Times Past

Relive Cabrillo’s journey on a replica of the San Salvador

The replica of the San Salvador at sea.
The replica of the San Salvador at sea.

Land ho!

That was a welcome cry to most mariners since the age of sail began. Nevertheless, the land “discovered” by the first Europeans to sail along California’s coast was seldom pleasing. Only Santa Catalina Island received a five-star rating during the 1542-43 voyages of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

On Thursday, the SS San Salvador will sail into Morro Bay. The San Salvador is a replica of the flagship of a small fleet built by Cabrillo at the seaport of Acajutla, El Salvador, in 1541. Cabrillo was a crossbowman in the service of Hernándo Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. He had experience as a shipbuilder. This firsthand knowledge served Cortes well. When the Aztec warriors cut off the bridges that connected the islands that formed their capital in the Battle of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Cabrillo saved the Spanish army.

He found able carpenters among Cortes’ Tlascalan Indian allies. He built a flotilla of 13 brigantines or brigs. The heavily armored craft could row close to the Aztec fortifications, attacking them with cannon balls made from stone and crossbows.

After the fall of the Aztec capital, Cabrillo followed Pedro de Alvarado and Francisco de Orozco into Chiapas and Central America. He was one of the main founders of the first capital in Guatemala, Santiago de Guatemala. He sailed to Spain to marry Doña Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. Returning to Guatemala, he was appointed governor of Xicalpa and Comitlan.

In Guatemala/El Salvador, Cabrillo built three galleons of 200 tons each, seven ships of 100 tons each, and three smaller vessels. He was repaid with land grants in Honduras.

Alvarado, as captain general, intended to explore the west coast of North America. Cabrillo was to serve as admiral.

The fleet left Acajutla, El Salvador, arriving at Navidad, Mexico, on Christmas Day. Alvarado immediately rushed to the town of Jalisco that was threatened by Indians. His horse fell on him.

After Alvarado’s death, the new viceroy of Mexico, Pedro de Mendoza, seized Alvarado’s fleet. Most of the fleet was dispatched to the Philippine Islands commanded by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos. The 200-ton galleon San Salvador, the 100-ton La Victoria, and the lateen-rigged, 26-oared San Miguel were sent north under the command of Cabrillo.

Cabrillo sailed from Navidad on June 27, 1542. On Sept. 28, 1542 Cabrillo sailed into a bay that he named San Miguel, modern day San Diego. He met with Indians who told him that “in the interior men like us were traveling about … ” They were referring to either the 1540 Coronado expedition in the Colorado River basin or the 1539-40 Francisco de Ulloa voyage to explore the Gulf of California.

Cabrillo sailed north, visiting Santa Catalina Island, which he and his crew found delightful. His visit to what is now San Pedro was far less satisfying. He named the harbor Bahia de los Fumes, or the “Bay of Smokes.”

The Native Americans set fires in the canyons to drive out the game. The smoke from those fires was caught in the famed inversion layer that brings both good weather and smog to the Los Angeles basin.

Cabrillo’s greatest achievement was in rounding Points Conception and Argüello against the prevailing winter-onset currents. We will continue that story in next week’s Times Past.

Meanwhile, take this wonderful opportunity to visit this 16th century ship. It was built in exact detail, using tools from the time, by the San Diego Maritime Museum.

The Maritime Museum of Morro Bay and Morro Bay Tourism will host the San Salvador for public tours daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. beginning Thursday through Oct. 9. The ship will be docked at the South T Pier across the street from the Maritime Museum at 1210 Embarcadero in Morro Bay.

Admission to the San Salvador is $7 adults; $5 children ages 4-12. Tickets can be purchased at www.morrobaymaritime.org.

I’ll be giving a talk on Cabrillo and the San Salvador at 1 p.m. Friday at the newly remodeled Morro Bay Public Library, 625 Harbor St. The talk is free and open to the public.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com

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