Nearby Mexican-American War Battlefield Park A Significant Part of California History

Not many actual battlefields exist in Southern California, but one of the few is within easy driving distance of residents in 92127: San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park.

Located just east of the San Diego Wild Animal Park (or San Diego Safari Park, as it’s being rebranded by the San Diego Zoo) and about eight miles east of Escondido on Highway 78, the park honors the soldiers who fought in the battle between U.S. and Californio forces on Dec. 6, 1846 during the Mexican-American War.

The 50-acre park is located on a hillside in the San Pasqual Valley, overlooking one of several battle sites and includes the American soldiers’ camp location after the conflict. It features a visitor center, amphitheater, picnic tables and a half-mile nature trail. A large monument stands on a hillside to commemorate the actual battle.

Open only on weekends, the visitor center has interpretive displays of the history of the valley through Native American, Spanish, Mexican and U.S occupations. A short video of the Mexican-American War is presented along with displays depicting events leading up to the battle. An observation room features a map of the battle and descriptions of each day’s actions, both in Spanish and English. And a bookstore on site specializes in the battle and war, biographies, and the history and people of California.

The visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission to the park and the visitor center is free.

While only one of many military encounters in California during the Mexican-American War, the Dec. 6, 1846 battle proved to be the bloodiest and the one with the most controversial outcome – according to materials available at the recent annual “Battle Day” re-enactment at the park (in December 2010). And it included some famous individuals as well.

The 100-member American “Army of the West” – led by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny – had just arrived from Missouri by way of New Mexico when it met and was defeated by a smaller force of Californios led by Gen. Andres Pico west of what is now Ramona.

Hungry, cold, wet and exhausted, the Americans were overwhelmed by the better-armed Californios. The U.S. force – riding mules, for the most part and hindered by wet gunpowder – was no match for the Mexican detachment on trained horses and using lances and lariats. The Americans counted 35 killed or wounded, while the Californios counted only two dead and 12 wounded in the battle.

After burying their dead and binding the wounded near where the park now is located, the U.S. soldiers tried to reach San Diego, but were engaged again for several days by Pico’s forces at Mule Hill just past Rancho San Bernardo (above what is now Lake Hodges). A late-night escape by Kit Carson, Edward Beale and an Indian scout averted outright slaughter for the Americans when the trio reached San Diego and returned with reinforcements from the command of U.S. Navy Commodore Robert Stockton.

Historians still debate which side won the battle, because the combined force shortly vanquished the Californios. The battle is also unique in that it is one of the few military battles in the U.S. that involved elements of the Army, Navy, Marines and civilian volunteers.

Names of the better-known individuals at the Battle of San Pasqual live on in Southern California:

  • Kearny Mesa, an area in San Diego, was named after the U.S. commander at the Battle of San Pasqual (Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny).
  • Kit Carson Park on the south side of Escondido was named in his honor (Carson City, Nev., also is named for Kit Carson, but for a variety of activities and adventures).
  • Beale Air Force Base in Marysvale, Calif., is named after Edward Beale, who secured reinforcements from San Diego with Carson.
  • Camp Gillespie, completed in 1942 in San Diego, was named in honor of Lt. Archibald Gillespie – who with Kearny was wounded during the battle. The federal Army camp later became Gillespie Field, a San Diego municipal airport.
  • Capt. Benjamin Moore, who died at the battle, was honored by the naming of Fort Moore near downtown Los Angeles (and LA’s Fort Moore Hill Pioneer Memorial further honors Moore and other American pioneers).

Did You Know?

Volunteers annually in December re-enact the battle at the San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park during the “Battle Day” event. In addition to staging the battle itself, visitors can enjoy music, period dancing, a salute to the fallen, black powder and cannon firing demonstrations, children’s games, a mountain man encampment, demonstrations of candle dipping, bullet molding, blacksmithing and a variety of other activities.