A Quick Way To Interpret The San Salvador

The San Salvador, built by the Maritime Museum of San Diego (an official CNM partner), offers us a platform for conversation about the maritime history of the Pacific and first-contact stories. We are proud to be part of this project and, as NPS heads into its second century, we look for innovative and creative partnerships to highlight our messages and provide educational opportunities for the public. It also allows us to better reach out to the community in which we serve.

So let us look at the ship as if she were dockside at the Maritime Museum, if she were on the Pacific Heritage Tour (once a year the San Salvador sails along the coastline and brings her history to several ports), or if she were sailing past Cabrillo. You can provide onlookers and visitors with a variety of topics of discussion. You can always start with ‘see what it was like to sail on a ship during this period’: The main deck is where most of us would have lived. It’s where we would have slept, cooked, eaten, gotten sick and worked. It was a very crowded space, with roughly 80 people onboard. Imagine what it would be like living on this ship in these conditions—the smells, the sounds, the feelings. Have you ever prepared for a trip? What do you need to take with you to be comfortable? Now imagine this: You need to prepare yourselves for a two year journey; you have no idea where you are going, there are no maps for you to use, and there is no voice telling you to turn left or right. When you embark on the voyage it might be the last time you see your family and friends. Half of us would not survive the journey. So why would these people endure these hardships and sacrifices? I am sure there are times when we’ve all endured hardships to get to an end result and, yes, we can look at the gold and spices and riches they might have found but we know realistically this did not happen for everyone, so what drove these Europeans to come to the Americas? Well, the common drive was the chance to better one’s opportunities, and this story of people moving around the world in search of a better life continues even today.

The original San Salvador was built on the west coast in what is now Ixtapa, Mexico. The San Salvador, La Victoria and San Miguel (the three ships of the voyage) were the first European vessels built in the Pacific. Juan Cabrillo planned to travel to the Orient but died due to what we think may have been gangrene from a fall during a conflict with the Chumash Indians on one of the Channel Islands. The crew continued sailing but faced rough weather and seas as they moved north. We are not sure exactly where (some say the Colombia River Gorge or the California-Oregon border), but they did turn around. So the voyage was not successful in reaching its goals but it did lead to the charting of the waters for Europeans and a century later for the Manila galleons when they controlled the Pacific.

It is interesting to consider the thoughts that surrounded the making of this voyage. Let’s think about Mars for a bit. Currently there are people wanting to get to Mars. There are some things they know and many things they don’t. We can imagine similar dialogue emerging from this voyage in the 16th century. Today there are thinkers and innovators leading the discussions and building things for the Mars mission. When we think about technology, this ship was like a spaceship of its day.

The construction of the San Salvador replica was a large-scale effort. The physical construction of the ship lasted about five years, but the Maritime Museum of San Diego spent over 20 years researching to discover the best representation of the San Salvador’s appearance. Using a team of academics, maritime scholars, shipwrights, and images of vessels of the era, the MMSD created a faithful reconstruction of the San Salvador while staying true to current Coast Guard regulations by adding a running engine, functional plumbing, gps, radar, electricity, and other modern conveniences.

The ship is an educational tool for us to reflect on the causes and costs of voyages of discovery. The San Salvador represents many things to many people. There is a first contact story here with our native people of the southern west coast, the Aztecs, Maya, Kumeyaay and Chumash. This is painful history for us to understand and vital for us to critically discuss to better understand ourselves as a community today. By looking through the lens of history we can learn so much about ourselves today and really think about how people might view us 500 years from now. We hope the San Salvador can continue to be a voyage of discovery and a vessel of change.

Last revised 30-Dec-17