The Explorers, 1492-1774

CHAPTER FOUR: The First to Arrive

Near one entrance of a long lagoon running along the southern Guatemalan coast and almost the entire coast of El Salvador is the little village of Iztapa. It abounds with parrots and monkeys. In the summer the heat is so intense that even the natives are able to work only from about midnight to mid-morning.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had been along this hot coast in the Spanish expeditions which conquered Central America, and as a one-time navigator had taken note of the abundance of strange hard woods which grew thickly along the coast, and of the big cedar and mahogany trees in the mountains. Here was to be the starting point of the course of discovery that led to San Diego. In 1536 Pedro de Alvarado, governor of Guatemala, reached a decision to build a large fleet of ships which would be capable of exploring the vast remoteness of the South Sea, as the Pacific was known at that time. Cabrillo was given the assignment, and he selected a shipyard site on the spit of land across the narrow bay from Iztapa, where the river Maria Linda empties into the bay and sweetens the water. Cabrillo invested in the expedition himself, owning the San Salvador which he was to take into San Diego Bay. Alvarado also paid him for his services with new grants in Honduras, including two towns with all Indians and chiefs.

The construction of the fleet was a long, hard and complicated task. Cabrillo moved his headquarters to what is now Grades, in Honduras, becoming a citizen there, in order to command the supply routes which crossed Central America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He was made justica mayor of Iztapa. Under his jurisdiction, on both sides of the isthmus, went thousands of Indians, who were to pack and drag the anchors, metalwork and other equipment which had to be brought over from Spain and hauled over swamps and mountains. Death stalked every step. The Spaniards were to estimate that eighty ships could have been built at Seville, Spain, for the cost of the thirteen built at Iztapa.

The work proceeded intermittently over a number of years. But, at last the fleet was ready. Evidently, the outfitting of the ships was completed at Acajutla, farther down the coast in El Salvador. Cabrillo had built well, as history was to record. The fleet was made up of three galleons of 200 tons, seven ships of 100 tons, and three smaller vessels; it carried 1000 men and a force of cavalry. Alvarado was listed as captain-general and Cabrillo as admiral. Alvarado was to die in less than a year and Cabrillo in less than two.

The destination was the port of Navidad, Mexico, where they arrived on Christmas Day, 1540. Navidad was at one time the main Pacific coast port for Colima and is situated about twenty miles north of the present Manzanillo. History, however, has long since passed it by, and it is only a spot on the map today. The fleet’s arrival brought a quick offer from Don Antonio Mendoza, the Spanish viceroy of Mexico, to cut in for a larger share of the expedition, but he and Alvarado were unable to reach a final agreement. Here death intervened. Alvarado, in 1541, answered a call to help put down an Indian insurrection in Jalisco and was crushed to death by a falling horse.

Troubles piled up for Cabrillo, and his men began to desert. The expedition almost fell apart. Back in Guatemala, Francisco de la Cuevas the acting governor and Alvarado’s son-in-law, moved in and began taking possession of Cabrillo’s encomiendas at Tacuba and Jumaytepec. Alvarado had handed out grants with such abandon that often ownership was in question. Cabrillo’s son also noted in his legal pleadings that the Dominican friars moved onto the encomienda of Coban, and wouldn’t leave. As best he could, under the circumstances, Cabrillo began to fight back, suing for return of the revenues of the property and also suing the Alvarado estate for the expenses he had incurred in building the fleet.

The Viceroy of Mexico stepped in to take possession of Alvarado’s fleet, and showed his confidence in Cabrillo by leaving him in command. Ruy Lopez de Villalobos was assigned to sail the larger number of ships across the Pacific to the Philippines, though nobody knew for sure how far away they were. From the testimony of Cabrillo’s son, after his father’s death, we know that the explorer also was the one, it will be recalled, who dispatched the small fleet under Francisco de Bolanos to explore tentatively the coast of Baja California. Bolanos got as far north as 200 miles above Magdalena Bay before returning in time to go with Villalobos to the Philippines.

Still another witness claimed, though without substantiation, that it was also Cabrillo who in 1540 dispatched the ships which took Francisco de Alarcon up the Gulf of California, whence he proceeded by small boat up the Colorado River and saw California two years before Cabrillo did.

Cabrillo, with two ships, the San Salvador and the Victoria, sailed north from Puerto de Navidad on June 27, 1542. He was never to return. Cabrillo’s ships probably were of the caravel. type, of the round ship family. Such a vessel had a square stern, fairly high bulwarks, was narrow at the poop and wide at the bow, and undecked between two castles, one fore and one aft, the latter being the higher. Three or four masts carried lateen sails, although by this time the foremast may have been square-rigged.

Two of the primary goals were the same in all these voyages: finding the promised northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the shortest way to the rich islands of the East. It was believed that the unknown lands to the north probably were an extension of the mainland of China or, at least, were in proximity to the tantalizing Moluccas. There also is some indication that Cabrillo was looking for the mouth of a large river, which may have been identified in some way with the Rio Grande.

The Spanish summary of the journal of Cabrillo’s expedition, found 300 years later in Seville, Spain, begins as follows:

“Relation of the Diary of the Voyage made by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo with two ships, for the Discovery of the Passage from the South Sea at the North, from the twenty-seventh of June, 1542, when he left the Port of Navidad, to the fourteenth of April of the following year, when he returned to it, having gone as far as the Latitude of forty-four degrees; with the Description of the Coast, Ports, Bays, and Islands which he Examined, and their Distances, in the Whole Extent of that Coast.”

But Cabrillo, of course, did not return. His ships did.

The San Salvador and Victoria went up the coast of Mexico, crossed the Gulf of California and proceeded up the west coast of Baja California, sailing fifteen to twenty miles a day and anchoring at night, and evidently using maps and other information from the earlier expeditions. Cabrillo didn’t begin carrying out acts of formal possession in the name of the king and viceroy until reaching San Quintin Bay. They reached Ensenada on Sunday, Sept. 17, where they remained five days, the country reminding them of Spain, and then drew near the unexplored coast of upper California and sighted the Coronado Islands.

“On the following Tuesday and Wednesday they sailed along the coast about eight leagues, passing by some three islands completely denuded of soil. One of them is larger than the others. It is about two leagues in circumference and affords shelter from the west winds. They are three leagues from the mainland, and are in thirty-four degrees. They called them Islas Desiertas (Desert Islands). This day great smokes were seen on land. The country appears to be good and has large valleys, and in the interior there are high mountains.” [for more, see “Relation of the Voyage of Cabrillo” under Translations]

The next morning, Sept. 28, 1542, Cabrillo sailed along the lee side of Point Loma, anchored in the bay, and stepped ashore on California soil. Most of the latitudes which he assigned to ports he discovered were in error, and often the descriptions left doubt as to exact locations. But as to San Diego, there could be no doubt. The port that he named San Miguel is San Diego Bay, though he listed it as in 34′ 20′ instead of 32′ 40′ N. Latitude. The journal tells of the discovery as follows:

“On the following Thursday they went about six leagues along a coast running north-northwest, and discovered a port, closed and very good, which they named San Miguel. It is in thirty-four and one-third degrees. Having cast anchor in it, they went ashore where there were people. Three of them waited, but all 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 went ashore from the ships to fish with a net, and it appears that here there were some Indians, and 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 them both shirts 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 travelling 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 the south-southwest. This is the first storm which they have experienced. They remained in this port until the following Tuesday. The people here called the Christians Guacamal.”

The white men which the Indians reported as roaming in the interior undoubtedly were members of the part of the Coronado expedition which was near the Colorado River.

We do not know exactly where Cabrillo first stepped ashore in San Diego Bay, though it is assumed his ships dropped anchor behind the protection of Ballast Point. The details of his stay have been lost with the journal of the expedition. The summary quoted above tells all that is known. Ballast Point was to be named by the Spanish La Punta de los Guijarros, or Cobblestone Point. It is a finger of land extending into the bay from the base of Point Loma, about a mile inside the tip. Covered with cobblestones, the spit of land curves slightly to form a safe, natural, deep-water anchorage from which the beach may be reached easily by launch.

The expedition sailed from San Diego Bay, or San Miguel as Cabrillo named it in honor of Saint Michael the Archangel, on the 7th day, Tuesday, October 3, and continued exploring and mapping the coast. While landing on San Miguel Island, or La Posesion as it was first named, Cabrillo fell on the rocky shore and broke an arm. Some members of the expedition were to argue later that it was a leg and that he fell while going ashore to help repel an Indian attack. Nevertheless, the expedition went on and got as far north as the general area above San Francisco Bay. With winter setting in, and battered by storms, they turned south in mid-November to seek a haven off the Channel Islands of Southern California. Cabrillo’s life was running out; evidently gangrene had set in to complicate his injury.

Here, the journal takes up:

“Passing the Winter on the Island of La Posesion, on the 3rd of the month of January, 1543, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, captain of the said ships, departed from this life, as the result of a fall which he suffered on said island when they were there before, from which he broke an arm near the shoulder. He left as captain the chief pilot, who was one Bartolome Ferrelo, a native of the Levant. At the time of his death he emphatically charged them not to leave off exploring as much as possible of all that coast. They named the island the Isle of Juan Rodriguez.” [for more, see “Relation of the Voyage of Cabrillo” under Translations]

This island of San Miguel, where Cabrillo died, is about 23 miles from Point Conception, a barren, treeless, windswept mesa beset by some of the roughest currents of the California coast. Formerly there was a fresh water spring near Cuyler Harbor on the western shore, the nearest approach to a harbor. Cabrillo’s grave is believed to be in this vicinity. Now there is only sand and grass, and the harsh winds that blow the year ’round have hidden all traces of the past.

The ships sailed north again, as far as Oregon. On the return voyage they became separated in a storm, and the San Salvador put into San Miguel on March 11 for six days, but they were reunited at the Cedros Islands and finally reached Navidad.

No northwest passage had been found, no short way to the Spice Islands discovered, and no gold or pearls from the fabled land of the Amazon brought back to enrich the viceroy. So nobody seemed to care very much about the seemingly endless land to the north, and Cabrillo’s name began to slip into obscurity.

The news of his death off the coast of California was slow in reaching Santiago de Guatemala, but when it did a state funeral was conducted in tribute to the conquistador who had played such an important part in the pacification of Guatemala, as the Spaniards referred to the conquest, and in the founding of its capital city. Old documents record that even before his death, his enemies had begun parcelling out his property or seizing its revenues.

The forces of nature seemed to combine with the avarice of man to erase much of the life work of a courageous explorer and to keep his exploits from the recognition in history they deserved. In 1541, while he prepared the ships which eventually discovered California, disaster struck the city which he had helped found and in which he had been a leading citizen for most of twenty years.

Soon after dark, on the night of Sept. 10, the city was overwhelmed and buried under a tide of water and mud. The city had been built in a valley on the sloping arm of a great volcano which apparently had not been considered active, but over the centuries its giant crater had been filled with water, either an eruption or an earthquake shattered the basin, and a whole lake poured 10,000 feet down the mountain, picking up mud, trees, rocks and hurling them through the adobe structures of the capital city. Scores of persons died that night, including the widow of Pedro de Alvarado. Not much was left standing the next morning, and the site had to be abandoned. A new capital was erected at what is now known as Antigua. A small village, Ciudad Vieja, has been built on top of the mud that destroyed the original capital. Its large, faded blue-and-white cathedral stands on the site of the original church in which Cabrillo and his family worshipped. The church bears the date of 1531, the date of the original structure. The site of Cabrillo’s home was lost forever.

Some time after Cabrillo’s death, his widow remarried, and pressed her actions against those who had seized the family property. The suits were carried on by Cabrillo’s son and then his grandson, over a period of many years. The widow first was required to establish proof of Cabrillo’s death, the legitimacy of their marriage and that of their two minor sons, Juan and Diego. He evidently also had a daughter. Unfortunately, the questioning did not include the exact place of marriage in Spain, from which the facts on Cabrillo’s nationality, place of birth, and age might have been obtained and the story of his life completed.

On Feb. 8, 1560, the son, Juan Rodriguez, submitted an Informacion, which, in answer to an official interrogation, cited 35 points pertaining to the services of his father in the conquest of Mexico and Guatemala and as admiral of a fleet of discovery; to it was attached the testimony of witnesses who had known Cabrillo or had participated in the events. [for more, see “Informacion of 1560” under Translations]

One of the witnesses was Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who testified for the Royal Audiencia of Guatemala as follows:

“It is about 23 or 24 years since I came to this city from Spain. I found living here then Juan de Aguilar, and have known him ever since. To the second question I answer that I have seen him as the husband of Beatriz de Ortega, the widow of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, now dead and who left children. I knew the latter in New Spain and I declare that he came with Narvaez and served in the conquest and capture of the City of Mexico and vicinity. I saw him serve always with the diligence such conquests demand.”

Francisco de Vargas, who had been with Cabrillo on his expedition and witnessed his death, testified that:

“They discovered the island named ‘Capitana’ and, according to the latitude which the pilot calculated, they were very near the Moluccas and the spice country and in the neighborhood of China … If Cabrillo had not died he would have discovered the great country of spices and the Moluccas, which they were on their way to find, and perhaps would have gone even farther if there was promise of anything to discover, as he had that intention and the willingness to outdo all previous captains and discoverers and was provided with food for more than three years … The wife and children of Cabrillo were left in poverty. He had seen their needy condition.”

The hearings principally involved the encomiendas of Tacuba and Jumaytepec, which had been seized by Francisco de la Cueva on the claim they had been promised to him before being granted to Cabrillo. The suits, begun by Cabrillo himself in 1542, dragged on until 1617.

At one point, the son, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, seems to have lost out altogether, for he was sentenced to “perpetual silence.” This sentence apparently did not apply to the grandson, Jeronimo Cabrillo Aldana, who, in a petition to the Council of the Indies in 1617, again described his grandfather’s services and asked for appropriate rewards for himself and his three children.

In the end, some measure of justice came to the descendants. A final decision awarded the family a stipulated revenue from the first encomienda in Guatemala which should become vacant. Down through the years that followed, the great-grandchildren and great great-grandchildren reasserted their claims to the revenues of this encomienda, citing again their relation to the great conquistador and the important incidents of his life. These old manuscripts have come to light in the National Archives of Guatemala.

The Spanish kept much of the detail of their explorations secret, in fear of the English, Portuguese and Dutch, and in jealousy of each other. If Cabrillo’s explorations were officially charted, the maps were kept secret; his actual journal or log has never been found. Sixty years after his death, Sebastian Vizcaino followed Cabrillo’s path up the coast, and, in disregard of the instructions given to him, renamed the places discovered and identified by Cabrillo. Thus Cabrillo’s name and explorations virtually were erased from the records for 400 years.

An era was drawing to a close. The old conquistadores who had braved so much were disappearing from the scene. Alvarado, Cabrillo, Alarcon, Ulloa, Diaz, and many others, were dead-by the hazards and tragedies of adventure or in the endless struggles with the Indians. Cortes, who started it all, was back in Spain, almost forgotten but still trying to win the honors that meant so much to him.

There is an apocryphal story in Spain that Cortes, after waiting for years for a chance to see the king, finally managed to approach his carriage, and placing one foot on the step asked to be heard. The king demanded to know who he was. Cortes replied:

“I am the man who gave you more riches and kingdoms than have come down to you from all the kings of Spain.”

He died on Dec. 2, 1547, bitter but certain in his own mind that history, if not his own age, would recognize his achievements and his greatness. A long time was to pass before the coast of California again would see the white sails of the “houses on the sea” which had disturbed the age-long existence of the Indians.