Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

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Fifty years after Columbus landed in the New World, soldier-navigator-explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to the shores of what is now the state of California . The voyage, which ended with Cabrillo’s death, marked the beginning of recorded history in the Western United States .

Little is known about Cabrillo’s early years. Even his nationality is uncertain; most biographies describe him as Portuguese, but in his exhaustive 1986 biography Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, historian Harry Kelsey writes that Cabrillo appears to have been born in Spain , “probably in Seville , but perhaps in Cuellar.” His date of birth and parentage are also unknown, but events in Cabrillo’s life lead Kelsey to believe he was born of poor parents “around 1498 or 1500,” and then worked for his keep in the home of a prominent Seville merchant. The final mystery about Cabrillo is his place of burial. He died on January 3, 1543 off the coast of southern California , but his burial site is unknown; Santa Catalina Island, San Miguel Island and Santa Rosa Island have all been suggested.

Cabrillo’s adventures in the New World apparently began as a boy in Cuba where he served (perhaps as a page) in the army sent by Spain to pacify the country. He grew up to serve as a squadron commander and shipbuilder in Hernan Cortes’ expedition of conquest in Mexico beginning in 1519. Later, as a merchant-adventurer, he took part in several military campaigns in Central America, including Guatemala , where, through the allocation of land and the use of Indian slave labor to mine gold, he became one of the region’s richest men.

In 1542, Cabrillo was entrusted by the viceroy of Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, to lead an expedition up the coast of New Spain (what is now Baja California) to seek new opportunities for settlement and trade. It was also hoped that the expedition would sail on to discover either a new route to China , or a passage or river connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“No one then had any clear concept of the shape of the Pacific basin or of the great distances involved,” writes Kelsey. “It was generally assumed that North America was either an extension of the Asian mainland or very close to it….Maps by Battista Agnese, generally thought to date from around 1550, show the coast of Central America and Lower California meandering lazily westward and a little north toward Asia. California is not much further from Asia than it is from Central America .” When Cabrillo’s men returned from their voyage in 1543, they insisted that the fleet “had come very close to the coast of China .”

Cabrillo’s expedition, Kelsey emphasizes, was a “money-oriented venture, and special note was to be taken about trade goods, the things that sold well and items that sold poorly.” Of the three ships that formed Cabrillo’s armada (other accounts put the number at two), the flagship San Salvador was built and owned by Cabrillo, who stood to profit financially if the mission succeeded.

“Generally, the expedition was to adopt a guarded but friendly attitude toward the natives,” writes Kelsey in describing the likely instructions received by Cabrillo. “If other vessels were sighted, the expedition was to avoid them and also to avoid doing anything else that might endanger the safety of the ships or the men. For example, if the commander had checked carefully and found the natives friendly, then the men might go ashore and make a full reconnaissance, taking careful notes about the people, their language and religion, the quality of the soil, the houses they built, and whether ‘the country is an island or mainland.’”

On June 27, 1542, the Cabrillo expedition left the harbor of Navidad , Mexico and turned north up the western coast of Baja . The armada is estimated to have numbered 200-300 men, including seamen, soldiers, a number of black and Indian slaves, some merchants and their clerks, and one or more priests. The ships also carried horses and cattle.

The only surviving account of Cabrillo’s voyage is based on a report compiled by a notary, Juan Leon, in 1543 at the request of authorities investigating Cabrillo’s death and his aborted expedition. Leon ’s report, which included interviews with several crewmembers, has never been found; what exists is a summary of the report made by another investigator, Andres de Urdaneta, who also had access to logs and charts from the expedition. The first account of Cabrillo’s voyage to appear in print was by historian Antonio de Herrera early in the 17th century, long after the explorer’s death.

What the record shows is a voyage marked by many encounters with California natives (as a rule, more friendly than unfriendly), innumerable occasions to claim land for the crown of Spain , and the first reliable charting of the California coast.

Three months into their journey (having become the first explorers to sail the length of the Baja peninsula), the Cabrillo armada recorded its first landfall in Alta or Upper California . It was a “sheltered port and a very good one” which Cabrillo named San Miguel in honor of the saint whose feast day was a day away. San Miguel is present-day San Diego . Earlier they had passed the Coronado Islands , which they named Islas Desiertas.

Traveling north up the heavily populated coast, the voyagers encountered a large and beautiful island which they named San Salvador , after the expedition’s flagship; we know it today as Santa Catalina Island . Continuing on, they sailed into present-day San Pedro Bay ; seeing thick clouds of smoke from burning chaparral, they named the area Baya de los Fumos, or Bay of Smoke . The ships anchored overnight in what is now Santa Monica Bay . Next they passed the islands we know today as the Channel Islands ; Cabrillo named them Islas de San Lucas, after the Apostle Luke.

Imagining the Channel Islands scene as the expedition arrived, Bruce W. Miller writes in Chumash: A Picture of Their World: “From the shore many Indian canoes flashed across the blue surface of the channel waters, first approaching the Spanish caravels, then circling the gallant flagship swiftly and with apparent ease. Each canoe had 12 to 13 tanned, muscular Chumash. Most were naked wearing only a waist string, some wore skins or cloaks of sea otter. They were friendly and offered fish to the Spanish… A strange new world had come to the Chumash and though little changed by this first visit, the Indians almost certainly took this event as significant, for the Spanish explorers must have seemed truly powerful to them.” Anchored off Goleta Point, Cabrillo’s men were brought so many fresh sardines that they named the nearby villages Los Pueblos de Sardinas.

Further north, the armada ran into stormy weather, missed San Francisco Bay and finally turned back upon reaching the Russian River , taking shelter in what is now Monterey Bay . On November 23, 1542, the bedraggled armada arrived back at Santa Catalina Island for wintering. A series of running battles took place between Cabrillo’s men and the island natives. When a party sent ashore for water came under attack, Cabrillo organized a relief party and rowed ashore. “As he began to jump out of the boat,” one of his sailors recalled, “one foot struck a rocky ledge, and he splintered a shinbone.” Cabrillo was taken back aboard ship where a surgeon treated his wound, but it soon became affected with gangrene. He died on January 3, 1543. The armada, now commanded by chief pilot Bartolome Ferrer (or Ferrelo), attempted to complete the voyage, but coastal storms proved overwhelming. Battered and leaking, the ships headed back to Navidad , Mexico , arriving April 14, 1543. They had been gone almost nine months, had left no settlements, had found no passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific, had discovered no new route to China . But New Spain was no longer the great mystery it had been prior to Cabrillo’s voyage, and future explorers would profit from his trail-blazing.

For many years, Cabrillo’s discoveries went unrecognized and unappreciated. As Kelsey notes, “no copies of the expedition’s logs and maps reached Spain before 1559,” 16 years after his death. “Before that date the royal cosmographers in Seville were unaware of the discoveries made on this journey. None of the place names were entered on the padron general, the official maps kept at the Casa de Contratacion…” The earliest map to draw directly upon information brought back by the Cabrillo expedition was dated 1559. And not until 1769 did Spain send soldiers, missionaries and settlers to Alta California to underscore the claims made by Cabrillo some 227 years earlier (see: Fr. Junipero Serra).

For further information, see the following books consulted in the preparation of this article:

* Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo by Harry Kelsey, published by the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., 1986
* Chumash: A Picture of Their World by Bruce W. Miller, published by Sand River Press, Los Osos, Calif., 1988

— contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999

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