Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (c.1498-1543)

juancabrilloFor half a century before 1542 Spanish explorers had been trying to do what Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, to use the Spanish form of the discoverer’s name, here accomplished. Without knowledge of many failures on the part of his fellow adventurers he could not have succeeded. In his discovery of Upper California, Alonzo de Ojeda had a part; as had Bartolomé de las Casas, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, Ferdinand Magellan, Juan Hernando de Grijalva, Hernando Cortéz, Fortún Jiminéz, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Antonio de Mendoza, Padre Marcos de Niza, Francisco de Ulloa, Hernando de Alarcon and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.

The credit for the discovery of California belongs rightfully to Cabrillo; but with him in honor must stand his first officer, Ferrelo, who, after the death of the leader nobly carried on and eventually returned to Mexico with reports of the sorry accomplishments of masters and men. California as a geographical certainty first appears in Cabrillo’s journal, submitted to Spanish authorities in Mexico by the returned pilot.

At noon Tuesday, June 27, 1542, Cabrillo sailed. His instructions were to explore the outer shore as far toward the north as possible, and particularly to be watchful for the long looked-for Straight of Anián. He was also “to look for cities and rich countries.” Aboard the Victoria and San Salvador were representatives of the Catholic church and a few experienced seamen; the rest of the crews being made up of Spanish prisoners and Indian slaves.

It was Wednesday, September 27, when Cabrillo passed the islands lying off San Diego. That night he anchored in sight of the watch fires on Point Loma.

The diary of the voyage of Cabrillo and Ferrelo contains rather full data concerning their stay in this harbor. They entered Thursday evening, September 28th, a storm from the southwest as their heels.

“Having cast anchor in it, the men went ashore where there were people. Three of these waited, but the rest fled. To these three they gave some presents, and they said by signs that in the interior men like the Spaniards had passed. They gave signs of great fear. On the night of this day they (the sailors) went ashore from the ships to fish with a net; and it appears that here there were some Indians and that they began to shoot at them with arrows and wounded three men.

“Next day, in the morning, they went with the boat farther into the port, which is large, and brought two boys, who understood nothing by signs. They gave shirts to both and sent them away immediately.

“Next day, in the morning, three adult Indians came to the ships and said by signs that in the interior men like us were traveling about, bearded, clothed, and armed like those of the ships. They made signs that they carried crossbows and swords; and they made gestures with the right arm as if they were throwing lances, and ran around as if they were on horseback. They made signs that they were killing many native Indians and that for this reason they were afraid. These people are comely and large. They go about covered with skins of animals.

“While they were in this port a heavy storm occurred; but since the port is good, they did not feel it at all. It was a violent storm from the west-southwest and south-southwest. This is the first storm which they have experienced. They remained in this port until the following Thursday. The people here called the Christians Guacamal. On the following Tuesday, October 3, they departed from this Port of San Miguel.”

During early October the expedition was on the Island of San Miguel. Here Cabrillo broke an arm. Though greatly inconvenienced, he again sailed northward, encountering such storms as have seldom elsewhere been recorded. The men suffered from scurvy. Piercing cold added to their agony. Cabrillo’s arm became infected. The ships were forced to turn southward, became separated; but finding one another again they returned on November 23rd to San Miguel Island. There Cabrillo died January 3, 1543, and was buried.

[from Heilbron, Carl. History of San Diego County v.1: Narrative. San Diego: San Diego Press Club, 1936. (pages 10-12)]

Return to Biography.