Emory's Circular Hill


This simple circular hill drawn on Lt. Emory's sketch is one of the most fascinating depictions drawn of the entire battlefield. The reason is that this hill plays no significant role in the battle unlike, for example, the Indian Village or either of the engagement sites. All it really shows is that at some point after the American soldiers came down off of San Pasqual Hill, they crossed a water tributary and rode into their first engagement with the Californios.

The Circular Hill seems to serve no real purpose yet, it is one of the most detailed items drawn by Emory on his sketch of the San Pasqual Battlefield. It is a prominent depiction indeed.

The Circular Hill is seen to buffer the water tributary as well as buffer both the east and western walls of the San Pasqual Valley. Knowing that there is no hill in the middle of the valley floor that is this large, or that buffers both the eastern and western walls, it is obvious to assume that we must interpret what Emory was trying to show us.

Bibb's Circular Hill

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Leland Bibb's annotated topographic map

Again, by 1991, the location of this hill had been identified by local Historian Leland Bibb to the San Pasqual Battlefield Visitor's Center. Bibb had identified the hill as being located at 16789 San Pasqual Valley Road where today, the office-trailer facility sits for the Witman Ranch.

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This picture is taken from the SLP-Descent Road on the east side of the valley. The exact location of where this photograph was taken is near SLP-S-14.

Here is another perspective of the same location. Here is a high-altitude infra-red aerial photograph taken of Bibb's Circular Hill.

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Here is yet another perspective of Bibb's Circular Hill as seen on a Topographical Map. It sits just to the right of SLP-S-3.

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Again, Historian Leland Bibb never published his reason for how he came to the conclusion that 16789 San Pasqual Valley Road was in fact Emory's Circular Hill. However, to his credit, Bibb was not the only local historian to home in on this location. Many others have too.

This is understandable. The San Dieguito River went right by its base just like on Emory's sketch. The reenactments of this famous battle were held right next to it at where supposedly the 1st engagement of the battle occurred at. Again, just like is shown on Emory's sketch. While it is noted that Bibb's Circular Hill seems to lack the extreme roundness and steepness detailed on Emory's sketch, Bibb has an explanation for this. Bibb has explained that many years ago, it was reported that the location of 16789 San Pasqual Valley Road was lowered by a few feet when a building was erected on the site. This information appears corroborated. This quote comes from notes taken by local historian Cloyd Sorensen who interviewed San Pasqual Valley Pioneer, Mary Rockwood Peet in 1968:

Mr. Rockwood was once the Road Supervisor in the valley and when they were doing some road work near the San Pasqual Union School they found a grave across from the Indian Cemetery. The road ran between the river and around the side of the hill that at present has been lowered a few feet. Possibly the small round hill that Emory shows on his map as being next to the site of the first battle with the Californians.

Mary Rockwood Peet

Indeed, one could interpret Emory's sketch using Bibb's Circular Hill as being the same as Emory's Circular Hill. Besides, where else could such a hill, so prominently depicted in such detail on Emory's sketch possibly be? So, this is how Emory's sketch location of the Circular Hill has been interpreted for a long time.


The first thing observed by the SPBSLP of Emory's depiction of the Circular Hill was how detailed it was, especially in showing size, steepness, and roundness. In fact, the Circular Hill almost rivals in size, the two hills shown south of the 2nd engagement site. To stand on top of San Pasqual Hill and look across the valley at 16789 San Pasqual Valley Road, it simply does not look like a true “hill” at all. Definitely nothing close to the roundness, steepness, and size shown on Emory's sketch. It was difficult to imagine Emory making Bibb's Circular Hill look as it does on his sketch.

In an interview conducted with William “Bill” Witman in 1993, his take on the hill being lowered “a few feet” was that it was simply “leveled” out to be built on. Looking at the above pictures of the hill, indeed, even a few feet taller, the hill would still not look even close to Emory's sketch.

To bring this point home even further, here is an extremely magnified section of an archive photograph found in the San Diego Historical Society Archives, dated 1895. It is photograph # 81:10959 and labeled, “San Pasqual – Ramona's Child Burial Place.” Look closely in the far left background at the white structure featuring two chimneys. You can clearly see the old adobe chapel in the background to your right. The white structure on your left is sitting atop Bibb's Circular Hill. You can judge for yourself how round, steep, and tall this hill (?) is even in 1895, long before in the next century, it was “lowered” or “leveled”.

1895 cemetery photo

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Magnified view of 1895 cemetery photo background.


The next issue with the SPBSLP was that it was now known that the San Dieguito River did not flow by the base of the Bibb Circular Hill in 1846. It flowed down the middle of the valley flow, cutting southward and merging with the Santa Maria Creek on the other side of the valley floor.


The next issue was that the SPBSLP established that SLP-S-3 was not where the first engagement occurred at. Again, one of the issues proving this site was not where the first engagement was at is the significant elevation issue. Look closely at the above magnified picture and notice in the background how the adobe chapel on your right is in the least, almost level with the structure located on top of the Bibb Circular Hill. To expand on this further, if the adobe chapel were here today, it would be sitting east of Highway 78, across from the San Diego Archaeological Center, on top of the field where today the battle reenactments are staged and where SLP-S-3 was identified by Bibb as where the 1st engagement took place. There is no mention of such a dramatic elevational rise in the 1st engagement by one single soldier. Not one. Yet they mention it in several other locations at the San Pasqual Battlefield and Mule Hill.

So… if the Bibb Circular Hill is not the circular hill depicted in Emory's sketch, what hill is?

The first step for the SPBSLP was to identify the correct location of the descent road that Kearny's soldiers took coming down San Pasqual Hill. Once this was discovered, it immediately led to the next discovery — the Circular Hill. Once the correct road was established by the SPBSLP, it almost immediately led to the correct Circular Hill.

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The resemblance to the circular hill sketched by Emory is remarkable!

Below is another photograph of the same hill from another perspective. The SLP-Circular Hill lies directly below the SLP-Descent Road. In another words, General Kearny and his soldiers saw this tall, steep, and very rounded hill as they made the slow descent down San Pasqual Hill on the morning of December 6, 1846.


On the topographical map displayed previously on this page, you can see how massive of a formation it truly is. No wonder a Topographical Engineer with the Army would sketch it as large and detailed as he did.

However, if the hill was not an important location or had some sort of relevance to the battle, why did Emory exert so much effort in the hill's detail and prominence on his map? The SPBSLP believes there are two reasons.

1. The SPBSLP believes this hill is the “first hill.” At least two officers involved in the Battle of San Pasqual, refer to the same hill. Both refer to it as the “first hill.” It is apparent that it is the same hill, located at the base of the larger San Pasqual Hill.

… and one [Californio] even followed almost to the top of the first hill.

Capt. Gillespie

The general directed me to take a party of men and go back for Major Swords and his party. We met at the foot of the first hill, a mile in the rear of the enemy's first position.

Lt. Emory

The SPBSLP believes that the “first hill” that they are referring to is the first hill at the base of San Pasqual Hill, now referred to as the SLP-Circular Hill. There is no other hill at the base of San Pasqual Hill where the descent road drops down onto the valley floor. The following quote is also believed to be referencing this same hill:

The guide, Rafael Machado, whom I sent to General Kearny, by Capt. Johnston, reported to me, that the party went to the foot of the mountain on the side of the valley, and not more than half a mile from it. From this point, he was sent to find an Indian …

Capt. Gillespie

Indeed, if officers from different branches of service are referring to this same hill as a reference point during this battle, and evidenced by their later reports, this was surely a hill that Emory would have wanted to document.

2. The other reason that Emory put so much detail into this circular hill is that it is part of a vortex (if you will) into the theater of war. Emory probably started his sketch at the beginning where they start descending down San Pasqual Hill. It is from this descent down onto the valley floor that they are almost instantly thrust into the Battle of San Pasqual. A very large event, both militarily and politically speaking, especially when considering how many dead and wounded Americans resulted from same.

Emory started out in large detail showing how they descended down the hill surrounded with three primary initial landmarks:

  • The Circular Hill
  • The water tributary between them and the Circular Hill
  • The tail-end of the road that finally dropped them down onto the valley floor

    The mistake is how this part of Emory's sketch is interpreted.

    Careful research of Emory's sketch showing the road descending down the San Pasqual Hill onto the valley floor, shows us something, although very subtle, also very dramatic. It is a ninety-degree turn. This is a rare feature for Emory on this sketch.


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    Here is that same 90-Degree turn on the SLP-Descent Road under infra-red photography:


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    1990 infra-red aerial photograph

    It is suspected that that Historian Leland Bibb interpreted this 90-degree turn to apply to the Bibb-Descent Road, where the road makes a 90-degree turn at the top of the ridge and then comes straight down. The SPBSLP argues that it is not.

    The water tributary shown dividing the Circular Hill on Emory's sketch has been thought to be the San Dieguito (Rio Bernardo) River however, the SPBSLP doesn't think that was what Emory was trying to show us.

    Emory had started the sketch originally drawing in very large scale, their descent down San Pasqual Hill. He showed the trail (carreta road) with the very large wash to their right as they were coming down the hill, running between them and the Circular Hill. Even though the riverbed was “dry”, after several days of rain, it is quite possible that the “wash” may have had water running down it and feeding into the San Dieguito riverbed down below.

    If you study Emory's sketch, after the 90-degree turn, the soldiers drop straight down, brushing right pass the Circular Hill. Then they cross over the water tributary which on Emory's sketch, flows all the way towards Mule Hill and is later identified as the Rio Bernardo.

    When you look at a modern aerial of this same exact location, it fits almost perfectly with Emory's sketch. The large wash is still there. They had to cross over it while descending down the hill and it was also down below them at the hill's base. You can see how this wash hugs the base of the Circular Hill still, and how the road (after the 90-degree turn) brings them right down to it where they would have had to then cross it.

    The exact cross-point over or thru the dry wash or riverbed is unknown but further research may put us in very close proximity. The river of course has been rerouted and an asphalt road runs by the base of San Pasqual Hill today but further analysis and study of the trajectory of the SLP-Descent Road where it meets the valley floor might cough up the clues we need.

    In 1846, this large wash emptied right into the San Dieguito (Rio Bernardo) River which was running right past its base and flowing the same exact direction (southwest) towards Mule Hill. The large wash, the San Dieguito River, and the Santa Maria Creek all fed into each other and indeed, appeared as one tributary running through the valley floor due southwest.

    What is also significant is that Emory's sketch does not go at all beyond the Circular Hill due northeast. There is nothing on Emory's sketch to suggest that anything at all exists beyond the Circular Hill (ie. Bibb's Indian Village Site SLP-S-1). The truth is we don't know, nor have any evidence to suggest, that Emory had the time, ability, or knowledge of anything in the opposite direction of the battle. All of Emory's attention and everything that occurred at the Battle of San Pasqual is due south and west of San Pasqual Hill as depicted on his sketch. This is what his sketch shows.

    Returning to this part of Emory's sketch, an educated guess is that Emory started his sketch in the upper-right hand corner of the parchment of paper. He began to detail in a very large scale, the initial descent down the hill and into the 1st engagement of the battle when he recognized that he was not going to have enough room to sketch in everything else pertaining to the battle. So, he begins to scale down everything else so that he can fit it all on the one sheet of paper that he is working with.

    You can see this as he compresses the entire 1st engagement location and Indian Village from the base of San Pasqual Hill, despite that we know from the soldiers themselves of much movement and happenings at this location, sometimes covering distances from ½ to 1 mile or more. In fact, most of the space in Emory's sketch depicting the locations involved in the Battle of San Pasqual, are committed to the high elevation mountains in the background on the upper left hand corner which were not involved in the battle at all.


    To again demonstrate how this hill looked to the soldiers in 1846, with how tall, steep, and round as compared to the Bibb Circular Hill, look again at the magnified background of the 1895 photograph shown earlier and note in the background, the sheer prominence of the SLP Circular Hill. Then look over to the far left at Bibb's Circular Hill (the white structure with two chimneys) and compare.

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    The SPBSLP believes that the large circular hill located at the base of San Pasqual Hill is indeed the “first hill” referenced by military officers in this battle and is the circular hill depicted by Emory on his sketch of the battlefield.

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