San Dieguito River – 1846

Author: George Hruby


Once again, Emory's sketch of the battlefield is up to individual interpretation. A key part of the battlefield that morning of December 6, 1846, is where the San Dieguito River in fact flowed. It was then called the “Rio Bernardo” or “Bernardo River.” Today, at first glance, a person would look at where Emory places the river on his sketch and orientate themselves to where the river presently runs along the north side of the valley floor.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

(Click on picture to enlarge)

The morning of the battle, Emory's sketch tends to indicate that the American soldiers came down off of the hill, crossed the dry riverbed and then rode on into their first engagement with the Californios.

What is first noticed on Emory's sketch is that just southeast of “Pico's 2nd Position,” there is no second large water tributary, the Santa Maria Creek, which flows out of the deep Bandy Canyon. Today, both tributaries can clearly be shown traveling west and parallel, just south of the second hill, south of the road depicted on Emory's sketch. Even today, both tributaries are often competitive in size and depth as they move on from this location towards the ocean.

At the Battle of San Pasqual, both of these tributaries would have been right in front of Lt. Emory as both the river and the creek were right in the area of the second engagement (SLP-TS-7 and SLP-TS-8) of this battle. Yet, he only draws one as existing.

So to even begin to identify locations pertinent to this battlefield, the first necessity was to place where the San Dieguito (Rio Bernardo) River flowed at in December of 1846.

Again, the San Diego Historical Society Archives became a wealth of understanding this phenomenon in the San Pasqual Valley. Photographs there of the San Pasqual Valley floor taken in the late 1800's and early 1900's after floods, showed catastrophic damage. One photograph in particular showed what looked like six different gorges cut through the earth on the valley floor and either of the six could have been the actual river itself. There was no way to distinguish.


My first big break to this mystery came with a meeting with Mr. William Witman, President of the Witman Ranch in San Pasqual. Mr. Witman began farming in the San Pasqual Valley in the 1950's. During the meeting, I noticed a high altitude aerial photograph taken of the San Pasqual Valley floor. What I noticed odd, was that snaking through the agricultural fields, underneath the dark fertile top soil was this almost fluid path of white sand traveling the course of the valley floor. You could see it traveling south in front of San Pasqual Hill and straight into the Santa Maria Creek.

I then questioned Mr. Witman as to what I was seeing. He said that from these high-up aerials taken of the valley floor, you could still see where the San Dieguito River originally flowed through the valley. It didn't used to flow where it does today, he said. He went on to say that any of the ‘old timers’ from the valley could tell you that the river used to flow on the south side of the valley, not the north. He explained that was because the lowest point of elevation was found on the south side of the valley. He said that across the last century, the river was finally channeled along the north side so that the rest of the valley floor could be built up for agricultural purposes. Indeed, some areas may have three to six feet of top-soil above the actual ground.

What was most interesting was that the hidden, sandy path of the original river route flowed right into the Santa Maria Creek. Indeed, when connected, they both formed just one long water tributary. Was this the original path of the San Dieguito River (Rio Bernardo) on the day of December 6, 1846? If so, it is understandable that on a day of such historic proportions, that a young Army Lieutenant, while passing through under such conditions, would have sketched the river just as he saw it — one long, running tributary, along the southern end of the valley floor.


The following aerial photograph, taken in 1939, shows how the San Dieguito River's original course flowed right by the base of the “Circular Hill” and the SLP-Descent Road off of San Pasqual Hill.

(Click on picture to enlarge)

Click here for unlabelled photo


The San Pasqual Band of Indians were very helpful in allowing the viewing of early records of their tribe that were recorded around 1911-1912. The documents were very old and some in better condition than others. The collection of early documents appeared to be the beginning of recording the early history of their members. All the documents were written in Spanish and while some seemed to record legal and financial dealings with the band, other documents were an attempt to record by writing, their oral history. This covered many different historical aspects of their people, from their story of the creation of life, to the Battle of San Pasqual.

It became apparent that some of the recorded versions of the battle were not first-hand eye witness accounts but rather stories of the event being handed down. However, the SPBSLP was even more interested in something else. While stories of the Battle of San Pasqual may have been handed down through generations, each San Pasqual Indian had solid first-hand witnessing of the geography of the valley floor.

Here, one San Pasqual Indian, while telling the story of the Battle of San Pasqual, makes this observation: [Translated to English]

A river runs through the middle of this valley. The orientation of this river is east.

[Unknown Name]

This is consistent with the photographic evidence, and testimony of early farmers in the San Pasqual Valley such as William Witman. The river traveled down the middle of the valley floor, heading in a southeasterly direction, merging with the Santa Maria Creek and forming one water tributary along the length of the valley floor.


A second Indian from the San Pasqual Band of Indians is interviewed about his knowledge of the Battle of San Pasqual. His brief version is recorded on page 131 of their record book, believed started in 1911-1912. In this Indian's account of the battle, he makes this observation: [Translated to English]

Through the middle of the San Pasqual Valley is a river that is now dry. This year 1848.



Another indication that the San Dieguito River (Rio Bernardo) was running on the south side of the valley floor at San Pasqual Hill is an early account referring to the river near the base of the hill.

… crossing the San Pasqual River again, we reached the base of the hill, or rather mountain, of the same name, the terror of all travelers when accompanied by wagons.

John Russell Bartlett, May 9, 1850

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