Sebastián Vizcaíno began charting the California coast on May 5, 1602. Three ships crossed the Gulf of California, from Mazatlán to Cabo de San José. After several tries, they finally cleared the cape on July 5. Today, it’s a four-hour drive from Cabo San Lucas north to Magdalena Bay. Sailing into constant headwinds and 10- to 12-foot swells, the fleet took 15 days.
On July 20, Vizcaíno’s ship, the San Diego, anchored in the black, phosphorescent waters of Magdalena Bay. The Santo Tomás lay offshore but the crew couldn’t see even the flagship’s masts. The frigate Tres Reyes, forced to turn back several times at the cape, hugged the coast and lagged many leagues behind.
Wanting to contact the Santo Tomás, Vizcaíno ordered four soldiers to climb a high point near the northern entrance. They built a fire from dry grass and sent smoke signals. But no one on board the Santo Tomás understood the message. The decrepit galleon unfurled its sails and headed north.
Ensign Pascual Alarcón took the cosmographer, Geronimo Palacios, and 20 soldiers from the San Diego ashore. Their tasks: sound and map the inlets of Magdalena Bay; search for water amid the barren hills and dunes.
Half a league from a sandy beach spiked with whalebones, Alarcon found a small pool of green water. Since it was the only one around, he had the men fill their bottles with the slimy fluid.
The natives proved friendly. On first contact, they made signs of peace. They dropped bows, arrows, and fire-hardened darts. They gave gifts of incense and showed the soldiers several weirs, thick-beamed enclosures along the shore, where they caught fish in abundance.
On the 25th, the Tres Reyes entered the bay. The reunion was jubilant. Captain Sebastián Melendez told tales of monstrous winds and waves bursting at the bow like bombs of water.
Vizcaíno sent the frigate, which could navigate close to shore, to make a more deliberate search for drinking water. Alarcón returned to the small pond but could fill only 70 bottles. “Although they made great efforts,” writes Vizcaíno’s diarist, “no other fresh water was found.”
On the 27th, owing to “our great need of water,” the two ships set sail. Four leagues out, Vizcaíno ordered his crew to tow the frigate astern “and not become separated again from the Captain’s ship.”
Up ahead, the Santo Tomás came to a bay so thick with whales Captain Corban named it “Bahia de Ballenas” — the Bay of Whales. Corban thus became the second member of the expedition to break the viceroy of New Spain’s edict against renaming sites.
Along the shore, natives made signs of friendship. Others tried to swim to the ship, but high, pounding surf drove them back.
Ensign Juan Tejeda and some soldiers took a launch to shore. The surf was so rough they stayed outside the breakers. Tejeda and another man dove in and swam to the beach. As they came out of the water, writes Father Ascensión, “Indians put some net bags full of oysters on the points of long poles.” They held them out to the Spaniards “with respect and reverence, treating them as gods and not daring to touch or come close to them.”
The natives made signs for fresh water and wood. They pointed inland, where villages could supply other necessities.
On the way back, Tejeda “was badly treated by the sea, from which originated a sickness” that, in time, “ended his life.” The sea didn’t cause the illness — Tejeda died, most likely, from scurvy. He became the first casualty on a voyage that would take many, many more.
The whales at Bahia de Ballenas were so playful they threatened the Santo Tomás. They’d rocket up from below and give the hull a — brotherly? — thump. Some almost capsized the ship.
To keep the giants at bay, the captain ordered constant noise. The crew rang bells and banged on basins. They stomped and howled. Results were mixed: fewer whales continued the game. Those that did began splitting the beams.
On the last day of July, needing water and weary of being the bauble of behemoths, the Santo Tomás weighed anchor. The old galleon caught a favorable breeze and sailed north. The natives, writes Ascensión, were “very sad and hurt to see them go without having communicated with them.”
The water in storage was “somewhat saltish,” says Ascensión, “which under necessity would pass, although was not good for the health.” By this time the green fluid began to have an effect. Dysentery swept through the crew. Noxious odors from the bilge, where the sides of the ship meet the keel, became a constant presence.
On August 15, the Santo Tomás came to a medium-sized island they called “La Asunción,” after the Ascension of the Virgin Mary. Nubbled with sand and gravel, the island looked made of plaster. The patina, it turned out, came from the excrement of pelicans.
Captain Peguero and Father Ascensión took a scouting party ashore. They found a pelican flapping one wing. The other was tied to its body. Although it couldn’t move, piles of sardines lay around its webbed feet. Father Ascensión realized that “as he could not catch them by reason of his captivity,” other pelicans had brought the fish, “so merciful are these birds.”
Ascensión also realized that the trapped bird was a native trick for fishing without getting wet. Once pelicans had brought enough, natives would leap from a bush, chase the birds away, and “obtain sufficient fish without great labor.”
Ascensión released the bird.
While Ascensión, who was the expedition’s second cosmographer, mapped the island and sounded the keys and inlets, three men went fishing near a reef. Using hooks and lines, and no bait, they filled the launch in less than half an hour.
Several days after the Santo Tomás left La Asunción, the San Diego came to a neighbor island, San Roque, with the Tres Reyes in tow. Ensign Alarcón took a search party ashore. They not only found water, they discovered signs that the Santo Tomás had already been there.
The water was in wells close to shore and almost covered with sand. Alarcón ordered quarter-pipes, made from old, rotting forge bellows, to extract what they could. The pipes caused a steady flow from the ground. “It happened,” writes Ascensión, “that all that oozed into the pipes was brackish like sea water, and what oozed out…was sweet and very good.” It was like water to wine.
“A miracle wrought by God” — proclaims Vizcaíno’s diarist — another omen the voyage was on the right track. They filled about 30 barrels and 200 bottles.
But they had to return to the ship in heavy surf. Massive breakers flooded the launch. A wall of white-capped water swept Alarcón over the side. Soldiers tumbled into the foam. While flailing to stay afloat and keep their arquebuses dry, they chased down bottles bobbing toward the shore. Many barrels cracked or vanished. Some wondered: was this Satanic sabotage?
The San Diego and Tres Reyes continued north, lowering the mainsails when winds struck up, tacking back and forth when they grew slack.
On August 19, the Santo Tomás anchored near Cedros Island. The “island of cedars” is a misnomer: the most prevalent trees are scrub junipers, island oaks, pines, and occasional date palms.
This is where the captains agreed to join up if the ships became separated. Originally discovered by Francisco de Ulloa in 1540, Cedros was the largest known island along the peninsula. Among its high hills and perennial fogbanks lived a large native population. When a search party from the Santo Tomás came ashore, “warlike men greeted them with impudence.” They remembered an event 62 years earlier.
In 1540, Ulloa’s expedition had anchored off Cedros. As long as his men stayed on board, the natives rowed their cedar and pine rafts around them in peace. But when sailors came ashore, the natives attacked them with clubs and stones. The Spaniards carried bucklers — small shields held by the fist, maybe 18 inches in diameter — but these were no defense. Almost every sailor suffered a wound, and one died. Ulloa’s men returned fire with crossbows and, he writes, “Our Lord was pleased that we had shot a few of them.”
Trying not to make trouble, the Santo Tomás party searched for, and found, water. Since they couldn’t load all the bottles into the launch, they left 20 behind. When the launch returned, shards of smashed glass glinted in the sand.
Remembering previous assaults, including one by Vizcaíno near La Paz, the viceroy of New Spain had given strict orders to “treat the natives kindly.” The expedition had three aims: chart a region, find wood and water, identify a port for Manila galleons. To discourage confrontations, the viceroy ordered 20–30 armed soldiers to accompany all landing parties. Cedros Island was the first time the Spaniards met resistance. So the Santo Tomás headed to Cape San Agustin, at the southwest corner of the island.
The ship had sailed less than a league when the captain ordered a sailor to climb aloft. The sailor pointed toward the bay at San Agustin. He saw tall masts and shouted, “A ship!”
But what kind? A privateer’s warship? Unlikely. They didn’t attack this far north.
The vessel had obviously just anchored, since sailors were furling its sails. When the lookout realized it was the San Diego, the crew “shouted like crazy men.” They’d been separated for 41 days.
“This news,” writes Ascensión, was “one of the greatest pleasures they had received in their lives…. All this Our Lord, Jesus Christ, so ordained…so that the ships might meet as they desired (blessed be His Majesty forever).”
The fleet returned to where the Santo Tomás first landed. Cedros was so large Vizcaíno’s council wondered if it was an island. They also agreed that a nearby ensenada (small bay) might be the safe harbor they sought for Manila galleons. One party went to circumnavigate the island; another, to find fresh water among clumps of rushes.
Soldiers accompanied both parties. But choosing them was difficult, since many “were becoming worn out and ill.”
Although they ate fish regularly, the soldiers lived on biscuits and salted meat and drank unhealthful water. They’d been more than 45 days at sea, fighting winds “uphill” along a sterile coast. A diet without Vitamin C, plus hard physical labor, had caught up with them. Many became lethargic, then anemic. Their skin bruised easily. Gums became spongy. Then teeth started coming loose. Savvy mariners recognized the symptoms. But the cause was unknown until 1932.
Twelve years after Vizcaíno sailed, John Woodall, surgeon general for the East India Company, published a handbook for ships’ doctors, The Surgeon’s Mate. Woodall described treating gunshot wounds, how to avoid the plague, and amputating gangrene.
He also proposed a cure for the dietary deficiency called “scorbutum.” He found that when worn-out sailors return home with the malaise, better food and rest were natural allies. But for sailors at sea, “experience shows that the Lemmons, Limes, Tamarinds, Oranges, and other[s]” can heal what came to be known as “scurvy.”
People called British sailors “limeys” because they ate the limes Woodall recommended.
Along with little fresh water, the peninsula had few fruit trees, green vegetables, or milk — each could ward off the illness with Vitamin C.
Those able to go ashore attracted angry followers. Natives refused peace offerings. Instead they ran from hill to hill. They shook their bows and fired imaginary arrows at the foreigners: leave or die.
“They were so hard and intractable,” writes Ascensión; he had no knowledge of the Ulloa expedition: “Spaniards must have committed some crime against them on other occasions.”
Even though they found fresh water with the quarter-pipes — another “miracle which God, our Lord, performed for us” — “General” Vizcaíno called a council. The “book of decisions” says they chose to continue their voyage and abandon the potential harbor. It doesn’t mention growing bands of natives mocking their every move with threats of war.
The expedition set sail on September 9. To pass the time aboard ship, soldiers and crew gambled. They had cockfights when they had chickens. Sometimes, they performed charades and impromptu stories. From Cedros Island on, however, fewer and fewer sailors participated. Dull-eyed from fatigue and malnutrition, they expended energy trying to hold fast and roll with the incessant swells. ■
Next: Lost and Found
- Locals refer to Magdalena Bay as Mags Bay. It has so many varieties of marine life it has also been called “the Aquarium of the Pacific.”
- Druett, Joan: “Until the isolation of vitamin C and its direct link to scurvy in 1932, numerous theories and treatments were proposed, often on little or no experimental data.”
- Richard Pourade: “After sickness laid hold of the men, there was much suffering…on all three vessels.”
Bolton, Herbert Eugene, Spanish Explorations in the Southwest, 1542–1706, New York, 1930.
Crosby, Alfred W., Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansions of Europe, 900–1900, Cambridge,1986.
Druett, Joan, Rough Medicine: Surgeons at Sea in the Age of Sail, New York, 2000.
Harlow, Neal, Maps of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego, 1602–1874, Los Angeles, 1987.
Mathes, W. Michael, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion of the Pacific Ocean: 1580–1630, San Francisco, 1968.
Myers, Paul A., North to California: The Spanish Voyages of Discovery, 1533–1603, Coral Springs, 2004.
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 | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation