- 1 What did Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo do and why is he important?
- 2 Where was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo born?
- 3 Parents and Childhood
- 4 Arrival in the Americas
- 5 What was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo looking for?
- 6 The Strait of Anián or the Northwest Passage
- 7 What route did Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo take?
- 8 How did Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo die?
- 9 Where is Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo buried?
- 10 The Cabrillo National Monument
- 11 The San Salvador
- 12 Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo Facts and Accomplishments
- 13 Learn more about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo
What did Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo do and why is he important?
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is best known for being the first European to successfully navigate the Pacific coast of what is today California to points north of the San Francisco Bay. During the voyage, he and his men disembarked at several points and made direct contact with the Native American inhabitants of the coast and Channel Islands. The account that he and his men wrote about their voyage was the also first written description of the west coast of North America and its peoples.
Where was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo born?
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was born around the year 1500, but no one is certain of where. Most scholars today think he was born in Spain, as his great grandson indicated in sworn testimony. During his lifetime, it seems most people believed he was from Spain. A later author, Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, called him “Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo Portugués,” contributing to the idea that he was originally from Portugal. To this day there is still controversy around where he was born, but most researchers, at least in North America are a convinced he was born in Spain.
Parents and Childhood
There is just as much mystery surrounding Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s birthplace as his childhood. No one is certain who his parents were — he never mentioned them in his writings —or whether his family was from the noble or peasant class. We do know that later in life he became very wealthy and participated in mining, agriculture and shipbuilding and other commercial activities.
Arrival in the Americas
Although historians know little about his early life, they do know that Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo arrived in the Americas in 1510, when he was no more than 10 years old. As a young man, he was among the soldiers sent with Pedro de Alvarado to subdue and defeat Hernán Cortez (the conqueror of Mexico), although he eventually wound up serving with Cortez in the conquest of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs.
Serving with Cortez
During the battle, the young Cabrillo served as a crossbowman. He was also in charge of building the boats, known as bergantins, which the Spanish and their native allies used to navigate the city’s waterways. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who wrote the most famous account of the Aztec conquest, mentioned Cabrillo by name as having fought in the battle.
The Conquest of Guatemala
With the experience he gained in the Valley of Mexico, Rodríguez Cabrillo went on to serve in the conquest of Guatemala with Pedro de Alvarado. His actions in Guatemala earned him a great deal of prestige, where he became a prosperous land owner, miner and shipbuilder. While in Guatemala, he wrote what probably is the first account of the massive earthquake that shook the country 1541.
What was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo looking for?
Encouraged by expeditions in the Pacific during the 1530s, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, the King’s representative in New Spain (as Mexico was called), was eager to support more exploration. He therefore decided to send out two Pacific expeditions. The first one was to travel across the ocean with the aim of reaching China. The second, with Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo as captain, was to explore the west coast of North America as far as possible “until its end and secret were sighted.” Since the geography of western North America was not very well understood, Mendoza hoped that both expeditions would ultimately reach China from different directions.
Rodríguez Cabrillo’s expedition was led by two ships. The first was the galleon known as the San Salvador, which he had built himself (with the aid of a great deal of Indian labor). The San Salvador was about 100 feet long and weighed about 200 tons. The second was the Victoria, which was about half the size of the San Salvador. Along with the two galleons went several smaller vessels to scout safe passages for the larger ships, and to ferry sailors and supplies to the shore. Aboard the ships were around 200 people, including crew members, and officers, soldiers, slaves (both African and Native American), a priest and a some merchants.
In addition to exploring the length of the coast, Cabrillo’s orders were to see if there was good country, and if possible, to make a settlement. He and his men were to take note of the people he encountered, their language and religion, as well as the types of houses they lived in. They were also to see whether the people would be willing to buy or trade goods with the Spaniards. Finally, they were to look out for any news of the expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, who was exploring the Great Plains in search of the mythical civilization of Quivira.
The Strait of Anián or the Northwest Passage
A number of authors have suggested that Cabrillo was also looking to find the legendary Strait of Anián. Cartographers believed the Strait of Anián marked the boundary between Asia and America (much like the Bering Strait). Many hoped it would also lead to a waterway connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. Although it is possible that Cabrillo was searching for the Strait of Anián, Harry Kelsey, who wrote one of the most important biographies of Cabrillo, thinks that there is little evidence for it.
What route did Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo take?
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his small fleet sailed from the Mexican port of Navidad on Tuesday, the 27th of June, 1542. They expected their voyage to take at least two years. From Navidad, they headed north, and on July 2, they came within sight of Baja California. In August, they succeeded in sailing past the 30th parallel, the furthest point the Francisco de Ulloa had reached. Until then, Ulloa was the European who had gone the furthest north on the Pacific Coast.
San Diego Bay and Contacts with the Kumeyaay
On Thursday, September 28, 1542, the little fleet reached what they called a “sheltered port and a very good one.” They named it “San Miguel” because they arrived there on the Catholic feast day of St. Michael. Many years later, Sebastián Vizcaíno would name this harbor San Diego Bay. A small group of men went ashore. Soon they encountered Native Americans, most likely Kumeyaay people. Most of them ran away, but some stayed to receive gifts. Later that evening, some of the Indians returned and shot three of Cabrillo’s men with arrows. Their injuries were not serious, and further contacts with the native people were peaceful. The crew from Cabrillo’s fleet stayed ashore until the next Tuesday (October 3) and then continued up the coast.
The Channel Islands and the Chumash
Over the next 6 weeks they traveled north, making contact along with numerous native inhabitants of the coastline and the islands. Rodríguez Cabrillo’s men were especially impressed with the Chumash, who lived on the Channel Islands and on the mainland near Santa Barbara. They called the Chumash “the people of the canoes,” because of the impressive tomol boats which they used.
“The whole coast…is very populated. They brought them a lot of good fresh sardines, and they say that inland there are many villages and much food. These Indians do not eat any maize, and they wear animal skins. They have long hair, and they keep it twisted up with some very long pieces of twine, and sticking through the hair and twine are many long flint, bone and wooden daggers. The land appears to be very excellent.”
During their contacts with the Chumash and the Kumeyaay, they heard multiple stories of of “bearded men” further inland. These were most likely members of the expedition of Hernando de Alarcón, who was scouting out the Colorado River on orders from Viceroy Mendoza.
Point Reyes and the Russian River
By November 13, after a great storm, the men sighted Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. They named it Cabo de los Pinos, because of the many fir trees that they saw on the land. The ships had passed the San Francisco Bay without seeing its entrance. They continued to sail about 40 miles north, until they saw the mouth of the Russian River. According to their reports, the weather was extremely cold — the men saw snow the hills near Monterey — and the seas were dangerously rough. So Rodríguez Cabrillo made the decision to return south and find a place to spend the winter. He and his men had traveled further north than any European to that point.
In late November or early December of 1543, the San Salvador anchored off the coast of an island the men named Isla Capitana. Scholars believe is today’s Santa Catalina Island. Although they hoped to pass the winter there, the inhabitants of the island were very hostile to the Spaniard’s presence. The Indians frequently attacked them, making it difficult for the sailors to make an encampment.
How did Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo die?
Around Christmas of 1543, a group of Cabrillo’s men went ashore to collect water, and found themselves under attack. Cabrillo organized a party to go rescue them, and as he landed on shore, injured himself. Francisco de Vargas, a sailor who participated in the expedition, reported that Cabrillo splintered a shinbone on a rock when he jumped out of the boat. Cabrillo’s son later said he broke his leg. Another author claimed Cabrillo had broken his arm.
Whatever the case may be, gangrene or an infection from his injury debilitated Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and he fell seriously ill. On January 3, 1543, he died. He was approximately 45 years old. Before dying, Rodríguez Cabrillo named Bartolomé Ferrer, the chief pilot of the expedition, commander of the fleet. Ferrer and his men buried Rodríguez Cabrillo on the island, which they renamed Juan Rodríguez in his honor.
The men made the decision to return south. On April 14, 1543, nine months after they began their journey, they reached the port of Navidad. It would be another 150 years until a Spanish expedition — this time led by Sebastián Vizcaíno — would sail as far north as Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.
Where is Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo buried?
No one knows for certain where Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo is buried. According to the main stories about his death, it seems that his remains lie on what is today Santa Catalina Island. In 1894 an archaeological dig on Catalina uncovered a grave of someone buried with a good deal of ceremony. The tools and other objects found in their indicated the person was of Spanish or European origin. Digs on other islands, like San Miguel and Santa Rosa, have not turned up anything conclusive. The mystery remains!
The Cabrillo National Monument
In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson ordered the construction of a statue honoring Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. The monument was to be placed near the Old Point Loma Lighthouse in San Diego, California. For many years, no one was able to complete the project. Finally, in 1939 the Portuguese government commissioned a statue of the explorer. It took another decade for the statue to be installed, however. In 1949 the statue was finally placed where it currently stands. There is also a museum educating visitors about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and the early explorations of the California coast. Each year thousands of people visit the Cabrillo National Monument and its surrounding seashore.
The San Salvador
About 8 miles from the Cabrillo National Monument there is replica of Rodríguez Cabrillo’s ship, the San Salvador. Built in 2015, the galleon is life-sized and made to exacting specifications. It is not only historically accurate, but seaworthy. Visitors can climb aboard the ship and get a taste of what it must have been like to travel on the open seas on a sixteenth century sailing vessel. The San Salvador is part of San Diego’s famous Maritime Museum.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo Facts and Accomplishments
- Born around 1500.
- Birthplace uncertain, claimed by both Spain and Portugal.
- Sailed from Spain to the new world at 10-12 years old.
- Served in the conquest of Tenochtitlan under Hernán Cortez.
- Married: Beatriz Sánchez de Ortega.
- Owned a large estate in Guatemala.
- Participated in mining
- Participated in the conquest of Guatemala.
- Wrote the earliest account of the 1841 earthquake in Guatemala.
- Built his own ship, the San Salvador.
- The first European to explore the coast of Alta California, as far as San Francisco.
- Died during voyage to California, January 3, 1543..
Learn more about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo
The Cabrillo National Monument Foundation. A great resource for all sorts of materials about Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his voyage.
An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. The story of Cabrillo’s voyage with plenty of useful information about the era of exploration.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo by Harry Kelsey. The first full-scale biography of Cabrillo based on original research.
The Spanish Frontier in North America by David Weber. The definitive history of the Spanish colonial period in North America.
Lands of Promise and Despair by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert Senkewicz. A thorough anthology of original documents from California’s rich history.