Maritime Explorations: 1533-1685

1533: Fortún Ximénez de Bertandona: The First European to Set Foot on California Soil

Fortún Ximénez de Bertandona was the pilot of the Concepción, the vessel dispatched by Hernán Cortés to explore the “Mysterious North.” The expedition was commissioned to sail the Southern Sea (the Pacific Ocean) in search of the legendary Anian Strait, a passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Rumors had it that whoever discovered it would have a direct sea route to the riches of the Orient.


Regnum Quivira. Cornelis de Jode, 1593.

On November 30, 1533, under the command of Diego de Becerra, Concepción set sail from the Santiago seaport near Manzanillo, Mexico.  Ximénez was not the only Basque member of the crew. There were a few others, too, such as his brother Pedro. As they sailed, the ties between the crew and the captain deteriorated because Becerra didn’t get along with many of his crew. Chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo once described Captain Becerra as “an arrogant and short tempered” individual. Ximénez, along with other Basque sailors, planned a mutiny against Captain Becerra. One night, the mutineers killed Becerra and some of his friends and Ximénez took command of the ship.

City of La Paz, Baja California.

The newly-formed sailing crew continued northwest for a while until they reached a calm bay, today’s seaport of La Paz, at the southern edge of the Baja California peninsula. Ximénez and 20 other men disembarked to find badly-needed water. It was the first time Europeans set foot on Baja California. It is hard to know exactly what happened next. Either because they began stealing pearls or because they abused the native women, Ximénez, his brother Pedro, and many of the crew who went ashore were killed by the native people of Baja California.

The survivors of this event returned to New Spain, extolling California’s abundance of valuable pearls, so much so that pearls were California’s biggest attraction for a long time.


1565: Andrés de Urdaneta: 7,644 Nautical Miles Through Uncharted Seas

Andrés de Urdaneta Author: Antonio Valverde “Ayalde.”

California became a place of interest for the Spanish Empire in the 1500s because of the Manila Galleon. The ship would set sail from Acapulco at the beginning of the year, carrying precious metals and other goods, and would return from the Philippines during the summer monsoon packed with spices, silk, china, and a myriad of other exotic goods. Something needed to be done though to shield this true treasure ship from the dangers of the voyages, or rather, from the dangerous trip back to New Spain.

While the winds and ocean currents encouraged favorable sailing to the Philippines, Mother Nature displayed her strength when the galleon sailed back to the Americas. It was known as the tornaviaje, (“return trip”). The greatest circumnavigators of the time, Magellan and Loaísa, Saavedra, Grijalva, and López de Villalobos had all tried to find a viable path, but crossing the Pacific Ocean from West to East seemed an impossible undertaking.

Spanish Galleon. Author: Alberto Duero.

That was, until King Phillip II of Spain decided to launch one more expedition in 1559. Luis de Velasco, Viceroy of New Spain in Mexico, proposed that Andrés de Urdaneta was the most competent person to lead the enterprise, declaring, “…for he is the most experienced and knowledgeable about all those islands and the best and most accurate cosmographer of New Spain.” Velasco recalled that Urdaneta had once stated of the many ill-fated expeditions, that if given the chance, he would sail back from the Philippines in a ship, or in an ox cart, if need be.

Map of Urdaneta’s sea route.

So, on June 1, 1565, Urdaneta set out from the San Pedro Cebu seaport with a crew of ten soldiers and 200 sailors. About a third were Basques from the province of Gipuzkoa. Instead of heading south as the other ships had done before, they sailed north, taking advantage of the favorable westerly winds. By July 1, the galleon was on around the 24th north parallel, off the coast of Taiwan. A month later by August 3, they had advanced to the 39th north parallel, and continued further until they reached the 42nd north parallel. This new path was a longer, more detoured route, but it maneuvered around the Trade Winds that were so dreaded by previous expeditions. Urdaneta’s crew continued to sail eastward, following the Kuroshio Current toward today’s United States. On September 26, 1565, they caught sight of land at the latitude of Cape Mendocino, north of today’s San Francisco, California. They sailed south along Mexico’s coastline until they finally arrived in Acapulco, Mexico, after a four-month journey, on October 8, 1565.

Urdaneta’s Tornaviaje deserves a place of honor in the history of navigation. Never before had a ship traveled through uncharted seas for so long: it succeeded at a 7,644-nautical-mile journey. This expedition established the trade route that the galleon, and other ships, would follow for 250 years. It is one of the oldest trade routes in the world.


1587: Pedro de Unamuno’s Forgotten Journey

First known image of Manila. Removed from a 17th-century wood box. Julio Bello y González Museum, Puebla, Mexico.

In 1586, Pedro de Unamuno, a Basque seaman from Soraluze (Gipuzkoa), left Manila with orders to find a sheltered port in California for the Manila galleon. On his ocean cruise we was to locate the islands of Rica de Oro, Rica de Plata, and the Islands of the Armenian, which were believed to be in the middle of the Pacific. Among those who embarked in the long journey were Basques Juan de Aranguren and Joanes de Uranzu, and the renowned friar Martín Ignacio of Loyola, nephew of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Unamuno had orders to steer clear from Macao, which was under Portuguese reign at the time. For reasons that remain unclear, that is where he headed, however, only to be arrested and left without his ships. When he finally was set free, Unamuno bought the Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza frigate, most likely thanks to friar Martín’s monetary assistance. He then was able to leave Macao on July 12, 1587.

Area where Pedro de Unamuno is believed to have landed, close to what is now Morro Bay. It was declared a Historic Site by the Filipino American Historical Society in 1995.

But the frigate wasn’t in good enough shape to sail such a long-distance route. The crew spent the entire duration of the three-month trip repairing the ship. Finally, on October 8, 1587, the seamen sighted the California coast and disembarked in what they baptized as the San Lucas Bay, near present-time Morro Bay, California.

Crossing the ocean in the small frigate didn’t prove to be an easy task. In the three days they spent in the San Lucas area, Unamuno’s men ventured deeper into North America than any other Europeans arriving from the Pacific Ocean. But Unamuno’s achievements eventually came to nothing: the San Lucas Bay was never indicated in maps by that name and the galleon never again used that port. Present historians consider this trip worth a mention because of Unamuno’s logbook, as it is one of the first of its kind, containing precious information about the first contacts between Europeans and the native peoples of California.


1587: Tomás de Alzola’s Confrontation with an English Privateer

Sir Thomas Cavendish.

While privateer Francis Drake ransacked ships and towns of New Spain and Peru, the Spaniards cruised the Pacific with a full sense of immunity and ownership of those waters. It is no wonder that when the Santa Ana galleon came under the attack of the English privateer Thomas Cavendish, the crew was caught completely unprepared.

The Santa Ana had been cruising for four and a half months when on November 14, 1587, in the proximity of Cabo San Lucas, a lookout on the top of the mast spotted red and white flags signaling the presence of privateer Thomas Cavendish’ ships, the Desire and the Content. Because the galleon had been filled to the brim in Manila, Thomas Cavendish’s seizing of the ship was not troublesome. As declared some time later by sailor Antonio de Sierra, “the Captain of the galleon, a Vizcayan called Thomas de Arzola, tried to defend the ship against the attackers but his efforts proved futile.”

The seizure of the Santa Ana.

27-year-old Cavendish broke his promise of pardoning the lives of all aboard the Santa Ana. In the case of Juan de Armendariz, another Vizcayan and Manila´s Canon, privateer Cavendish hung him from one of the mainstay’s arms and disposed of his body by throwing it in the ocean.

It took the crew six days to transfer pearls, silk and brocade goods, spices and other products from the galleon to the English ships. After that, Cavendish and his men set fire to the Santa Ana and carried on with their journey. Among the people who were left stranded ashore was another Vizcayan, a man who would soon gain relevance in the history of California’s exploration: Sebastián Vizcaíno.

The Santa Ana disaster resulted in the greatest loss of the Manila – Acapulco trade route in its more than 200-year history. With their mastership of the Pacific threatened, the Spaniards increased their efforts to protect their galleons, with a priority to occupy California, to benefit the economy of New Spain.


1596-1603: Sebastián Vizcaíno Becomes Part of California’s History

The Santa Ana fiasco prompted new approaches to the exploration of California’s northern coast: the brimful galleons coming from Manila would be replaced with lighter ships, departing from New Spain itself. This new endeavor would be led by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who, according to Richard F. Pourade, was “a Basque soldier of great talents.” He had orders to explore the coastline and try to establish a colony in California.

Sebastián Vizcaíno.

With those goals, an expedition of three ships set out from the port of Acapulco in 1596. As they advanced north, they resolved to settle in what is now the city of La Paz, Baja California. Due to lack of provisions, a hostile relationship with the natives, and a fire in their encampment, Vizcaíno was forced to return, unsuccessful in the endeavors.

Sebastián Vizcaíno’s Expeditions.

In 1601, the Viceroy and Count of Monterrey, determined to finally learn more about California’s coast and inner lands, launched a new expedition. The remarkable journey lasted from May 5, 1602 to March of 1603. Vizcaíno demarcated and named the entire outer coast of California, and reached Cape Mendocino, located on the 40th north parallel. Many of the names that resulted from this exploration have remained unchanged to this day: San Diego, San Pedro Bay, Santa Barbara Channel, Carmel River, Santa Lucia Range, Monterey Bay, and more.

Although the expedition lost more than 40 men and those who survived suffered a great deal of hardship, New Spain considered the journey a successful achievement. Vizcaíno summed up his endeavor to the King, “I meticulously inspected the entire coast; I explored it all: every bay, every isle and every inlet, I left nothing behind.” Vizcaíno’s praising description of Monterey Bay was so convincing that the Viceroy agreed to establish a permanent settlement in the area. Due to a change in Viceroys, however, the project never saw the light of day, and it took the Spaniards another 167 years to finally settle in California.


1615-1616: Juan de Iturbe: A Pearl Fisher in the Times of Dutch Corsairs

After Sebastián Vizcaíno’s expeditions and the abandonment of plans to occupy Monterey, California, the area was left almost completely isolated, only to be frequented by pearl fishers, corsairs, and privateers.

Joris Van Spilbergen 1568-1620.

In 1611, the Cardona Company in Seville gained California’s pearl monopoly, which lasted for ten years. In July of 1613, six ships sailed across the ocean from Cádiz. In 1614, while in Veracruz, Captain Francisco Basilio died and Juan de Iturbe was put in charge.

The following year, as they were about to begin pearl fishing, the Sevillian crew heard rumors that Dutch corsairs were entering the Southern sea through the Strait of Magellan, and raiding the coast of Peru on their way to New Spain. They were corsair Joris van Spilbergen’s men, also known as pichilingües.* The rumors delayed the Spanish expedition for more than two months. At the end of March, seeing no sign of the pichilingües, the three ships received permission to sail to California.

Jorge Van Spilbergen’s fleet. Engraving from the 1600s. Aike Digital Library from Patagonia http://www.bibliotecadigital.umag.cl.

Iturbe spent the next two years pearl fishing and exploring California’s inner coastline. Luck was on his side: although one of the Cardona Company’s ship, the San Francisco, fell into the hands of corsairs in 1615, Iturbe was able to continue pearl hunting. Historian Miguel Venegas noted that when Iturbe arrived in Mexico, “the city was enveloped by the fame of the pearls the seaman brought with him.”

*Name given by the native people to corsairs of some nationalities, such as English or Dutch. The origin of the word is uncertain. One theory establishes that it originated from the phrase speak in English, something the corsairs repeatedly demanded from the Native people.


1683-1685: Isidro de Atondo’s Painstaking Attempts to Colonize California

For almost sixty years, beginning in 1615, California was primarily frequented by pearl fishers who had been contracted by the Spanish Crown. Their contract mandated that they were to explore the land and establish colonies in California. The pearl hunters failed in their mission, however, year after year. In 1678, determined to succeed in the colonization of California, the Crown decided to redesign the contract and finance the efforts with Spanish funds.

The Guaycuras. Noticia de la California by Miguel Venegas, 1757.

The following year, the commander of the venture had been picked: the Navarrese Admiral, Isidro de Atondo y Antillón. After more than four years of planning, at noon on January 17, 1683, two ships set sail from the port of Chacala toward California.  The Captain of La Concepción and the Admiral of San José y San Francisco Xavier had more than 100 people between their two ships. Native men and women were among the crew members who were employed in the kitchen, and as servants and maids.

Atondo attempted to settle in La Paz first, and then later in San Bruno, but with no success. Conflicts with the natives, shortage of provisions, and barren lands forced the colonizers out of the peninsula and back to the continent.

“Outline of the new Jesuit province of San Andrés and of the Californias or Carolinas islands….” AGI,MP-MEXICO,76.

The Spanish authorities in Mexico felt dispirited by what they considered a waste of 225,000 pesos – a large sum at the time – for an unfulfilled quest. But not all was in vain. In December of 1684, after crossing the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range and overcoming multiple other adversities, Atondo led a group of men to open the first route to the Pacific. These were the first Europeans to traverse Baja California, and also the first to establish a mission in California. A few years later, the Jesuit Juan María Salvatierra founded the Loreto Mission near Atondo’s San Bruno Mission. Loreto would become the headquarters and mother of all Baja and Alta California missions.