Spanish and Mexican California
An Era of Expeditions
By Mark J. Denger
The romance of California's history lies in its intimate connection with those forces which originally led to the discovery of the western world itself, and with the history of the nation which was continuously and persistently followed up by discovery and further exploration, resulting in its colonization.

And so, by necessity, California's history begins more than 510 years ago when the Spaniards first began to occupy the West Indies during the 1490s.

There had long been a notion that the riches of Asia could be reached by sailing westwards, but Christopher Columbus was the first to put this theory to the test, with the backing of the Spanish monarchy. Columbus, knew that the world was in fact round, but underestimated its size, and therefore when he made landfall in the West Indies for the first time, he believed he had actually reached southeast Asia. No one at the time could have ever imagined that when Columbus discovered the Bahamas in 1492, his voyage would set in motion a series of events that would lead to the discovery of California.

His first voyage included the discovery and exploration of Cuba, and the establishment of a Spanish settlement on the coast of what is now the Island of Haiti. From Columbus' journal we learn that while on the northern shores of Hispaniola (Haiti) the admiral "learned that behind the Island Juana (Cuba) towards the South, there is another large island in which there is much more gold. They call that island Yamaye. . . . And that the island Española or the other island Yamaye (Jamaica) was near the mainland, ten days distant by canoe, which might be sixty or seventy leagues. . . ." The mainland alluded to was Honduras. Hence the admiral brought the news of the existence of the American continent to Europe as early as 1493.

In May, 1497, Vespucci obtained three ships from Ferdinand, King of Castille, and set sail toward the Fortunate Islands, and then laying his course towards the west. On this first voyage he entered the Gulf of Mexico and coasted along a great portion of the United States. Then he returned to Spain, arriving in October, 1498. His discovery would eventually lead to the discovery and establishment of the New World.

That same year, 1497, the Genoese sailor Gieovanni Cabot, under the flag of King Henry VII, reached the coast of North America on board the MATHEW, claiming the land for England. Brazil was discovered by accident when a Portuguese expedition to India, led by Pedro Alvares Cabral, swung too far westward in 1500. It remained virtually ignored by the Crown for twenty-five years because it lacked the rich trade cities found in Asia and it had no ready supplies of precious metals.

It gradually became apparent that the New World was in fact an entire continent, a fact first recognized by Amerigo Vespucci, and merchants and explorers started to search for a route around it to the East Indies.

The Americas, or the Continent of the New World, consists of three main divisions: North America, Central America, and South America. The first of these extends from (about) 70° to 15° north latitude. Central America forms an isthmus running from northwest to southeast and narrowing to a strip of thirty miles in width at the place we now call Panama; this isthmus extends from 15° to 8° north latitude, where it connects with the western coast of South America. South America begins in latitude 12° north, terminating in latitude 55° south. Hence North America approximately extends over 3,800 miles from north to south, South America 4,500, and Central America constitutes a diagonal running between the two larger masses, from northwest to southeast and is approximately a thousand miles in length.

The name "America" is the outcome not so much of an accident as of an incident. For nearly a century after Columbus, the Spaniards who having been its first European occupants, persisted in calling their vast American possessions the "West Indies." That name was justifiable in so far as the discovery occurred when they were in search of a westerly route to Asia. The belief that America was a part of that continent was dispelled only by the journey of Spanish explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa across the Isthmus in 1513. Six years previous to that feat, however, the name "America" had been applied by some German scholars to the New World. It was not done with the object of diminishing the glory of Columbus, nor of endorsing the claims of other explorers, but simply in ignorance of the facts.

Amerigo Vespucci was a Florentine pilot in the service of Spain when had made his first two voyages to the Western seas. It is not the purpose here to discuss the voyages Vespucci claimed to have made to the American coast, or those attributed to him, only to note that his first voyage is placed at 1497-98, and he there claims to have touched the American continent. This actual gave Vespucci the priority over Columbus. A claim, however, that Vespucci never advanced.

The European nations which settled the continent of the Americas after their initial discovery by Columbus, and exerted the greatest influence on the civilization of the New World, were principally Spain, Portugal, France, England and Russia.

While Russia's attempt at colonization was limited to a very small fraction of the area of North America, it need not be mentioned here except in passing. Russia's colonization of Alaska, and later parts of Northern California, while important to the history of California, for the most part, is passed over here as being rather unimportant to this story.

The first successful route around the tip of South America was discovered by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, who passed through the straits named after him in 1520, discovering the Pacific Ocean and crossing it to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe. Meanwhile, the first explorations of the continent's interior were being made. In Central and South America, Spanish conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro carved out huge territories, driven on by a combination of missionary zeal and greed – the legend of El Dorado –the city of gold.

In the North, Spanish explorations were led by such men as Juan Ponce de León, and Frenchmen such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. British explorers and adventurers including Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh also played an important role in the exploration and settlement of the new continent.

Spain began to colonize the American continent as early as 1492. The rapidity with which she explored and conquered the territories she discovered was amazing. Not sixty years after the landing of Columbus, Spanish colonies dotted the American continent, from northern Mexico as far south as central and southern Chile. Not only were they along the coast, but in Mexico and Central America they were scattered from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and in South America from the Pacific coast eastward to the crest of the Andes. The entire northeastern coast of South America was under Spanish sway, and explorations had been carried on, as far as latitude 42° north along the Pacific; the interior as far as the southern United States had been traversed beyond the Mississippi, with Florida, Alabama, and Georgia taken possession of along the Atlantic shore. The whole Pacific coast, from latitude 42° to the southern extremity of Tierra del Fuego, was already known, settled in places, and frequently visited.

Spanish explorers utilized two Iberian traditions and combined them to facilitate their entrance into the New World. The first tradition was the "maritime-commercial company," and the second was the "military expedition" that grew from the Reconquista. The leader and main investor of an expedition would have the title of "captain" and was invariably an important encomendero –a member or former member of a colonial municipal council, a senior settler in the area, a wealthy man, or a nobleman (hidalgo). Hernán Cortés matches this profile as his "company's" associates made the large investments of ships, clothing, weapons, and horses for the expeditions, and acted as officers. The ordinary members of an expedition usually supplied their own equipment and provisions in exchange for a share in whatever booty the expedition procured. They came from a variety of backgrounds and social classes.

These expeditions were always carried out in much the same way. The conquistadors depended heavily on the military advantage given them by their steel weaponry and horse cavalry. They also adopted a divide-and-conquer strategy that exploited pre-existing indigenous rivalries. An equally effective strategy was the capturing of an indigenous leader and the holding him hostage. The conquistadors, including Cortés, typically carried out their expeditions in this fashion.

Following Cabrillo's voyage, the only regular traffic near Californian waters were the treasure ships returning from the Philippines. This service became known as the Manilla Galleon.

The currents in the Pacific are such that it was advantageous for the Manilla Galleon to reach America north of the Baja peninsula, and then turn south. This is what partly led Sir Francis Drake to these waters, in his famous voyage of 1579. Drake sailed the GOLDEN HIND along the coastline of California seeking to destroy these Spanish galleons.

There were rumors of a second voyage by Drake (indeed, Drake and Queen Elizabeth outfitted a voyage to found a colony in California, but the convoy was captured en route by Spanish ships off the coast of Brazil).

Unlike the Spanish, the methods of English colonization along the Atlantic are so widely known, and its literature so extensive, that the matter may here be treated with comparative brevity.

No other Englishman played a more important role in England's naval and maritime exploration of the Pacific Coast than Sir Francis Drake, who assisted in establishing England as a maritime power following many years of Spanish domination of the seas. Drake's visit along the California coast followed successful attacks on Spanish ships in the Caribbean and on Spanish gold and silver mines in Central America, which made him a very wealthy man. But these actions were not merely romantic escapades as often portrayed in history.

Drake was bent on revenge against the Spanish for an earlier attack on an English fleet that left only two ships intact during a voyage to the Caribbean, and it was that ruthless Spanish attack, and merciless treatment of prisoners, that forever turned Drake into their most feared enemy. But we must remember, the reason the English ships were even in the Caribbean, the New World, and looking for a route to Asia, was to bring down the Spanish royalties power by capturing a share of the profitable trade with the New World. The life of a privateer was essentially that of a pirate financed by a royal family, and depending on which country you belonged to, was seen as either a romantic hero, or a ruthless mercenary - hence Drake was Sir Francis to the English, and The Dragon to the Spanish.

In 1577, Sir Francis Drake persuaded Queen Elizabeth I, to finance a voyage to the Pacific Ocean. It was a top-secret agreement initially – the Queen had watched enviously as Spain had amassed a great Empire in the New World, and she wanted a piece of the action.

That year, five ships set sail from Plymouth, led by Drake's ship the PELICAN, under the pretense that they were seeking a North West passage through the Atlantic, in order to circumnavigate the globe. Once sailing, the crew were made aware of the real purpose of the voyage –to plunder Spanish settlements on the west coast of the Americas. As they reached the Strait of Magellan, underneath the southern tip of South America, matters became intense when storms battered the ships. The PELICAN was the only ship to make it to the Pacific, and upon doing so Drake renamed her the GOLDEN HIND.

Drake set about plundering Spanish settlements along the coast of Chile and Peru. He harassed the Spanish by land and by sea along the Pacific Coast. One Peruvian vessel, the CACAFUEGO, yielded more than eight million dollars in silver, gold and precious stones, as well as highly-prized Spanish charts of the Pacific.

Drake proceeded up the Pacific, as far as or beyond the point reached by Ferrelo of the Cabrillo expedition. But finding nothing but endless sea and running into storms, he turned back toward the California coast and on June 17, 1579, came to what he described as a "conveynient harborough."

Many a historian has assumed that this was Drake's Bay, some thirty miles north of San Francisco. It is believed that it was there that he built a fort to store his loot while the GOLDEN HIND was careened and repaired. The Indians were awed by Drake, eagerly proclaimed him a chief, and happily looked on while he formally took possession of all of California for England in the name of Queen Elizabeth. He named the place New Albion. After making the necessary repairs (somewhere in California), Drake sailed across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and then under the southern tip of Africa before returning to England. This trip made him the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

We know that Sir Francis Drake explored the California coast in 1579 after attacking Spanish settlements in South America, landing somewhere off California's coast to repair his ship, GOLDEN HIND. The exact location of this landfall is not known. Again, most historians believe it was near San Francisco. Yet, some believe the ship stopped along the coast of Santa Barbara for repairs (1). Reports show that when his ship returned to England, it was missing five canons and one anchor.

For the Spanish, however, when they learned about Drake's adventures, this added insult to injury, and, alarmed at last, they began to think they had better establish some settlements and ports of refuge along the little known coastal frontier.

Then into the Pacific came another Englishman –Thomas Cavendish. He not only looted but pillaged and slaughtered his way through Spanish settlements in the New World, but upon hearing a report of a Manila galleon headed toward Baja California, he laid in wait in Bernabe Bay, some 20 miles east of Cape San Lucas, for the unwary galleon then on its return trip from the Philippines. This bay was to become a regular lair for buccaneers and was known to them as Aguada Segura, safe watering place, or Puerto Seguro, safe port.

The galleon SANTA ANA, which had the misfortune to cross his path, had considerable significance for the history of California, as aboard her was Sebastian Vizcaino, a Basque soldier of unusual talents. Vizcaino fought with the Spanish armies in Flanders and then showed up in Mexico, where he developed an eye for business as well as intrigue. He invested heavily in merchandise in Manila and was taking it back aboard the SANTA ANA, expecting to reap a tremendous profit, when Cavendish's ships appeared from around the tip of Baja California and shot her full of holes.

(1) On January 21, 1981, a beachwalker found two rock encrusted objects about a half mile east of Goleta Beach Park. Returning the next day at low tide, he found three more exposed by the scouring surf. The following day, assisted by volunteers from the University of California at Santa Barbara's Archeology and History Departments and by rangers from the County Park Department, he managed to haul five canons out of the surf. The canon muzzle loaders, about five feet long and heavily, were found almost in a straight line across 50 feet of beach. Several weeks later, the State Parks Department conducted an underwater magnatometer search of the area offshore from the discovery spot in an attempt to locate any shipwreck or other artifacts. Nothing more was found.

Adding to the theory that Drake visited the Channel, back in 1891, woodcutters working nearby in the Goleta Slough found a Sixteenth Century anchor in the mud near where a natural spring had fed into the slough. It is known that the GOLDEN HIND did stop for emergency repairs in a bay somewhere along the shores of Alta California, and that when it returned to England, the Hind was missing five canons and an anchor.

Other historians believe it is more likely the GOLDEN HIND found shelter further north near San Francisco where a 1567 English sixpence was found in 1974. The exact location of his landing is still unknown, although two of the canons have been x-rayed and were shown to be of Sixteenth Century English design and manufacture.
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Updated 8 February 2016