek out the lost mission known as 'Santa Isabel'. There was never any documentation for a Santa Isabel mission in Jesuit writings, but there were two missions listed in Jesuit documents and shown on Jesuit maps that never made it onto the Franciscans list of missions they took over control of. The two missions were called San Juan Bautista (shown west of San Ignacio) and Santa Maria Magdalena (shown south of Bahia de los Angeles). The San Juan Bautista mission was to be located in the Santa Clara mountains, and became more well known as the Lost Santa Clara Mission.
The area south of Bahia de los Angeles was very remote before modern roads were built in the 1980's and the first to bring a caravan of four wheel drives through the area was mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame), in February of 1966. Gardner was a big fan of the desert and Baja California and always traveled with large groups of desert enthusiasts with specialized vehicles to seek out mysteries. Gardner was told it may be possible to drive from Bahia de los Angeles south some 70 miles to El Barril and Punta San Francisquito using old prospector routes and Jesuit roads from over 200 years earlier.
The Auto Club Baja map of the 1960's shows no road going through to El Barril from Bahia de los Angeles:
Nor the excellent 'Lower California Guidebook' maps of 1962:
It was on their second day that they spotted a lone date palm, a dam that made a small reservoir and walls that seemed to serve no purpose high above on a small mountain overlooking the area. Two of the group members, Bruce Barron and Desert Magazine editor Choral Pepper climbed the small mountain to look closer at the walls and found evidence of an Indian camp and perhaps lookout towers from the piles of rocks.
It was this strange walled mountain and the surrounding area that caused Choral Pepper to believe that they had found the site of a 'started' mission of Santa Maria Magdalena, but it was abandoned before anything more was constructed. Perhaps the spring dried up that once filled the reservoir?
Here are two photos Choral Pepper took at the site and published in the July, 1966 edition of Desert Magazine:
Here is a mention of the site in a 1970's Baja guidebook 'The Baja Book' by Tom Miller...
I met Choral Pepper 10 years ago and we shared our interest in the mysteries of Baja's missions. I told her as a high school student, I became interested in the Santa Maria Magdalena site after I read her 1973 Baja history and 'strange stories' book...
Re-published in 1975:
The Santa Maria Magdalena site (or what-ever it was they found in 1966) had always fascinated her, as well... She tried to get back to see ait again, but couldn't reach it, and she wasn't even sure where to look in that large, nearly uninhabbited region.
I told her I wanted to find it and that became a quest for me for the next several years! I contacted other surviving members of the 1966 expedition, including Bruce Barron, J.W. Black, and Ricardo Castillo. However, none could provide directions to the walled hill site.
Here is part of the 1757 Jesuit map with "S.M. Mag" mission listed as 'started'
The 1989 AAA Baja map shows the original Gardner made road inland, and the newer government graded road :
A member of a Baja Internet forum knew of my quest and sent me a Google Earth satellite close up of something strange on a hill, south of Bahia de los Angeles, and asked me if this was the wall I was seekin...
I was quite excited, and said it looked like the right shape, but no way to know for sure without a trip to investigate the location! New Years 2009 was just a couple weeks away, and I told my wife we had plans for New Years... the plans were about 500 miles away, but we were going!
2003 map of the region:
We loaded up the Tacoma and off we went!
Here, taking a stop along the way... a local walked over to greet us!
Here is the Camino Real going to the final Jesuit mission of Santa Maria de los Angeles. The Jesuits were removed just months after they founded the mission, so this northern-most section of the Camino Real was never constructed to the same standards as the Camino Real to the south of the previous mission, San Borja...
Here is the road, just a few miles from the site...
There's the hill in the satellite image...
The road splits and goes around both sides... Most traffic takes the left branch... I have been on this road and took the left branch... and never saw a thing... so we take the right branch!
Look, up on the mountainside, a big cave!
and just a bit further, the lone scraggly date palm that Choral Pepper described in her 1966 magazine story!
I was jazzed!
We continued to drive around the hill and looked and saw it...
At the base of the hill we found the dam and reservoir ruins:
Now, we climbed up the steep mountainside ... EUREKA!
Indian sleeping circles, littered with clam shells on top of the hill:
There's my silver Tacoma at the bottom and the steep side of the mountain we climded:
What was the wall for, was it part of a mission or a Spanish lookout?
Heading back down you can see the second, shorter wall:
Here's a side-by-side of the 1966 photo and the 2009 photo with matching rocks and points labled:
Well, this was a pretty special day... after many years and several searches, we found the site!
I contacted the head archeologist doing work in the area, and gave him my details... It seems there are many walls and sites in Baja, and this one wasn't any more special to them. What it was is a mystery... and that it was a site I promissed Choral Pepper I would find made it special to me... Choral passed away before I found the site, but I feel she was there with me, in spirit...