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Vizcaíno called a general assembly. He ordered each of the frustrated colonists to step forward — and denounced them. He would not stand for insubordination. Anyone even talking about going home would be “punished by death.”

With that, he sailed north. Four days later, a fierce storm separated the two ships. Vizcaíno continued, and on October 13 took part in an incident that, according to Henry Wagner, he later tried to cover up.

As the San Joseph hove into a small bay, Indians in five balsa canoes rowed out with greetings. They made signs: come ashore, have a meal. “Noting that these Indians were better armed and more agile than those at La Paz,” writes Mathes, “Vizcaíno anchored and sent 25 men and the Master Sergeant ashore in [a launch].”

More natives emerged from behind rocks. Vizcaíno ordered the Master Sergeant to come back for 25 more soldiers.

The soldiers and natives traveled half a league inland. They stopped at a water hole, then continued to a village where the Spaniards enjoyed a feast of fish. Once again, the reception pleased Vizcaíno.

Then, in an instant, a soldier shouted something, grabbed his rifle, and bashed an Indian’s chest with the butt end. No one saw — or chose to remember — why. Festivities froze. Looking around, rapidly reading native eyes for clues, Vizcaíno ordered his men to pull back slowly and return to the beach.

A legend grew around the cause. Supposedly, young Don Lope, the viceroy’s page, fell in love with Doña Elvira. She said she would marry him. But first he had to find, or replace, a pearl she had lost. When he heard that Vizcaíno — the “pearl king,” thanks to his royal license — was leading an expedition to California, Don Lope signed up.

He wasn’t just one of the men at the fateful meal; the story goes, he caused the trouble. The chieftan’s daughter wore a pearl identical to Doña Elvira’s on a necklace. Don Lope walked up, ripped it from her, and shouted, “That’s my fiancée’s!”

When he brought the pearl home, Doña Elvira confessed she’d never lost one. She was just teasing. They got married and lived happily ever after.

Whatever the cause — the legend most likely softens blank aggression — as Vizcaíno’s force retreated to the beach, 100 natives followed close behind.

Vizcaíno ordered four soldiers with arquebuses — rifles on tripods — to fire over their heads.

The roar, which ripped the air like nothing they’d heard before, surprised the natives. But since no one was harmed, they continued their pursuit.

Vizcaíno ordered a second volley, this time six arquebuses aimed at the attackers. Three fell dead. The rest scattered.

At the beach, Vizcaíno and 25 soldiers boarded the launch and rowed out to the San Joseph. When the launch returned for the other 25, they wanted to stand their ground and fight it out with the natives, even though they lacked proper artillery.

As soldiers shouted the universal language of battle — taunts and curses — the attacking force regrouped: 100 became 200; then 500 natives scrambled down a hill, howling shouts of war. They darkened the sky with stones, spears, and arrows.

Heavy leather armor protected many of the soldiers. Missiles clacked on five layers of compressed hides, bullet-shaped helmets, oval shields, and fell to the sand. But when an arrow pierced a soldier through the nose, the others panicked and raced to the launch. Several jumped on one side. Others piled on top of them. Water poured over the gunwale. The boat filled up and sank. Chased by splashing arrows, six men swam to safety. Nineteen others drowned.

With no launch, Vizcaíno had to return to La Paz, on October 18, with news of defeat.

Three days later, as cooks prepared an outdoor meal, a north wind flicked sparks onto a straw roof. Flames leapt from building to building. Before the colonists could control the blaze, half the settlement, including most of the food, burned to the ground.

Vizcaíno needed no seer to interpret the sign: the experiment was over. He ordered the San Francisco and the Tres Reyes back to New Spain. He would continue to explore in the San Joseph.

A six-day storm stranded the San Joseph at El Puerto de la Muerte (“Death Port”), where the 19 men had drowned. No one dared go ashore. On November 9, the San Joseph headed up the coast, but started to take on water. The crew demanded a halt, but Vizcaíno refused; they’d had enough problems with natives. He ordered the pilot, Antonio de Rivera, to inspect the hull for cracks.

Rivera traced the leak to the forward keel. Someone had burrowed a hole with a short, dual-edged broadsword.

No one identified the saboteur, which infuriated Vizcaíno. Several days later, the rudder controls suddenly snapped, and the repaired hole began leaking again.

Vizcaíno suspected multiple saboteurs. Was the burning of the settlement also by design? He ordered a return to New Spain. The San Joseph wobbled home, “God in pity conducting us.”

Along the way, the San Joseph anchored off Puerto de la Muerte. Vizcaíno told a shore party to torch all beached canoes.

Back at Salaga, Vizcaíno sent reports to the viceroy and the king. The voyage was not a failure, he protested. They had just sailed during the wrong season. Storms prevented finding pearls.

He proposed a return voyage: five ships supervised by royal officials, plus disciplined soldiers and proper artillery, at least a year’s supply of food, and more priests and “religious ornaments.”

In the letter, Vizcaíno revised his reasons for the expedition. First, the natives needed conversion. Second, the pearl beds, for which the crown would receive a generous portion, were of “excellent quality.” Third, many natives spoke of cities “twenty days travel overland,” where the people wore gold earrings” and cloaks decked with silver — the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola?

In spite of many naysayers, Vizcaíno won the assignment. Five years later, he sailed north once again.

Chapters: 1: Galleon | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation

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Fred Williams Sept. 8, 2011 @ 12:10 a.m.

Interesting and well told. Thank you Jeff Smith.


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