A painting depicted Cabrillo’s arrival to San Diego Bay. (National Park Service)

How Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo landed in California

Long before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Iberian explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo set off from Mexico in a bid to confirm long-told myths of a paradise abounding in gold at the edge of the known world.

After three months at sea, he found it. In September of 1542 Cabrillo’s fleet of three ships became the first known Europeans to set foot on the California coast, sailing into San Diego Bay.

Accounts of the expedition are scarce, but the Spaniards were said to have first encountered the Kumeyaay people, hunter-gatherers who lived in thatched homes, used seashells as currency, and were terrified by the exotic visitors.

A portrait of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.
Huntington Digital Library

Claiming the bay for the Spanish crown, Cabrillo continued north. He hugged the coast, hoping to find a strait that would link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He explored the bays of San Pedro, Santa Monica, and Monterey, but missed San Francisco Bay.

After charting the coast as far as the Russian River, they turned back in foul weather. Camping on the Channel Islands, possibly Catalina, Cabrillo shattered a limb on a jagged rock during a skirmish with natives. He developed gangrene and died weeks later.

Point Cabrillo Light Station in Mendocino County. Cabrillo namesakes are scattered across California.
Thomas Hawk/CC BY-NC 2.0

Cabrillo was credited with discovering California. Yet having failed to find a fabled water passage through the continent, his expedition was deemed a failure. Exploration of the great “northern mystery” largely halted for the next two centuries.

Then in 1769, spurred by competition from rival powers, Spain returned to upper California, establishing its first permanent settlement in San Diego. Joining the expedition was Junípero Serra, a Franciscan monk with a colonizing zeal as fervent as Cabrillo before him. Instead of gold, however, Serra was in pursuit of souls. KCET | San Diego History Center

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