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Ensenada History

Centro Social Cívico y Cultural Riviera de Ensenada
Credit: Ricardo Espinosa-reo | Mexico Tourism Board

The area that is now the city of Ensenada was originally inhabited by a semi-nomadic indigenous group called the Cochimí, who long-resisted attempts at colonization by the Spanish.

Ensenada’s first name by a European was given by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who claimed it for Spain in 1542. Later in 1602, it was renamed by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who rediscovered the bay and renamed it Ensenada de Todos Santos. Vizcaíno’s intention was to establish it as a safe harbor for ships, but he was unable to because of indigenous resistance. In 1695 the Jesuit priest Juan María Salvatierra was able to establish a mission in the area, which gave rise to others over the next 70s years. Though the Spanish crown ordered the Jesuits to abandon the area, they had succeeded in establishing their language and culture, and were followed by the Franciscans and later the Dominicans.

Ensenada was relatively insulated from the Independence Movement, though it did mean that the missions would cease to be the official authorities of the area. Baja California became a territory of Mexico officially in 1821.

One of Baja California’s stranger stories is that of an American named William Walker who invaded the area in 1853, planning to annex it to the U.S. It had recently been “lost” in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which the modern-day southwestern United States had been “sold” to the U.S. He arrested the governor and declared himself the president, but with little backup and support, was forced to give up.

Ensenada did not expand significantly until around 1870 when gold was discovered in the inland mountains. The city was officially incorporated in 1882, and six years later it benefited from another brief gold rush.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Ensenada began a roller coaster ride of rising and falling popularity. Though declared the capital city in 1882 after a gold rush caused a surge in the population, the revolution devastated the area, and the capital was moved to Mexicali. With prohibition in the U.S., Ensenada soon saw a surge in visitors from north of the border looking for alcohol and entertainment. It is rumored that Ensenada is the birthplace of the margarita.

Since the 1940s, the Ensenada area has experienced major agricultural expansion and also developed into a leading Mexican port city for agricultural exports. Commercial tuna fishing, sportfishing and shipyards are also important to the local economy. Within the last 30 years, the port of Ensenada has become a major container shipping port and a cruise ship destination, primarily for cruises from California.