The Explorers: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is the twelfth figure in the exploration of North America by non-indigenous people. This was a continuing effort to map and explore the continent and advance the economic interests of said non-indigenous peoples of North America. It spanned centuries, and consisted of efforts by numerous people and expeditions from various foreign countries to map the continent.
The European colonization of the Americas describes the history of the settlement and establishment of control of the continents of the Americas by most of the naval powers of Western Europe. This began with the Norse colonization of North America in the late 10th century CE when Norsemen explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the northeastern fringes of North America. The Norse settlements in the North American island of Greenland lasted for almost 500 years though there is no evidence of any lasting Norse settlements on mainland North America.
Systematic European colonization began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East but inadvertently landed in what came to be known to Europeans as the “New World”. He ran aground on December 5, 1492 on Cat Island (then called Guanahani) in The Bahamas, which the Lucayan people had inhabited since the 9th century. Western European conquest, large-scale exploration and colonization soon followed.
Columbus’s first two voyages (1492–93) reached Hispaniola and various other Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot, on behalf of the Kingdom of England, landed on the North American coast, and a year later, Columbus’s third voyage reached the South American coast. As the sponsor of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, Spain was the first European power to settle and colonize the largest areas, from North America and the Caribbean to the southern tip of South America.
The Spaniards began building their empire of the Americas in the Caribbean, using islands such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola as bases. The North and South American mainland fell to the conquistadors, precipitating an estimated 8,000,000 deaths of indigenous people, primarily through the spread of Afro-Eurasian diseases. Some authors have argued this demographic collapse to be the first large-scale act of genocide in the modern era. Florida fell to Juan Ponce de León after 1513. From 1519 to 1521, Hernán Cortés waged a campaign against the Aztec Empire, ruled by Moctezuma II. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, became Mexico City, the chief city of what the Spanish were now calling “New Spain”. More than 240,000 Aztecs died during the siege of Tenochtitlan, 100,000 in combat, while 500–1,000 of the Spaniards engaged in the conquest died. Other conquistadors, such as Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, pushed farther north. To the south, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire during the 1530s. The centuries of continuous conflicts between the North American Indians and the Anglo-Americans were less severe than the devastation wrought on the densely populated Meso-American, Andean, and Caribbean heartlands.
The British colonization of the Americas started with the unsuccessful settlement attempts in Roanoke and Newfoundland. The English eventually went on to control much of Eastern North America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. The British also gained Florida and Quebec in the French and Indian War.
Other powers such as France also founded colonies in the Americas: in eastern North America, a number of Caribbean islands and small coastal parts of South America. Portugal colonized Brazil, tried colonizing the eastern coasts of present-day Canada and settled for extended periods northwest (on the east bank) of the River Plate. The Age of Exploration was the beginning of territorial expansion for several European countries. Europe had been preoccupied with internal wars and was slowly recovering from the loss of population caused by the Black Death; thus the rapid rate at which it grew in wealth and power was unforeseeable in the early 15th century.
Eventually, most of the Western Hemisphere came under the control of Western European governments, leading to changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the 19th century over 50 million people left Western Europe for the Americas. The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange, a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), ideas, and communicable disease between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.
Henry F. Dobyns estimates that immediately before European colonization of the Americas there were between 90 and 112 million people in the Americas; a larger population than Europe at the same time. Others estimate that there were about 60.5 million people living in the Americas immediately before depopulation, of which 90 per cent, mostly in Central and South America, perished from wave after wave of disease, along with war and slavery playing their part.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (1499 – January 3, 1543) was a maritime explorer best known for investigations of the West Coast of North America, undertaken on behalf of the Spanish Empire. He was the first European to explore present-day California, navigating along the coast of California in 1542–1543.
Cabrillo shipped for Havana as a young man and joined forces with Hernán Cortés in Mexico (then called New Spain). Later, his success in mining gold in Guatemala made him one of the richest of the conquistadores in Mexico. According to his biographer Harry Kelsey, he took an indigenous woman as his common-law wife and sired several children, including at least three daughters. Later he married Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega in Seville during a hiatus in Spain. She returned to Guatemala with him and bore him two sons.
Cabrillo benefited from the encomienda system that enslaved the Native peoples of the Americas. In Honduras, for example, he broke up families, sending the men to the mines for gold and to the forest to harvest materials he needed for shipbuilding. The women and girls he gave over to his soldiers and sailors, presumably as slaves. He accompanied Francisco de Orozco to subdue the indigenous Mixtec people at what would eventually become the city of Oaxaca, in Mexico.
In 1539, Francisco de Ulloa, who had been commissioned by Cortés, discovered the Gulf of California and reached nearly as far north as the 30th parallel. Cabrillo was then commissioned by the new Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, to lead an expedition up the Pacific coast in search of trade opportunities, perhaps to find a way to China (for the full extent of the northern Pacific was unknown) or to find the mythical Strait of Anián (or Northwest Passage) connecting the Pacific Ocean with Hudson Bay. Cabrillo built and owned the flagship of his venture (two or three ships), and stood to profit from any trade or treasure.
In 1540, the fleet sailed from Acajutla, El Salvador, and reached Navidad, Mexico on Christmas Day. While in Mexico, Pedro de Alvarado went to the assistance of the town of Nochistlán, which was under siege by hostile natives, and was killed when his horse fell on him, crushing his chest. Following Alvarado’s death, the viceroy took possession of Alvarado’s fleet. Part of the fleet was sent off to the Philippine Islands under Ruy López de Villalobos and two of the ships were sent north under the command of Cabrillo.
On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo set out from Navidad with three ships: the 200-ton galleon and flagship San Salvador, the smaller La Victoria (c. 100 tons), and the lateen-rigged, twenty-six oared “fragata” or “bergantin” San Miguel. On August 1, Cabrillo anchored within sight of Cedros Island. Before the end of the month they had passed Baja Point (named “Cabo del Engaño” by de Ulloa in 1539) and entered “uncharted waters, where no Spanish ships had been before”.
On September 28, he landed in what is now San Diego Bay and named it “San Miguel”. A little over a week later he reached Santa Catalina Island (October 7), which he named “San Salvador”, after his flagship. On sending a boat to the island “a great crowd of armed Indians appeared” — whom, however, they later “befriended”. Nearby San Clemente Island was named “Victoria”, in honor of the third ship of the fleet.
The next morning, October 8, Cabrillo came to San Pedro Bay, which was named “Baya de los Fumos” (English: Smoke Bay). The following day they anchored overnight in Santa Monica Bay. Going up the coast Cabrillo saw Anacapa Island, which they learned from the Indians was uninhabited.
The fleet spent the next week in the islands, mostly anchored in Cuyler Harbor, a bay on the northeastern coast of San Miguel Island. On October 18 the expedition saw Point Conception, which they named “Cabo de Galera”. Cabrillo’s expedition recorded the names of numerous Chumash villages on the California coast and adjacent islands in October 1542 — then located in the two warring provinces of Xexo (ruled by an “old woman”, now Santa Barbara County, California) and Xucu (now Ventura County, California).
On November 13 they sighted and named “Cabo de Piños” (possibly either Point Pinos or Point Reyes), but missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay, a lapse that mariners would repeat for the next two centuries and more, most likely because its entrance is frequently shrouded by fog. The expedition may have reached as far north as the Russian River or even the Columbia before autumn storms forced them to turn back. Because of the vagueness of his description, it is uncertain which northern river the expedition sighted. Coming back down the coast, Cabrillo entered Monterey Bay, naming it “Bahia de Los Piños”.
On November 23, 1542, the little fleet arrived back in “San Salvador” (Santa Catalina Island) to overwinter and make repairs. There, around Christmas Eve, Cabrillo stepped out of his boat and splintered his shin when he stumbled onto a jagged rock while trying to rescue some of his men from attacking Tongva warriors. The injury became infected and developed gangrene, and he died on January 3, 1543 and was buried. A possible headstone was later found on San Miguel Island. His second-in-command brought the remainder of the party back to Navidad, where they arrived April 14, 1543.
Next Explorer: Francisco Vasquez De Coronado
Previous Explorer: Francisco Pizarro
- Antonio de Mendoza. (n.d.). Latin American Studies. https://www.latinamericanstudies.org/mendoza.htm
- Catholic encyclopedia: Pedro de Alvarado. (n.d.). NEW ADVENT. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01372d.htm
- The conquest of New Spain history 1492 1901. (2019, July 10). -. https://storiesofusa.com/the-conquest-of-new-spain-history-1492-1901/
- The encomienda system: APUSH topics to study for test day. (2017, October 10). Magoosh Blog | High School. https://magoosh.com/hs/apush/2017/encomienda-system-apush-topics/
- In search of California: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and the great northern mystery’s lure. (2016, February 20). KCET. https://www.kcet.org/shows/california-coastal-trail/in-search-of-california-juan-rodriguez-cabrillo-and-the-great
- Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (c.1498-1543). (2010, June 21). San Diego History Center | San Diego, CA | Our City, Our Story. https://sandiegohistory.org/archives/biographysubject/cabrillo/
- Kelsey, Harry 1929-. (n.d.). Encyclopedia.com | Free Online Encyclopedia. https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/kelsey-harry-1929
- PeoplePill. (n.d.). Francisco de Orozco. https://peoplepill.com/people/francisco-de-orozco/
- Ruy Lopez de Villalobos begun his expedition to the Philippines November 1, 1542. (2011, November 1). The Kahimyang Project. https://kahimyang.com/kauswagan/articles/721/today-in-philippine-history-november-1-1542-ruy-lopez-de-villalobos-started-his-expedition-to-the-philippines
- San Salvador. (n.d.). Maritime Museum of San Diego. https://sdmaritime.org/visit/the-ships/san-salvador/