Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
Cabrillo, Juan Rodriguez (?-3 Jan 1543) mercenary seaman, shipbuilder, and adventurer was born to unknown parents at an unknown location, although the idea that he was Portuguese was long promulgated by scholars. It is most likely that he was born within a few years of the turn-of-the-century (1499-1500), as he first is recorded in Mexico (1519) as a man, grown, but not yet married.
Cabrillo’s national identity came into question in the late 1960s, publications began to appear suggesting his heritage was Spanish, rather than Portuguese; the truth awaits discovery of an original record of Cabrillo’s birth. Although no record of his passage to America has been found, Cabrillo presumably sailed to Cuba, at that time under the control of brutal Diego Velasquez. There Cabrillo must have been exposed to the system of encomiendos, large estates worked by local Indian slaves or Indian people taken captive in more remote lands and transported to Cuba for labor.
Governor Velasquez had an unquenchable desire for greater wealth and land holdings. He convinced Hernán Cortez to sail to the Mexican mainland in hopes of extending the encomiendo system, but then, doubtful of Cortez’ loyalty, Velasquez rescinded the commission. Cortez sailed anyway. Velasquez was outraged and sent a force to arrest Cortez. The force, including Cabrillo, soon capitulated to Cortez and joined him to wage war against the Aztec empire. It is here in Mexico that verifiable record of Cabrillo first appears.
Cabrillo was next documented in 1521, still in the service of Cortez, assisting in the building of a fleet of one and two-masted, square-rigged ships destined to sail lake Texcoco. Cabrillo, heading a contingent of men, was sent to the mountains charged with harvesting pine tar to waterproof the ships’ hulls.
Rewarded for his service by property rights, slaves and a prosperous gold mine, Cabrillo headed south and transferred his loyalty to Pedro de Alvarado, then charged as Captain General of Guatemala and commissioned to explore the south seas. Cabrillo made his fortune in service as ship builder, magistrate and port master to Alvarado. During this time Cabrillo fathered three children by his unidentified Indian wife and settled in Honduras as a citizen with his own interest in an encomiendo at Cobán. He was able to build his own ship at this time. Kelsey (Kelsey 1991:31) quoted Bartolome de las Casas (1552) and Francisco de Torres (1564) who gave sworn testimony of Cabrillo’s treatment of the Honduran Indian people. De las Casas said of Cabrillo, “He broke up homes, taking the women and girls and giving them to the soldiers and sailors in order to keep them satisfied and to bring them into his fleet.” Torres spoke of manual labor, “Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was served by those very Indians. He had control of them, and they served him by carrying supplies to his mines and transporting pitch for a ship that Juan Rodriguez was building. The witness saw this many times.” Another Indian, Juan Ximénez, was reported by Kelsey (Kelsey 1991:31) as slaving in Cabrillo’s mines. He said, “He was in the cuadrilla that Juan Rodriguez had in the mines taking out gold. He saw the Indians of Cobán serving Juan Rodriguez as though they belonged to him. They brought him beans, corn, peppers, and salt; clay pots and pans and little bowls for pulque as supplies for the Indians working in his mines.” In addition Cabrillo maintained a lucrative exchange with Peru.
Cabrillo sailed for Spain in 1532. There he courted and married Beatriz, who returned with him to his estate and produced a second set of children. When the call came from Alvarado, now in partnership with the Viceroy of New Spain, to explore the west coast of North America and to find the long dreamed of Atlantic to Pacific passage, Cabrillo was ready. He was second in command under Alvarado, and when Alvarado was killed in 1541, the Viceroy gave Cabrillo first command of the expedition.
It was during the final year of his life that Cabrillo would earn a place in the history of the world, by being the first documented European to sail the Western shore of North America. His ships sailed into what is now Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico on September 17th and into San Diego Harbor on September 28, the feast day of San Miguel, in 1542. By the 10th of October the ships arrived at islands they named Santa Catalina and San Clemente. At San Miguel Island in what is now called the Santa Barbara Channel, Cabrillo broke his arm in a fall. How far north Cabrillo traveled after he broke his arm is contested by scholars, some think he led his crew as far north as Fort Ross, others think they went as far as the Russian or the Rogue River. However far north they went, they turned south again, apparently missing San Francisco Bay and halting to spend the months of winter at San Miguel Island. In all they assigned about forty place names, many to be later renamed by Viscaíno, including the harbor of San Miguel, renamed, San Diego, the name it bears to this day.
The return leg of the voyage spelled disaster for the tiny flotilla; weather kept the ships’ crews from going ashore to replenish food, fuel, and water supplies. Forced ever southward, the men were hungry and sick when they were finally able to reprise their landing at San Miguel Island. Cabrillo’s humerus refused to heal and his condition worsened; he died on San Miguel Island. Robert Heizer once documented a stone on San Miguel Island which he believed to be Cabrillo’s headstone, and thus, the oldest “historical relic” in California (Lowie 1972). Although the idea that Cabrillo was buried in Spain was favored for many years, most scholars accept that he was buried in Alta California.
No copy of the original log of Cabrillo’s voyage remains. The only account left was compiled by a man named Juan León and copied in 1543 by Andrés de Urdaneta, although the work was traditionally accredited to the mysterious Juan Páez. Two complete biographies have been written, the first, Henry Wagner’s Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, Discoverer of the Coast of California, was published in 1941 by the San Francisco Historical Society, and the second, Harry Kelsey’s Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was published in 1986 by the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.
The Cabrillo Historical Society in San Diego has published several volumes of papers on various aspects of Cabrillo’s life and the history of European influence in North and South America which bear upon Cabrillo’s activities. The volumes are The Cabrillo Era and His Voyage of Discovery, edited by Carl Reupsch (1982) and Cabrillo’s World: A Commemorative Edition of Cabrillo Festival Historic Seminar Papers (1991). Robert Heizer’s paper, California’s Oldest Historical Relic? was published by the Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1972.
Other scholars besides Harry Kelsey (in Cabrillo’s World) have concerned themselves with the question of Cabrillo’s national identity. Chief among these are W. Michael Mathes “The Discoverer of Alta California: Joáo Rodrigues Cabrihlo or Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo,” Journal of San Diego History 19(Summer 1973):1-8 and F. Castelo Branco Cabrillo’s Nationality, Academia de Marinha, Lisbon (1987).