The year was 1772. That spring Europeans traveled into the San Ramon Valley for the first time, camping overnight in Danville and continuing south to Monterey. In their diaries they noted the Valley's oaks, plentiful water and numerous Indian villages. For those Indians and others of the East Bay this visit presaged the end to their traditional way of life.
On March 20 of 1772 this Spanish expedition, led by Capt. Pedro Fages and accompanied by Franciscan Father Juan Crespi, left the Monterey presidio and investigated the eastern and Carquinez shoreline of the Bay, turning back after viewing the Delta. The expedition was an effort to determine if the Bay could be circled on land, so that a mission honoring St. Francis could be placed on the north side of the Bay. They were the first Westerners the Contra Costa Indians had ever seen.
Other explorers had touched the coast of California in the years before this inland expedition. In 1542, a scant 50 years after Columbus landed, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had mapped part of the coast under a Spanish flag. Francis Drake, an Englishman, landed north of the San Francisco Bay in 1579 but stayed only to repair his ships and didn't discover the fog-shrouded entrance to San Francisco Bay. Others sighted, mapped and stopped briefly on the coast.
Not until the 1760s did the Spanish move to occupy Alta (Upper) California. A combination of personal ambition and a perceived threat of Russian invasion led New Spain's Visitor-General Jose de Galvez to initiate a plan to consolidate and develop the northwest area of Spanish territory, including California.
In 1769 the "Sacred Expedition" led by Captain Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra traveled north, founding the first mission in San Diego mission. Fages led a light infantry of 25 Catalonian volunteers and came by sea to San Diego, while Crespi traveled with the overland group. In an era when the state and church were united, this combination of military and missionary colonization had worked for the Spanish throughout the new world.
Fages and Crespi then accompanied Portola to Monterey and points north for further exploration and settlement. A presidio (fort) and mission were founded at the Monterey Bay in 1770 and Fages was appointed commander when Portola returned to New Spain.
On March 31 and April 1, 1772, Father Crespi, a disciplined and meticulous diarist, described the San Ramon Valley as well grown with a large variety of trees, fertile land, plenty of running water, "numerous villages of very gentle and peaceful heathen" and "very suitable for a mission". He noted that the Indians upon first meeting them had run away, "shouting and panic-stricken without knowing what had happened."
The Indians had never seen horses, mules, woven fabric, armor or guns before and their first reactions reflected their astonishment. They were relieved to see the Spanish alight from their horses and realize these visitors were human beings. These new and obviously powerful people were fascinating to the Native Americans. For their part, the Europeans were pleased to find the Indians to be friendly. Trade began immediately with food, furs, feathers, arrows and baskets offered by the Indians and bells, fabric and beads coming from the Spanish.
Even though California Indians had a very elaborate social and economic system which had sustained them for many years, this system was not understood at all by the invaders. The Spanish felt they were civilizing and converting a primitive, starving, pagan people who had no culture. The Indians were expected to become Spanish in language, culture and religion and provide the labor for the Spanish mission settlements.