Finding the edge of the earth
First in a series
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo fought to keep his footing as the rising storm tossed the Spanish caravel he commanded, the San Salvador, into and then out of troughs in the rolling sea.
The rocky shore and probable death lay not far to the east. In the night, the coast had become enveloped in fog and the winds had driven his ship and its sister, the Victoria, away from the land. Cabrillo clung to a mast, bravely commanding from the deck, as gigantic waves broke over him. The captain clamped his jaw shut to keep from drowning. Suddenly his ship lurched in an unexpected direction. Cabrillo lost his grip, went crashing to the deck and, by one account, heard the crack of the ulna bone in his forearm.
Although Portuguese by birth, in 1520 Cabrillo had joined up as an aide to Spaniard Hernando Cortez who had led the conquest of the Aztecs and other indigenous nations to capture Mexico for the Spanish crown.
For several years, Cabrillo participated in the defeat and pacification of the native populations, but by the 1530s Cortez had fallen out of favor, since the Spanish government decided that administration was not to be entrusted to the conquistadores.
In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan, also a Portuguese sea captain in service to Spain, proved it was possible to reach the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic by discovering what became known as the Strait of Magellan, across the southerly tip of South America, and then successfully navigating through that treacherous strait.
By the mid-1530s, the Spanish invaders had crossed Mexico and established settlements on the West Coast in Acapulco and other sites. Other colonies were planted on the Atlantic coast of the Isthmus of Panama, and on the northern and western coasts of South America in the wake of the conquest of the Indian civilizations in Colombia, Peru and Chile.
On the West Coast of the new world, further northerly explorations were delayed due to the distractions of trade and incessant disputes among the Spanish governors, more intent on position and pelf than effective government.
Probably the worst example of this was the fate of Vasco Nunea de Balboa, whose name is commemorated in schools, streets and towns as far north as San Francisco to honor his achievement in crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 to become the first European to view the Pacific Ocean. In a 1519 dispute with the governor of Panama, who was also his father-in-law, Balboa was charged with disloyalty, convicted by a rigged court and beheaded.
Spanish nobleman Antonio de Mendoza was appointed Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico and Central America) and, sailing in 1539, Francisco del Ulloa proved Baja California was a peninsula and not an island.
In 1542, Viceroy Mendoza decided to make a serious effort to explore the coast of that "island," referred to as "California," and appointed Cabrillo to lead the exploration of the West Coast. Cabrillo was not a sailor but had been in charge of the construction of a fleet of Spanish ships in Guatemala.
Cabrillo received command of two caravels, the Salvador and the Victoria, and sailed northward into the unknown. Cautiously hugging the coast, Cabrillo discovered San Diego Bay, which he named San Miguel, and anchored at Point Loma Head at the north end of that bay in what is now the Cabrillo National Monument.
Next, he studied San Pedro Bay south of current Los Angeles and then continued north slowly, arriving three months later in Santa Barbara Bay, proclaiming that the land now belonged to the King of Spain. The gathering Indian auditors were unaware that their land was being appropriated, receiving the landing party as guests and exchanging gifts.
Cabrillo sailed on to the Channel Islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and little San Miguel. He continued northward, spotting Morro Bay and the huge, dark volcanic Morro Rock which stood in the bay. At Monterey Bay a coastal storm came up and drove the two caravels out to sea.
Cabrillo's ships reached the latitude of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, but the gateway was shrouded in heavy fog. Flying blind and in danger of wrecking on the unseen coastal rocks, he headed away from the coast, trailed by his sister ship. Worse yet, the storm began battering the two ships mercilessly. In personal command on the treacherous slick deck, he clung to one of the three masts as his caravel lurched and bucked, lost his handhold and crashed to the deck.
In agonizing pain, Cabrillo ordered the caravels to reverse course and head south to the Channel Islands where he hoped to spend the winter, allow his arm to heal and rejuvenate his ships. However, the setting of his bone did not go well, and the injury began to fester. After two months sailing south to San Miguel, gangrene set in and poisoned his system. Shortly after they arrived at the Channel Islands, Cabrillo died on March 3, 1543, and was buried in a now-lost gravesite.
When Cabrillo and his men turned back southward, they had not explored San Francisco Bay or the Sonoma coast. Local Indians were safe for a while longer.