Spanish and Mexican California
Explorations and Conquest of California
By Mark J. Denger
The exploration and conquest of Upper and Lower California is deeply routed in the fabric of this state's naval and military heritage. Its rich, but this relatively unknown military history is predicated upon its twelve hundred miles of coastline.

The history behind the name of California begins when it was first used in a romance novel published in Spain (1510). The book was written by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo (1), translator of the Amadis de Gaul, and called Las Sergas de Esplandian, or Adventures of Esplandian.

It was shortly thereafter when a Spanish explorer, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, crossed the Isthmus of Panama and was the first to discover the Pacific Ocean in 1513. His discovery led to the governor of Cuba, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez, in 1517, to send a fleet of ships under Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba to explore the west in search of treasure. Cordoba found the Yucatan Peninsula and brought back reports of large cities.

The next year, Cordoba was followed by Juan de Grijalva who discovered New Spain (Mexico). Grijalva explored the Mexican coast from the Yucatan to what is now Veracruz. A third expedition of about 650 Spaniards sailed from Cuba under Hernan Cortés (Cortez)(2), in February 1519. Cortez's 11 ships followed Grijalva's route along the coast, effecting the conquest of New Spain in 1521. Cortez, in 1524, was the first explorer to mention California as a "great island of fabulous wealth," in his report to the King of Spain.
The Spanish crown bestowed the title of Governor and Captain General of New Spain upon Cortéz in 1522. He returned to Spain in 1528 and was received by Charles V with much reverence. The King granted Cortéz a vast track of land, Indians, and the title of Marques del Valle de Oaxaca. Cortez returned to Mexico in mid 1530, to the discomfort of the ruling judges and Spanish administrators, who had found Mexico easier to govern with Cortez residing in Spain. In 1535, viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza, was received and installed, completely extracting Cortez from any official power in Mexico.

Ten years later, Fortuno Ximines sailed from the west coast of New Spain to explore this newly discovered "island" of California. However, his vessel never got farther north than Cape San Lucas. The next year Cortéz sailed up the Gulf of California.

Against the orders of the viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, Cortéz sent Francisco de Ulloa to explore the Gulf of California. In 1538, he sailed to the head of the gulf, reaching the mouth of the Colorado River, thus proving that lower California was not an "island" but a peninsula. This expedition is the first record of the name "California" being applied to the peninsula and appears in the map in Preciado's diary of Ulloa's expedition.

In 1540, Hernando de Alarcon, a Spanish navigator, also employed by Antonio de Mendoza, becomes the first European to touch lower or Baja California's soil and, upon entering the Gulf of California, ascends up the Colorado River for more than one hundred miles on an expedition of discovery. He was followed by Domingo del Castillo, in 1541, who explored the Gulf of California and charts its shores. He publishes a notable map of the Gulf and the Colorado River which is recognized as both accurate and authoritative.

However, it was reserved to Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to be the first European to actually set foot on the soil of Alta California in 1542.

(1) Las Sergas de Esplandian (Sergas) is often referred to as the fifth book of the Amadis. In this book, which was an extremely popular piece of literature at the time of the conquest of Mexico, there is an island called California. By "California" there was implied an insularity or "island paradise" coupled with riches. The story was about "an island called California very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise", where beautiful Queen Califia ruled over a country of beautiful black Amazon women with lots of pearls and gold. Men were only allowed one this island one day a year to perpetuate the race. The Sargas goes on to state that "Their island was the strongest in the world, with its steep cliffs and rock shores." Cortez's men thought they found the island in 1535, because they found pearls among the Indians. Later, Francisco de Ulloa found that the island was really a peninsula.
(2) Hernan (Hernan, Hernando, or Fernando, depending on the book and authority listing it) Cortez was born in Medellin (Southeast of Estremadura) in 1485 and died December 2, 1547. His father, Martin Cortéz de Monray, a military captain in the infantry, married Dona Catalina Pizorro Altamirano. He is said to be related to Pizarro, conqueror of Peru. Cortez left Spain in 1504 and conquered Mexico (1519-1521). After leveling Mexico City, Cortez began to rebuild the city in the style of great European cities.
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Updated 8 February 2016