Times Past

Why so many explorers bypassed the Central Coast

Artistic rendition of Chumash people carrying a canoe (tomol) greeting Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.
Artistic rendition of Chumash people carrying a canoe (tomol) greeting Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542.

The replica of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s flagship, the San Salvador, arrived in Morro Bay on Thursday.

The 95-foot galleon was greeted by members of the Salinan Tribe manning reed boats typical of the water craft north of Point Conception, which, as early explorers noted, were very different from the plank canoes used in the Santa Barbara Channel. The San Salvador had attempted to sail into San Simeon Bay on Wednesday, but was turned back by the thick fog bank.

Weather conditions north of Gaviota had similarly frustrated Cabrillo.

The problem of rounding Points Conception, Argüello and Sal delayed the first known European explorers along the Central Coast for nearly a month during the autumn of 1542.

Cabrillo sailed into the northern Santa Barbara Channel in mid-October 1542. He was favorably impressed with the Native Americans. The Chumash were members of the Penutian language family, who followed a hunting and gathering, marine and inland lifestyle between Point Dume in Malibu and Points Conception, Argüello and Sal.

Cabrillo observed these residents of the Santa Barbara Channel wore animal skins and tied their hair in cords with tiny daggers of bone, flint and wood embedded in the braids. They knew about oep (maize), but did not raise it. Some natives reported that there was oep in the interior hinterlands, along with cae (“cattle” or elk).

They sailed great distances in their pizmo or brea (tar) caulked tomols (canoes). Cabrillo first encountered the Chumash off Santa Catalina, nearly 100 miles from their nearest population center. Just off Gaviota, they offered to exchange sardines for the glass trading beads and other gifts which they apparently knew were carried by Spanish mariners.

This suggests that word of Cabrillo’s earlier encounters with native Californians farther to the south had reached the Central Coast before the Spanish arrived.

Cabrillo tried to round the windswept Point Conception but ultimately returned to the Goleta area where he was hosted by the Chumash over the All Saints Holy days (Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, 1542). They fed the Spaniards pinole (a mush made from pine nuts) and acorn mush cakes which Cabrillo said were very much like tamales “and good to eat.”

Cabrillo noted that the land south of Point Conception was “more than excellent …” and a “good country where you can make a settlement.”

But this was not his mission. Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, had dispatched him to find treasure that would exceed the Aztec trove captured by Mendoza’s archrival and predecessor, Hernando de Cortez.

Cabrillo was also ordered to seek out the legendary Strait of Anian, the fabled Northwest Passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in northern latitudes. So, Cabrillo had to proceed north.

On Nov. 11, a southerly gale swept his flotilla around Point Conception, which his men named Cabo de Galera because its jutting cliffs resembled a seagoing galley. The storm-tossed seas did not permit safe anchorage along San Luis Obispo County’s shores, and the explorer saw little that attracted comment.

He ultimately sailed north of Point Reyes but turned back north of the mouth of the Russian River.

Returning south, the explorers observed the Santa Cruz Mountains and even snow-covered Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula. It was so wintry the seamen could barely cling to the ships’ rigging.

The expedition sighted some settlements along Estero Bay, probably between Morro Bay and Cayucos. High winds and unsettled seas kept the ships far offshore. The condition of the badly leaking San Miguel had worsened to the point that the crew thought that it was doomed.

The fleet wintered in the Channel Islands, where Cabrillo died on Jan. 3, 1543, probably of a gangrenous infection from a bone broken in a fall.

Recognizing that he was dying, Cabrillo attempted to put his logs in order and complete a report to Viceroy Mendoza. He didn’t have sufficient strength to deal with the part of the voyage north of Point Conception. So, our knowledge of San Luis Obispo County in the mid-16th century is fragmentary.

Cabrillo’s pilot, Bartolome Ferrer (or Ferrelo), took over command and sailed northward again, scudding before a storm. He sailed as far as the Eel River — and even possibly to the Rogue River in Oregon — before scurvy forced him to return to the seaport of Navidad south of Puerto Vallarta, arriving on April 14, 1543, with little good news to report about California or the Central Coast.

The Cabrillo expedition tells us much about the limitations imposed by climate and geography on the development of the Central Coast region. Its rugged coastline, absence of sheltered anchorages, the cool, moist extended storm season and the stiff southbound Kuroshio Current made it almost inaccessible by sea.

Following the Cabrillo expedition, there were no further efforts to visit Central California for four decades.

The San Salvador will be in Morro Bay until Oct. 10.

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