Soil Ecology and Restoration Group

Developing a site environment history

Developing a site environment history can help us: understand the types of disturbances we should look for, identify historical or archeological sites that should be protected and identify special problem areas where ecosystem structure and function have been dramatically changed. This research can also help clarify what revegetation or restoration goals for a site should be. The question often becomes challenging, should it be 1990? (before current disturbance), 1910? (before farming), 1780? (before grazing), or 10,000 years ago? (before people arrived). Understanding what has happened can improve planning, implementation, and success of revegetation and restoration projects.

Researching environmental history remains more an art than science. Going back in time through papers, photographs, interviews, the Internet, maps, books, journals, newspapers, and/or fieldwork starts out as a scientific procedure; but ends up as an "art". Patience and determination are the main ingredients for successful research. Being willing to ask questions is also essential, no matter how stupid they may seem they may trigger a connection or memory that helps you develop the site history.

The early historical accounts are often very informative. Some, but not all, of the early travelers were very observant, knowledgeable, and articulate. The accounts of the early Spanish travelers, particularly Fr. Juan Crespi and Fr. Francisco Palou are well worth reading. They highlight the abundant good pasture near San Diego (Bolton, 1971; Englehardt, 1920; Palou, 1998). Quoting Crespi as he headed north from San Diego in July 1769, "We ascended a large grassy hill…and found ourselves on some broad mesas…all covered with grass…except here and there some very small oaks and chaparral" (Bolton, 1971).

Interviews with Kumeyaay survivors also proved very helpful. The elderly Kumeyaay remembered a now extinct large seeded domesticated grass that was an important food source (Shipek, 1989). This was confirmed Fr. Palou noted in his memoirs, "The heathen live on grass seeds which they harvested in their season and make into sheaves as is usually done with wheat…" (Palou, 1998).

Burcham (1957) notes that overgrazing was a problem by the early 1800s, and that San Diego hired hunters to kill wild horses to reduce competition with cattle. By 1827, when the American Jedediah Smith traveled to San Deigo, the grasses had been grazed down. He noted, "the country is hilly and barren with some Scrubby Oak and Pine on the hills but very little grass" (Smith, 1977). His observations suggest that the Torrey Pines had not yet been cut out in the old town area and other hills. Florence Shipek has apparently confirmed this with investigation of stumps on Point Loma.

One of the most important skills is learning to read the landscape. This can help you interpret what you see, and can improve your research by suggesting what to look for in the archives. Some people can learn very quickly, and see the trails and homesites while other people cannot. When we (MWG and wife) were given some instruction on how to look with "historical eyes" we could easily find and see ninety year old wagon tracks above the old Foster townsite. Field research and aerial photographs also require you to develop another set of eyes to understand what you are seeing.

Since research is in part a matter of luck you can never be sure where the best place to start will be until you are finished. If we are doing a local history survey most of the time we start at the SDHS because their collection is usually the most complete. You can find maps, aerial photographs, photographs , oral histories, books, and written histories about much of San Diego County. This will help you decide how much you want to, or need to, narrow your research.

Paired photos are one of the most useful tools for examining environment history. Photography became accepted as a new technology for journalists during the Civil War, but it took many years to reach the frontiers. Photos of San Diego become available in a useful way in the 1880s. Paired photos show remarkable changes very clearly. Historical sketches can also be paired with modern photos.

You may want to limit the number of photographs you want of a particular subject. If you are like me, you'll want to get them all; however, at $8.00 or more for an 8" X10" black and white photograph versus $1.00 for an 8" X 111/2" high quality photocopy, it is easy to stretch your research dollar. When we go to SDHS we try to obtain as many references as possible about the subject from their electronic database is fairly accurate and it covers almost everything they have, putting extensive material is at your fingertips.

Aerial photos can also be very helpful. The early embrace of flying in San Diego makes older air photos available than in most of the county. Much survey work was done in 1928 and these early photos clearly show the effects of the 1927 floods. Learning to read aerial photographs is also an acquired skill. Locating the right photo can be very time consuming. The people at SDHS and at Aerial Fotobank are very helpful; but, the quicker that you can find the areas and interpret them for yourself, the faster you will be able to make this research tool a part of your research effort.

Historical environmental research is rarely easy; sometimes you hit dead ends and other times you get lucky. We hope this guide will help you with your quest. All researchers are really Don Quixote in disguise, we wish you well in your quest for the truth. Experience is the best teacher of: when to go and where to go first, but a typical list, of where to start would include:


Historical Societies
San Diego Historical Society
Balboa Park
P.O. Box 81825
San Diego, CA 92138
(619) 232-6203

La Jolla Historical Society'
7846 Eads Ave.
La Jolla, CA 90287
(619) 459-5335

Bancroft Ranch House
9056 Memory Lane
Spring Valley, CA 91977
(619) 469-1480
Bancroft Ranch House is not really a "Historical Society" in the "true" sense of the words when compared to SDHS and LJHS, but they do have good photos at reasonable prices.

The federal, state and city park systems and volunteer groups have many knowledgeable people; but it is always a good idea to confirm information from original sources if possible. Many tales spun at historical sites are simply that.

For a more complete list of Historical Societies look below in the "Internet" area or go directly to

County Offices
Cartographic, Public Works
County of San Diego
5201 Ruffin Road Suite D
San Diego, CA 92123
(858) 694-3285

County of San Diego Assessor's Office
Rm. 103 1600 Pacific Highway
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 236-3771


Environmental History Societies Websites
American Society for Environmental History, Journal ($35 yr)
Environmental History
701 Vickers Avenue
Durham, NC 27701-3141

New Western History:
An Annotated Directory
Of Internet Resources on a
Multicultural West

Forest Historical Society
"Understanding the past for its impact on the future"
Established in 1946


Most libraries have some historical records and books, but some of the richest resources are
The California Room at the Central Library
820 E Street
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 236-5834

UCSD Libraries
Mandeville Special Collections Library
9500 Gilma Drive
La Jolla, CA 92093


Aerial Photographs
Aerial Fotobank Inc.
6181 Cornerstone CT. E. Suite 106
San Diego, CA 92121
(619) 455-0780
(Also check at SDHS and LJHS)

County of San Diego, Public Works
5201 Ruffin Road Suite D
San Diego, CA 92123
(858) 694-3285

Whittier College maintains a collection of historical aerial photos.


Satellite Photos
Some satellite photos may be available back to the 1970s. The availability of Russian spy photos is good and they are cheaper than other sources. Resolution is down to 1 meter for some satellite photos. Coverage is eneven, but may be repeated every couple of weeks in some areas.


Internet Uniform Resource Locators folder/SDHS/mainpages/archives.htm

San Diego Historical Society
The H.H. Bancroft Library
San Diego State University Archives
UC San Diego Archives
SDHS site with more historical societies

These three photographs are all of the glider port area at Torrey Pines La Jolla.

In 1929 the top of the bluff is being farmed, or has been farmed recently.

In 1953 the effects of military training on the site are clearly revealed. The runways are clear and many camp and vehicle tracks are visible.

In 1998 the area has been extensively cleared, the golf course has been added, the Salk Institute has been built, and extensive erosion has occured from concentrated drainage.

Photos don't lie, but shadows do. A full profile of this site would require corroboration from written sources and interviews.