• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Toward the Freezing North

As Sebastian Vizcaíno’s expedition prepared to leave San Diego Bay, a member of the crew struggled to board a launch. Stiff-legged, barely able to walk, he stumbled, struggled to stand up, and fell again. Native children, watching from a distance, imitated the strange behavior of the bearded man. They flopped on the sand, gathered themselves up, giggled, and collapsed again.

On November 20, 1602, three ships weighed anchor. They sailed past the “point of ballast stone” and across from the loma — little hill — guarding San Diego Bay. Vizcaíno wanted to study the finest harbor he’d found in more detail. But the expedition had been at sea since July 5, and what some called the curse of the cold northern latitudes — today known as scurvy — began to take a toll.

“Our General [Vizcaíno] ordered that we should continue our voyage without further delay,” writes Father Ascensión, a Carmelite priest who chronicled the voyage. “Our men were all becoming ill [with] neither comforts nor medicines” to cure them. “If we should delay, the voyage could not be completed.”

One by one, sailors succumbed. Their legs ached. Red splotches grew on their skin. Even minimal amounts of work exhausted them. Their jaws tightened, making it increasingly difficult to swallow whole food. More and more, each ship became a sick bay, stem to stern.

Though the viceroy of New Spain had ordered him not to, as he headed north Vizcaíno continued to rename islands and bays: Santa Catalina Island after Saint Catherine; San Clemente Island; San Pedro; and Santa Barbara.

As they sailed the channel at Santa Barbara, a large canoe sped toward them. It was “so well constructed,” Vizcaíno’s diarist noted, “that since Noah’s Ark, a finer and lighter vessel…has not been seen.” Four rapid oars dug deep. An old man, obviously the chief, stood in the center with his son. Then all six on board began to sing, and the chief danced, whirling round and round.

His craft circled the San Diego so swiftly, writes the diarist, “that in a moment they were around us twice.”

The canoe was a tomol: built from redwood planks found floating in the channel, and at least 25 feet long. The natives were Chumash. The “seashell people” lived in dome-shaped, permanent homes made from willow branches, which could house 50 people. They had a highly evolved culture: women could become chiefs or shamans.

When the canoe pulled alongside the San Diego, the chief saluted three times. Sailors lowered a thick rope. He grabbed it without hesitation and pulled himself onboard.

He spoke in hand signals. Relays of natives from Catalina, he signed, had rowed to Santa Barbara to announce that three large boats — “whales with wings” — were coming his way. The chief had come to meet the strangers, because they’d given the Catalinans gifts and he wanted some for his tribe.

He “was so intelligent,” writes Ascensión, “he appeared to be…a person of great understanding.”

At one point Vizcaíno handed the chief tin, lead, and silver plates, asking which he preferred. He tapped each, then pointed to the silver: keep this, he signed, forget the others.

The chief urged the Spaniards to come ashore. He would give them everything they needed — including, they hoped, a cure for those taken ill.

When he didn’t see any women onboard, the chief asked where they were. He “pointed to his private parts,” writes the diarist, “and gave us clearly to understand what he wished to say.”

They had no women, Vizcaíno replied, “nor were they necessary.”

The chief beamed a smile. Come ashore, he pointed. Ten women will “serve and entertain” each of you. He even offered to stay onboard as a hostage. After sundown he left, but not before repeating the offer.

An hour later, a southeast wind came up. It was the first “stern wind” the expedition had known, pushing the ships from behind. Was it a sign?

The council agreed to use “the opportunity which our Lord had provided. On the return voyage [we] would come back and see what the Indian chief had promised.”

That night they sailed 15 leagues, by far the greatest distance thus far.

But fewer and fewer sailors could perform their tasks. Both the pilot of the Santo Tomás and his assistant were bedridden. A pain had spread through their bodies. Gums ached. Teeth began to fall out. Purple spots, from the waist down, grew to the size of mustard seeds. Their legs stiffened. Then paralysis set in.

“All is groans and cries,” writes Ascensión, “and there is no other consolation except to ask God to help take one away from this life.”

Infected bodies became “as sore as a boil.” Death was often so sudden that many died mid-sentence.

On December 16, the fleet sailed into a bay. Vizcaíno declared it “the best port that could be desired.” He praised its live oaks and pines, fresh water, and fertile soil. He said the climate, near freezing at the time with snow on the mountains, resembled Castile. He named it for the viceroy of New Spain, the Conde de Monterey.

On his map the cosmographer Geronimo Palacios turned the relatively small Monterey cove into a fairly large, well-protected bay shaped like a fishhook.

In a letter to the viceroy, Vizcaíno boasted that Monterey was “sheltered from all winds” and extolled its virtues in florid prose.

But the cove has no protection from northwest storms and came nowhere near the possibilities of San Diego Bay. Vizcaíno overpraised Monterey such that when the Costanso expedition came north in 1769, they couldn’t find it.

Earlier Vizcaíno had proclaimed San Diego the finest port in the South Seas. Was Monterey superior, or just the best for their present needs? Vizcaíno sought a landfall for Manila galleons from China after four months at sea. San Diego may have seemed too far south, too close to home. And Vizcaíno may have assumed that Monterey was a more favorable latitude for Manila galleons.

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 9: Salvation

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

An eBook version of this story is available from:


Prosperina Dec. 19, 2011 @ 8:43 p.m.

I've stopped reading books while this series is in the Reader. This was a marathon chapter!


Twister Dec. 20, 2011 @ 9:24 a.m.

And all because of food prejudice . . .


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!