- 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
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