• 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.

But, says Paul A. Myers, “this belief indicated a lack of insight” because “the galleons turned to the southeast while still hundreds of miles away from the Northern California coast.”

Vizcaíno may have had another reason for naming his exaggerated bay for the viceroy: his expedition was falling apart. At least 16 sailors had already died from scurvy. Forty-five others had major symptoms, including helmsmen too rigid to steer the ship.

On December 18, Vizcaíno called a council of captains and pilots: “the most solemn of all,” writes the diarist. As each man spoke, the factors piled up, including the Santo Tomás. It was leaking again and didn’t have enough healthy crewmen to bail out the bilge.

The council decided to send the Santo Tomás back to Acapulco as an “advice” ship. It would take the sickest sailors and copies of all maps and documents (in case those who remained behind “should be wrecked or die on the voyage”). In a letter, Vizcaíno would urge the viceroy to send men and supplies to Cabo San Lucas, where Vizcaíno would meet them in May. The other ships, the San Diego and the Tres Reyes, would continue north, at least to Cape Mendocino.

Even though the Santo Tomás was as infirm as its crew, with favoring winds and currents, it could complete the “downhill” run south. The Cabrillo voyage took 70 days to reach Monterey from La Navidad, just north of Acapulco — and only 20, in the favoring conditions, to return.

The expedition had been gone 188 days. On December 29, after they redistributed the crews, lightened the load, and put most of the provisions on the other ships, the Santo Tomás sailed from Monterey “with orders to make haste” — and no stops along the way.

When the Santo Tomás anchored at Acapulco three weeks later, 25 had died. Father Tomás de Aquino also had scurvy. Since he could barely stand, during the voyage he had to prop himself against a mast to administer last rites.

“To see the condition in which the sick reached there was pitiful,” writes Ascensión. “They had suffered many hardships, as the sound men aboard her fell sick.” At Acapulco, only three still had their health. Others, including Father Tomás, took months to recover.

On January 1, ten able members of Vizcaíno’s crew went ashore at Monterey to take on wood and water. The snow-covered mountains reminded them of Popocatépetl, the volcano of Mexico. “Extreme cold,” writes the diarist, froze their freshwater hole “to more than a palm in thickness.” Water in the bottles also froze: “Even when turned upside-down, not a drop ran out.” They encountered no natives “because of the great cold they were living in [in] the interior.”

At midnight on January 3, 1603, a northeast wind came up and the San Diego and Tres Reyes set sail for Cape Mendocino. They made ten leagues by dawn. On January 7, winds shifted to the northwest. Assuming the ships were still together, Vizcaíno put up no signal lantern. When he stopped to inspect a bay, the Tres Reyes continued northward. The ships separated and remained apart for the rest of the voyage.

With a crippled crew, the Tres Reyes may have sailed all the way to Crescent City. But bitter cold and scurvy took many lives, including Commander Aguilar and pilot Antonio Flores. Estevan Lopez, the boatswain, became captain of the frigate. He turned it south to find the San Diego.

The ships may have sailed within sight of each other, but neither had enough healthy sailors to climb to the crow’s nest and keep a regular watch.

The Tres Reyes raced south. When it arrived at Navidad on February 26, only Lopez and five of his crew were still alive.

On January 12, a gale blasted the San Diego near Cape Mendocino. The tempest became so furious that Vizcaíno and his captain couldn’t decide “whether to go forward or to turn back, for it was as dark in the daytime as at night.”

By then, the flagship was, writes the diarist, “a floating hospital.” Sailors took the helm who had never steered before. First-timers climbed slippery rigging to the masthead. Those barely able to move made mush in the galley, since the sick couldn’t open their mouths to eat the available hard foods: rotting jerked beef and chick peas infested with weevils.

“There were not more than six men on board who were well and up,” writes Ascensión. “The rest of the soldiers, sailors, cabin boys, and ship boys were sick in bed,” Ascensión among them. Along with fainting spells, he kept blacking out. Sometimes the moans of others woke him up. Everyone, he writes, feared of “losing their lives in such a place without any human remedy and without any expectation of finding one.”

If the storm grew worse, winds would slam the San Diego onto the rocky coast. All they could do was furl the sails, point the bow west, and hope.

On January 13, Vizcaíno called a council. All agreed they could no longer sail north. “There were no men for it,” writes the diarist. “It was very cold, the rains were increasing and winter coming on all at once, and if we were to go on, we should all perish.”

The viceroy had ordered the expedition to reach Cape Mendocino, latitude 41 degrees. They’d achieved this objective, said Vizcaíno. It was time to head back.

The next day the winds suddenly stopped, and the sun made blue skies bright — an omen of confirmation?

Later that afternoon, black clouds bulged to the southeast. Another storm usurped the sky, bitter cold and determined, the crew became convinced, to prevent a safe voyage home. ■

Next: The Death Ship Comes Alive


  1. Chapman, Charles E.: “Nearly all [Vizcaíno’s reports] had to say was true, save for the yarn about the excellence of Monterey as a sheltered port; but it was precisely this departure from strict accuracy that had the most effect: the legend of the port of Monterey became one of the moving factors for a century and a half in Spanish expansion to the northwest.”
  2. Father Ascensión (in Wagner): “All men in the fleet, well or sick, had to confess and take communion.”
  3. Vizcaíno’s diarist: “All the men had fallen sick, so that there were only two sailors who could climb to the main-topsail.”


  • Bolton, Herbert Eugene, Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542–1706, New York, 1930.
  • Chapman, Charles E., A History of California: The Spanish Period, New York, 1949.
  • Harlow, Neal, Maps of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego, 1602–1874, Los Angeles, 1987.
  • Holmes, Maurice G., From New Spain by Sea to the Californias, 1519–1668, Glendale, 1963.
  • Mathes, W. Michael, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean, 1580–1630, Menlo Park, 1968.
  • Myers, Paul A., North to California: The Spanish Voyages of Discovery, 1533–1603, Coral Springs, 2004.
  • Wagner, Henry R., Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century, San Francisco, 1929.

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

  • 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

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader