It was an age of exploration, an opportunity to discover new lands and potentially untapped riches; a unique time as the world and imagination propelled humankind to challenge the elements of time and space. As today’s pioneers pierce the veil of the unknown beneath the seas and into the vastness of space, their adventurous ancestors traveled across the oceans into the excitement and secrets of the earth. The reward for many was a watery grave as dreams drowned beneath the unforgiving punishment of the unrelenting seas.
For the land to be known as America, the discoveries along its coastlines would expand inward as the new continent vastly expanded the geography of previous generations and set new standards of opportunities for wealth as well as political power. The initial step was finding a foothold along its uncharted shores.
Last month, Cabrillo, Cermeno, and Unamuno typified the Spanish Empire’s growing interest in the geography between the focal points of the Manila trade route. From Acapulco to the south and the Philippine Islands to the west, a steady flow of precious cargo floated not only the goods of opportunities but the aspirations of individual prowess to establish the dominance of man over the oceans. Unlike the companion exploration on the opposite shore, the intent was for the safety of ships; not settlements for immigrants.
Many a vessel came within view of what became California. Seen from a shadowy distance, there would eventually be interest in finding safe harbors along the lengthy coastlines. A major motivation was not to allow any rest from the relentless pursuit of prosperity but to replenish water and food and escape the equally greedy appetite of their enemy … the English. Her roving ambassadors of sanctioned robbers of ships became an increasing detriment to any successful voyage. If commissioned in their adventures, the marauders were privateers. To their victims, they were simply pirates.
One of their victims led the last notable expedition to the shores of the future Golden State. Four centuries later, his mark on the Pacific shores remain … if not recognized.
Here’s the story.
Born in 1548, Sebastian Vizcaino followed the usual path to Alta California. First as a military officer in 1580 during the Spanish invasion of Portugal and then as a sea entrepreneur six years later in New Spain, Vizcaino experienced first-hand the feared and detested pirate/privateers at the hands of Thomas Cavendish. The English corsair captured the Spanish Santa Ana in 1587. Knighted for his vastly rewarded adventure by Queen Elizabeth I, he is remembered today as a blend of tobacco.
The seven hundred-ton Santa Ana was the richest vessel to yet endure the Manila to Acapulco trade route only to lose its cargo off the coast of Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja peninsula. So bountiful the capture, Cavendish was unable to transfer his booty in its entirety.
Among the hapless merchants was Vizcaino who forcefully forfeited his dreams. In one of history’s delightful coincidences, Sebastian Cermeno profiled last month was a fellow captive. The Spaniards were at least spared their lives. While Cavendish set fire to the Santa Ana, the survivors were able to salvage the vessel and continue on to New Spain.
Vizcaino continued to prosper among the convoluted and shifting political world of the Iberian Empire. While the need to have safe harbors along the western rim of the Pacific Ocean became even more evident, the continual conflicts between Spain and various others delayed any systematic attempt to protect the sea merchants. In 1596, Vizcaino was appointed to chart potential harbors in the Baja gulf, but the expedition proved unsuccessful although he founded La Paz along the Sea of Cortez.
Nonetheless, he was appointed again by Don Gaspár de Zúñiga y Acevedo, Count of Monterrey (1560-1603), the Spanish viceroy, in 1601 to chart a detailed map of the California coastline. The enduring Vizcaino would ultimately contribute to safer navigation as well as many of the place names currently in use in the Golden State. That more popular recognition is not given to this early explorer is another example of the fickleness of history.
Having left Acapulco on May 5, 1602 in three vessels, the expedition began charting the coastline as the ships cautiously navigated the sea as near the coastline as practical. There were some known locations but not having a record of Cabrillo’s names, Vizcaino bestowed dozens of names along his journey.
Six months later, Vizcaino entered the bay he named after his ship and the feast day for San Diego de Alcalá. This was Cabrillo’s Bay of San Miguel. His journey continued north and various spots retain his names: San Pedro, Santa Catalina, the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, Point Conception, the Santa Lucia Mountains, Point Lobos and the Carmel River.
His most prominent discovery occurred on December 16 when he entered a bay from Punta de los Pinos (Point Pinos). The next day, he entered the harbor he named after the viceroy.
In comparison, the first settlement in Jamestown, Virginia occurs five years later. The description of Monterey Bay was replete with real and imaginary details. Some 170 years later, the bay was the destination of the colonizing efforts of Gaspar de Portola and the Franciscan missionaries led by Fra Junipero Serra. Vizcaino’s ornate description as “an ideal shelter” hindered the latter’s finding the roadstead.
Weakened by the rages of scurvy, Vizcaino ordered the San Tomas back to Acapulco with about forty sick sailors as well as news of the expedition. By the time the San Tomas reached its destination, 13 had died and some did not survive the landing for long.
Continuing north, the Tres Reyes became separated from the commander’s ship and sailed north reaching Cape Blanco and possibly Coos Bay. Captain Martin de Aguilar is the first to record the sighting of the present state of Oregon. Forced to return south due to illness, by the time the Tres Reyes reached Acapulco four weeks later, only five survivors were on the vessel.
As for Vizcaino, the San Diego continued north but the ravages of scurvy, the lack of freshwater, and the dominating currents had taken its toll. The decision was made to return home on January 7th. As if the travel was not grueling enough, he fractured some ribs five days later. The landmark expedition ended in Acapulco on March 21. While there was a sense of excitement to return, explore and settle some of the newly found spots along the Baja and Upper California coasts, priorities changed with the appointment of a new viceroy. Vizcaino’s maps were filed away to remain undisturbed for nearly 170 years.
The expedition was not the end of Vizcaino’s long life of service. In 1611, he began three years as the first European ambassador to Japan as well as mapping the Japanese coast. From cartographer or commander, five years late, he was defending Salagua (in the present state of Colima, Mexico) from a massive attack by Dutch pirates.
Remembered today in a cape named after him north of Mendocino (one of the few places he did not name), Vizcaino died at the extraordinarily advanced age for the times of 80 in 1628.
An extensively researched life of the explorer is Vizcaino by W. Michael Mathes.