The Cathedral Oak of Don Gaspar de Portola

I guess I've gotten into a "Spanish Period" which has taken me out of the desert and closer to the coast. What can I say? The history is fascinating and on a hot day there's no better place to be than a cool adobe building. In this particular case, though, I was looking for a tree that no longer exists. Now that might seem a bit strange, even for me, but this was a very special tree and I wanted to pay my respects.

Here's the legend: Spain was trying to develop Alta California as a viable colony and appointed one of their most competent generals, Gaspar de Portola, the governor. He was ordered to replace the Jesuits in Baja California with Franciscans and then to lead an expedition to Monterrey.

It didn't go too well. The first expedition was something of a wipeout and they missed the harbour of Monterrey in the heavy fog. The second time around things went better. They split the group up and Portola and Father Crespi (and their entourage) took the overland route while Father Serra and others went by boat.

The legend says that on Easter Sunday, Crespi suggested that it might be nice to have a service and

Portola replied that the massive oak tree was the best cathedral they could find, a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse. So the first Easter in California was celebrated right here under the oak, if you're into things like celebrating Easter, and if you're not then you can celebrate big ol' giant oak trees. See how everybody wins?

It could be that Portola and Crespi actually did celebrate Easter Sunday, 1770 right there under the oak, but if that's the case they were awfully far inland. I'm inclined to doubt. The Maniel Garfias adobe (built in 1853) was right across the street, and I think the legend had more to do with that. The tree succombed to old age in 1952. It will be missed. The Daughters of the American Revolution put up the monument in the '30s. I think it needs a fancier cross (and a few more oaks).

Cathedral Oak Monument, 430 Arroyo Drive,South Pasadena 91030


















There's a postscript to this one too. My boy, John Windell Wood of Pasadena, California: Historical and Personal (1917) totally embraced the Cathedral Oak story. As far as I can tell, the best argument is that the Franciscan fathers headed straight for San Gabriel to set up the mission the very next year, so the chances that someone had already scoped it out were h
igh. He also gave Father Crespi high points for coming up with beautiful, poetic place names unmatched in the Anglo period, and I've got to agree with that too. Here's what John said:

"But if Portola's expedition failed to find Monterey bay it did discover a bay of far greater significance in its future importance to the world for on November 7th 1769, the beautiful portals of the Golden Gate were disclosed to the soldiers gaze, and the bay of San Fransicco was first seen by white men. With this discovery, Portola's name was written into the pages of California's history. Portola did not know then of the vastly superior importance that this discovery had above mere Monterey, for once again he essayed to find the object of his original quest.


In April 1770 on his second journey northward he and his little band for the second time traversed the Valley of the San Gabriel and upon a fine day arrived and found surcease from travel under the oaks and sycamores of South Pasadena. They found Indians in plenty living in their primitive villages and it is said that Portola smoked the pipe of friendly confidence with the head man or Chief one Hahamovic, who lived with his followers on the land where seventy five years later was built the hacienda of Colonel Manuel Garfias and which is now the property of George W Glover.


It was the time of the year when blooming poppies blazed the slopes and mesas with their golden bannerets and it was this flaming glory that begat the name Copra de Ora, or cloth of gold, which sailors out at sea forty miles away conferred upon the splendid sight. But these soldiers of Portola gave to this particular land the name which it afterward in part retained. It was on an Easter Sunday they arrived and because of this and upon beholding the striking beauty of the blooming poppies, they applied the term La Sabinalla de San Pascual, “The Grand Altar Cloth of Holy Easter.” Hence it was that the Rancho San Pascual received its name.


Portola and his followers were perhaps the first white men ever seen by these Indians and for that reason and also for the fact that it was then that the desirability of this place for a Mission, germinated it later became the domain of the Mission San Gabriel.


On the bank of the Arroyo Seco, near where stood the famous Garfia's hacienda, stands a fine spreading oak which has seen the suns of centuries Upon the trunk of this tree can be faintly seen the form of a cross, now nearly overgrown and obliterated. It is given upon the best legendary authority, that this cross was cut upon a day when the first religious services were held in this valley, these services being held beneath this spreading oak. The cross being made by one of the soldiers of Portola upon the visit above referred to.


Just a few yards away is the Garfia's spring where the family sought libations, on occasion where children played, and romance dwelt long years ago. It was in September 1771, that another expedition consisting of ten soldiers some muleteers and servants in command of two priests Fray Pedro Cambon and Angel Somero traveled north from San Diego and arrived in a few days on the banks of the Rio Temblores, a branch of the San Gabriel. Here, it was decided, was the place to establish a Mission, the fourth of the California chain. This was done, and it was named the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, later, when it had been abandoned because of damage by erratic floods, known as Mission Vieja or Old Mission. When the storms of winter came and mountain streams flooded the valley it was found an undesirable location and after four years a new site was sought. The ruins of the Old Mission may yet be seen where originally founded 146 years ago."


~ by ravenjake on July 13, 2009.

One Response to “The Cathedral Oak of Don Gaspar de Portola”

  1. [this is good] Guess who made it to being Hidden LA’s Quiz #5 – yep, the Cathedral Oak! Way to stay seasonal.

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