Old Town’s Presidio Hill was once home to the Spanish fort, “El Presidio Reál de San Diego” (Royal Presidio of San Diego). Why build a fort in San Diego? To defend against pirates, of course!
Spanish vessels traded across the Pacific Ocean in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. They brought valuable goods from Manila, Philippines and Nagasaki, Japan to their Spanish colonies in Mexico. The Spanish galleons were loaded with wealth, so they were a prime target for English pirates like Sir Francis Drake. Drake supposedly captured two Spanish galleons off the California coast.
English privateer (government-authorized pirate) Sir Francis Drake
Spain sought to create waystations in California where its ships could rest after their long voyage across the Pacific – and also where they could seek refuge from pirate onslaughts. One of these waystations was the Royal Presidio of San Diego. Established in 1769, it was the first European settlement in California, and was the foundation for the modern city of San Diego.
The Presidio ruins lie underneath the grassy mounds at Presidio Park.
A reconstructed battery at Presidio Park.
According to legend, José Arvaez was the region’s most notorious pirate. Arvaez organized a crew of Mexican convicts in the 1830s, and they used the Coronado Islands (off the coast of Tijuana) as their base of operations.
Arvaez and his crew stole a schooner and weaponized it, and they ambushed vessels sailing up the coast. The ruthless pirate had a “no prisoners” rule, so many of the ships he ambushed were considered lost at sea.
Arvaez’ undoing came when he broke his “no prisoners” rule. His crew raided the English vessel Chelsea and killed all of its crew except for the cabin boy, named Tom Bolter. They thought Bolter was valuable due to his knowledge of the sailing dates of other northbound ships.
Cannon aboard the Star of India at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Arvaez left Bolter alone on the Coronado Islands while he raided another ship. The cabin boy saw a chance to escape, and shot the two men who were guarding him. Then he loaded as much gold as he could into a small fishing boat and sailed into San Diego, where he was picked up by the New York vessel, Grendo.
The Grendo’s Captain Bellue gathered some volunteers and sailed to Arvaez’ hideaway on the Coronado Islands, where they waited in hiding for the pirate and his motley crew to return. When they did, Arvaez and his men were captured and hanged aboard their own schooner.
Legend has it that a portion of Arvaez’ treasure is still hidden away in caves on the Coronado Islands – although treasure hunting is difficult because the islands are now a wildlife refuge that’s closed to the public.
Treasure hunters also search the ocean floor. It’s believed that hundreds of Spanish galleons were shipwrecked along the California coast, and divers have discovered plenty of Asian relics and gold-crafted objects. Several undiscovered wrecks are thought to be located near San Diego. Some wrecks are purported to hold millions of dollars in gold coins. Treasure hunters dream of looting their sunken cargo.
The Star of India at Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Want to learn more about pirates? Check out Pirate Days at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, this Saturday and Sunday, May 19 & 20. 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM. Admission to the Maritime Museum is included with Hopper Plus, and so is admission to Hornblower Harbor Cruises – where you can get majestic views of the Coronado Islands.