One of the most grisly historic sites in downtown San Diego is also one of the least known. Even worse, the inconspicuous plaque that marks the location of Punta de los Muertos (Dead Man’s Point) is almost certainly wrong. That’s too bad; the true story is much more interesting.
The plaque is mounted on a stone wall on the southeast corner of Market Street and Harbor Drive, at the edge of the now-abandoned property that once housed San Diego Police Department headquarters. It announces the putative burial site of some of the sailors of Juan Pantoja’s 1782 expedition to survey San Diego Bay. (Pantoja used the Spanish name Punta de los Muertos on the map produced by his expedition.) But local historian Harry Crosby points out that Pantoja’s log never mentions any of his sailors dying, an event that on his small ship would scarcely have been overlooked. Instead Crosby is convinced the site is the last resting place of some of the first Europeans to set foot in San Diego.
No one knows more about the earliest San Diego settlers than Crosby. A one-time high school science teacher turned photographer, Crosby in the early 1970s began documenting Baja California’s extensive network of cave paintings. In the course of those explorations, he became fascinated by the descendants of the peninsula’s early Spanish settlers, and research into their lives led him to even deeper historical documentation of the region. He became caught up in the question of just who is buried at Dead Man’s Point while writing his 2002 Gateway to Alta California. But because his findings lay outside the scope of that work, he wrote them up for the San Diego Journal of History. That article’s publication is pending.
Crosby has based his current opinion of what happened on his meticulous review of the eyewitness accounts of the 1769 expedition that led to San Diego’s settlement, in conjunction with the earliest maps of the bayfront. Those documents make it clear, he’s convinced, that the two ships that anchored in the bay in April of 1769 — well before the arrival of Fr. Juniperso Serra and the scouting party that preceded him — established only one camp ashore. It was located just north of the point that once existed at the foot of what today is Market Street. (This is all a bit hard to imagine now that so much of the bayfront has been filled in.)
The evidence is indisputable that four sailors on the two ships died while at sea, and numerous other crew members were gravely ill. Many more died in the weeks that followed, 2 to 3 per day, according to one credible witness. It would have made sense to bury them right next to the camp, Crosby points out. With so many men weakened and no pack animals, transporting the bodies any farther would not have made sense. The point would have thus acquired its macabre moniker right at the start of the fledgling settlement’s existence. And when Pantoja arrived on his surveying mission 13 years later and used that designation on his map, he would have been simply following the local nomenclature.
Crosby, by the way, isn’t certain it was scurvy alone that felled the unfortunate sailors. Their illness, referred to as escorbuto or loanda in the ships’ logs, likely was due to dietary deficiencies beyond just Vitamin C, he believes. Bacterial or fungal contamination of their food supply is also conceivable. The crews had only flour, beans, and dried meat to sustain them — for 59 days in the case of one of the ships and 110 days for the other. And their ordeal wasn’t the worst experienced by the sailors who set off from the tip of Baja California on the mission to create a settlement in San Diego. A third vessel disappeared at sea without a trace.