• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

To the north, much to their surprise, they found another potential harbor: today’s Mission Bay. The sights, blue expanses of water on both sides, made them eager to report their findings.

When they returned, Vizcaíno had set up camp, including a large tent for a church. He posted sentinels. The men went about their labors, encouraged by the positive signs. Pilots and seamen worked on the ships.

The Santo Tomás had splitting seams that required constant pumping. Carpenters and caulkers lit lanterns and candles. They crept from rib to rib along the ship’s noxious-smelling innards. They inspected every joint. They listened for the sound — even the slightest seep — of running water. Using mallets, they hammered hemp into the wedge-shaped seams. They used tallow as a sealant.

Scouts found water across the channel on a “large sand-bar” (North Island). They dug holes the size of graves. Ascensión proclaimed a miracle: “When the tide was high the water that trickled into them was sweet and good, and when the tide ebbed it was brackish and bad (a secret of nature and the work of the hand of God).”

Near the camp, a sentinel spotted at least 100 natives coming up the beach. Naked, painted with bluish-black-and-white stripes with plumes of feathers on their heads, they shouted “noisily.” But when soldiers readied their arms, the cries ceased — the natives aware of what an arquebus could do.

As he approached them, Father Ascensión threw sand in the air and waved a white cloth: signs of peace. Those nearest gave him their bows and arrows. He returned the favor with bead necklaces and ribbons. Ascensión encouraged them to meet Vizcaíno, the general’s son Juan, and Captain Gómez of the Santo Tomás. But seeing the many armed soldiers, only four did: two men and two “very wrinkled” old women.

Vizcaíno, eager to impress, wore his general’s outfit: ornamental braid on the jacket, mulberry-colored breeches adorned with fringe. With regal gestures he gave the quartet strings of glass beads and biscuits. Sailors cast a net into the channel and offered the catch. A crewman had shouted, “¡Vamos a pescar!” — “Let’s fish.” In the days that followed, natives around the camp shouted, “a pescar!” They returned the favor with otter pelts, small fishing nets, and netlike bags.

When they grew more comfortable with the general, one of the chiefs said that bearded people, dressed like Vizcaíno, had been inland. They were probably one of the early Spanish expeditions. But Ascensión feared otherwise. They were “foreigners,” he was certain, “Hollanders or English,” who had found the Strait of Anian: the Northwest Passage that allegedly connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If such a waterway existed, it would shorten the voyage to California by half.

Ascensión overlooked geopolitics. If the intruders were from Holland or England, he said, the king of Spain must send an army at once to “expel such dangerous enemies, lest they contaminate the Indians with their sects and liberty of conscience.”

On November 15, Vizcaíno took a landing party on the frigate to sound the bay. The chief cosmographer, Geronimo Palacios, couldn’t go. He was ill.

They rowed at night. Lanterns lit the flood tide. At dawn, six leagues into the bay, they saw the full extent of their discovery. The king of Spain wanted a safe harbor for Manila galleons heading south to Acapulco. Nothing the expedition had seen thus far came close. San Diego was “large enough for all kinds of vessels, more secure than at the anchorage, and better for careening the ships, for they could be placed high and dry during the flood tide and taken down at ebb tide, even if they were of a thousand tons.”

The more they saw, the more the bay must have resembled Cabrillo’s “San Miguel.” But Vizcaíno had the ambitions of a conquistador (many accused him of wanting to be the next Cortés). He overlooked what must have been obvious: Cabrillo mentioned no port the size of San Miguel south of San Miguel. Nonetheless Vizcaíno acted as if he were the first non-native to discover the splendid natural harbor.

The party anchored, most likely near today’s Seaport Village. They walked three leagues (approximately nine miles) down the South Bay shoreline.

Natives approached at a distance. They kept away, even after signs of peace. Then an ancient woman, dressed in animal skins, emerged from the group. She appeared, writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “to be more than one hundred fifty years old.” The woman, who had “wrinkles like a blacksmith’s bellows,” was weeping.

Why, they never knew. Did she remember Cabrillo? Or know of violent conquistadors inland? Or was she witnessing the end of something. She never said.

Vizcaíno offered her beads and biscuits. Her tears ceased. She gave him pelts of small animals and invited the landing party to her village, its thatch-domed houses not far off. The general had vowed not to harm or interfere with the natives but had already broken that promise once. He said good-bye to the ancient woman, returned to the frigate, and sailed to his flagship the next night.

On November 20, stocked with water, firewood, and fresh meat, the three ships left “San Diego.” The Tres Reyes explored the bay to the north. Ensign Sebastián Melendes later told Vizcaíno that a sand bar, just two fathoms deep, crossed the entry. He saw a large grove of trees along an estuary to the east, and so many natives he didn’t go ashore. Melendes didn’t think the “bay of the narrow entrance,” unprotected from the wind, was worth sounding. One hundred seventy years later, it came to be known as “False Bay.”

The Tres Reyes rejoined the fleet near Encinitas. The northwest wind, writes Ascensión, “king and absolute master of this sea and coast, commenced its work anew.”

As did the curse of scurvy. Men began dying in greater numbers. By the time the fleet reached Monterey Bay, which Vizcaíno named after the viceroy of New Spain, “there was scarcely one who could say he was entirely sound and perfectly well.” ■

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

An eBook version of this story is available from:


SurfPuppy619 Dec. 8, 2011 @ 6:43 p.m.

Awespme histpory lesson, Juan Carbillo! 1542. San Muguel. Knew it all before but it never hurts to be reminded..........


Twister Dec. 8, 2011 @ 8:45 p.m.

One of the best of the Reader. Too bad there aren't more readers!


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!