• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

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. ■

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

An eBook version of this story is available from:


Prosperina Nov. 6, 2011 @ 3:08 p.m.

WHY hasn't someone made a series or a movie out of these adventures!? They read like some of the chapters from the 'Game of Thrones' series - at least these journies and events -- this is great stuff!


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!