January provides us with some of the clearest views of the California coast if it isn’t raining. Some of these views appear almost as they were when first sighted by Spanish explorers 400 years ago.
One of my favorites is Punta Año Nuevo, literally “New Year’s Point,” 55 miles south of the Golden Gate.
This low-lying, rugged, rocky outcropping into the Pacific was named by Fray Antonio de la Ascension, of the Discalced Order of Carmelites, on Jan. 1, 1603. Father Antonio was a noted cosmographer, or mapmaker, assigned to the Vizcaíno expedition.
Sebastián Vizcaíno was a fortune seeker from Extremadura, Spain. He had participated in King Philip II’s successful invasion of Portugal in 1580-82 and gained royal favor. He sailed to the Philippines on the Manila Galleon. He then made a trans-Pacific crossing.
Sailing to Mexico, Vizcaíno briefly tried his hand in business, securing the royal concession for the pearl fisheries in Baja California. He gave the seaport of La Paz its modern name. Problems of supplying the remote outpost caused serious morale problems and forced the abandonment of La Paz.
In 1601, the Conde de Monterrey, Viceroy in Mexico City, named Vizcaíno commander of an expedition to find good harbors in Alta California for Spanish galleons to use on their return voyage to Acapulco from Manila.
In 1602-03, Vizcaíno retraced the voyages of Juan Rodríguez (1542-43) Cabrillo, giving permanent place names to much of the California coast.
He ultimately selected Monterey Bay as the perfect harbor, greatly exaggerating its qualities in a spurious map that led the land-based Portolá Expedition astray in 1769.
The bad map wasn’t discovered until later. Vizcaíno was promoted to ambassador to Japan and met with retired Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in Sumpu and acting Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada in Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1611.
Punta Año Nuevo is the northern headland of Monterey Bay. Many of the 19th century maritime accounts of the approach to California’s old capital at Monterey use Año Nuevo as the “we’ve gone too far north” marker.
A. M. Harrison of the U.S. Coastal Survey in 1855 recommended a lighthouse at Año Nuevo to make a safe passage into the harbors at Santa Cruz and Monterey.
The clipper ship Carrier Pigeon was lost in 1853, followed by the Sir John Franklin in 1865, and the Coya in 1866. In 1870, the U.S.
Lighthouse Board finally purchased Año Nuevo Island just off the point and land on Pigeon Point five miles to the north for $10,000.
The lighthouse on Año Nuevo Island was constructed in 1890, but the Fresnel lens was toppled by an earthquake in 1926.
Its replacement was deactivated in 1948. An automated whistle buoy was placed about a third of a mile south of the island.
The state of California added the island to Año Nuevo State Park in 1958. In 1976 the last remains to the steel light tower were cut down as a hazard.
Today the lighthouse keeper’s buildings on the island are surrounded by elephant seals, a clear reminder that nature has its own ways.
Fortunately, if you crave a lighthouse, the classic and much-photographed Pigeon Point Lighthouse is only five files to the north.
If you have a free day this month, a trip to “New Year’s Point” on a clear day is an unforgettable journey back into California’s early history.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.