“Within less than an hour at noon today, we have felt three strong earthquakes. The first and the longest must have lasted the length of the creed, the other two about that of a Hail Mary; the ground shook strongly during all of them ”
Father Juan Crespi was the chief diarist of the Portola Expedition, the first European overland exploration of California. On July 28, 1769, he was near present-day Disneyland.
His measurement of time has a liturgical base. The Nicene Creed takes a little over a minute to recite in rapid Latin. The Hail Mary would take about half as long.
Seismologists for the U.S. Geological Survey tell us that the Los Angeles Basin experienced a 6.0 temblor on that date.
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Crespi continues: “I named this spot (the future site of Mission San Gabriel), as beautiful and excellent as it is for a very large and plenteous mission, ‘El Dulcismo Nombre de Jesus, del rio de los Temblores’ (the Most Sweet Name of Jesus, of the River of Earthquakes).”
Crespi and the European intruders were prepared to put up with some heavy shaking if that was what it took to live in an earthly paradise.
Early on the morning of August 3rd, the expedition crossed the “lush river and valley of Our Lady of the Angels of La Porciúncula,” the future center of Los Angeles.
Crespi observes that “we all felt four quakes at dawn today; since we first began hearing them (at Anaheim), there have been fourteen, very persistent and strong though not long lasting, and now we have learned about these pitch springs here, we attribute the cause to them.”
The Spaniards accepted a story told them by the Gabrielino Tongva natives that the La Brea Tar Springs was the cause of the temblors.
Because the lush lands were in the coastal valleys, virtually all the Spanish missions and pueblos were constructed near some of the most active faults. Mission San Gabriel and the pueblo of Los Angeles were situated near the rio de los Temblores.
Mission San Juan Bautista was located on the San Andreas fault.
On October 11, 1800, a series of earthquake shocks that lasted through the end of the month were recorded. There were as many as six shocks per day.
In May 1803, earthquakes heavily damaged the new church under construction at San Juan Capistrano.
That stone church was finally completed in 1806, only to be leveled on December 8, 1812. The 7.0-magnitude Wrightwood earthquake pinned the doors of the church shut during the celebration of Mass.
A witness wrote that the temblor was “sufficiently severe to prostrate the mission church almost in a body, burying in its ruins most of (those) who remained behind, after the first indication of its approach was heard.”
Between 30 and 45 of the neophytes were killed in the initial shake. The remains of the buildings were destroyed by aftershocks.
Another quake, possibly triggered by the Wrightwood quake, probably had its epicenter in the Santa Barbara Channel. On December 21, 1812, it leveled buildings from San Buenaventura to modern-day Lompoc. The church at Mission Santa Barbara was leveled.
Mission Purísima Concepción was so badly damaged that the mission was relocated to its present site north of the Santa Ynez River.
Father Luis Gil Taboada is buried at the foot of the altar at Mission San Luis Obispo. He told Angustias de la Guerra Ord that he was at the presidio of Santa Barbara, where “there was such a strong earthquake that the sea withdrew and turned into what appeared to be a tall hill. He and all of the people from the presidio took off running toward the mission, singing litanies to the Virgin.”
Father Luis also told Senora Angustias of another event caused by the “tall hill” of water that we will write about next week.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.