Why Did a 1542 Spanish Voyage Refer to San Pedro Bay as the 'Bay of the Smoke'?

The San Gabriel Mountains on fire in 1924. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Note: Over the past few weeks, we have looked at what most regard as the first photograph, drawing, and map of Los Angeles. This series on the earliest-known representations of the Los Angeles area concludes with the first written account.

In 1542, a tiny armada of two ships sailed up the California coast, flying the flag of Spain. On board were two-to-three-hundred men, including seamen, soldiers, merchants, and Indian and African slaves.

Disappointment was the expedition's destiny. The viceroy of New Spain had dispatched the ships north in search of legends that had little basis in reality: the mythical Seven Cities of Gold and the elusive Strait of Anián (Northwest Passage). Failing that, Spanish authorities hoped the armada might discover a coastal route west to China and the Spice Islands; little was known then about the shape or size of the Pacific Ocean, and some speculated that North America's western coastline curved round to meet with Asia.

Still, the voyage -- commanded by a onetime conquistador named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo -- produced the first written observations of the Los Angeles area. They also bestowed on it one of the region's first European names: Baya de los Fumos, or Bay of the Smoke.

The voyage's original account is lost to history -- or perhaps hiding undiscovered in a Mexican or Spanish library. What we know about the voyage and the sailors' observations comes from a third-hand account: a 1559 summary of a second-hand report, made in 1543 and likely based on the original diaries and interviews with the expedition's members.

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After leaving San Diego Bay, where a national monument now commemorates the fleet's visit and its admiral, the expedition continued north. As they approached present-day Orange County, the sailors spotted two islands, naming them after their ships:

At daybreak on Saturday, the 7th of the month of October, they were at the islands which they named San Salvador and La Victoria. They anchored at one of them and went ashore with the boat to see if there were people; and when the boats came near, a great number of Indians emerged from the bushes and grass, shouting, dancing, and making signs that they should land. As they saw that the women were fleeing, from the boats they made signs that they should not be afraid. Immediately they were reassured, and laid their bows and arrows on the ground and launched in the water a good canoe which held eight or ten Indians, and came to the ships. They gave them beads and other articles, with which they were pleased, and then they returned. Afterwards the Spaniards went ashore, and they, the Indian women, and all felt very secure. Here an old Indian made signs to them that men like the Spaniards, clothed and bearded, were going about on the mainland. They remained on this island only until midday.

Today we know that island as Catalina, once home to the canoe-making Tongva (Gabrielino) people. The historical record knows of no land-based Spanish explorers in California until 1769, but the Tongva elder may have been referring to an expedition, led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, that explored present-day Arizona and New Mexico, coming as close to California as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The story continues:

On the following Sunday, the 8th of said month, they drew near to the mainland in a large bay which they called Baya de los Fumos [Bay of the Smoke], because of the many smokes which they saw on it. Here they held a colloquy with some Indians whom they captured in a canoe, and who made signs that toward the north there were Spaniards like them. This bay is in thirty-five degrees and is a good port, and the country is good, with many valleys, plains, and groves.

Some sources suggest that Baya de los Fumos may be Santa Monica Bay, but most point to San Pedro Bay. In either case, the land described here is the same: the Los Angeles Basin. It is worth noting that, despite the persistent misconception of Los Angeles as a desert, the region's first European visitors described it as "good" country. From their ships, the sailors likely saw a well-watered, lushly vegetated plain teeming with animal life.

The smoke's origin remains a mystery. It may have been cooking fires burning in the many Tongva villages that dotted the Los Angeles coastal plain and interior valleys; in the sixteenth century, Southern California was one of the most densely populated regions in North America, and the area's inversion layer would have trapped campfire smoke then just as it traps automobile exhaust today.

Or perhaps the fleet had encountered the region during one of its now-notorious Santa Ana episodes, when hot winds from the east fuel violent conflagrations that turn the hills red and choke the area with smoke. If this latter scenario is correct, we find an interesting parallel in the account of the first land-based Spanish expedition through the Los Angeles area. Upon arriving at the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco on August 2, 1769, the company of soldiers, priests, and servants endured another natural disaster that still haunts Southern California residents:

We entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders [sycamores], among which ran a beautiful river [the Los Angeles]...we halted not very far from the river, which we named Porciuncula. Here we felt three consecutive earthquakes in the afternoon and night...

Reenactors pose with a statue of the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who commanded the first Spanish exploration of the California coast. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Reproduction of a painting by Chris Siemer, depicting Cabrillo landing in San Diego. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

This statue at San Pedro's Cabrillo Beach commemorates the admiral of the expedition that named San Pedro Bay the 'Bay of the Smoke.' Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to discover more.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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