The Explorers, 1492-1774


San Diego, the birthplace of civilization on the West Coast, was discovered in 1542. This was only fifty years after Christopher Columbus had touched land in the Western Hemisphere for the first time. These fifty years were momentous ones, a period of explorations of vast unknown lands and uncharted seas, of cruel but heroic conquests, of the final collapse of ancient civilizations whose origins are shrouded in mystery, of the bringing of Christianity by sword and cross to millions on new continents whose sizes and outlines were only dimly perceived.

When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Portuguese-born conquistador sailing under the flag of Spain, put into San Diego Bay on Sept. 28, 1542, the glory of Spain was reaching its height. Mexico and Peru had been subdued. The wealth of the Aztecs and of the Incas had begun flowing back to the mother country. The whole world caught fire, in excitement, envy and intrigue. Though the records are silent, Cabrillo himself must have been searching hopefully for new cities of gold, for the long-sought short route to China and the Strait of Anian, which the explorers of all seafaring countries believed existed. This was a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, somewhere to the north, by which ships could sail directly from Europe to the Spice Islands of the Indies.

Cabrillo never found the gold, China, or the Strait of Anian. More than four and a half centuries later a U. S. Navy submarine slid under the northern ice pack, above Alaska in the Bering Sea, and reappeared in the Atlantic Ocean. Cabrillo lies buried on tiny San Miguel Island off the coast of Southern California. His grave has never been found. A brave man, a skillful fighter, and an able navigator, he succumbed to infection from a broken bone. His expedition got as far north as the coast of Oregon without him.

The importance of his discoveries, and of those in command of his ships after his death, was not appreciated at the time, and his original maps and log have never been found. Most of the names which he gave to the ports of California were erased from the records. Because of the discoveries of Cabrillo, San Diego remained under Spanish rule for almost three hundred years. Phases of Spanish life still linger here, in place names, in much of the architecture, in the crumbling missions, the thick walls of the adobe buildings of Old Town, and the enchanting rituals of Indians who cling to tribal memories. How could Spain, a country so poor and weak today, have conquered and held such vast lands for so long? San Diego was governed by Spanish kings for three times as long as it has lived under the American flag.

Spain was a powerful country for only a short time, as history goes. The people of the Iberian peninsula had been fighting among themselves for several thousand years, when, in the Eighth Century, the Moors crossed over from Africa and subjugated the mixed races which, when driven together by war and bloodshed, eventually became the Spanish people. For seven hundred years the Christian people of Spain fought against the Mohammedan Moors until, under Ferdinand and Isabella, Moorish power was broken in 1492, and the last of them were driven from the peninsula. The conquistadores who were to subdue the New World were the heirs of seven hundred years of barbaric struggles. Murder, betrayal, chivalry, as well as courage, had been, out of circumstance, their way of life. The Indians of the new land were no match for their cunning and ferocity.

Spain’s great years had arrived and the energy of her people exploded over the world. Columbus was the first of a long line of explorers and conquerors who set out from Spain. Newly discovered lands were settled and organized, and Spanish armies fought all over Europe and in Africa. The wealth of the New World was poured into suicidal wars in a vain effort to unify all of Europe. But there was never enough gold for all that Spain sought to do or was forced to do. And in time, the incessant conflicts took their toll of men, industry, the arts, and agriculture until finally the Spanish Armada, that was to crush the growing maritime threat of England, was destroyed in the English Channel in 1588. Spain’s energy was blowing itself out. The end was in sight. It was all over in a century. But for two hundred years more Spain continued to hold tenaciously to her colonies overseas as she slowly sank back into the past out of which she has not yet fully emerged.

The history of San Diego is the drama of the Pacific. San Diego was only a vague and distant possession of the great Spanish empire. Sixty years after Cabrillo, another Spanish explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, arrived to give the port the name it bears today. Then 167 years were to pass before any more attention was paid to California. In Mexico, cathedrals were built and universities founded. The conquistadores and those who followed them became the landed hidalgos who fastened on the country a feudalistic system that could be broken only by revolution and civil war. Indian villages became the towns and cities of Acapulco, Loreto, La Navidad, Colima, Culiacan and Sinaloa, from which were to come the men and supplies for the founding of new colonies in California. Under the pressure of Russian probings along the coast and the menacing excursions of English and other foreign ships, Spain at last bestirred herself to establish some kind of a settlement at San Diego. Thus San Diego became the birthplace of Christianity on the West Coast.

What kind of a land was San Diego? It was a lonely place, geographically. San Diego always has been considered isolated, with deserts and mountains to the east and south, an ocean to the west, and only a narrow coastal plain opening to the north. It was isolated in the sense of being separated from the main stream of history as it unfolded across the Atlantic, to the eastern shores of America, and as it developed in Mexico and parts of South America. But in the long reach of time, San Diego has been in the path of significant movements of people and events. Anthropologists believe the Indians of the Americas came’ by way of a Siberian land bridge, in prehistoric times, many of them coursing down along the Pacific Coast, some to remain, others eventually to populate Mexico and South America, to build civilizations that in some aspects rivaled those of the Old World. Most certainly other peoples came as visitors by sailing across the great sea. Ancient Chinese literature tells of visits to the land of Fusang on the other side of the ocean. The description is that of California. Certainly it didn’t require any great feat of navigation. A ship, no matter how clumsy, could sail from China to the California coast without ever being too far out of sight of land. The Manila galleons of Spain, loaded with the riches of Asia, sailed north from the Philippines, picking up the Japanese current and easily crossing the Pacific, making a landfall near Monterey, and then sailing downhill with the wind behind them to Acapulco. Reports of visits of Asiatics from the Fifth Century onward persisted up until the time of Portola and Anza in the late 1700’s.

One such legend describes a group of men with kinky hair and ships with golden peacocks as figureheads near the mouth of the Colorado River. They indicated that they had come from beyond the ocean sea toward Asia.

It seems strange that the Chinese, and in particular the Japanese, did not take more interest in these lands and the Pacific Ocean. Three hundred years ago, Japan was a powerful and warlike maritime country, highly advanced in science, law and mathematics, with big armies and navies, and cunningly watched the Spanish trading in the Philippines and the excursions of other Europeans in Southeast Asia. Their visitors and traders carefully scrutinized the Spanish fortifications in the Philippines. The wary Spanish, fearing the worst, expressed doubt as to Japanese motives; what was on Japanese lips did not always seem to be what was in their hearts. Then suddenly, in apparent resentment at the efforts of the Spanish to Christianize them, the Japanese turned inward, ended their conquests, and shut themselves off from the world. The Pacific, or the South Sea as they called it then, became virtually a Spanish lake. It wasn’t until 1853, when Commodore Perry of’ the United States Navy re-opened the gates of Japan, that this aggressive and capable people came back into the Pacific.

San Diego was untouched by all these things. The Indians who settled here from time to time never got beyond an aboriginal existence. But Indians of the same linguistic stock, the Aztecs, were to take over the remnants of still earlier civilizations in the Valley of Mexico and erect the great and beautiful city of Tenochtitlan destroyed by Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores, and now the site of Mexico City; and to the south in Yucatan and the highlands of Central America, the Mayans built a hundred temple cities and plotted the movements of the sun and the stars. By the time the Spanish arrived, most of their cities had been abandoned and overwhelmed by the jungle. The people no longer remembered much of their past.

For 250 years, the great ships of Spain known as the Manila galleons, in their yearly circle from the Philippines back to Acapulco, sailed past the harbor of San Diego and, as far as anybody knows, never stopped. Toward the last, they represented what was left of the power and glory of Spain and of her domination of the Pacific. Fernandez Duro, the historian of the Spanish Navy, records that “her military reputation, her ascendancy on the seas, her famed political policies, and the riches that seemed inexhaustible, had long since disappeared. There were left, for the remembrance of so much greatness, an undisciplined army, a navy of rotting ships, an incapable government, and an empty treasury.”

When, in 1769, Fr. Junipero Serra arrived to help establish the Presidio of San Diego and to found nine of the chain of twenty-one Franciscan missions, California was opened to settlement. Then, too, came a realization of the region’s great value. But Spain proved to be too tired to do much about it. When Mexico declared her independence from helpless Spain in 1822, it was a long time before anybody in San Diego heard about it. When the mission systems were broken up by the Mexican government, by secularization, and their vast lands distributed, a quaint pastoral interlude began, fostered by the old factor of political and economic isolation. It was the Days of the Dons, of vast private baronial ranchos and tremendous herds of cattle, of a time when life in the Presidio of San Diego was easy and pleasant, and fiestas and sports filled the days. California became, in imagination at least, a land of romance. The handsomely equipped vaqueros of the ranchos became the legendary cowboys of the western plains. But all this couldn’t last. Americans-traders, trappers, gold seekers and adventurers-were pressing hard upon California, by land and sea. The threat of the possible seizure of California by other European powers, particularly England or Russia, was ended when California became a part of the United States in 1848. The pastoral lull lasted but fifty years. It was all over in the early 1860’s. The great ranchos were sold or divided. Old Spanish families were scattered and their rambling adobe haciendas fell into ruins. The last of direct Spanish influence was gone. San Diego itself was destined to become the home of the new force that henceforth was to dominate the Pacific, the United States Navy.

The threads of the start of this long and fascinating story strangely enough are picked up in the old city of Seville in southwest Spain. This is an island seaport, sixty miles up the navigable Guadalquivir River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean. From here sailed most of the explorers and conquerors. And here was the seat of the Royal Council of the Indies, which governed the New World. In the Casa Lonja or the Old House of Trade, completed in 1598, are located the Archivo de Indias, with hundreds of thousands of documents and volumes of records.

Here, and in the National Archives of Mexico and Guatemala, we find many of the manuscripts which tell us much of what we know about Cabrillo, Vizcaino, Fr. Serra, Portola and Anza, and the others who explored and settled California. Here are the first descriptions of San Diego, the first map made of San Diego Bay, and the first records of the population and happenings of the Presidio of San Diego. And here are buried Spain’s lost hopes in the Pacific.