- 1 European interest in California stretches back over 400 years. Spanish mariners began exploring the Pacific coast of North America in the early 16th century.
- 2 First Spanish Contacts
- 3 Cabrillo and San Diego Bay
- 4 The English Plant a Flag (Francis Drake)
- 5 Vizcaíno and Monterey Bay
- 6 A Pause in Exploration
- 7 Timeline
- 8 You Might Also Like...
European interest in California stretches back over 400 years. Spanish mariners began exploring the Pacific coast of North America in the early 16th century.
It was a time when powers such as Spain, England, France and Ottoman Empire competed for control of land and trade in Europe, the Near East and Africa. Seeking to outflank her rivals in Europe, Spain supported explorers and adventurers who could find areas of expansion in the Americas, where empires such as the Aztecs and Incas also expanded and conquered neighboring peoples.
First Spanish Contacts
In Mexico, Hernán Cortez harnessed the resentment of neighboring peoples against the Aztecs. In 1521 he led several hundred Spaniards and thousands of native warriors, to topple one of the most powerful empires in the Americas.
Spanish experience in central Mexico kindled the hope for finding other wealthy civilizations. Knowing that Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had reached Pacific Ocean in 1513, Spanish ships, sailing north in search of “otro Méjico” or “another Mexico” encountered the peninsula of Baja California in 1533. They anchored in a peaceful bay which they named “La Paz” (Peace) and returned to report about their findings.
Reports of large quantities of pearls off the coast of this new “island” piqued the interest of Hernán Cortez. In 1535 Cortez launched his own expedition. His ships anchored off Baja California, but a number of sailors died of starvation waiting for resupply. The difficult food situation, combined the with hostility of local Natives, forced Cortez to ultimately abandon the expedition. To this day, the Gulf of California, which separates Baja California from the Mexican mainland, is also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Despite the setback, Cortez ordered another mission to explore the northern Pacific in 1539. Its leader was Francisco de Ulloa, who headed up the west coast of Mexico and verified that Baja California was a peninsula, and not an island. After reaching the tip of Baja, Ulloa fought the contrary currents and winds north along Pacific coast before turning back. Despite Ulloa’s news, European maps continued to show Baja or Antigua California as an island as late as the 1780s.
Cabrillo and San Diego Bay
The difficulty of traveling north along the Pacific coast did not deter Spanish sea captains from exploring further up the Pacific Coast. In 1542 Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived at the Bay of Ensenada, Baja California, and later entered what is today San Diego Bay. By mid-November of that year he and his crew had sailed as far as north as the San Francisco Bay. During his travels along the coast, Cabrillo and his men came across numerous Native people. Cabrillo died during the voyage as a result of a hostile encounter with some of them, but his men continued as far north as the Oregon coast before returning to Mexico in early 1543.
Spanish explorations along the Upper California coast continued throughout the 16th century. One of the hopes that spurred this voyages was the dream of finding the Strait of Anián, a direct sea connection between Europe and Asia (known in English as the Northwest Passage). The establishment of the Manila Galleon trade, which linked with the Far East, helped spur the quest to find possible safe harbors along the Pacific coast of North America.
The English Plant a Flag (Francis Drake)
News of Spanish discoveries in the Pacific also reached her rivals. Queen Elizabeth I of England, the enemy of King Philip II’s Spain, did everything she could to damage Spanish interests. England fomented revolt against Spanish power in Netherlands and encouraged English privateers to target Spanish ships abroad.
One such privateer was Francis Drake. In 1577 Drake sailed from the English-controlled Plymouth harbor in what is today Massachusetts , rounded Cape Horn and sailed up the Pacific coast of South America, raiding towns and attacking Spanish ships until arriving somewhere near San Francisco Bay in 1579. He claimed the country in the name of England, and today a small bay about 30 miles north of San Francisco is named for him.
Vizcaíno and Monterey Bay
Although Spain had to guard against English harassment, it never constituted more than an occasional threat. It was the creation of the British East India Company in 1600, followed shortly after by the Dutch East India Company, that intensified Spanish interest in finding safe places to land ships along the north Pacific coast.
In 1602 the Spanish viceroy gave instructions to Sebastián Vizcaíno, an ambitious trader from Acapulco, to sail up the coast of Upper and Lower California as far as Cape Mendocino to discover and note any natural harbors that could be found. Along the way he encountered — and often renamed — many of the locales that Cabrillo had come across 60 years earlier. Viscaíno and his party also encountered numerous California Indians during the expedition, though their interactions were more peaceful than those of Cabrillo decades before.
On December 16, 1602, Vizcaíno weighed anchor in a bay which he named Monterrey — now Monterey — after his sponsor, the Count of Monterrey, viceroy of New Spain. Vizcaíno carried out his duty and arrived as far as the Cape Mendocino before turning back.
A Pause in Exploration
Vizcaíno’s glowing reports about the quality this northern bay impressed the count, but Monterrey was soon replaced by another viceroy who had different priorities. Spanish officials found other ways of protecting and resupplying the Manila galleons that followed the Pacific currents south to Mexico, while the difficulty of fighting those same currents kept them from spending resources traveling north to Upper or New California. This situation would last for another 160 years, until competition from Spain’s rivals changed the scenario.
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1533: Spanish ships reach the tip of Baja California.
1535: Hernán Cortez reaches Baja California.
1539: Francisco de Ulloa confirms that Baja California is a peninsula.
1542: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrives in San Diego Bay. He later sails as far as the Oregon coast.
1579: Francis Drake lands near San Francisco.
1602: Sebastián Vizcaíno sails into Monterey Bay.