Were There Horses On Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s 1542 Expedition?

By Robert W. Munson


In an exhibit at the Park we show a horse embarked in the San Salvador. This element was incorporated based on one document written 18 years after the fact.

We cannot prove their presence on the expedition, even though there is no mention of horses in any of the records of the voyage. But we have none of the original logs, journals or other records from the voyage itself. The best we have is a secondhand transcription of notes compiled by Urdanetta from JRC’s Relacion, two reports by unknown authors (possibly Fray Julian de Lescanso, and Lazarro de Cardenas), and reports prepared by the two pilots of the expedition (Ferrer and Barredo). The “Journal” prepared by Juan Leon exists also in only a secondhand transcription. All surviving materials show traces of errors, multiple and often contradictory sources, but none mentions horses. The transcription of Juan Leon’s report is in Patronato 20 in the Archive of the Indies. Depositions are in Justicia 290.  Bits and pieces show up in various documents as late as 1559 as part of the petition of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo (JRC’s son) to the crown for recognition and restitution of the services of his father. It is this petition, in 1560, that provides the only reference to horses (it is in Justicia 290 Fol. 45).  Kelsey quotes it on page 112. It should be remembered that JRC’s son was only six when his father sailed. He probably would not have been risked in the brutally unhealthy climate in Iztapa and probably never saw the ship or its lading. He might have seen family records, but in all likelihood he was “padding the bill” in his petition to the crown. Such padding was a common tactic of petitioners for crown favors, since the crown would invariably cut the amount requested drastically, if they honored the petition at all. Kelsey notes that the San Salvador could accommodate 10 horses. This is true, if they are the only cargo, such as the voyage to Peru when San Salvador and La Victoria disappeared. However, on a years-long voyage of exploration, seeking trade, they could not lose that much cargo and supply space. The rule of thumb here is: every horse with its stall and feed uses up 8 percent of the lower-deck storage space plus 4 percent of the water stored in the bilge. The math to arrive at these figures is listed below and is based on figures derived from Doug Scott, the Marine Architect of the San Salvador Project, and the known needs of a horse in such transport. The normal load for a ship transporting horses across the Atlantic, a voyage of five weeks landfall to landfall and two months total, was two or three horses. The mortality rate on horses in this relatively short, easy voyage was 50 percent. Columbus’ second expedition in 1493, to establish the settlement of La Isabella with 1200 settlers, had only 20 horses. There were a total of 17 ships which works out to 1.178 horses per ship.

There could be no guarantee that they could get the horses ashore often enough for proper exercise and fresh air. The Spanish were very horse oriented and no Spanish horseman would allow his horse to be kept in a stall less than 8 by 8 feet. The bigger problem of the stall is that the overhead on the lower deck is 6 feet 1 inch over the keel and only 5 feet 7 inches at side of the hull. This gives a horse no room to toss its head, as they do reflexively. In such a move the first thing to hit the overhead is the horse’s poll, the soft spot between the ears where the spine meets the skull. A short hard hit to the poll can be fatal. This is why horsemen for centuries have gone to great lengths to protect this spot.

Ships would have to carry an incredible amount of grain, preferably oats, to which the horses would have to be accustomed after grazing in the highlands, and they would have to bulk up before sailing. A horse needs 12 to 20 pounds of grain (roughly a cubic foot) a day, and an all-grain diet leads to diarrhea. A horse in a static situation needs to be fed every two hours to keep the bowels moving. They would not take hay as it molds too easily. When the grain runs out, can they acclimate back to whatever may be available? They would need 12 to 15 gallons of water per day. That equals the daily water ration of 28 men in a 16th century Spanish ship, and fully one quarter of all the humans in San Salvador. How would the crew feel about that?

A sling would have to be loose, to stabilize the horse in rough weather, but the sling must not be weight supporting as the hooves need to be weight bearing to keep blood circulating. A stall-bound horse after two months will need three to four weeks to get it back in running condition.

In a telephone call on September 6, 2011 with Harry Kelsey, author of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, he stated he did not believe JRC had any horses on the China expedition. He has read the original Justicia of Salazar’s 1547 deposition in the Archive of the Indies in Seville. It refers to the transport of horses for Alvarado’s 1541 expedition to the Mixton rebellion in Jalisco, not the expedition to China. This was a much shorter voyage with a definite tactical objective. He noted that the petition of JRC’s son was for recognition and restitution of all of JRC’s service, not just the China expedition. He had, after all, lost a couple ships in the bargain when Alvarado took the first San Salvador to Peru. Mr. Kelsey expressed his regret that he did not make that clear in his definitive work.

Therefore, it is my firm conviction, and I use this in my interpretative activities, despite what I feel is an inaccurate depiction in the Park display, that there were no horses on the Cabrillo expedition. The difficulty and risks to horses on such an expedition would not be worth it.


Other resources:

Physiology, Balance, and Management of Horses During Transportation recommended by my wife Nancy (who has been living on horseback since she was seven) and Fritz Bronner, Director of the War Horse Militaria Heritage Foundation. Fritz also recommends the article Horse and Cargo Handling on Middle Ages Shipping by Lillian Ray Martin in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol.31 (Oxford 2001), pages 237-241, although this deals only with highly specialized ships for short voyages in the Mediterranean.

Results of a discussion with Doug Sharp, Maritime Architect, San Salvador Project:


 Cabrillo’s cabin: 10 by 9.5 feet (96 square feet), the 4 by 3 foot whipstaff helmsman’s bubble partly intrudes into this space.

The main deck is divided into three sections:

Amidships is the open waist between the castles:  525 square feet.

The Castillo (forecastle): 205 square feet. Overhead clearance 6 feet 3 ¼ inches

The Alcazar (aftcastle, the “main cabin”): 317 square feet. Overhead clearance 6 feet 2 inches forward, 6 feet 7 inches aft

The Tiller Flat: 82 square feet. Overhead clearance 2 feet 6 inches, 205 cubic feet.

The lower deck: 1030 square feet. Overhead clearance: amidships 6 feet 1 inch, at sides 5 feet 8 inches

Storage space: 6150 cubic feet (200 toneladas, matches San Salvador’s rating). Tonelada (pronounced tun-eh-lada) equals 30 cubic feet

The Bilges:  Effective length 45 feet. Overhead clearance: 3 feet to keelson. Effective storage space: 1286 cubic feet (31 toneladas)

Water occupies 7 ½ gallons per cubic foot, so the horses are drinking two cubic feet of water per day, (240 cu.ft. per horse for 120 days). The Spanish were very horse oriented and no Spanish horseman would allow his horse to be kept in a stall less than 8 by 8 feet as the horses need to be able to lie down to avoid colic, twisted gut, elias. The stall will take up 384 cubic feet. A 120-day supply of grain occupies 120 cubic feet. Total: 404 cubic feet. The lowerdeck is the only feasible place to put the horses. It contains 6150 cubic feet.  A 120-day supply of grain would be 120 cubic feet. Two horse stalls at 384 cu.ft. each = 768 cubic minus 240 days of grain for two horses  = 1008 cubic feet which is 16 percent of the lowerdeck storage space.

Dry food ration: 31.75 oz./human/day  x 100 humans = 198 pounds/day. Here we are combining beans, salt meat, and hardtack, but the average appears to be about 15 pounds/cubic foot. c.13 cubic feet/day x 120 days =1550 cubic feet; 1008 cubic feet for horses plus 1550 cubic feet for dry food = 2558 cubic feet of storage, 42 percent of the 6150 cubic feet available lowerdeck space.

The bilge contains 1286 cubic feet. The 100 humans and two horses will drink 10.7 cubic feet of water per day; 1286 divided by 10.7 =  enough liquid for 120 days. Put all the ship’s water and wine in the bilges? Not a really good idea both for access daily, and the filth of the bilges. Humans are rationed one liter of wine & one liter of water/day. One gallon equals roughly 4 liters, 7.5 gallons of liquid (water & wine) = 15 humans divided into 100 souls embarked = 6.7 cubic feet to provide for 100 souls/day. One hundred embarked humans need 6.7 cubic feet of liquid per day. Each horse needs 2 cubic feet of water each day. The humans and two horses will drink 10.7 cubic feet of water per day; 1286 divided by 10.7 =  enough liquid for 120 days (402 cu.ft.of wine, 882 cu.ft. of water), assuming there is no leakage. This leaves no space for access, so it’s like getting olives out of a bottle, as you finish off the contents of one barrel you have to remove the barrel from the bilge, at least until you have enough space to maneuver the barrels. Barrels are valuable and largely irreplaceable, so you can’t just toss the empties overboard. They are needed for recycling.


Last revised 09-Jan-18