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In Search of California: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and the Great Northern Mystery's Lure

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Painting depicting the arrival to San Diego Bay. | Image: Courtesy National Park Service

"Whatever you do, please don't use a picture of that ridiculous, historically inaccurate statue," a noted historian implored me. "If you have to, just use the face -- that may have been what he looked like." We were speaking of the statue of conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a gift from the country of Portugal, which proudly stands watch on the southern end of Point Loma at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego County.

This strapping male representation overlooks the breathtaking natural harbor many believe was the one Cabrillo and his men claimed for the kingdom of Spain on September 28, 1542. Like so many other details about Cabrillo, his personal life and famous voyage are long on legend and short on facts. Here is what we don't know: When or what country Cabrillo was born in, what he looked like, where he and his men first landed in California, and how exactly he died. However, we do know one very important fact. Cabrillo's voyage has become a symbol of the colonizing zeal that eventually transformed what is today California.

Juan Rodriguez (the surname "Cabrillo" was mysteriously bestowed upon him in adulthood) was probably born around 1500. Both Portugal and Spain have been claimed as his country of origin. In his early teens, no doubt lured by tales of the riches and immense opportunities in the "new world," Rodriguez seems to have traveled to Cuba, perhaps as a rough and tumble "marinero," or sailor. Since all those travelling to the new world had to swear loyalty to the Spanish King, he effectively became a Spanish citizen if he had not been one already.

Rodriguez was definitely in Cuba by 1519, when the colony's Governor sent an army to Mexico to arrest famed explorer Hernan Cortes for insubordination. Juan Rodriquez was recorded as a soldier in the expedition to Mexico. After a strange series of events, Cabrillo and many of the soldiers sent to capture Cortes ended up joining him in his efforts to conquer the Aztec nation. Rodriguez quickly moved up the ranks in Cortes' army and took on a leadership position during the siege of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

After the Aztecs had been defeated, Cortes offered Rodriguez land, indigenous serfs, and gentleman status. But Rodriguez refused, and soon joined explorer Pedro De Alvarado's army. The two would become great friends. Rodriguez became one of the leaders in Alvarado's successful campaign to conquer Guatemala. After many brutal battles with the local people, Guatemala was declared for the King of Spain in 1524. Rodriguez was listed as one of the first citizens of Santiago, the colony's new capital.

There, Rodriguez settled into the prosperous life of a "wealthy landowner, miner, merchant and shipbuilder," according to "An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo," a book from the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation. He was granted the right to own what would now be considered an extended plantation. He also discovered gold and took a common law native wife. In 1532, he went back to Spain to woo and wed Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega, the sibling of a fellow new world conqueror. He had children with both wives, as well as numerous native people and retainers -- all whose well being was considered his responsibility.

But wanderlust and Spanish manifest destiny called. In 1536, he joined Alvarado in a mission to bring order to the colony of Honduras. For his services, Alvarado rewarded Rodriguez, referred to for the first time as "Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo," with "the pueblos Teota and Cotela, with all its senores, Indians, barrios and fields," per the foundation's book. Soon Alvarado was on the move again, planning a large scale expedition northward into the uncharted waters of the Pacific, often called the "northern mystery." Ever Alvarado's right hand man, Cabrillo spent four years overseeing and partially financing the construction of several sea-worthy ships at the port of Izatapa. The most impressive of these ships was the San Salvador, a proto-galleon serviced by a crew of around 100.

A painting of the San Salvador. | Image: Courtesy National Park Service
A painting of the San Salvador. | Image: Courtesy National Park Service

The expedition's plans were shattered in 1542, when Alvarado was mortally wounded after attempting to subdue an uprising in Mexico. That same year a violent earthquake devastated Santiago, unleashing a river of mud that destroyed the town --including Cabrillo's home. Now in financial trouble, Cabrillo agreed to revive Alvarado's planned northern exploration. On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo led a fleet of three ships -- the San Salvador, the cargo ship La Victoria, and the fragata San Miguel out of the port of Navidad, Mexico. Though the crew list is lost, it can be surmised that around 200 men -- both slave and free -- were on board, looking for adventure, wealth, and confirmation of long told legends.

There were many Spanish expeditions setting out to explore the continent of North America and its oceans in the decade surrounding 1542. Of course, they were searching for gold. But even more important was the race to find the elusive "Strait of Anian." This was the mythical water passage through continental North America to Asia. If discovered, this waterway (also referred to as the "Northwest Passage") would bring untold riches to the explorer who found it first.

Cabrillo and other Southwestern explorers were also lured by the legend of the island of "California." The name "California" comes from a popular Spanish novel written by Garci Odonez de Montalvo in 1510 called "Las Sergas de Esplandian." In it the hero fights a fierce Amazonian Queen named Califa, who hails from a prosperous island of female warriors "on the right side of the Indies," according to "Pacific El Dorado," a book about the history of greater California. By Cabrillo's time many people had forgotten that the story was fiction and took lines like these as gospel fact:

I tell you that on the right-hand side of the Indies there was an island called California, which was very close to the region of Earthly Paradise. This island was inhabited by black women, and there were no males among them at all, for their lifestyle was similar to that of the Amazons. This island was made up of the wildest cliffs and the sharpest precipices found anywhere in the world... - Excerpt via "Las Sergas de Esplandian," translated in "An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo"

For unknown reasons, many European explorers also believed that the discovery of California would lead to "the Strait of Anian."

The voyage proceeded relatively smoothly. Cabrillo and his men sailed up the Mexican coast, occasionally going inland to claim land for the crown and interact with native tribes. On September 28, they sailed into what we know today as San Diego Bay. It is important to note that Cabrillo's crew are the "first Europeans KNOWN to have set foot on present day California," as noted in "Pacific El Dorado." However, it is believed that both the Hernando de Alarcón and Melchor Diaz expeditions may have entered California in 1540. The local natives were certainly aware of the survivors of the Coronado expedition, who had been terrorizing their neighbors to the east. The following account was cobbled together from interviews with the expedition's survivors in 1543.

[They] discovered an enclosed harbor which was very good. They named it San Miguel... After laying anchor they went ashore. There were some people; and three waited around and the others ran away. They gave them some articles for barter. They said through signs that further inland people like the Spaniards had passed by there. They indicated that they were very frightened. On the same day they went from their ship in a small craft to fish off the land. And it appears that there were some Indians there and they began to shoot arrows at them. On the morning of the next day they entered further into the harbor, which is large, in a skiff, and brought back two boys whom they tried to understand using signs, but were unsuccessful. They gave each one a shirt and then sent them off. On the following morning three large Indians came to the ships; they said through signs that further inland men like us moved about, bearded and similar dress, armed like the men in the ships, and they pointed out they bore crossbows and swords, and they gestured with their right arms like the men in the ships... like they were spearing something, and they moved about as on a horse. They indicated that they killed many Indians... These people are large and well proportioned, and they wear animal skins. While they were in the harbor a very large storm came by, because the harbor was good, they felt no ill effects... They remained in this harbor until the following Tuesday (Oct. 3). Here they call white men Guacamal. ~ "An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo"

The people Cabrillo and his men found were a far cry from the Amazonian women of the mythical California. The Kumeyaay were seasonal people who had lived in the area for around 12,000 years. Like most other native California groups, they usually lived in "tribelets" of around 100 people. They did not subscribe to a strong central authority like tribes to the east. The men and children were usually naked, while the women wore two piece skirts and hats made out of tightly woven basketry, an art at which the women excelled. Both sexes were tattooed, and ears and navels were pierced. They were expert hunter-gatherers and had a diet rich with acorn meal, agave, fresh fish, antelope, and deer. They lived in thatched homes called "Ewaa" and traded extensively with other tribes, often using seashells as currency. Shamans presided over religious ceremonies and medical needs, including using a "sucking tube" to remove sickness from the body.

The coming of age of boys was marked with their septum being pierced by a seashell. Adolescent girls were placed in a heated, shallow, and herb filled pit for up to a week while they received instructions from their elders. They then received chin tattoos to mark their passage to adulthood. Marriages were arranged, though divorce was easily obtained for both sexes. There were leisure activities. There was order and stability. Overall, life was relatively peaceful, and the arrival of the Spaniards must have been an unpleasant shock.

After Cabrillo claimed the bay for the Spanish crown, probably made official with a now lost notarized "act of possession," his fleet continued up the coast of what is now California. They stopped frequently to claim lands and meet with native people. At Santa Catalina Island they discovered "a great number of Indians," who emerged "from the bushes and grass, shouting, dancing and making signs they should land," according to "El Dorado."

Near San Pedro they visited a large fishing settlement called "The Town of Canoes." Near Point Conception they encountered "prosperous Chumash settlements that greatly impressed the white men, who marveled at the Indians nautical skills and seaworthy canoes," noted "El Dorado." But they found no great riches of gold, no "Strait of Anian," no Amazonian warriors -- and turned south to avoid punishing storms.

On January 3, 1543, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo died, probably on one of the Channel Islands. Some say he died of gangrene caused by a broken arm or shoulder; others say it was a broken leg. Historians and archaeologists continue to search for Cabrillo's grave, but it has never been found. Cabrillo's second in command took over, and suffering from scurvy and sickness, the weary fleet explored some more, perhaps reaching the California/Oregon border. They soon headed back for Navidad. Although the expedition uncovered a great deal of geographical information about the California coast, the voyage was considered a disappointment, if not an outright failure. In fact, the Spanish government seems to have been primarily interested in the fact that the expedition had NOT discovered the "Strait of Anian." This led officials to believe that either the strait did not exist (the correct assumption) or that it was so far north it would be an impractical waterway for voyages from Europe. Exploration of the great "northern mystery" stopped for many years, and it would be another two centuries before San Diego was colonized by the Spanish.

Despite its failure, interest in the Cabrillo expedition continues. The Maritime Museum of San Diego recently launched a painstakingly reconstructed, expertly built replica of the San Salvador. On a recent trip to the Cabrillo National Monument, I watched as a multicultural, multigenerational gaggle of people swarmed around the famed Cabrillo statue. They were laughing, eating, posing for pictures, and kissing in front of the beautiful bay that stretched before them. This may not be the California Cabrillo was looking for, but it is one that I am very glad to call home.

Special thanks to Robert Munson and the Cabrillo National Monument.

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