By Iris Engstrand and Harry Kelsey

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Summer Fall 2015, Volume 61, Number 3 & 4
Full Article (PDF)

Not many descriptions exist of the original Spanish fleet that was assembled in Guatemala during the 1530s under the direction of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.1 Some of the existing older vessels were doubtless refitted with supplies brought from Spain while others were newly built. These supplies, and much of the building materials, were transported by Indians overland from Veracruz to the Pacific coast. In a letter to the king written in May 1535, Pedro de Alvarado, adelantado of Guatemala, stated that he hoped to build “six or seven large ships.”2   Upon his  return from Spain in 1539, Alvarado stopped in San Salvador and spoke to the historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, telling him that Cabrillo had supervised the building of seven or eight ships on the Mar del Sur (Pacific Ocean) for a trip to the Spice Islands.3 Diego Hernández, who served in the fleet, recalled in 1589 that “seven or eight ships” from this second fleet were built at the shipyard near Iztapa. Bishop Marroquín told the king in 1537 that the ships in Alvarado’s new fleet were “built the best of any that sail the seas.”

Despite the fact that descriptions of the fleet are meager, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence that makes it possible to know more than ever before about the ships Cabrillo ultimately took to California. According to Oviedo, three of the ships were galleons of two hundred toneladas each. One of the two hundred- ton galleons was doubtless the San Salvador. This vessel was the almiranta, the ship of the vice commander of the fleet. Built and commanded by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, this vessel was later designated by the viceroy and probably by Alvarado as flagship of the armada that was to go up the coast. The men agreed that all the ships on such voyages ought to be two hundred tonners, since the smaller vessels took too much of a beating in heavy seas.

Once the fleet was assembled, Alvarado took the fleet to Acajutla for final fitting and loading. By midsummer 1540 everything was ready. The fleet sailed north late in August or early September 1540. Alvarado had with him thirteen ships and more than a thousand men, many of whom had come with him from Spain in 1539. Alvaro de Paz called it “the biggest gathering of men, arms, and horses ever seen in these parts.” Through a series of circumstances, including the death of Alvarado in a brief encounter with the Mixton Indians, the fleet was divided between Cabrillo, whose three ships were destined for California, and Ruy López de Villalobos, who took the remainder of the fleet to the Moluccas.4

Three ships left the Port of Navidad on the west coast of Mexico on June 27, 1542. Cabrillo, from the small town of Palma del Rio near Córdoba,5 was captain and pilot of his own ship, the San Salvador; Bartolomé Ferrer, from the Levantine (Mediterranean) coast of Spain, was chief pilot of one of the other ships, along with Antonio Correa, from Viana de Camyno in Portugal, captain and pilot of the third ship. The other two ships were La Victoria and San Miguel.6 On the 17th of September they entered today’s Port of Ensenada, leaving there on September 23. Passing three uninhabited islands—today’s Coronado Islands (Islas Coronadas)—they came in sight of the entrance to today’s San Diego Bay.

Almost everything we know about Cabrillo’s voyage to the west coast of present-day United States comes from an account that has been combined  from several sources. It gives the reader a narrative of what the expedition   saw and did, with the added benefit of being in the words of Cabrillo’s time, but it is not the ship’s official log. It is apparently a 1543 copy of a summary   of other documents, probably prepared by Juan León, secretary to Mexican Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. A textual analysis shows that the document is a compilation of several sources, and was probably copied from the original by Andrés de Urdaneta, who had circumnavigated the globe in 1532.7 The original now rests in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville and was first published in Spanish in 1857.

On Thursday [September 28, 1542] they went about six leagues north-northwest along the coast and found a very good enclosed port, to which they gave the name of San Miguel. It lies at 34° degrees 20 minutes [actually 32° 46 minutes], and after anchoring they went ashore, where there were people. Of these, three waited, and all others ran away. To these three they gave some gifts, and the Indians told them by signs that people like the Spaniards had passed inland; they showed with much fear.9 At night the Spaniards left the ships in a small boat to land and to fish. There happened to be Indians there, and who began to shoot with their arrows and wounded three men.

The next day in the morning they went with the boat further into the port, which was large, and caught two boys who understood nothing, not even signs, and they gave them shirts and soon sent them away.

The day after that, in the morning three large Indians came to the ships, and by signs told how inland there walked men like the Spaniards, bearded and dressed and armed like the ones on the ships, and they showed that they had ballistas [crossbows], and made gestures with their right arm as if they were spearing. They went running as if they were on a horse, and showed that they killed many of the Indian natives, and for that reason they were afraid. These men were well proportioned and large. They went around covered with the furs of animals. While in port, a very large storm passed, but because the port was so good they felt nothing. The weather came from the west-southwest, and south-southwest and it was rainy. This was the first real storm they had undergone, and they stayed in the port until the following Tuesday [October 3, 1542]. Here the natives called the Christians “Guacamal.”8

Following this portion of the expedition, the three ships sailed on to Catalina Island, where they interacted with the Indians in a friendly exchange and then continued on northward. After extensive exploration of the coast probably as far north as the Russian River. Cabrillo fell on an island they had named La Posesión and broke his arm near the shoulder. He died on January 3, 1543, as a result of the fall, and was buried on that island.10

Cabrillo’s chief pilot Bartolome Ferrer took charge of the fleet and continued their explorations northward until mid-March. On April 14, 1543, the three ships returned safely to the Port of Navidad.


  1. For a complete analysis of the preparations for the voyage to California, see Harry Kelsey, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1986), Chapter 4 “Merchant and Shipbuilder,” pp. 65-93
  2. Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541) participated with Hernán Cortés in the conquest of Mexico and later in the conquest of Guatemala and El He became the Governor of Guatemala and was known for his cruelty toward the native populations.
  3. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557), a Spanish historian born in Madrid who participated in the colonization of the Caribbean, wrote a detailed chronicle about the men
  4. Ruy López de Villalobos  (1500-1544)  was  a  Spanish explorer  from  Malaga  first  to  land in Mindanao, naming the islands Las Islas Filipinas for Philip II of Spain. Villalobos was imprisioned by the Portuguese for trespassing into their territory and died in his prison cell on the island of
  5. Researcher Wendy Kramer of Toronto, Canada, recently discovered the reference to Cabrillo’s birthplace in the Archivo General de Indias, Seville, in the section of Justicia, document
  6. These were the three ships to arrive in San Diego on September Even though the San Miguel was the smallest of the ships, the arrival coincided with the feast day of San Miguel Arcangel (St. Michael Archangel, today September 29 with a calendar change). The name La Victoria was given to San Clemente Island and San Salvador to Catalina Island. See Kelsey, Cabrillo, pp. 144-147.
  7. Andrés Urdaneta (1498-1568) was a Basque circumnavigator (1536) and Augustinian friar who discovered a return route for the Manila Galleons from the Philippines along the Japanese Current in 1565
  8. There have been several translations into English; this one was done for the Cabrillo Historical Association by James R. Moriarty and Mary
  9. These were men from the expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado who in 1540 led a group of soldiers overland from the headwaters of the Gulf of California into the southwest. A portion of the men under Hernando de Alarcon and Melchior Diaz crossed the Colorado River explored into what is now the Imperial
  10. There is an ongoing controversy over the site of Cabrillo’s burial Possibilities include the islands of Catalina, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa.

Iris Engstrand, Professor of History at the University of San Diego, is co-editor of The Journal of San Diego History and a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Maritime Museum.

Harry Kelsey is former Chief Curator of History at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and a research historian at the Huntington Library.