- Spanish and Mexican California
- San Diego and the Begining of
the Spanish Period
- By Mark J. Denger
- California Center for Military
- 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
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
- (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.