Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (?-1543)

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (?-1543)

We know little of Juan Rodríguez 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, where he joined in the conquest of Mexico and Guatemala. Cabrillo fought as a captain of crossbowmen in the battles between the Aztecs and the Spanish. After the defeat of the Aztecs, Cabrillo joined other Spanish military expeditions in what is today Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador -- eventually he settled in Guatemala.

By the mid-1530's Cabrillo had established himself as a leading citizen of Santiago in Guatemala. In 1532, he traveled to Spain where he met and married Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. Cabrillo returned with her to Guatemala where she bore two sons. In 1540, an earthquake destroyed the city of Santiago. Cabrillo's report to the Spanish crown on the earthquake's destruction is the first known piece of secular journalism written in the New World.

From 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. Spain began looking northward with the intention of increasing her empire.

In 1542, Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore what is now the west coast of the United States. The Gulf of California had recently been explored by Francisco de Ulloa, Hernando de Alarcón and Domingo del Castillo, proving that California was not an island.

Cabrillo was commissioned by Pedro de Alvarado, Governor of Guatemala, for a voyage up the California coast under the flag of Spain. Cabrillo hoped to find the fabulously wealthy cities known as Cibola, believed to be somewhere on the Pacific coast beyond New Spain, and a route connecting the North Pacific to the North Atlantic -- the non-existent "Straits of Anian".

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 San Salvador built by Cabrillo himself, were under his command.

Cabrillo reached "a very good enclosed port" which is now San Diego bay, on September 28, 1542, naming it "San Miguel". He probably anchored his flagship, the San Salvador at Ballast Point on Point Loma's east shore. Six days later, he departed San Diego sailing northward and exploring the uncharted coast line of California. His voyage helped to dispel myths and allowed Spain to proceed with the task of colonizing the expanded Spanish Empire. Cabrillo visited many of the islands along the coast -- Santa Cruz, Catalina and San Clemente, and may have sailed as far north as Oregon.

The expedition reached San Pedro on October 6, Santa Monica on the 9th, San Buenaventura on the 10th, Santa Barbara on the 13th and Pt. Concepcion on the 17th. Because of adverse winds Cabrillo turned back, harboring at San Miguel Island, and did not progress beyond Santa Maria until November 11. With a favorable wind later that day they reach the "Sierra de San Martin," probably Cape San Martin and the Santa Lucia Mountains in southern Monterey County. Struck by a storm and blown out to sea, the two vessels are separated and do not rejoin until the 15th, probably near Año Nuevo north of Santa Cruz. The next day they drifted southward, discovering "Bahía de los Pinos" and "Cabo de Pinos." These are most likely Monterey Bay and Point Pinos. On the 18th they turned south, passing snow-capped mountains (the Santa Lucias), and on November 23 returned to their harbor at San Miguel Island, where they remained for nearly three months.

Cabrillo died January 3, 1543, on San Miguel Island, and may have been buried on Catalina Island. He died from complications of a broken leg incurred from a fall during a brief skirmish with natives. On February 18, 1543, under the command of Bartolomé Ferrelo, the expedition again turned north and, with favorable winds reached near Cape Mendocino on March 1, according to Bancroft. There they were caught by a storm and blown all the way back to San Miguel Island by March 5. From there, the expedition turned south, and arrived back at Navidad on April 14, 1543.