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