Probes to the north

Conquistadores from the north and the south had met in central America by 1524–5, and there was no longer room for a doubtful strait in that region: if one existed, it must be well to the north. From 1528 to 1530 Cortes was in Spain, trying to mend his political fences; he had after all slipped away from Cuba in 1519 in disregard of authority, and his later legitimisation—first by his own obviously managed creature, the Vera Cruz town meeting, and then by royal favour after his triumph—had left him with many foes at Court. He returned to New Spain with the title of Marques del Valle de Oaxaca and vast estates in that valley and elsewhere, which he exploited with imaginative capacity; but he was cut off from real power. At the age of forty-five, a man of his temper could hardly be content with the life of an improving landlord, on however grand a scale (the original grant had perhaps a million souls)[27] and however much he excelled at it. He turned his attention to the exploration of the northern shores of the Mar del Sur; it was not yet realised that winds and currents would greatly hamper coastwise sailing to the north.

Cortes's first effort, two ships sent from Acapulco in 1532, was a fiasco, ending in mutiny, shipwreck, and the disappearance of the commander, though it did discover the Tres Marias, islands beautifully located to become a handy point of repair for pirates.[28] In the next year he sent out two more ships from Tehuantepec: one found Socorro in the Revillagigedos; the pilot of the other killed his captain and was himself killed by Indians at La Paz in Baja California,- 66 -now first seen by Europeans. Not surprisingly, Cortes decided to take personal command of the next voyage, devoted to gathering up the remnants of the earlier misadventures, searching for reported pearl-banks, and colonising the new country. He sailed from Tehuantepec with three ships and reached La Paz (also called Santa Cruz) in May 1535. Some exploration was done, but two ships were lost; the country was sterile, and it was impossible to support the little colony, which was abandoned about the end of 1536.

Cortes made one more effort before returning to Spain permanently in 1540; in July 1539 he sent out two or three small ships from Acapulco under Francisco de Ulloa. This voyage had notable results: both shores of the Mar Vermejo (the Gulf of California) were explored to its head, demolishing the hope that this long inlet might be the much-desired strait, and establishing the peninsular nature of Baja California—the idea of California as an island comes much later, and reaches its full flowering only in the seventeenth century. The ocean coast of the peninsula was also followed as far as 29°N, beyond Cedros Island, and perhaps indeed as far as the modern San Diego. But Ulloa himself was probably lost on the voyage, and it is more likely that Cabo Engano—‘Cape Deception’ or ‘Disappointment’—marks the end of the voyage. This was the last of the deeds of Cortes, and to some extent an anticlimax.

Nor did more success attend the expeditions sponsored by Cortes's rival, the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. One of these, under Francisco de Bolanos (1541), may be responsible for the name ‘California’, the origin of which is literally romantic, stemming ultimately perhaps from the Chanson de Roland and more immediately from Queen Calafia in the romance Las Sergas de Esplandidian (c. 1498): this lady ruled the Island of California, which lay quite near the Earthly Paradise but was inhabited solely by black Amazons. A concept worthy of Hollywood; but it is possible that the name was bestowed by Cortes's enemies in irony, on a land that certainly did not flow with milk and honey. The only other voyage of note was that by Hernando de Alarcon in 1542, which entered the Colorado River but otherwise added little.[29]

This first phase on the Mar del Sur, however, saw one more important voyage, that of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese, and Bartolomé Ferrelo in 1542–3.[30] These men sailed from La Navidad, which was established about 1536 and for a time was a notable base: Villalobos and Legaspi sailed thence for the Philippines.[31] Leaving at the end of June 1542, Cabrillo reached on 28 September a port ‘closed, and very good, which they named San Miguel’; this was the site of modern San Diego, and they were the first Europeans to land on the Pacific coast of what is now the United States. Here, and at other points, Cabrillo heard tell of white men to the east, presumably rumours of distant encounters with parties from Coronado's great sweep in search of golden Quivira and the Seven Cities of Cibola, which began in 1540 and went past the Grand Canyon of Colorado and into central Kansas. Some of these encounters had been violent, and Cabrillo was careful to conciliate the Indians by generous gifts.

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In October he discovered the Santa Barbara Islands off the present Los Angeles. The two little ships pressed on, despite adverse gales, and in mid-November made a landfall some 50km north of San Francisco, close to the site where two and a half centuries later the Russians were to build Fort Ross. Driven south, they came to Drake's Bay, and were then forced back to the Santa Barbara Islands. Here on 3 January 1543 Cabrillo died from an accidental injury he had received at the same place in October, but in dying he charged his men to carry on. Ferrelo took over, and in late February reached his farthest north, probably off southern Oregon; at this point they met furious storms from the north and northwest and had to turn back, still exploring the coast; they returned to La Navidad on 14 April 1543.

This was a well and resolutely managed expedition, finding some 1300km of new coast and pushing the doubtful strait to that extent northwards; in one voyage, they had paralleled the entire coast of the modern State of California. Cabrillo seems to have been an admirable leader; but his achievement was to be half or quite forgotten, and duplicated sixty years later by Vizcaino. His names were not retained on the map; his sorrowing crew renamed his ‘Posesion’, where he died, Isla de Juan Rodriguez; it is now San Miguel. It is strange that modern American piety has not revived so deserved a tribute to the true discoverer of Alta California; the more so as it seems likely that the original stone set up on his grave still exists.[32]