The "Discovery" of California

juanship.jpg (6770 bytes)While the Arlington Springs woman pretty much confirms the presence of people in California at least 13,000 years ago, historical references to the dates of the discovery of California (and other regions of the world) appear to ignore these inhabitants. The folklore of history is hard to change but as our awareness of early cultures grows, history books are being rewritten to more accurately reflect the facts. Until that time, we just have to realize that the "discovery" of America and the "discovery" of California are more like marketing campaigns than anything else; like "discovering" the taste of a soft drink.

The historical misstatements aside, the explorers who reached these shores deserve recognition for their accomplishments. Any travel by ship into uncharted territories carries a certain amount of risk and danger. Unknown winds and currents, hidden rocks and reefs, strange life forms and wary indigenous peoples were only a few of the problems a Captain had to face. Yet by charting these territories and establishing trade, these Captains paved the way (for good or for bad) for future settlement and commerce.

The history of the European exploration of California includes a good deal of "oceanography" and because it's our home state, I wanted to provide a few paragraphs here. By no means is the summary below a complete history of California or even a detailed account of coastal California history. Rather, my intention is to sketch enough parts to get you interested. There are several excellent web sites and references if you would like to research this topic further.

Although Europeans explored Baja (Lower) California as early as 1533, nearly a decade passed before Alta (Upper) California received any attention. And although these voyages brought word of California as early as 1542, it wasn't until 1769, more than 227 years later, that Europeans settled permanently in California. It's interesting to note the difference between those first 227 years, when Europeans were poking around California, and the next 227 years (taking us to 1996), when California changed dramatically. Such is the changing pace of human affairs.

Six ocean-going expeditions were undertaken to explore California between 1542 to 1769:

  1. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, Portuguese,  in 1542-1543;
  2. Sir Francis Drake, English,  in 1579;
  3. Francisco Gali in 1584;
  4. Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño in 1595;
  5. Sebastian Vizcaíno in 1602-1603;
  6. Gamelli Carreri in 1696.

cabrillo.gif (23807 bytes)Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer, commanded two ships and ventured as far north as Monterey Bay, describing it, but never landing there. Sir Francis Drake, the famous English explorer and raider who circumnavigated the globe, passed by California, stopping just north of San Francisco (Drake's Bay or Bodega Bay) for minor repairs before heading to sea again. Two Spanish explorers, Francisco Gali and Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño, briefly made landings even further north, possibly as far as Cape Mendocino, but it wasn't until the expedition mounted by Sebastian Vizcaíno that any lasting impact on California was made.

The following paragraphs have been condensed from Gary Breschini's excellent summary of early California History. They provide an interesting account of the trials and tribulations of sea-going exploration in those days. The complete text can be found in Tutorials in Monterey County History and Prehistory, provided by the Monterey County Historical Society.

Sebastian Vizcaíno left Mexico City on March 7, 1602, and sailed [from Acapulco] on May 5, 1602 with four vessels, described as two ships (the San Diego and Santo Tomás), a frigate (the Tres Reyes), and a long boat. They reached Cape San Lucas on June 8, where they were forced to abandon the long boat. The remaining three vessels battled up the outer coast of Lower California, frequently short on water and separated, until they finally reached San Diego on November 10--a voyage of six months and five days! San Diego was chosen as the name of the port both for the flagship and for the feast of San Diego de Alcalá on November 12. They left San Diego on November 20, landed on Santa Catalina Island, passed through the Santa Barbara Channel and rounded Point Concepcion, which they named for the vigil or feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 7 or 8). A favorable wind on December 13 carried them along the shore below the Santa Lucia Mountains, which they saw only when the fog lifted on the 14th. The fleet sailed past Carmel Bay and on December 16, rounded Punta de los Pinos (Point Pinos) and entered the harbor...They named the harbor after the viceroy of Mexico, Don Gaspár de Zúñiga y Acevedo, Count of Monte Rey, who had dispatched the expedition. They were the first known European explorers to reach Monterey.

They went ashore the following day, and pitched the church tent under the shade of an oak whose branches touched the tidewater, 20 paces from springs of good water in a ravine. (This ravine was located about where the tunnel leading from Monterey to Cannery Row emerges.) Most of the sailors were suffering from scurvy. Many were seriously ill, and 16 had already died! In the shadow of this historic tree, the first recorded mass north of San Diego was celebrated by Father Andrés de la Asunción.

The morning of December 17 was foggy, but the fog cleared as mass ended. After mass it was decided to send one of the vessels back to carry the sick and to report the expedition's progress. Later that day the party set up camp on the shore, and remained in the area until January 3, 1603. The party worked on the ships, and...On December 29, the San Tomás, carrying the sick, as well as news of the expedition, was dispatched for Acapulco. The voyage was one of great suffering; 25 men died on the way, or soon after arrival. Only nine survived.

After the San Tomás departed, attention was turned to readying the remaining two vessels for the voyage north. The cold weather hampered their efforts. It was reported that on Christmas Day the mountains near the port were covered with snow, and New Year's morning found the water holes frozen to the depth of a palm. By Friday, January 3, 1603, most of the chores were completed, and Vizcaíno, Father Andrés, and ten arquebusiers were able to explore inland to the southeast. About three leagues (a league averages perhaps 2.6 to 3.0 miles) away they discovered another port, with a copious river descending from snow-covered mountains. These are Carmel Bay and the Carmel River. They spotted elk, but were unable to kill any.

They encountered no people, but saw a village about a league away. When they investigated they found it deserted, and speculated the inhabitants had taken refuge in the interior to escape the cold. It is generally thought this was the village of Tucutnut, about a league from where Carmel Mission was subsequently located. This is the only village mentioned. The Monterey, New Monterey, and Pacific Grove areas apparently were uninhabited in January of 1603. Vizcaíno, however, reported that the land was thickly populated with numberless Indians, and that a great many came several times to their camp at Monterey. He comments that they indicated by signs that there were many settlements inland.

At midnight on January 3, 1603, the remaining two ships sailed north from Monterey. On January 7 the vessels were separated off Drake's Bay, and did not meet again. Vizcaíno on the San Diego pushed north, sighting Cape Mendocino on January 12. The next day a gale forced the ship to hove to near the cape. By January 19 they had passed north of Cape Mendocino, but as only six men are able to work it was decided to return to La Paz. They arrived at Mazatlan on February 7, where a remedy for scurvy was found, thus limiting the loss of life. The vessel reached Acapulco on March 21. The Tres Reyes did not fare nearly as well. That vessel was driven by the gale which struck the San Diego to an anchorage behind a cliff near Cape Mendocino. On January 19, they pushed perhaps as far north as the Oregon border. There, because of sickness and because they had reached the limit of their instructions, they turned for home. The Tres Reyes arrived at Acapulco on February 23 with only five survivors!

Little useful information was left by the explorers. They described the Indians as gentle and peaceable, docile, generous, and friendly, but not very adept at making themselves understood. (This latter comment probably applies more to the Spanish, as the Indians were undoubtedly adept at some form of sign language.) Their common foods are described as shell or other fish, acorns, and a nut larger than a chestnut (buckeye). Also described are seeds in abundance and variety, the flesh of game such as deer, bear, etc. For clothing they used the skins of sea lions and elk, they made fishing lines and nets, and used the bow-and-arrow. The party returned from the Carmel area at nightfall without having seen a single person. The main body had traveled some three leagues from camp, and the scouts four leagues. They sailed at midnight that night, never to return.

Vizcaíno accomplished little in the way of new exploration. Except for the Monterey Bay, he discovered no more than Cabrillo 60 years earlier. He did, however, chart the coast with such accuracy that his maps were used until about 1790. Vizcaíno returned with a glowing description of the port of Monterey...

Interest in Alta California moved inland soon thereafter with the establishment of the California missions in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In 1848, the end of the Mexican-American War brought Alta California (and New Mexico and Texas) under U.S. control and in 1850, California was granted statehood. Of course, the discovery of gold on the American River near Sacramento in 1848 completely transformed California, but that's another story.

scruzbrdwlk.gif (18842 bytes)The development of coastal cities like San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego offer fascinating tales of ocean exploration and development. The story of the Chinese and the sardine industry in Monterey is a good example of the kinds of cultural integration and boom-and-bust patterns that characterize much of California's history. The development of the surf culture in southern California and the boardwalk culture in Santa Cruz are rich with tales of people and the sea.

Next time you visit one of these places, take a few moments to look around you. Observe the landscape and the ocean that surrounds it. Check out some of the historical sites and envision what it would have been like 200-300 years ago. You will begin to gain an appreciation for the ways in which the ocean shapes our history, our culture and our future.

And finally, consider these words from Senator Daniel Webster while speaking to Congress: "What can we ever hope to do with the western coast, a coast of three thousand miles, rockbound, cheerless, uninviting, and not a harbor on it? What use have we for such a country?"

What use, indeed?

Local California Chronology Part 1: The Chumash

Local California Chronology Part 2: The First European Contact

Local California Chronology Part 3: The Spanish Incursion

Local California Chronology Part 4: The U.S. Invasion

The Monterey County Historical Society

John Steinbeck's Pacific Grove

The California Home Page

National Park Service Cabrillo National Monument

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk