Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cabrillo This and Cabrillo That

Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo.  As I travel up and down the state of California, I notice many Cabrillo Streets, Cabrillo Schools,  Cabrillo Parks, beaches and several monuments.  Cabrillo.  Cabrillo.  Cabrillo.   Just who the heck is this guy?  I have a vague memory of him being a Portuguese navigator, but why is his name plastered everywhere?  Why him?  So I set out to find out.  First, I read Harry Kelsey's excellent biography Cabrillo.  He's the chief curator of history at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, so I figured he knew what he was talking about.   Well, interestingly enough, the great navigator was neither Portugeuse nor named Cabrillo.  Secondly, I made a journey down to San Diego to see the Cabrillo National Monument and visit the adjacent museum.
 The truth is, little is known about the man until he started to rise in the ranks of Cortez' military expeditions.  Kelsey thinks he was born in Spain, not Portugal.  Most likely in Seville around 1500.  The museum is wisely vague about it, saying he was born on the Iberian Peninsula.  At any rate, he came to the New World as a boy and learned to read and write as a merchant-adventurer.   He was one of many Juan Rodriquezes in Mexico at the time.  Wanting to distinguish himself,  he added "Cabrillo" to his name.  I have to admit, it has a nice ring to it.

He also became a skilled crossbowman and mariner.  Cortes recognized the young man's abilities and put him in command of a group of men.  He was loyal, confident and well-liked and rapidly rose through the ranks.  By 1530, he had become a leading citizen in Santiago, Guatemala.  Of course, he seized vast quantities of goods and precious metals along the way.  He also captured local natives, branded them and sold them into slavery.    But that's what conquistadors did back then!

Although he took an Indian wife and had three daughters (who all married conquistadors!), once he started to acquire wealth and status, he sailed back to Seville and married Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega.  He and Beatriz had two sons.  He started building ships to be used in Governor Alvarado's explorations and trading expeditions.  Cabrillo sailed one of his own vessels to Peru.   In 1542, he was summoned to Navidad, Mexico, to prepare for a voyage to California.   This voyage was short-lived and deemed a failure.  But it is this voyage that secured his place in history.

On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo set sail on the San Salvador to explore the new coast all the way to China.  Or so he hoped!  Two other ships accompanied him.   He was to fill in the blank spaces on the map, find new trading opportunities and good places for Spanish settlers to live.  After three months, he anchored in what is now San Diego Bay.  The statue in his honor at Point Loma, marks the spot "where California began."

He continued north to discover San Pedro Bay, Santa Monica Bay, the Channel Islands and our own Santa Barbara. It took him two attempts to get around Point Conception, but he finally did, sailing all the way to Monterey.  He missed San Francisco Bay.  It was not to be discovered for another 200 years!

It's interesting to note that the reason he turned south again was the extreme weather during this time.  The mountains around Monterey were covered in snow.  The climate did not begin to warm until the mid 1800's.  His intention was to winter over in the Channel Islands.  On Christmas Eve, he ordered a party ashore for water and the Chumash Indians attacked.  Cabrillo, seeing that his men were outnumbered, gathered a relief party to rescue them.  As he jumped out of the boat, he broke a leg.  Gangrene set in and he died on January 3, 1543.  It's unclear to me which island he was on.  Records indicate it was San Miguel, but a stone with the initials JRC was later discovered on Santa Rosa. 

San Diego Bay

Point Loma

His fleet arrived back in Navidad on April 14, 1543.  Mendoza was not happy.  No gold was found.  No exotic spices.  No new trade routes to Asia.  Cabrillo's family suffered because much of his fortune had been spent in building his ships for the expedition.  It's taken hundreds of years for history to recognize Cabrillo's contribution.  What his men brought back was Knowledge.  The Spaniards now knew more about this mysterious land to the North.  They knew about the people who inhabited it.  They had a more accurate map.  They finally realized they were, perhaps, biting off more than they could chew.  It would take another two hundred years before Mission San Diego would be built and Spain would finally begin to colonize the land Cabrillo had "possessed" for the king.

Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo.  Schools.  Monuments.  Beaches.  Parks.  Boulevards.  All named in his honor.  Finally getting the recognition he deserved.

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