Early Voyages to California, 1542-1602

Posted on October 9, 2012


It took half a century after Columbus before Europeans finally reached the California coast.  In fact, early maps of the west coast of North America show Baja California as an island.  It was only established as a peninsula in 1540.

João Rodrigues Cabrilho, a Portuguese captain sailing for Spain, led the first European expedition to reach California in 1542.  He died of gangrene on Santa Catalina Island early the following year.

In  the course of a merry career looting, pirating and circumnavigating the globe on behalf of the English crown, Sir Francis Drake landed in California in 1579.  Some scholars say he may have sailed as far north as present day British Columbia.  We’ll never know for sure.  Probably because they might have caused problems with a jealous Spanish Empire, details of Drake’s voyage were declared a state secret by Queen Elizabeth I and were ultimately lost when Whitehall Palace burned down in 1698.

In 1587, Pedro de Unamuno, sailing out of China and with a Filipino crew, landed temporarily in California while on his way south to Acapulco.

In 1595, Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno, sailing on behalf of the Spanish, reconnoitred the California coast in an attempt to find a safe port there for the Manila galleons, which often passed offshore on their way to Acapulco.

The Manila galleons were essentially treasure ships carrying silk from China, cottons from China and India, gold, jewelry, ivory, jade, porcelain, musk, camphor, spices from Malaku, Java and Ceylon, cinnamon from the Philippines themselves.  The voyage from Manila to Acapulco took an average of 6 months, sometimes nine, across dangerous seas, avoiding jealous and greedy enemies.  A stop-off along the way for the ship to take refuge, make repairs and restock was often contemplated by the Spanish authorities, and Unamano’s voyage was the beginning of one such attempt, but it never became a reality.

In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno returned to California, again looking for a refuge port for the Manila galleon on behalf of the Spanish.  He sailed north from Acapulco with three ships and a longboat.  It was a disastrous voyage.  Starvation and scurvy had claimed the lives of most of Vizcaíno’s shipmates by the time they returned, raggle-taggle, a bit at a time, to Acapulco in 1603.

Writes Kent Lightfoot,

After the spurt of early voyages, probably Native Californians would spy an occasional Manila galleon sailing south within sight of land; no doubt some ships made landfalls to repair leaks after the Pacific crossing and to take on fresh water.  Shipwrecks and foundering vessels probably washed up on California shores during and after turbulent storms.  But we know little of these encounters.

The Europeans were not to revisit California in formal voyages until 1769.  In that year, alarmed at news of Russian expansion in the North Pacific, Spain sent Gaspar de Portolá to lead an expedition overland from the missions on Baja California to San Diego Bay, to establish a colony in what was then known as Alta California, the better to keep those lands out of Russian hands.

The colonization of California was to be the last hurrah of the Spanish Empire.



Kent G. Lightfoot, Indians, Missionaries and Merchants: 
The Legacy of Colonial Encounters on the California Frontiers, U of Cal Press, 2005.

Henry Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power 1492-1763. Perennial, 2002.

Posted in: history