The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER TWO: The Early Explorers

The historical events that led to the discovery of San Diego began with Hernan Cortes the conqueror of Mexico. Cortes reached the Caribbean islands from Spain in 1504, when he was 18 years of age, twelve years after their discovery by Christopher Columbus. The continent of America still was a long unknown coastline just over the horizon, and for all anybody really knew, it was another island or extension of the Asiatic mainland. The tantalizing Spice Islands of the East Indies were believed to be somewhere within easy sailing distance.

Cortes, who started out to be a lawyer, became a wealthy rancher and miner in the islands of Santo Domingo and Cuba, and kept the hot fires of adventure burning by romance and intrigue. In 1518, at the age of 33, he was stirred by the reports of golden cities in the interior of the mysterious lands then being scouted by cautious but eager explorers. With the backing of Gov. Diego Velazquez of Cuba he assembled a fleet and a private army and embarked on a career of conquest.

Two years later the wealth of all Central Mexico and its rich cities lay at his feet, the great Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was in ruins, and new expeditions of conquest and exploration began to fan out to the north and south. In one of the armies that conquered southern Mexico and much of Central America was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Other expeditions came up against the shores of the Pacific Ocean, which they named the South Sea. In the first 20 years, after Cortes’ arrival in Mexico, expeditions probing northward by land ventured far up into what is now the United States, and others, proceeding by sea along the western American coast of the South Sea, explored the Gulf of California, or the Vermilion Sea, as it was called, and surveyed much of the Baja California coast as far north as the Cedros Islands, 300 miles south of San Diego. Another expedition into the upper Gulf of California left its ships and proceeded in small boats up the terrifying Colorado River, for the first glimpses of California, two years before Cabrillo arrived at San Diego.

Treasure, of course, was the great lure; after the riches of Mexico and Peru the Spaniards were ready to believe in anything. The old European story of seven rich cities in an unknown land called Cibola was revived by a shipwrecked explorer who had wandered for eight years across much of the American interior, and averred he had seen them glistening in the sun in all their golden splendor. And there just ahead was always the fabled kingdom of the Amazons, rich in gold and pearls, and dominated by women of incomparable beauty, ruled by the virgin Queen Calafia.

Strangely, Baja California, a largely barren and uninviting peninsula of deserts and sharp mountains, 800 miles long and 30 to 145 miles wide, became linked in imagination with the mythical island known as California, which was described by a fanciful Spanish writer of the times, Garci Ordonez de Montalvo, as lying at the right hand of the Indies, very close to the terrestrial Paradise. Even Cortes believed the story. In a letter to the King of Spain he told of an expedition to the South Sea that brought news of pearls, of a good harbor, and an island inhabited by women without any men, and very wealthy in pearls and gold. The push to the north was on. More adventurers of all types poured into Mexico.

Cortes began to send ships to seek for rich lands. In 1532 the first two sailed but came to grief on the east side of the Gulf, where the crews either deserted or were killed by natives. Cortes’ enemy and rival, the notorious Nuno de Guzman, then the governor of Nueva Galicia, salvaged what he could of the vessels and their cargoes of provisions. In 1553 Cortes dispatched two more ships, one commanded by his relative, Diego Becerra, and the other by Hernando de Grijalva. For some reason the latter left his ship and returned to Acapulco, whereupon his men mutinied, murdered the tyrannical Becerra, and sailed on under the leadership of Fortun Jimenez, the first white man known to have reached Baja California. They approached the southern tip of Southern California, which they thought to be an island, and landed at what is now the Bay of La Paz, on the Gulf side and in protected waters. Later twenty men were killed by the natives. The attackers were not the legendary beautiful Amazons but males of probably the lowest type of Indian to be found on the American continent. The ships got away across the Gulf only to fall into the hands of the greedy Guzman. The fate of Jimenez is uncertain. It has been thought that he was killed on Baja California, but other evidence suggests that he too escaped and was seized and imprisoned, if not killed, by Guzman. The few men who finally returned brought wild tales of vast wealth in pearls.

Cortes, as much excited as anybody, now began preparations to establish a colony on Baja California. On May 3, 1535, with three ships he entered the Bay of La Paz, and, believing the peninsula to be an island, named it Santa Cruz, the day on the religious calendar when he arrived. The pearls were there to be sure, enough of them to stir the greed of any man. All along the shores were mounds of shells which had been discarded by Indians primarily interested in food and not in pearls. There were at least 30 pearl oyster beds, which, however, were in 150 to 300 feet of water. As the natives were anything but friendly or eager to dive at command, the Spanish had to be satisfied with shells torn loose by storms and tossed up on the beaches. The land was unable to support a colony, and the difficulty of supplying it by sea was increased by storms and contrary currents. On one stormy passage, crossing the Gulf from the mainland, Cortes himself had to take the wheel of his ship when his pilot was killed. Upon his return to the little colony he had left at La Paz, he found 23 of the colonists dead of starvation, and those still alive greeted him with curses. The last of the colonists was taken off in 1536. Cortes, incessantly humiliated by an ungrateful Spain, now saw the viceroy appointed by the Spanish Crown to rule Mexico become his rival in power and splendor. But just over the curve of the earth there were always more lands to discover and more riches to seize, and Cortes kept at it as long as possible. All of the explorers and mariners of that day were convinced that somewhere to the north was the passage through which ships could sail directly from the Pacific to the Atlantic. For centuries cartographers were to persist in identifying Baja California as an island, despite the evidence of many explorations to the contrary. This long-sought passage, and the lure of pearls and gold, continued to pull expeditions northward.

Progress was slow, however, the clumsy ships struggling against the winds that blow from the north and northwest most of the year. Many vessels were lost on inhospitable coasts, others vanished, and crews of ships that managed to return to their ports of departure often were so decimated by scurvy that nobody was left to shift the sails. Still, the spirit of adventure and the excitement of an age of discovery drove them on.

There were four early expeditions important to San Diego, in 1539 1540, 1541 and 1542, the last being that led personally by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. The first was that of Francisco de Ulloa, in the accounts of which there has been more confusion than light as to where he did go, and what happened to him.

Cortes sent out the expedition of Ulloa, though his instructions as to its purposes never have been found. Not until the early 1920’s was a narrative of the expedition discovered in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, written in Ulloa’s own hand. It is a detailed and exciting story.

Ulloa sailed from Acapulco harbor on July 8, 1539, with three ships whose tonnage was recorded in the old Italian liquid measure of boutes, or bottles. A boute was half a ton. The Santa Agueda was listed as 240 bottles, the Trinidad, 75 bottles, and the Santo Tomas 60 bottles. The expedition spent some time at Manzanillo harbor and left there Aug. 27. Four days later they were caught in a terrible storm, and Ulloa soon realized that the little Santo Tomas was in deep trouble.

Ulloa’s narrative tells of the storm and the hope that the Santo Tomas would get through safely to the rendezvous at La Paz:

“Wracked by the wind and waves, she began to make water so badly that those aboard could not keep it down, according to what they told me, shouting to me that they were sinking and could not keep afloat. God grant that this may not be true and they are there safe.” [for more, see “Record of Voyage by Francisco de Ulloa” under Translations]

That was the last seen or heard of the Santo Tomas.

After leaving La Paz, the remaining ships veered off toward the mainland and proceeded up the Gulf. The last greenness of the tropics had given way to the flat, and lands of northern Mexico. They stopped at Guaymas, which Ulloa named El Puerto de los Puertos, or Port of Ports, and then came to a dead end against the broad sandy delta of the then unknown Colorado River. They were puzzled over whether the strong current they experienced might be from some great river, or whether it was merely the sea pushing through narrow inlets in and out of lakes somewhere in the interior. They were experiencing the phenomena of the great tidal clash, when the power of the descending river drives against the ascending tide surging up the narrow Gulf. The waters can rise and drop 40 feet with terrifying effect.

Ulloa records that the violence of the tides caused “the sea to run with so great a rage into the land that it was a thing to be marveled at, and with a like fury it turned back again with the ebb.”

Noting the reddish sea, Ulloa says, “We named it the Ancon de San Andres and Mar Bermejo, because it is that color and we arrived there on Saint Andrew’s day.”

He is believed to have anchored his ships in a channel near the Sonora shore. To the northwest they could see the distant mountains of San Diego.

“The next day, Monday, Sept. 28, we wished to continue on, but as the day dawned, it being low tide, we saw the whole sea where we must pass, between one land and the other, closed with shoals, and in addition to this sea, saw between one land and the other, many summits of mountains, the bases of which we could not see for the earth’s curvature.”

It was a vast emptiness of lonely deserts and stark hills. Its very bleakness should have crushed any hopes the Spanish might have held of finding golden cities, but it didn’t. Ulloa learned little, except that Baja California obviously was a peninsula – though nobody was to believe his report.

He did accomplish one thing: he undertook to claim all he could see for the King of Spain. The official notary with the expedition recorded that:

“The very Magnificent Francisco de Ulloa … actually and in reality took possession for the Marques [Cortes] in the name of the Emperor, our master, King of Castile, placing his hand upon his sword and saying if any person disputed it he was ready to defend such possession, cutting trees with his sword, moving stones from one place to another and taking water out of the sea and throwing it on the land.”

In like manner, did a large section of California, Arizona and Mexico pass into the possession of Spain. The Indians may have had different ideas about this but they didn’t seem to figure in the schemes of conquest and royal prerogative.

Turning back, Ulloa followed the eastern coast of Baja California, landing often and skirmishing frequently with hostile Indians, and finally arrived at La Paz.

In his narrative, Ulloa again had occasion to describe the storms and variable winds so common in the Gulf in summer. Recounting another fearful experience in which his ship was caught between the mainland and an island off La Paz – which Cortes had named Santiago and which is now known as Cerralvo – he wrote:

“Because the wind was unstable, changing quarter every little while, night caught us between this island of Santiago and the mainland. It was so dark and fearful, with the wind and thunder, lightning and some rain, the winds at times contrary, now one way and now the other, that at times we thought we were going to be lost. Some said they saw St. Elmo. Whatever it was I did see, I saw it on the Trinidad, which was where it appeared. It was a shining object, on the top of the main mast. I do not assert whether it was a saint, or some other thing, but whatever it was, devout thanks did it get, and our Lord was pleased that shortly the weather improved and turned calm and clear.”

Rounding Cape San Lucas Ulloa took his little fleet of two up the west coast of Baja California and at least got as far north as the Cedros Islands, or the Islands of the Cedars, a little better than half way up the peninsula. Whether he actually went farther has been in dispute. As his log has never been found, we have only the final statement in his narrative, dated April 5, 1540, at Cedros Island, written as a letter to Cortes.

“I have determined, with the ship Trinidad and the few supplies and men to go on, if God grant me weather, as far as I can, and the wind will permit, and send this ship (the Santa Agueda) and these men to New Spain with this report. God grant the outcome be such as your lordship desires, whom may it please to advance your illustrious lordship in person and estate through a long period. I kiss your lordship’s illustrious hand. Francisco de Ulloa.”

This dramatic statement has led some historians to conclude that Ulloa sailed on, as did the Ancient Mariner, and meeting disaster was cast up and died on some shore of the Southern California coast. What actually did happen to him presents some mystery, though. None of the old Spanish records have any reference to his being lost, and these include statements from those who sailed with him.

According to Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the historian of the conquest of Mexico, Ulloa returned to the port of Jalisco, and a few days afterward, while he was ashore resting, one of the soldiers on his flagship waylaid and killed him with a sword. However, in 1543, in answering a legal interrogation in Spain as to the whereabouts of the daughter of one of his former pilots, Cortes replied that Ulloa had carried her off and could give the information better than he, thus indicating that he, Cortes, believed Ulloa was alive at the time.

Early Spanish maps indicate that explorations were made at least 100 miles beyond the Cedros Islands, before the time of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo; therefore it is reasonable to suppose that the information must have been supplied to cartographers by Ulloa upon his return to Mexico.

His was the last expedition with which Cortes had any official connection. Frustrated by his enemies in New Spain, and with no new riches to send to his king, he returned to Spain in 1540 to continue his attempts to win the honors and titles which he believed he deserved.

With Cortes out of the way, Antonio de Mendoza, one of the great viceroys of Mexico, took over the search for the Seven Cities of Cibola and sent out a wave of new expeditions. He, too, would find an Aztec or Inca treasure. He sent Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, governor of Nueva Galicia in Mexico, by land and Hernando de Alarcon by sea. Coronado wandered through Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas Pan-Handle, and Kansas, and finally came to the unhappy realization that the pueblos of the Zuni Indians in New Mexico, their pale-yellow adobe deceptively gleaming in the thin air like a mirage, were the source of the twisted story of the distant cities of gold. Alarcon sailed up the Gulf of California with supplies for Coronado, but as the main body of the latter’s expedition had struck inland, east and north, they never were very near each other. A patrol sent by Coronado to make contact with Alarcon missed him entirely.

Alarcon never found any rich cities either, but, besting Ulloa, he took to small boats and went up the Colorado River at least as far as the present site of Yuma, Arizona, at the point near where California, Arizona and Mexico come together; some historians are convinced he went as far north as the present Lake Mead. It was a remarkable journey by a remarkable man. Somewhere along the route he may have stepped ashore on California soil. But his report of the journey, in a letter to Mendoza, is concerned mostly with his dealings with the Indians and not with geography, so the honor of the discovery of California must remain with Cabrillo.

Alarcon outfitted two vessels at Acapulco, the San Pedro and the Santa Catalina, and then picked up the San Gabriel at the port of Culiacan. With them as cartographer went Domingo Castillo, who had been with Ulloa.

Alarcon sailed to the head of the Gulf of California, where his ships were caught up in the tremendous tidal bores, which are particularly severe at that time of year, just before the September equinox. There his crews wanted to turn back, as Ulloa had done, but Alarcon was made of sterner stuff. With a flourish of bravery, he reported later to the viceroy that “since your lordship has commanded me to report on the secrets of the Gulf, I was determined, even at the risk of losing the ships, not to fail, under any pretext, to reach its end.”

No current or river was going to best him. Passing through the twisting shoals, he almost lost his vessels when they were grounded by the fall of the tidal bore. “We were in such danger,” he wrote, “that many times the deck of the flagship was under water. And had it not been for the miraculous rise of the tide, which had raised the craft, and, as it were, given us a chance to breathe again, all of us would have been drowned.”

Once over the shoals they came to the actual mouth of the mighty Colorado River, which runs with such furious power for 1700 miles. The thankful captain named it Rio de Buena Guia, or the river of Good Guidance. This was on Aug. 26, 1540.

As the current was too strong to sail against, the crews took to small boats, which they rowed, sailed or towed from shore up through the country of the tall and powerful Yuma Indians. Alarcon was a swashbuckling figure, vain and proud, with a rich beard that fascinated the Indians. He always was handsomely garbed, and had a drummer and fifer along to herald his comings and goings. As the tribes were sun-worshippers, the resourceful Alarcon nominated himself as the Son of the Sun, a ruse which worked magic with the Indians. He was able to assuage his Christian conscience by distributing little wood and paper crosses to the natives.

Welcomed and honored, as befitting a gallant captain of Spain, he worked up the river for 15 days, landing here and there to meet with the friendly, curious Indians, receiving many conflicting answers to his questions about the existence of Cibola, and hearing Indian gossip of other bearded men roaming in the interior.

Alarcon finally went back down the river for more supplies. His second trip up the Colorado, which began Sept. 14, again over the protests of his men, provides an intriguing odyssey for historians. He mentions in his account that he went as far north as 85 leagues, which would place him about 300 miles north of Yuma, or near the site of Hoover Dam, and there, he says, they “came to some very high mountains through which the river flowed in a narrow canyon, where the boats passed with difficulty because there was no one to pull them.” This description, however, also fits the vicinity just above Yuma, where the Colorado runs for about a mile through a narrow channel between high cliffs. His computations on latitudes in the gulf region mean little as they were faulty and conflicted with those of Ulloa and other explorers. He also fails to mention sighting any of the rivers, such as the Gila, which empty into the Colorado on the east. The actual distance from the mouth of the Colorado River to Yuma is only about 50 miles, but all of 150 miles by way of the winding river channel.

After he had heard reports from the Indian grapevine that Coronado had reached Cibola, Alarcon lost all hope of contact with him and decided to return home. He erected a cross, buried letters for Coronado, and placed a sign reading, “Alarcon came this far. There are letters at the foot of this tree.”

Alarcon sailed downstream and returned to Colima, Mexico, where he was pressed into the continual wars with the Indians, and so dropped out of history. But the cross and the letters he left behind were to play a part in another expedition, which, in turn, provided one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Pacific Coast.

Melchior Diaz was next on the scene. He was captain of a rather small off -shoot expedition which Coronado, after reaching the grimly disappointing Cibola, sent toward the coast in search of Alarcon and his supplies. Diaz returned to a settlement the Spaniards had founded along the Sonora River in Mexico which they had named Corazones or “Town of Hearts,” and from there he trekked west with 25 mounted soldiers, a contingent of Indian allies, live sheep for food, and a greyhound dog.

Over the terrible Sonora desert they broke the path for the inland route to California, which the Spaniards later named Camino del Diablo, or the Devil’s Highway, and eventually came to the Colorado River near its junction with the Gila. The same Yuma Indians who had welcomed Alarcon only a short time before now were profoundly disturbed. The magic of the Son of the Sun had died away, and the Indians became uneasy when more white men, armed and obviously covetous, arrived from a new direction.

Diaz was as much impressed with these handsome Indians as was Alarcon and noted that in traveling from place to place in the cold desert nights they carried firebrands to warm their bodies. So, the Colorado River got still another name, this time the Rio del Tizon, or the River of the Firebrands.

Harassed by the Indians, they proceeded downstream to a point described as about half way between Yuma and the head of the Gulf, where they reported they found the cross and the tree carved with Alarcon’s message. The spot was nowhere near that indicated by Alarcon in his message. But Diaz’ own ideas of his whereabouts were not too clear either. He dug up the letters and read of Alarcon’s disappointment in not finding Coronado and his report that he had determined Baja California to be a peninsula and not an island.

With the knowledge that Alarcon had gone downstream, Diaz decided to do a bit of exploring on his own initiative. He went north, crossed the river despite treacherous efforts of the Indians to kill him, and went to look for the “other coast, which in that region turned south or southeast.”

In Baja California, Diaz and his men stumbled into an area of hot springs and mud volcanoes, evidently in the region near the Cocopa Mountains, where they feared to cross the rumbling earth. Escaping from this new threat to their lives, they met with a personal tragedy when Diaz was impaled on his own lance in an accident while he was chasing his dog. He lived for twenty days, doctoring himself, as his men, under frequent attack from Indians, carried him back into Mexico by litter across the lonely stretches of sand and hill. He died on January 18, 1541, and was buried somewhere between the Gulf and the Sonora Valley.

This expedition perhaps contributed little of historical value, as the actual journals or diaries about it have never been found. We have, though, a curious comment by a later Spanish narrator, Capt. Pedro Monge. He reported that a patrol from the Coronado expedition went northward along the mainland coast and near the mouth of the Colorado River they came upon men with kinky hair working metal from slag brought from somewhere in the interior, who indicated by signs that their homeland was toward the west, beyond the Ocean Sea, toward Asia or China, from which they had come in exotic vessels with carved golden pelicans as figureheads. We know no more about the incident. If Diaz had lived, perhaps he would have left us a conclusive report of an age long contact between the American and Asiatic mainlands.

There was one more expedition that reached north toward San Diego before that of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. Captained by Francisco de Bolanos, it was a small, advance fleet which Cabrillo dispatched sometime in late 1541 or early 1542, from the port of Navidad, where he was preparing for his own expedition. Bolanos seems not to have gone beyond the explorations of Ulloa, perhaps only 200 miles above Magdalena Bay. Cabrillo most certainly had Bolanos’ maps, as well as those of Ulloa, on the journey that led to the discovery of California.

It is Cabrillo who holds the most interest for us, and to know him and to learn how he rose from the obscurity of a foot soldier with Cortes to an admiral of fleets of exploration, we must go back into the history of the conquest of Mexico.