Spanish and Mexican California
San Diego and the Begining of the Spanish Period
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
The City of San Diego occupies a commanding site on the northeastern shore of the bay of the same name, in latitude 32° 42´ 37 north, longitude 117° 9´ west; 480 miles southeast of San Francisco.

Spain first claimed California in 1542, and thereby San Diego Bay, by reason of its discovery by João Rodríguez Cabrilho (Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo) (1)

Sailing under the Spanish flag, the Cabrillo expedition sailed out of the port of Navidad on June 24, 1542 to explore what is now the west coast of the United States. Seeking the mythical Strait of Aniaan (the Northwest Passage) for Spain, Cabrillo brought his ships, including the flagship SAN SALVADOR to Point Guijarros (now Ballast Point).

On September 28, 1542, almost half a century after Columbus first saw the shores of the New World, Cabrillo's ships entered San Diego's bay, where he claimed the land in the name of the King of Spain.

The next day the ships sailed further into the harbor, and Cabrillo's men communicated with the Indians, whom they found clothed only in the skins of animals. Six days were spent in this secure and land locked bay, entirely undisturbed by a severe south-western storm which raged at sea.

Cabrillo knew how to evaluate the wilderness as few others did, and he was perceptive enough to recognize the natural attributes of this bay, tucked snugly behind the protective arm of a towering peninsula on the west. On the whole length of the coast line of California, over 700 miles, there are but two true land-locked harbors –San Francisco and San Diego –the latter, although not as large, being more easy of access and safer for shipping than San Francisco. His log described the bay as "a closed and very good harbor," which he named San Miguel.

Sailing further north as far as Cape Mendocino, several smaller bays and islands were discovered. While on the islands, which he named San Salvador and Victoria, Cabrillo sustained a fall, breaking his arm and injuring his shoulder. From the lack of proper surgical attention and from sever exposure on the stormy northern voyage, Cabrillo died on the return trip, January 3, 1543, and was buried on one of the islands which the crew then re-named Juan Rodriguez.

On the way south, the SAN SALVADOR again entered San Diego harbor, remaining several days –finally arriving at their home port on April 14, 1543.

Sixty years after Cabrillo's discovery of San Diego another Spanish explorer arrived in San Diego. In November 1602, Sebastian Vizcaííno (2) entered the bay and, claiming that he did not recognize the area as that which was described by Cabrillo, renamed the spot San Diego de Alcala, in honor of a Franciscan lay brother (3).

Vizcaííno had been commissioned by the Viceroy of Mexico to map the California coast in preparation for future incursions. Vizcaííno remained in San Diego only a short time before continuing north to explore the California coast. It would be 167 years before another Spanish explorer would set foot in Alta California.

Had either Cabrillo or Vizcaííno found the native Indians in possession of gold, silver, pearls, tobacco or any other product which Europe then coveted, how different would have been the early history of California?

The impelling motives back of the decision to occupy this long neglected country were political and commercial. Russians and English were making settlements to the north and their occupation of Spanish territory had to be forestalled. Spanish galleons needed ports of call on the long voyage between Mexico and the Philippines and should be accommodated.

In the year 1765 Don Jose de Galvez had come from Spain armed with extraordinary powers to inspect and reform all administrative functions of the Mexican Government. He had orders to dispatch a royal expedition by sea to colonize the ports of San Diego and Monterey. He concluded it best to not only send two by sea but two by land, and communicated his well thought out plan to Friar Francis Junipero Serra, who had been designated as Presidente of the missions to be established.

In January 1769, two small Spanish vessels, the SAN CARLOS and SAN ANTONIO, sailed from La Paz, Mexico, for Alta California to establish a settlement in San Diego. The expedition, headed by Jose de Galvez and Gaspar de Portolá, anchored off San Diego in May, 1769. In July, the scurvy-weakened survivors of the voyage greeted the parties coming overland from Baja California. Together, they began the Spanish occupation of Alta California.

Thus, it was in 1769 that the Spanish occupation of California vested actual title to all land in California in the name of the King of Spain.

The distance from Velicanta to San Diego as traveled by the land expedition was about 95 leagues or 285 miles. Among this land expedition, Friar Francis Junipero Serra (4), a devoted and eloquent priest of the Franciscan order, set out on his historic mission –the first settlement in California. Associated with Fr. Serra in the Mallorca Convent were three young monks, his close friends, Francisco Paloù, Rafael Verger and Juan Crespi. Father Serra's sacred mission was to found a chain of missions to bring civilization and religion to the local inhabitants.
(1) Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was born in Portugal and lived most of his life in the Spanish New World colonies in the naval service of Spain. We know little of Cabrillo's early years until 1519 when his name appears in the ranks of those who, as a captain of crossbowmen, served in the army of famous conquistador Hernan Cortez against the Aztecs. Cabrillo joined other Spanish military expeditions in Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador. Eventually Cabrillo settled in Santiago, Guatemala. In 1532, Cabrillo returned to Spain where he met Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. The two married that year and Cabrillo returned with her to Guatemala where she bore him two sons. While in Spain, the King had granted him encomienda's --long term leases for land uses such as gold mining and farming, along with the right to use forced Indian labor for these projects. By the mid-1530s, Cabrillo had established himself as a leading citizen in Santiago. Cabrillo's wealth and reputation as a ship builder began to grow. Using his own ships, Cabrillo began to import and export goods in the developing trade between Spain and the New World. Some of these ships would play a vital role in Spain's early efforts to explore the Pacific. The Governor of Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado, selected Cabrillo to build and provision ships for the establishment of trading routes between Central America and the Spice Islands off of Asia. In 1541, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, prompted Cabrillo to lead one of two expeditions to explore the Pacific Coast. Cabrillo accepted and soon set out to from Navidad (now called Acapulco) on June 27, 1542, sailing north. Along the coast, he discovered San Diego Bay, San Pedro Bay, Santa Catalina, the Santa Barbara channel, Monterey Bay, Cape Mendocino, and as far North as latitude 43°, thus being the discoverer of Oregon and of the entire California coast. Scurvy having broken out among the crew to a violent degree, Cabrillo was forced to turn back, spending the winter on San Miguel Island in the Santa Barbara Channel. Here he and his crew engaged local Indians sustained a broken leg. He died on January 3, 1543 of the complications from his injuries on the island of San Bernardo. The report of Cabrillo was printed in the "Colección de documentos para la historia de de España" and "Colección de documentos de Indias" (both printed at Madrid, and very voluminous). The map of Cabrillo's expedition was published by Archbishop Lorenzana (1770). His voyage is mentioned more or less extensively in every work of importance on the early history of North America.
(2) Sebastian Vizcaííno's expedition sailed on May 5, 1602 with four vessels, described as two ships (the SAN DIEGO and SANTO TOMÁÁS), a frigate (the TRES REYES), and a long boat. When they reached Cape San Lucas, on June 8, they were forced to abandon the long boat. The remaining three vessels continued along the coast of Baja California until they finally reached San Diego on November 10. Vizcaííno named the place San Diego both for the flagship and for the feast of San Diego de Alcaláá on November 12. Eight days later they left San Diego and then landed on Santa Catalina Island, passing through the Santa Barbara Channel and rounding Point Concepcion, which they named after the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The fleet sailed past Carmel Bay and on December 16, rounding Punta de los Pinos (Point Pinos) and entered Monterey, which they named after the viceroy of Mexico, Don Gaspáár de Zúúññiga y Acevedo, Count of Monte Rey, who had dispatched the expedition. The following day they went ashore. With most of the sailors suffering from scurvy, many seriously ill, 16 had died. On December 29, the SAN TOMÁÁS, carrying the sick, as well as news of the expedition, returned home for Acapulco. The voyage was one of great suffering. In all, 25 men died. Only nine survived. At midnight on January 3, 1603, the remaining two ships sailed north. On January 7 the vessels were separated off Drake's Bay, and did not meet again. Vizcaííno on the SAN DIEGO pushed north, sighting Cape Mendocino on January 12. They turned back on January 19, arriving at Mazatlan on February 7, where a remedy for scurvy was found, thus limiting the loss of life. Vizcaííno reached Acapulco on March 21. The TRES REYES did not fare nearly as well. The SAN DIEGO pushed north as far as the Oregon border before turning back for home. The TRES REYES arrived at Acapulco on February 23 with only five survivors.
(3) Vizcaino's records indicated that the site of the present day Submarine Base (old Fort Rosecrans) was were the first Roman Catholic mass was celebrated in what is now the State of California. A monument in front of the Base Chapel commemorates that mass.
(4) Father Junipero Serra was born Miguel Jose Serra, November 24, 1713 at Petra on the Island of Majorca. On 14 September 1730 he entered the Franciscan Order. He received a Doctor of Theology degree from Lullian University at Palma and, in 1749, joined the missionary college of San Fernando, Mexico. In 1769 he joined Portolá's land expedition to Upper California. In May, in Lower California, he established the Mission San Fernando de Velicatá. He arrived in San Diego on 1 July and on 16 July founded the first of the 21 California missions where he ministered until his death on August 28, 1784. He is buried at the mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.


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Updated 8 February 2016