Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
Excerpt from the Cabrillo National Monument webpage:
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo – A Voyage of Discovery
As the park’s namesake, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore what is now the west coast of the United States. Cabrillo departed from the port of Navidad, Mexico, on June 27, 1542. Three months later he arrived at “a very good enclosed port,” which is known today as San Diego Bay. Historians believe he anchored his flagship, the San Salvador, on Point Loma’s east shore near Cabrillo National Monument. Cabrillo later died during the expedition, but his crew pushed on, possibly as far north as Oregon, before thrashing winter storms forced them to back to Mexico.
Cabrillo National Monument, established in 1913, commemorates Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s voyage of discovery. A heroic statue of Cabrillo looks out over the bay that he first sailed into on September 28, 1542. At the Visitor Center, the film “In Search of Cabrillo” and an exhibit hall present Cabrillo’s life and times. Ranger-led programs about Cabrillo are usually available on weekends and on many weekdays during summer months.
The Young Conqueror
Born in Spain, Cabrillo was a conquistador in his youth. The term “conquistador” is the name applied to the mostly Spanish soldiers who explored, conquered, and settled in the New World. We know little of Cabrillo’s early years until 1519, when his name appears in the ranks of those who served in the army of famous conquistador Hernan Cortes. In the terrible battles between the Aztecs and the Spanish, Cabrillo fought as a captain of crossbowmen.
Metal weapons, good tactics, and great bravery made the conquistadors formidable opponents. The Aztecs, however, were also very brave and they greatly outnumbered the Spanish. Ultimately, what tipped the scales in favor of the Spanish was smallpox. The disease, previously unknown in the New World, swept through Aztec defenders and killed perhaps a quarter of their population. Everywhere the Spanish went, advanced disease went before them, making it possible for a relatively few Europeans to conquer the New World.
After the defeat of the Aztecs, Cabrillo joined other Spanish military expeditions in what are today southern Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador. Eventually Cabrillo settled in Guatemala. There he received encomiendas, long-term leases for land uses such as gold mining and farming, along with the right to use forced Indian labor for these projects. The king of Spain granted encomiendas as a reward for services to the Crown.
A Businessman and Leading Citizen of Guatemala
By the mid-1530s, Cabrillo established himself as a leading citizen of Guatemala’s primary town, Santiago. Later, in 1540, an earthquake destroyed Santiago. Cabrillo’s report to the Crown on the earthquake’s destruction is the first known piece of secular journalism written in the New World. Meanwhile, in 1532, Cabrillo traveled to Spain where he met Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. The two married that year and Cabrillo returned with her to Guatemala where she bore two sons.
As Cabrillo’s family grew, so did his wealth and reputation as a ship builder. Using a port on Guatemala’s Pacific Coast, Cabrillo imported and exported goods in the developing trade between Guatemala, Spain, and other parts of the New World. The ships he used for this trade were constructed in Guatemala using skilled labor and ideas Cabrillo brought back from Spain, and were built using the physical labor of Native Americans. Some of these ships would play a vital role in Spain’s early efforts to explore the Pacific.
Why Explore California?
The Governor of Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado, selected Cabrillo to build and provision ships to explore the Pacific because of his skills as a leader and businessman. Alvarado planned to use the ships to establish a trading route between Central America and the Spice Islands off Asia. When Alvarado died during an Indian uprising, his business partner, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, prompted Cabrillo to lead one of two expeditions to explore the Pacific. Cabrillo accepted and soon set out to explore the coast north and west of New Spain (Mexico). Meanwhile, the other expedition, led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, sailed directly across the Pacific to the Philippines. While this expedition did reach its Philippine destination, Villalobos was killed in a mutiny, and the hungry, disheartened crew eventually surrendered to a Portuguese garrison in the Spice Islands.
The Cabrillo expedition sailed out of the port of Navidad, near modern day Manzanillo, on June 24, 1542. Accompanying Cabrillo were a crew of sailors, soldiers, Indian and probably black slaves, merchants, a priest, livestock and provisions for two years. Three ships, the flagship built by Cabrillo himself, were under his command. A model of Cabrillo’s flagship, the San Salvador, is on display inside the Age of Exploration Exhibit Room near the Visitor Center.
When he sailed, Cabrillo was also seeking the seven fabulously wealthy cities known as Cibola that some believed were near the Pacific coast beyond New Spain, and the possibility of a route connection from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic – the Straits of Anian.
One hundred and three days into the journey, Cabrillo’s ships entered San Diego bay. He probably landed at Ballast Point (visible from the Visitor Center) where he claimed the land for Spain. Cabrillo described the bay as “a closed and very good port,” which he called San Miguel. The name San Miguel was changed to San Diego 60 years later by another explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino.
The expedition continued north to Monterey Bay and may have reached as far north as Point Reyes before storms forced the ships to turn back. Interestingly, the expedition failed to sight San Francisco Bay, which remained undiscovered until 1769. Discouraged by foul weather, Cabrillo decided to winter in the Channel Islands. There, after a fall suffered during a brief skirmish with natives, Cabrillo shattered a limb and died of complications on January 3, 1543. Following Cabrillo’s death, the disheartened crew again sailed north, this time under the leadership of Bartolome Ferrer. The expedition may have reached a latitude as far north as the Rogue River in Oregon, but thrashing winter winds and spoiled supplies forced them to return to Mexico.
While Cabrillo’s contemporaries considered the expedition a failure, it left behind our first written glimpse of the west coast of North America. The expedition also helped dispel myths and misconceptions and allowed Cabrillo’s contemporaries to proceed with the difficult task of colonizing the expanded Spanish Empire. Nearly 400 years after he stepped off his boat into the waters of what is now San Diego Bay, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was memorialized by President Woodrow Wilson through the creation of Cabrillo National Monument in 1913.
Want to Learn More?
“Cabrillo” by Harry Kelsey
“Cabrillo – First European Explorer of the California Coast” by Nancy Lemke
“An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo” by Cabrillo National Monument Foundation
These titles, along with a wide range of books, videos, and more, are available from the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports Cabrillo National Monument and operates the bookstore in the Visitor Center.
Other National Park Service Areas with websites relating to early Spanish Explorers:
Coronado National Memorial – http://www.nps.gov/coro/index.htm
De Soto National Memorial – http://www.nps.gov/deso/index.htm
Pecos National Historical Park http://www.nps.gov/peco/index.htm
Last revised 19-May-19