Today, the California Pacific Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the first European to travel to and make landfall on San Diego Bay 474 years ago.
An article in the America magazine of October 4, 1913 included an article about the celebrations in September 1913 honoring three men important in California’s early history.
An excerpt follows:
The third hero honored on the Pacific Coast a week ago, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, bears a name little known except to Californians, and to close students of early American history.
Yet he ranks high among Spanish explorers of the North American Continent.
Never had Upper Californian waters been disturbed by other craft than Indian canoes, until the twin ships, San Salvador and Vitoria, of Cabrillo, anchored in San Diego Bay, on September 28, 1542.
Some soldiers of Cortez had, indeed, landed in Lower California in 1533; these were followed by Becerra de Mendoza, who was sent to explore the peninsula in 1534, and by Cortez himself a year later.
Ulloa, too, had sailed up the gulf to its head, discovered the mouth of the Colorado, and made a fairly accurate map of the adjoining coasts and the peninsula.
Until Cabrillo’s voyage, however, the upper coast of California had been included in the uncharted territory on the maps.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, like Magellan, was a Portuguese, in the service of Spain. A veteran navigator of high reputation, he was sent out from the West Coast of Mexico by the Viceroy Mendoza, with orders to search the whole northwest coast for rich countries and a passage to the Atlantic.
The two ships under his command sailed from Navidad in the spring of 1542.
Their progress was exceptionally slow, the voyage to the middle of Lower California being longer than that of Columbus across the Atlantic.
It was also much more trying, owing to contrary winds and the unceasing labors of the crews to make any headway.
It reflects credit on Cabrillo, that though a Portuguese, he was able to keep his Spanish sailors in courage and obedience, and to win their affection and esteem.
It is also to his credit that he permitted no act of aggression on the natives, his conduct in this respect standing in favorable contrast with that of so many explorers of the new world, whose names are sullied with horrid deeds of treachery and blood.
From Cape San Lucas, which he rounded on July 6, Cabrillo examined the coast with the greatest care, naming the points of interest in the old Spanish fashion after the saint whose feast was celebrated on the day of discovery.
Thus the time elapsing between his discoveries coincides with the intervals in the Church festivals, the local names along the California peninsula remaining, for the most part, as Cabrillo gave them to the present day.
This custom of the Spanish explorers forms a striking parallel to that of the French navigators and discoverers of New France, and is in strong contrast with the prosaic nomenclature adopted by English sailors and adventurers.
It was on September 28, 1542, the vigil of St. Michael, fifty years after the discovery of America, that Cabrillo entered the harbor which he christened San Miguel, and which sixty years later was changed to San Diego.
Sailing along the coast and doubling a pine-covered point on November 17, he entered the harbor since famous as Monterey Bay.
The explorers kept on their northward course. They suffered much from incessant labors and the cold of these latitudes, which was keenly felt by men used to tropical seas.
Cape Mendocino was named in honor of the Viceroy of Mexico.
This the vessels passed and reached the coast of what is now the State of Oregon without finding any harbor to refit in.
The crews were thinned by scurvy, and finally the attempt to push further was given up.
The ships returned to San Miguel Island, which the voyagers renamed the Island of Juan Rodriguez, after their brave commander, Cabrillo, who died there on January 3, 1543.
He had had a fall on this very island earlier in the season and continued his voyage suffering from a broken arm.
The unattended fracture and the hardships of the northern trip probably hastened his untimely end.
It was nearly two years after sailing from Navidad, that the vessels returned to Mexico without their commander, and with crews sadly lessened by disease and hardships.
They brought back the news of fertile lands and numerous natives, but nothing else.
No trace of gold or silver had been found along the coast line explored for over two thousand miles beyond Cape San Lucas.
The Viceroy sent the maps and journals of the expedition to Spain, but made no attempt to renew the work of northern exploration.
Thirty years ago, Bancroft, the historian of the Pacific States, wrote:
“To this bold mariner, the first to discover her coasts, if to anyone, California may with propriety erect a monument.”
The drifting sands have long since covered Cabrillo’s last resting place.
California, however, has not forgotten the debt she owes him, and the memorial on the Pacific Coast will stand as a public recognition of her admiration and her gratitude.
E. SPILLANE, S.J.
The California Pacific Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an image of San Diego Bay, circa 1895.