By rights, we should call San Diego “San Miguel,” after the archangel who evicted Lucifer and his minions from heaven. At his first landfall in Upper California — September 28, 1542 — Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo found a “sheltered port and a very good one.” The explorer named it San Miguel for two reasons: September 29 was the archangel’s Feast Day; and the smallest of his three ships, the leaky frigate used to scout the promising bay, was the San Miguel.
Sixty years later, Sebástian Vizcaíno sailed in search of a safe “midway” harbor for galleons coming from Manila. Though the viceroy of New Spain ordered him to honor Cabrillo’s place names, Vizcaíno developed a severe case of cartographic amnesia: he swore he couldn’t find any original sites and had to rename everything. Among the changes, Cabrillo’s Isla de San Salvador became San Clemente Island, and San Miguel became San Diego.
So who was Sebástian Vizcaíno? According to Robert Glass Cleland, he had “the knack of obtaining position and recognition out of all proportion to his talents.” Charles E. Chapman: “a moderately successful merchant who [desired to become] a conqueror.”
Conde de Monterrey, the viceroy, was of two minds. When Vizcaíno wanted to lead an expedition to Baja in 1596, the viceroy objected: “The king would risk royal prestige if [it] were entrusted to a man [without] the resolution and capacity necessary for so great an enterprise.”
The viceroy later relented. He saw no “notorious defects,” he wrote the king. Vizcaíno did seem to have “medium yet sufficient ability.” Even so, the viceroy added, he did all he could to “clothe [Vizcaíno] with authority in view of the great danger I fear on his account.”
The viceroy, for whom Vizcaíno named Monterey Bay, was prophetic — in both minds.
Born six years after Cabrillo sailed north, Vizcaíno had firsthand experience of the dangers. A Basque soldier who fought in Flanders and then became a merchant, he was on board the Santa Ana when Thomas Cavendish looted the galleon and stranded the passengers at today’s San José del Cabo. Vizcaíno “lost a great deal of treasure and commodities,” he wrote, to the English privateer.
Vizcaíno’s expedition left Acapulco in March 1596, with the 500-ton San Francisco, and the much smaller San Joseph and Tres Reyes. He had a 20-year royal license for fishing and mining from Navidad to California. He brought a force of 230 men, women (wives and “servants”), and slaves (black and Indian, all branded like cattle), plus 14 horses and rations for eight months. Four Franciscans joined the party, a sign Vizcaíno meant to establish a colony, not just fish for pearls and explore the region. At Salaga, another 120 men and 14 more horses came on board.
As they took on supplies and fresh water at Mazatlán, at least 50 sailors and a priest vanished into the scenery. The mass desertion happened “without illness or cause,” writes Michael Mathes, and set a “poor example for the others by creating doubts and fears.”
Vizcaíno hurried the departure so more soldiers wouldn’t jump ship. (Most of the ones that remained, writes Mathes, “had brought their wives and children.”)
Battling strong, northwest winds across the gulf, Vizcaíno made landfall on September 3. Eight hundred natives fanned across the beach. Although they carried bows and arrows, they greeted the ships with friendly, waving hands. Before he had to abandon it to hostile Indians, Hernán Cortés originally named the site Santa Cruz. But Vizcaíno, so struck by the reception, called it La Paz — “the peace” — the first of his many renamings.
When the Spaniards came ashore, the priests constructed an altar: in the center, a cross; to the side, an image of the Virgin Mary. At a signal from a priest, all 300 in the party knelt at once. Struck by the gesture, the natives also dropped to their knees. Over 1000 people kneeling before the symbols of his faith: Vizcaíno took the sight as approval from above.
The next day, as workers built a brush stockade, 200 natives brought pitahayas (cactus fruit), lizards, and snakes, the delicacies of their diet.
Because Vizcaíno had funded the expedition, the viceroy fretted about the “overbold bearing of the soldiers” Vizcaíno would hire. Most were Spanish dragoons, not the more professional, and expensive, soldados de cuera, “leather-coated soldiers.” Dragoons, whose training varied from little to none, notoriously lacked discipline.
Three days later, Vizcaíno marched inland with 100 armed men to the native village. Frightened by the shining steel helmets, long lances, and scars beneath strange, bearded faces, the women and children ran and hid.
Not wanting to cause alarm, and possibly remembering Cortés’s troubles, Vizcaíno ordered his men back to the coast. Around sundown, several Indians came to the settlement with pearls. Vizcaíno returned the favor with mirrors and knives.
Whirling, gale-force winds prevented exploration of the western coast, so Vizcaíno sailed the San Joseph and the Tres Reyes up the gulf with 100 men. They anchored at a small bay, where a large group of natives met them with signs of welcome. As the soldiers built a stockade and refilled their barrels with fresh water from two running streams, they found nails, knives, and horseshoes. The rusty relics from the Cortés expedition were reminders of former strife.
Vizcaíno had left 80 soldiers at La Paz. In his absence, the San Francisco ran aground on the long sandbar that separates the lagoon from the bay. Captain Rodrigo de Figueroa, in charge of the settlement, ordered the ship unloaded. Vizcaíno had to sail back to tow the empty flagship to safety.
It pleased Vizcaíno to see the buildings for the colony completed: sturdy walls and structures, and deep trenches to discourage invaders. But a large group of angry colonists handed him a petition: they demanded to return home at once. The sterile land would not support them, and the natives were so “barbarous,” no one could convert them. One reason: soldiers were abusing native women.
Chapters: 1: Galleon | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation