Coastal Navigation and Exploration
of the Monterey Bay Area

by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.



European exploration of the western coast of North America began just 50 years after Columbus' 1492 voyage. The intervening 50 years was characterized by intensive westward and northward exploration and expansion into the New World.

All that was known of California prior to 1769 was based on the reports of six expeditions: Cabrillo in 1542-1543; Drake in 1579; Gali in 1584; Cermeño in 1595; Vizcaíno in 1602-1603; and Carreri in 1696.

The two-ship Portuguese expedition under the command of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (João Rodrigues Cabrilho) explored northward from Jalisco in 1542, stopping at San Diego Bay on September 28th, San Pedro on October 6, Santa Monica on the 9th, San Buenaventura on the 10th, Santa Barbara on the 13th and Pt. Concepcion on the 17th. Because of adverse winds the expedition turned back at about Santa Maria, harboring at San Miguel Island, and did not progress beyond Santa Maria until November 11. With a favorable wind later that day they reach the "Sierra de San Martin," probably Cape San Martin and the Santa Lucia Mountains in southern Monterey County. Struck by a storm and blown out to sea, the two vessels are separated and do not rejoin until the 15th, probably near Año Nuevo north of Santa Cruz. The next day they drifted southward, discovering "Bahía de los Pinos"and "Cabo de Pinos." These are most likely Monterey Bay and Point Pinos. On the 18th they turned south, passing snow-capped mountains (the Santa Lucias), and on November 23 returned to their harbor at San Miguel Island, where they remained for nearly three months. Cabrillo died on January 3, 1543 from a broken arm he suffered in October. On February 18, 1543, the expedition, under the command of Bartolomé Ferrelo, again turns north and, with favorable winds, according to Bancroft, reaches about Cape Mendocino on March 1. There they were caught by a storm and blown all the way back to San Miguel Island by March 5. From there, the expedition turned south, and arrived at Navidad on April 14.

Francis Drake entered the Pacific via Cape Horn in 1578, both in search of a route to Asia and to raid Spanish treasure. In the latter he was apparently successful. Keeping well out to sea, Drake sailed the Golden Hind from the Oajaca coast in April of 1579, seeking the route to Asia. He sailed north, passing Monterey Bay, but by June the extreme cold forced him to turn toward land. On June 17, Drake found a suitable harbor, where he stayed for over a month to conduct minor repairs on his vessel. This harbor was either Drake's Bay or Bodega Bay, both just north of San Francisco Bay. On July 23, Drake sailed into the Pacific, never to return.

During the same period of time, Spain explored and developed trade routes to the Philippines, and annual voyages between the new source of wealth in the Orient and the Pacific coast occupied the Crown's interests after 1566, leaving exploration of California's coastal waters until a later date. The normal route of return from the Philippines was to steer north to latitude 30° to find favorable winds, and to turn south as soon as seaweed indicated they were nearing land. This brought most vessels to the lower end of Baja California, from where they sailed south to Acapulco.

In 1584, Francisco Gali, commanding one of the ships returning from Macao by way of Japan, ventured much farther to the northeast, reached the California coast, possibly at Cape Mendocino, and sailed southward along the coast to Mexico. It is likely that he was not the first of the Manila galleons to do so, and some may have gone ashore for water or other supplies. It is known that one of the Manila route ships, captained by Pedro de Una muno, anchored in Morro Bay on October 18, 1587, and penetrated inland to the site of San Luis Obispo.

Attacks on the Manila galleons by English corsairs pointed up the weakness of Spain's defense of her western coast, instigating new efforts, beginning in 1595, to chart the unguarded coast.

Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño, returning from the Philippines in 1595, was directed to explore more of the California coast, and so, like Gali, followed a more northern route. His vessel, the San Agustin, ran aground at Drake's Bay on November 30, and the crew spent some time exploring inland in the vicinity of Marin County while repairs were made. The cargo, wax and silk, had to be left in boxes on the shore. The repaired vessel, or in some accounts the ship's launch, called the Santa Buenaventura, briefly described the Monterey Bay on December 9, 1595, and returned to the mainland in January, 1596.

Sebastian Vizcaíno left Mexico City on March 7, 1602, and arrived in Acapulco on the 19th. His expedition sailed on May 5, 1602 with four vessels, described as two ships (the San Diego and Santo Tomás), a frigate (the Tres Reyes), and a long boat. They reached Cape San Lucas on June 8, where they were forced to abandon the long boat. The remaining three vessels battled up the outer coast of Lower California, frequently short on water and separated, until they finally reached San Diego on November 10--a voyage of six months and five days! San Diego was chosen as the name of the port both for the flagship and for the feast of San Diego de Alcalá on November 12. They left San Diego on November 20, landed on Santa Catalina Island, passed through the Santa Barbara Channel and rounded Point Concepcion, which they named for the vigil or feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 7 or 8). A favorable wind on December 13 carried them along the shore below the Santa Lucia Mountains, which they saw only when the fog lifted on the 14th. The fleet sailed past Carmel Bay and on December 16, rounded Punta de los Pinos (Point Pinos) and entered the harbor, which they named after the viceroy of Mexico, Don Gaspár de Zúñiga y Acevedo, Count of Monte Rey, who had dispatched the expedition. They went ashore the following day, and pitched the church tent under the shade of an oak whose branches touched the tidewater, 20 paces from springs of good water in a ravine. Most of the sailers were suffering from scurvy; many were seriously ill, and 16 had died! (A detailed account of Vizcaíno's exploration of Monterey is presented here.)

On December 29, the San Tomás, carrying the sick, as well as news of the expedition, was dispatched for Acapulco. The voyage was one of great suffering; 25 men died on the way, or soon after arrival. Only nine survived. At midnight on January 3, 1603, the remaining two ships sailed north from Monterey. On January 7 the vessels were separated off Drake's Bay, and did not meet again. Vizcaíno on the San Diego pushed north, sighting Cape Mendocino on January 12. The next day a gale forced the ship to hove to near the cape. By January 19 they had passed north of Cape Mendocino, but as only six men are able to work it was decided to return to La Paz. They arrived at Mazatlan on February 7, where a remedy for scurvy was found, thus limiting the loss of life. The vessel reached Acapulco on March 21. The Tres Reyes did not fare nearly as well. That vessel was driven by the gale which struck the San Diego to an anchorage behind a cliff near Cape Mendocino. On January 19, they pushed perhaps as far north as the Oregon border. There, because of sickness and because they had reached the limit of their instructions, they turned for home. The Tres Reyes arrived at Acapulco on February 23 with only five survivors!

Vizcaíno accomplished little in the way of new exploration. Except for the Monterey Bay, he discovered no more than Cabrillo had 60 years earlier. He did, however, chart the coast with such accuracy that his maps were used until about 1790. Vizcaíno returned with a glowing description of the port of Monterey, and for a time it appeared that he would be sent back. But by then, attention was turning to the western Pacific. Vizcaíno passed along the California coast one last time, sighting Cape Mendocino on December 26, 1613, but this time he was a passenger on a ship returning from Japan.

Following Vizcaíno's visit, the California coast was relatively well known, although San Francisco Bay had not yet been discovered. But for over 150 years, no ship is known to have arrived from the south, while the Manila ships may have touched at the newly discovered ports none recorded in any detail what they saw in the new lands. The one exception is Gamelli Carreri, who described his southward trip in 1696 in some detail. The only land he sighted, however, was probably Santa Catalina Island.

Thus, while there undoubtedly were numerous visits by Manila galleons, including some into Monterey Bay, as Culleton put it--after Vizcaíno left, Monterey slept for 166 years.


Copyright 2000 by G.S. Breschini



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