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Of Miracles and Grave Misfortunes

It had to be a miracle! As Sebastián Vizcaíno’s three ships neared the bay at Cabo de San José, a fog curtained the shoreline, and the ships separated beyond hailing distance. The old Santo Tomás drifted to within 50 paces of a rocky promontory. Suddenly, the fog lifted. Sails and spars gleamed. As the captain edged the lethargic galleon out to sea, mists thick as milk spilled back down.

The crew swore that the brief flash of sunlight, which saved at least 70 lives, must have been divine proof that Vizcaíno’s exploration of the heathen California peninsula was on the right track.

Map of California Island

It had taken the San Diego, Santo Tomás, and the Tres Reyes seven days to cross the Gulf of California, 50 leagues from Mazatlán to Cabo de San José. They anchored in the bay June 11, 1602. As crewmen furled the sails, clusters of natives began dotting the beach. Soon, at least 100 stood abreast, black and white markings beneath dark, top-knotted hair. They waved spears and bows. They shouted and threw sand in the air.

They had reason. When Hernán Cortés brought an expedition to Baja in 1535, he’d turned his dogs of war on the natives. Soldiers followed, cutting down men and women at random.

In a previous expedition to La Paz, Vizcaíno had infuriated the natives so much that the viceroy of New Spain ordered him, this time, to “avoid conflicts with the Indians” on penalty of death. Vizcaíno must explore and chart the coast of California and find a harbor for galleons from Manila. No settlements, no searches for gold or black pearls.

As shouts from the beach grew louder, Vizcaíno ordered each ship’s small boat made ready. Thirty soldiers carried arquebuses — long, match-locked guns — with matches lit. They embarked with Vizcaíno, the captains, and three friars.

Seeing more and more men emerge from the giant brown vessels, the natives drew back to a hillock. Did these bearded strangers, with silver heads and deerskin coats, mean more harm?

On the beach, Father Ascensión, leader of the Carmelite friars, told young Father Antonio to ascend the hill alone and meet with the chieftains.

As he trudged up the sandy incline, Antonio made signs of peace — and to lay weapons down. The natives did, and he embraced the leaders. But when the friar called for the landing party, a chief said “no.” They must lower arms as well.

Antonio made a strategic move. Expeditions from New Spain often used a person of color to make first contact. Antonio signaled a young black man to bring a wicker basket filled with biscuits. As so often happened, writes Ascensión, “the Indians were delighted to see him, caressing him very much and [making clear] they had some friendship and trade with some other Negroes.”

Vizcaíno brought beads and small looking-glasses as gifts. The natives accepted them with suspicion and returned to their villages.

After posting sentinels, the landing party searched the area. Near the beach, surrounded by green cane brakes, they found a priceless treasure in time of need: a lake of fresh water. They hadn’t refilled their supply in at least eight days and were running low.

Along with facing near-constant headwinds, one of the few certainties about the voyage ahead: much of the peninsula would be sterile or would have, at best, “green,” undrinkable water. And since headwinds often postponed the next destination, fresh water would remain a necessity. The search consumed much time, writes Alberta Denis, and “water was carried in whatever would hold it and wherever it could be put — even in the rigging.”

Across the bay, where surf beat against a rocky promontory, foragers made another discovery: sardines, washed ashore by the thousands, making death-slaps with their tails on the sand. “So many and so good were they,” writes Ascensión, “all those of the fleet supped that night and dined the following day.”

Instead of having to cast nets to find fish, writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, with an eye for omens, “God granted that there should be…as many as all could eat.”

Pirates named the bay Aguada Segura because they could lie in wait for Spanish galleons in its “safe waters.” From this bay, Thomas Cavendish had attacked the Santa Ana in 1595, the richest heist of all.

Though the viceroy ordered him not to rename sites, Vizcaíno dubbed the bay San Bernabé, after St. Barnabas, a minor disciple whose feast day is June 11.

The third Carmelite priest on the voyage, Father Tomás de Aquino, said Mass daily from a tent near the promontory. Masses, says Father Ascensión, were “a great spiritual solace for all, though I do not think the Devil received much pleasure from [them].”

Since the moon would not change the tide for several days, soldiers washed clothes and took on wood. Some made new sails to replace those already worn out. Fishermen enjoyed constant sport, hauling in everything from salmon and red snapper, to perch, skate, sea bass, and bonito. Several times, the weight of a catch ripped the seine.

A giant devil ray, “17 spans” (a distance measured by a human hand) from head to tail, wrapped itself around an anchor cable buoy. Some feared that its half-moon-shaped mouth, a good seven spans across, would sever the line, sending the Santo Tomás adrift. Instead, it tried to steal the buoy. It took several men to kill the monster, which clung to its prey like a fiend from hell. But the ray was so huge, a dozen men couldn’t haul it to shore with ropes.

Along with hordes of fish, foragers found rabbits, hares, and signs of deer on essentially level terrain. They also found incense trees and a lagoon of salt. “But,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, in an afterthought that would haunt the expedition, “there was no fruit.”

On June 16, Vizcaíno assembled his council. The next known port was Cedros Island, many leagues up the coast. If the ships separated, they would regroup at its leeward shelter. If the winds around the point at Cabo were “contrary,” they would return to this bay.

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

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