Lost and Found
Onboard the flagship San Diego, Sebastían Vizcaíno hadn’t seen the Santo Tomás in 41 days. Before his expedition left Acapulco to chart the California coast in 1602, the old Santo Tomás had required an extensive careening: leaks plugged, much of the hull reboarded, heavy caulking. Many still questioned its seaworthiness. The top-heavy Peruvian galleon could barely maneuver. Vizcaíno feared that the ship, which disappeared off Magdalena Bay, had been lost at sea.
On September 1, writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “God deigned” that the ships would reunite at Cedros Island. Amid his jubilation, the diarist noted for the first time that “the men were becoming worn out and ill.”
In an age that measured time by sundials and hourglasses, people thought in blocks of weeks and months. Onboard ship, off a sterile coastline, the expedition had a daily need for fresh food and water. By the time they reached Cedros, their diet of fish, biscuits, and brackish “green” water — but no perishable vegetables and no Vitamin C — began to take its toll.
Sailors became lethargic. Reddish-blue bruises began appearing on the skin, first single dots, then expanding into clusters. Veteran seamen recognized the early symptoms of scurvy.
Adding to the burden, soldiers used quarter pipes to pump drinking water from underground wells. At Cedros, the brittle pipes, made from worm-eaten staves, began to decay. “When we thought we had water,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “we were without it.”
On September 9, the fleet sailed north-northwest. The San Diego, the Santo Tomás, and the Tres Reyes must keep together, Vizcaíno ordered: if a storm came up, they should return to the sheltered bay at Cedros. Given favoring southwest winds, they would continue north to Cenzias Island and wait 12 days.
On September 18, a northwest gale blew so hard, writes Father Ascensión, “the waves reached the heavens with an abyss between them.” Incessant currents of air had pounded the expedition all the way up the coast. But nothing compared to these invisible battering rams bent on demolishing the fleet. The sea roared like a waterfall blown sideways.
On the San Diego, Vizcaíno refused to give ground. “Furl the sails and lay to,” he shouted. The ship plowed into the waves and frantic gusts of air.
Not stout enough to forge straight ahead, the Santo Tomás unfurled the lower fore- and spirit-sails and scudded out to sea.
The monster gale blew 24 hours. When it died at nightfall, as abruptly as it arose, an iron-gray fog cloaked the growing darkness. The murky mist became palpable, more like smoke than moisture. Captains couldn’t see the other ships’ signal lanterns. Then they couldn’t see their own crews.
The fleet rejoined the next day, only to face a second assault: brutal northwest winds and another dark fog “so thick that a man could not see another in the waist of the ship,” writes Ascensión. Broad daylight became dusk.
Once again, the Santo Tomás had headed west. This time, “to the great sorrow of all,” it vanished. Once again Vizcaíno feared the worst: merciless waves would splinter the tired old galleon, and the crew would drown.
When the skies finally cleared, not seeing the other ships, Captain Corbon of the Santo Tomás assumed that Vizcaíno had sailed back to Cedros. But when the galleon reached the island’s lee side, the fleet was not there. So Corbon sailed west.
Many days later, near a large, unnamed island, winds came up. Rows of waves the size of houses rolled into the Santo Tomás. The bow made a sudden crack.
The timbers — the ship’s wooden support frames — shivered. Sailors feared that the trembling, like a quaking ribcage, was a sign that the end was near.
Water seeped through a fissure on the ship’s nose. The main timber had begun to splinter. The trickle became a steady stream of brine. Excess water-weight up front tilted the Santo Tomás forward. Then it pitched. Ascensión thought it could “open up and founder.”
“To the mainland,” shouted Captain Corbon. His reasoning: if the ship fractured, the crew might be close enough to swim to shore.
They sailed toward land, writes Ascensión, to “see if perchance Our Lord, Jesus Christ, would grant them the favor of finding” the San Diego.
Days later, as they approached today’s San Quintín Bay (about 100 miles south of Ensenada), the ships rejoined. They’d been apart 28 days.
“A plain miracle,” declared Ascensión. “When one ship was arriving in such need, the other should meet her and console those who had lost all hope of rescue.”
Possibly to commemorate the site of the reunion, Vizcaíno’s diarist declared the area to have the best climate “in the world, for the night dews last until 10:00 in the forenoon.”
Cabrillo had originally called the shallow, placid bay — where cinder cones loom like sentinels — San Quintín. Vizcaíno, as was his wont, renamed it “the Bay of Eleven Thousand Virgins.” In 500 A.D., when Ursula, a virtuous Roman maiden, refused to marry the leader of the German Huns, he ordered her killed, along with her 11 ladies in waiting. (Someone added the three zeros later.)
On October 28, seeking shelter from another storm, the fleet anchored in Bahia de San Simon y Judas (today’s Colnett Bay, 50 miles south of Ensenada). A mountain on the north shore, sheared down to the beach, provided ample protection from the elements.
In desperate need of water, especially for the Santo Tomás, Vizcaíno sent Captain Peguero and ensign Juan Francisco ashore with 20 armed soldiers. Several accounts say Vizcaíno told them to “treat well the Indians, especially when embarking and disembarking.” Given what followed — and since the viceroy had ordered the death penalty for anyone mistreating natives — accounts may have added “treat well” after the fact.
At sunset, the party dug a well in the sand and found fresh water. As they inserted the decaying pipes and began to fill barrels, more than 100 natives drew near with bows and clubs. They were “very insolent,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “to the extent of drawing their bows and picking up stones to throw at us.”
The landing party made signs that they meant no harm. Then the soldiers bowed their heads and went about their business as if the naked warriors didn’t exist.
Natives shouted threats at the mute interlopers. Some ran forward, waving bows or clubs, then pulled back. No response. Soldiers loaded barrels and bottles of water onto the launch and returned to the ships.
The next day, Captain Peguero, Ensign Alarcón, and chief pilot Bolaños went ashore with many soldiers. They brought small gifts and biscuits as peace offerings.
Groups of natives assembled near the wells. They waved their arms and made signs: “leave at once!” One ran up, snatched a bottle, and raced back to the group. Others tried to disrupt the digging.
The soldiers remained as docile as monks.
Accounts differ about what happened next. Ascensión says the natives detected weakness in the strangers from the sea. “As the Indians saw that our people treated them well, they concluded that they did this for fear of them.” As a result, the natives “began to commit excesses.”
One “counted coup” with his bow. He looped it around a Spaniard’s neck and gave the hairy man a good tug.
Antonio Flores, pilot of the Tres Reyes, drew his cutlass and hacked the bowstring. Natives fitted arrows onto their bows and drew them back. Others prepared to throw clubs and stones.
Several soldiers with match-lit arquebuses took aim. But instead of a volley of warning shots, they fired low, into the crowd.
The blasts of powder, the strange puffs of smoke, and the sudden cries and shrieks scattered the natives. At least six hobbled off, wounded by balls of small shot. Two fell on the sand. Others, defiant, came back and carried the bodies up a hill. Writes Ascensión, they showed themselves to be “very much offended.”
Two hours later, over 200 natives returned, covered with feathers and painted for war. They approached in squadrons. “With arms in hand,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “they came toward us, who to them seemed few.”
Alarcón’s soldiers took positions on the beach and lit arquebus fuses. Then he noticed that women and children had joined the throng. He made a sign of friendship — to see if they’d come to fight. He also signaled his soldiers to hold their fire.
The natives parted in the middle. A boy emerged carrying a little white puppy. He walked across the no-man’s-land between combatants and set the animal down at Alarcón’s feet. An offering of peace.
Alarcón met with the native leaders. “Be quiet,” he signed. “We should be friends.”
The leaders agreed, but no more gunfire.
“Although as friends they joined the Spaniards,” writes Ascensión, “they never took their eyes off the arquebuses, explaining by signs that four of them had died and others were badly wounded.”
Having gathered water and wood, the fleet departed the next day, October 30.
The three ships hugged the coastline, battling a cold current and wind at the prow. On November 5, they came upon two small islands about 12 miles from a bay. When Cabrillo had passed by 60 years earlier, he’d named the area San Mateo. Vizcaíno, who swore Cabrillo’s geographical markings were askew, renamed it Ensenada de Todos Santos (“bay of all saints”), since he’d arrived there — today’s Ensenada — at dawn on All Saints Day.
They planned to enter the bay and sound the depths. But a favoring breeze came up. These were so rare that the fleet had to take advantage. They would perform cartographic chores on the return voyage.
The expedition continued north, into a strong headwind. Large pillars of smoke marked its progress day and night. Ascensión: “These the Indians made as if calling to the ships to come close to their country, which showed indications of good, fertile, and level, and of pleasing aspect.”
It’s just as likely that the smoke signals could have been controlled burning of brushlands, to prevent larger fires — or a warning of seafarers with lethal fire-sticks.
The fleet approached two islands, and two large rocks “shaped like sugar loaves.” Vizcaíno named the group Islas de San Martin. Then he changed his mind. The four, probably reached on November 8 — the day of the “Cuatro Coronados” — became known as the Coronado Islands.
Vizcaíno ordered the San Diego to explore the islands. Although the water was 14 fathoms deep, writes his diarist, “the kelp extended…above the water.” Some of it looked “as large as gourds…with fruit resembling very large capers and with tubes like sackbuts.” The San Diego passed over kelp beds as if they “were a green meadow.”
So many columns of smoke rose from the mainland that at night they resembled “a procession, and in the daytime the sky was overcast.”
Beyond the Coronados, the expedition saw “a large, extended bay, surrounded by hills which form a very fine port.” In 1542, Cabrillo had named the bay San Miguel. Vizcaíno, who swore this couldn’t be Cabrillo’s discovery, would rename it San Diego. ■
Next: Exploring San Diego Bay
- Colnett Bay and Cape Colnett were named for Captain James Colnett (1753–1806), officer in the Royal Navy, fur trader, and seeker of the “Northwest Passage.”
- Richard Pourade, on the pillars of smoke: “Indians burned vast open lands to drive game into areas where it could be hunted down and killed.”
- Vizcaíno’s diarist: “On Sunday, the 10th [of November] we arrived at a port, which must be the best to be found in all the south sea.”
- Bolton, Herbert Eugene, Spanish Explorations in the Southwest, 1542–1706, New York, 1930.
- Chapman, Charles E., A History of California: The Spanish Period, New York, 1949.
- Denis, Alberta Johnson, Spanish Alta California, New York, 1927.
- Mathes, W. Michael, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion of the Pacific Ocean: 1580–1630, San Francisco, 1968.
- Pourade, Richard, The History of San Diego: The Explorers, San Diego, 1960.
Wagner, Henry R., Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the 16th Century, San Francisco, 1929.
Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation