October 2, 1998

Hispanic Heritage Month

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo discovered San Diego. While the city annually celebrates and re-enacts the landing of Cabrillo on the shores of San Diego, during the month of October, traditionally we normally only bring to our readers the story of Christopher Columbus. This year we felt that it was about time to bring the story of the discover of San Diego: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.


History has preserved only dim outlines of the remarkable career of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who died in 1543 while attempting to complete the first exploration California's coastline.

Though he is generally supposed to have been Portuguese, the evidence is too scanty to be sure. There is no firm agreement about the cause or place of his death, He is variously reported to have used two, three, and even four vessels on his great exploration. Even his name has invited speculation.

It appears on the few surviving documents he signed in the abbreviated for Juan Rdoz. (The Portuguese spelling would normally en in "s," the Spanish in "z"). What then of Cabrillo, which means "little goat"?

Whatever his name and origin, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo learned seafaring in his youth. He arrived in Cuba in the second decade of the 1500s, perhaps as or, because of his age, as a page. Yet he apparently joined the Narváez expedition that was dispatched from Cuba to arrest Cortés at Vera Cruz and afterwards survived the grisly noche triste when the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from their capital at Tenochititlán. Immediately thereafter his chance came to display his nautical skills.

The 14-foot sandstone statue of Cabrillo is the work of Portuguese sculptor Alvaro DeBree. Completed in 1939 for the San Francisco World's Fair, it was eventually relocated to Point Loma. The portrait is conjectural, there is no known likeness of the explore.

Cortés knew that if he were to recapture lake-bound Tenochtitlán, he would have to control the causeways that linked the city to the mainland. According to the soldier-historian Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Cortés put Cabrillo in charge of four "men of the sea" who understood how to make pine tar for caulking ships, who built thirteen brigantines.

Each brigantine was manned by a dozen oarsmen. Each carried several cross-bowmen and arquebus marksmen. The brigantines smash-ed with devastating effect into a massed gathering of Aztec canoes. Afterwards they fought a dozen fierce skirmishes while protecting the footmen on the causeway.

Tenochtitlán regained, the actual conquest of Mexico began.

Later Cabrillo joined red-bearded Pedro de Alvar-ado, cousin of Coronado's officer, Hernando de Alvarado, in seizing Guatemala and El Salvador. During those long sanguinary campaigns Cabrillo performed well enough that he was rewarded with encomiendas in both Guatemala and Honduras.

An encomienda was a grant of land embracing one or more Indian villages. In exchange for protecting the village and teaching the inhabitants to become Christian subjects of the king, the encomendero was entitled to exact taxes and labor from them.

What kind of master Cabrillo was does not appear. Anyway, for the next 15 years his Indian laborers grew food for slaves he had put to work in placer mines on his lands and in the shipyards he supervised on Guatemala's Pacific coast.

During this time there was a myth of a "terrestrial paradis" called California in a popular romance of the time, Las Sergas de Esplandién. According to the author, seductive California was ruled by dazzling queen Calafia, whose female warriors wielded swords of gold, there being no other metal in the land, and used man-eating griffins as beasts of burden. What a spot to find!

During the early 1530s a strip of coast was discovered believed to be part of an island. It was referred to as California, perhaps in derision since the desolate areas was so totally different from the paradise described in the romance. The notion of a nearby Garden of Eden persisted.

Cortés dispatched three ships under a kinsman, Francisco de Ullo - one of vessels soon foundered - to search for a sea opening to the land of Cíbola. Finding himself locked in a gulf, Ulloa retreated along the eastern edge of the 800-mile-long peninsula that we call Baja California, rounded its tip and continued north to within 130 miles or so of the present U.S.-Mexico border. No inlets. His ships battered by adverse winds and his men wracked by scurvy, he returned to Mexico.

On June 27, 1542 Cabrillo headed north with three vessels: San Salvador, which he captained; Victoria, commanded by pilot Bartolomé Ferrer; and San Miguel, a small brigantine used as a launch and service vessel.

Cabrillo led his skips directly toward the tip of the peninsula, calling it California without comment, as though the name was already in current use. For nearly three months they sailed along Baja's outer coast looking for a river entrance to the interior and for a strait leading to the Atlantic.

About August 20 they passed the most northerly point (Punta del Engaño) reached by Ulloa. On September 28, three months after leaving Mexico, the ships crossed the future international border and put into a "very good enclosed port, to which they gave the name San Miguel." It was our San Diego.

The Indians there were afraid. That evening they wounded, with arrows, three men of a fishing party. Instead of marching forth in retaliation, Cabrillo sailed slowly on into the harbor, caught two boys, gave them presents and let them go. The kindness worked.

Cabrillo was to continue sailing up the coast to as far as the vicinity of Point Reyes, a little north of San Francisco Bay, or they may have gone no farther than Monterey Bay, where they almost certainly anchored on November 16. Whatever their northernmost point, they turned back probably because of bad weather, possibly because of Cabrillo's sufferings (Cabrillo had fallen and broken his arm near the shoulder). On November 23 they once again landed on San Miguel Island. There, sensing he was about to die, Cabrillo made the pilot, Bartolomé Ferrer, swear to continue his explorations. On January 3, 1543, he perished and was buried on the island.

Or was he? In 1901 an amateur archeologist, Philip M. Jones, found on Santa Rosa Island, just east of San Miguel, an old Indian mano, or grinding stone, into one of whose sides a cross and the fused initials JR had been incised. The stone was stored in a basement at the University of California, Berkeley, until 1972, where Berkeley's noted anthropologist, Dr. Rober Heizer, began wondering whether the curiosity might have once marked Juan Rodríguez's grave. So far extensive examinations have determined nothing about this additional mystery.

And then there is the testimony of Cárdenas and Vargas in 1560. They said, without giving dates, that Cabrillo decided to winter on Posesión, which the witnessed called La Capitana, and that on stepping ashore from the ship's boast he fell between some rocks, broke his shin bone, and died 12 days later. Vargas adds that the fall resulted from Cabrillo's hurry to help some of his men, who were battling Indians. A splintered shinbone with its possibilities for gangrene sounds more deadly than a broken arm.

On February 18, 1543, after beating around the Santa Barbara Channel for more than a month, exploring and taking on wood and water, Ferrer resumed the trip, as Cabrillo had asked. On April 14, 1543 they reached Navidad, nine and a half months after their departure.

There was no repeat journey. There was no great discovery of treasure nor shortcuts to the Orient. After that, no one else wanted to try, and Spain's first great era of exploration of the United States came to an end.

Historical information derived from "De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo Explorers of the Northern Mystery" by David Lavender. Produced by the Division of Publications National Park Service; U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

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