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Friday, December 05, 2014 (read 1434 times)

The Ship That Found California

by David

Growing up and spending my summers in Santa Barbara, California I always remember going to East Beach to enjoy swimming in the cool waters of the Pacific and enjoying the warm Southern California summer. I also remember the name of the main street that runs east to west along the water—Cabrillo Boulevard.  I never really paid much attention as to why it was named like that since Santa Barbara has a number of Streets with Spanish names and sometimes very clever ones like Salsipuedes (Sal si puedes or "get out if you can" in English).

The San Salvador

But I recently read about something that is happening in San Diego that made me think back and revisit my childhood memories and re-think why that popular street is named that way. It turns out that the Maritime Museum of San Diego is building a replica of the San Salvador, ship that brought explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo to California and thus becoming the first European to step onto California soil. Now that I knew who Cabrillo was, what did he do to merit having his name on one of the most important streets in Santa Barbara (along with numerous schools, highways, and beaches across California!)?

It turns out that the explorer Cabrillo is a pretty mysterious person since there isn't much information about him prior to his explorations—there is even uncertainty with respect to his nationality. Some believe him to be Portuguese (João Rodrigues Cabrilho) but the most exhaustive research into his past points to him being born in or around Seville around 1498 to humble parents working in the house a wealthy merchant. At a very young age he travelled to Cuba to work with the Spanish forces as a page. As he grew up he also grew in rank and importance, working with Hernán Cortés during his 1519 conquest of Mexico. During this campaign he was a shipbuilder and squadron commander. After this, he would travel and participate in military campaigns across Latin America.

Like many conquistadores, Cabrillo would become very wealthy thanks to land grants he received and the use of slave labor that was permitted under the encomienda system Spain employed in the Americas. This system was originally created by the Spanish Crown to protect indigenous people from abuse—something Queen Isabella was very clear about. Unfortunately, in practice there was that there was little difference between the encomienda and slavery and Cabrillo benefited greatly from it.

In 1542, at the behest of the viceroy of Mexico, Cabrillo was entrusted to explore the then unknown west coast of Spain north of Baja California to find a northern passage back to Spain and look for opportunities for future settlements and trade. Loaded with sailors, soldiers, cattle and horses Cabrillo set off on his expedition from Barra de Navidad in Jalisco, Mexico. He quickly made his way north and within 10 days he had reached the southern tip of Baja California and on July 13, 1542 his small fleet entered Magdalena Bay which today is famous for its whale sanctuary and associated whale watching. Continuing up the coast he reached present-day Ensenada on 17 September naming it San Mateo. He was now in a part of the world that had until that moment been unexplored by Europeans and going farther north than previous explorer, Francisco de Ulloa. After that he would land in San Diego, where today you can visit Spanish Landing Park which runs along the water next to the airport.

Continuing north, Cabrillo landed on Santa Catalina Island on 7 October where he found a large "armed" Pimugna community (the Pimugna people were coastal Tongva natives that lived on the island). He would later write that they befriended these people but knowing how he made friends with indigenous people you could be sure it wasn't a good thing for the natives. Cabrillo did not name the island Santa Catalina, instead he named it San Salvador in memory of his ship.

He would continue north to find the rest of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands and give them names that do not correspond to the ones we know today. Cabrillo named many landmarks (for example: Point Reyes was called Cabo de Pinos and San Pedro Bay was called Bahía de Humos) but for reasons unknown none of his named "discoveries" ever made it into the hands of the royal cartographers in the Casa de Contratación in Seville before 1559 (16 years after his death). This government office was in charge of mapping and naming all of the findings in the New World. Today, the documents from this time are stored in the Archive of the Indies in Seville. Names given by later explorers would supplant the names given by Cabrillo.

Around Santa Barbara, Goleta more precisely, they were met by numerous Chumash boats with offerings of Sardines. In fact, Cabrillo named this area Los Pueblos de Sardinas. Continuing north, he made it all the way to the Russian River. Like many early explorers, Cabrillo sailed past the entrance of San Francisco Bay without noticing what lay beyond where the Golden Gate Bridge stands today. Curiously, San Francisco Bay wouldn't be found by Europeans until Gaspar de Portolà more than two hundred years after Cabrillo's journey climbed the hills overlooking Pacifica, California to find a large body of water that at that time he believed was an extension of Drake's Bay.

When Cabrillo reached the Russian River on 13 November the ships and crew were battered by Pacific storms and they needed to return to a port that would allow them to repair their ship and take on provisions to continue their journey. 10 days later Cabrillo returned to Santa Catalina Island but they weren't met by the "friendly" natives they left behind. Perhaps due to their previous experience, the Pimugna weren't so welcoming and for the next month the Spanish were being continually harassed by Pimugna warriors. Around Christmas of 1542, Cabrillo went ashore with some sailors to get water where they were met again by angry Pimugna warriors. Cabrillo, in an effort to help his men took a wrong step while getting off the boat and shattered his leg. Suffering from gangrene, Cabrillo died on January 3, 1543. He is believed to have been buried on San Miguel Island and the expedition would continue on but due to inclement weather they had to return to Mexico.

The San Salvador was probably scrapped upon its return and with no pictures or sketches; we can only imagine how it looked. What we do know is that the ship was designed and constructed by Cabrillo himself in Acajutla, El Salvador and was named after the recently founded city of San Salvador following the architectural norms of the time. Historians believe that the ship was a square rigged galleon made for both open water crossings and navigating shallow harbors.

Today, the Maritime Museum of San Diego is putting the finishing touches on a historically accurate replica of San Salvador. The construction site called San Salvador Village is an opportunity to witness how ships were made over 500 years ago. Unlike the San Salvador, this ship is being constructed from thousands of planks of wood in much the same way it was in the 16th century. Only on specific occasions have they used power tools and for safety they are installing two diesel engines and plumbing. There are even volunteer blacksmith making chain links by hand. In fact, over half of the crew building the ship are volunteers. Using old texts and sketches naval Architects had spent over 10 years researching the design and building methods used at the time before starting this project.

After more than three years of continuous work the San Salvador is in the home stretch of its completion and will hopefully be sailing by May 2015. One of the biggest accomplishments was the placing of the "whisky plank" on the ship this past summer. This plank is the last piece to be added to hull. From this moment the ship can be treated and painted and work on the rest of the boat, especially the interior can commence. More recently, the masts are beginning to be put in place along with its rigging.  

The San Salvador that carried Cabrillo and his men would mark a turning point in history that would change the life of the California indigenous people forever. This would begin the time of European exploration of the west coast of what is today the United States. Sir Francis Drake, Sebastian Vizcaíno and Portolà would be a few of the people that would explore California. California would be Spain's northernmost territory and the Mission System would be established to convert the native population to Spanish citizens and (more importantly) taxpayers.

Although we must not forget the tragedy of European colonization in the Americas, but we also can't ignore the history that binds Spain with American and, in this case, California. Let's hope that this living museum will foster the teaching of Californians their history and the human cost involved in creating a state that today is the eighth largest economy in the world.

Keywords: cabrillo,juan rodriguez cabrillo,california history,maritime museum of san diego,san salvador ship,spanish landing park

Posted In: Culture


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