CABRILLO, Juan Rodriguez

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Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Monument
San Miguel Island
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Monument
San Miguel Island
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Monument
San Miguel Island
San Salvador replica at Cuyler's Harbor,
San Miguel Island, 2016

CABRILLO, Juan Rodriguez (1499-1543), Portuguese-born mariner who sailed for Spain and who participated in Cortez’ conquest of Mexico. In 1542 Cabrillo sailed to the waters of Alta California with the San Salvador and Victoria, thus becoming the first European discoverer of California. He sailed with the hope of locating the fabled northwest passage, the “Strait of Annan”, and determining if Asia could be reached by following the Pacific Coast north. Cabrillo departed Navidad near Acapulco in June of 1542 in the San Salvador and the Victoria (Bancroft, 1886:1). Cabrillo’s was the first European expedition to explore along the California coast. He explored the Santa Barbara coast, including many of the offshore islands. Cabrillo’s expedition collectively called the Northern Channel Islands “Islas San Lucas.” They discovered and named Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands, which they called San Salvador and La Victoria, in honor of their two vessels.

Accounts from Cabrillo’s voyage describe the Northern Channel Islands people:

“The Indians of these islands are very poor. They are fishermen; they eat nothing but fish; they sleep on the ground; their sole business and employment is to fish. They say that in each house there are 50 souls. They live very swinishly and go about naked.”

Cabrillo landed at San Miguel Island on October 18, 1542 where he is said to have broken his arm near the shoulder. On November 20 his ships sighted and named Santa Catalina, Santa BArbara and San Nicolas islands. Cabrillo died on January 3, 1543. (Richman, 1911: 6, 22).

In 1937, Santa Barbaran Isaac Bonilla organized several people from Cabrillo Civic Clubs and Native Sons of the Golden West to commemorate Cabrillo as a Portuguese explorer. A 40-inch marble cross and base monument , donated by Santa Barbara Monumental Works, states: “Joao Rodrigues Cabrilho, Portuguese Navigator, Discoverer of California, 1542. Isle of Burial 1543. Cabrillo Civic Clubs, January 3, 1937.” The monument was taken to San Miguel Island by the Coast Guard cutter Hermes and ceremoniously placed on a knoll overlooking Cuyler's Harbor.

Controversy continues to surround both Cabrillo’s birth nation (Spain or Portugal), and his place of death (San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island or elsewhere.)


» Translation from the Spanish of the Account by the Pilot Ferrel of the Voyage of Cabrillo along the West Coast of North America in 1542 in Wheeler, G. M., Report upon U.S. Geographical Surveys west of the 100th Meridian, Volume VII, Archaeology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1879. p. 293-314

» Wagner, Henry R. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, Discoverer of the Coast of California San Francisco, California Historical Society, 1941

» Pourade, Richard F. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo: Discoverer of California in Journal of the West 1:1 (11-23) 1962

» Kelsey, Harry Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo San Marino, Huntington Library, 1986

» Bonilla, Isaac The Cabrillo Monument on San Miguel Island in Northern Channel Islands Anthology, Santa Cruz Island Foundation Occasional Paper #2, 1989, pp. 141-146



In the News~

July 9, 1874 [SBMP]: “...There are many facts of interest connected with the faintly-discerned islands. Very early in the seventeenth century they were visited by the Spanish navigator, Viscaino; and farther back still in the annals of history, by Don Juan de Cabrillo, in the year 1542. Of the latter, it is recorded that he died while cruising in the Channel of Santa Barbara, and was buried on the Island of Santa Cruz. The recent discovery there of a very ancient grave, bearing unmistakable signs of Christian sepulture, leads us to believe that it may be, indeed, the last resting place of the hardy adventurer. Few items of our fragmentary past could be of more interest to California's historians than this discovery; except, perchance, determining the actual explorations made on this coast by Sir. Francis Drake, A.D. 1579, or settling, to our entire satisfaction, the questioned whereabouts of the sainted dust of Father Junipero Serra...”


September 29, 1892 [SFCall]: “…From this bay, which he called that the time San Miguel, Cabrillo went along the coast, encountering many dangers. It is known he touched at Ventura and saw a beautiful group of islands, which he described as the jewels of the sea… Let us not forget, in his lonely grave on San Miguel Island, Cabrillo, the explorer of Alta California…”


March 31, 1894 [SFCall]: “…Little thought the bold navigator, Cabrillo, whose resting place is enshrined in mystery on San Miguel Island, when, three centuries ago, he raised the banner of Spain on this coast…”


May 31, 1901 [LAT]: “It is known that the bones of Cabrillo lie on an island off Santa Barbara, but the exact location of the grave is unknown. It wouldn’t cost much to dig up the whole island and find out, would it?” [Editorial].


July 14, 1908 [LAT]: “Ever since the first California Historical Society was organized intermittent efforts have been made to secure the erection of a monument to the memory of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the interips voyager who discovered California. He certainly deserves one… ‘No traces of his last resting place,’ says Bancroft, ‘almost certainly on San Miguel Island near Cuyler’s Harbor,, have been found, and the drifting sands have perhaps made such a discovery doubtful’…”


September 18, 1908 [SBI]: “A party of investigators is about to invade the Santa Catalina Island to search for the grave of the great Spanish navigator, Cabrillo, who is thought to lie buried there. At the head of the party will be Professor Arnteni, a noted ethnologist of Madrid, Spain, who recently discovered in the royal museum in that city an ancient manuscript containing part of the log of Cabrillo’s ship and giving a rough map of his supposed burial place. From the description given of the locality it is thought the spot is on the island of Catalina. Some historians believe it is on San Miguel Island, one of the Santa Barbara group, however, and failing of their search on Catalina, the scientists will continue their quest on San Miguel. Money and authority for the work has been furnished by the Spanish throne. Catalina Island has long been a favorite vacation place, and a spot of interest to tourists. It is now thought probable that these recreation seekers have been treading the very ground under which Cabrillo’s body was laid by his faithful mariners.”


June 9, 1910 [LAT]: “No doubt the people of California will be glad to learn that a movement is on foot to erect a cairn on the isle of San Miguel, off Santa Barbara, in memory of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the discoverer of California. It was on San Miguel that Cabrillo died. There lies his dust, amid the bright waters which his sail was first to hail…”


August 23, 1923 [SBMP]: “A seaarch for the grave of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, pioneer explorer of the Pacific Coast, and the discoverer of the Channel Islands, was begun yesterday by Captain Arthur Sanger and a party of friends on board the power schooner Dreamer, which sailed from Avalon, Catalina Island, Tuesday. The leaden coffin of Don Juan claimed by historians to be buried somewhere beneath the shifting sands of San Miguel Island, is the prize sought. Members of Captain Sanger’s party also believe that the coffin will be filled with a treasure that would pay off a foreign war loan. Local archaeologists scoff at the belief that there is a treasure concealed in the grave of the Spanish explorer, and assert that by only a chance will they locate the grave. Shifting sands of centuries have drifted over the place if interment, and only the sands blowing away again will bring to light the bones long buried they say. Again, they assert, the Spaniards were not members of a party such as the famous Captain Kidd, and would not bury their treasures. Rather they would be taken to Spain. There are no records in existence that show that the party of the dauntless Cabrillo ever found any gold or other valuables. While no details could be obtained from members of the party on the Dreamer to verify the report that the expedition is in possession of the original map made by Cabrillo himself, it was admitted that the expedition is in possession of authentic proof that such a treasure does exist and that its approximate location is known, according to dispatches received here. The search will continue for a month, according to Captain Sanger.”


November 17, 1936 [H.G.S. Wallace, Captain U.S.N., Acting Commandant, letter to Grand Council of Cabrillo Civic Clubs]: “Dear Sir: In accordance with the request of your letter dated November 17, 1936, permission is hereby granted the Cabrillo Civic Clubs to visit San Miguel Island on January 3, 1937 for the purpose of erecting a small Memorial to John Rodrígues Cabrillo, Discoverer of California. It is requested that you notify this office concerning the character of the Memorial and its proposed location. By carbon copy of this letter, Mr. Robert L. Brooks, lessee of the Island, is being notified that the Commandant has granted permission for members of the Cabrillo Civic Clubs to visit San Miguel Island on the date above mentioned.”


December 5, 1937 [LAT]: “San Miguel Island last resting place of California’s discoverer… A movement is now underway, in connection with the approaching anniversary of California’s discovery, to change the name of San Miguel to Cabrillo Island…”


San Miguel Island

Liquimuymu, 16th century Indian name for San Miguel Island. When Juan Cabrillo visited San Miguel Island (Isla de Posesion) in 1543, it was reported: “The Indians call this island Liquimuymu. In this island de la Posesion there are two villages; the one is called Zaco and the other Nimollollo.” » Translation from the Spanish of the Account by the Pilot Ferrel of the Voyage of Cabrillo along the West Coast of North America in 1542 in Wheeler, G. M., Report upon U.S. Geographical Surveys west of the 100th Meridian, Volume VII, Archaeology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. 1879. p. 293-314.


Santa Rosa Island

Nicalque is the name recorded for Santa Rosa Island by the Cabrillo expedition of 1542. Cabrillo’s chronicler attempted to preserve the local Indian names. As translated from the original account: “The Indians call it Nicalque. There are three villages in it, which are called Nicochi, Coycoy, Coloco.” » “Translation from the Spanish of the Account by the Pilot Ferrel of the Voyage of Cabrillo along the West Coast of North America in 1542” in Wheeler, G. M., Report upon U.S. Geographical Surveys west of the 100th Meridian, Volume VII, Archaeology, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1879. p. 293-314.


Santa Cruz Island

Lilibeque, Miquesesquelua, Muoc, Ninumu, Patiquilid, Patiquiu, Pilidquay, Pisqueno, Poele, Pualnacatup are ten Indian villages recorded on Santa Cruz Island by the 1542 expedition of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.


June 29, 1872 [SBP]: “Sir Francis Drake has been credited with having been the first European to visit the country now known as California. But there is abundant evidence to show that Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator in the service of Spain, discovered it in 1542, forty years previous to Drake’s appearance…”


July 7, 1890 [SBDI]: “The Santa Barbara Society of Natural History met at their rooms Saturday, June 28th, 1890. Mrs. A. A. Boyce in the chair… Among them, the new genus of Nudibranchiates discovered and named by Dr. Fewkes… Dr. Fewkes named the genus Cabrilla from Cabrillo, the famous Portuguese navigator who discovered our islands, and was buried upon one of them. The species was discovered attached to the anchor of a buoy in Prisoners’ Harbor, Santa Cruz Island, and is named Cabrilla occidentalis. It is a soft slug-like animal somewhat resembling the sea hares (Aplysia)…”


September 18, 1908 [SBI]: “Search for Cabrillo’s body on Catalina and San Miguel. A party of investigators is about to invade Santa Catalina Island to search for the grave of the great Spanish navigator, Cabrillo, who is thought to lie buried there. At the head of the party will be Professor Arnteni, a noted ethnologist of Madrid, Spain, who recently discovered in the Royal Museum in that city an ancient manuscript containing part of the log of Cabrillo’s ship and giving a rough map of his supposed burial place. From the description given of the locality, it is thought the spot is on the island of Catalina. Some historians believe it is on San Miguel Island…”


February 29, 1916 [TI/Avalon]: “A replica of the Cabrillo tablet will be erected at Avalon by the Charles Frederick Holder memorial organization, in honor of Cabrillo, the discoverer of Santa Catalina Island…”


June 22, 1916 [SBMP]: “It was on July 4, 1542, more than two centuries before that date was of importance in history, that the first white man stepped on California soil and that fact should add special interest to the Knights of Columbus feature in the Fourth of July historical pageant. Juan Cabrillo, flying the flag of Spain, sailed up this coast in 1542 and on July 4 he and his men disembarked on Monterey Bay…It was while on this voyage along the coast that the great explorer was injured by a falling mast, and the party set in at San Miguel Island, and there Cabrillo died and was buried in a spot of which no record exists…”


February 26, 1919 [ODC]: “Setting out on an expedition to find the skeleton of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first white man to set foot on California shores, and buried in an undiscovered grave on San Miguel Island many years ago, J. R. Moore, millionaire owner of the island, yesterday sailed from Santa Barbara for his small domain. Somewhere on San Miguel Island is the lonely grave of Cabrillo. It is not forgotten, for many attempts have been made to find it, but it is undiscovered. Moore, who lives in Santa Barbara, but who has been in Florida for a year, and who only recently returned to his California home, chartered the Sea Wolf, a private yacht, for the trip…”


February 28, 1919 [VWP]: “Setting out on an expedition to find the skeleton of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first white man to set foot on California shores, and buried in an undiscovered grave on San Miguel Island many years ago, J. R. Moore, millionaire owner of the island, yesterday sailed from Santa Barbara for his small domain… It is said he will make an exhaustive search for Cabrillo’s grave in the hope of unearthing the body, or at least of finding some relics of the early day navigator. Moore is accompanied by a few friends who are interested in the search for Cabrillo’s skeleton… Somewhere on San Miguel Island is the lonely grave of Cabrillo…”


September 12, 1920 [LAT]: “…the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce has determined to launch a systematic search for the grave of Cabrillo, and when it is found a monument will be erected there…”


October 3, 1920 [LAT]: “Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo… Cabrillo’s dust now mingles with the sands of the lonely, wind-swept, sea-washed island of San Miguel, where he died and was buried by his comrades on the third day of January, 1543…”


October 10, 1920 [LAT]: “From out a well-nigh inscrutable past, that is veiled by the shadows of 400 years, parade and pageant will call Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo back to Los Angeles Harbor next Saturday. Though the great discoverers bones lie somewhere beneath the drifting sands of San Miguel Island, it will seem indeed as if the intrepid Portuguese were gazing once more on the fair land he found for the King of Spain…”


December 22, 1920 [SBMP]: “…Ralph Glidden, representing the Heye Foundation of New Your Museum of the American Indian, after searching in vain the sand wastes of the desert isle of San Miguel and nearly all the Channel Islands, is about to turn his attention to Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands convinced, he says, that Cabrillo’s burial place and leaden casket are somewhere else than on San Miguel. Accompanied by Arthur Taschenberger, who was with him during his three months on San Miguel seeking Indian relics, Glidden plans to search every foot of the two larger Channel Islands, it is understood, for historical data regarding the aborigines, including more than twenty large Indian camp grounds, traces of which, he declares, are still to be found.”


June 25, 1926 [LAT]: “Santa Barbara, June 24. Believing that he has at last located the grave of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, discoverer of California, Norton Stuart, curator of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum , is organizing an expedition to search for the lead casket. Cabrillo, history records, died on San Miguel Island in January 1543, after he had explored the channel group, sailed to Monterey and returned because of storms. He fell and received injuries that led to his death. Stuart, who has made a superficial search, believes that Cabrillo was buried on Princess Island, a small islet in one of the harbors of San Miguel, less than thirty-one years after Columbus made his first voyage of discovery. He also asserts that the explorer was buried in a lead casket, clothed in the uniform of a captain, with all the accouterments. Such a casket, he believes, would be well preserved and identification of the body would be certain.”


September 28, 1938 [LAT/SB]: “Lonely island folk to honor California discovered today…Family of four… The only residents of lonely San Miguel Island will hold a solemn little service in memory of the doughty explorer [Cabrillo]… These inhabitants are Herbert S. Lester, known as ‘King of San Miguel,’ his wife, Mrs. Elizabeth Sherman Lester, and their small daughters, Betsy and Marianne. They will ring the bell of the world’s smallest schoolhouse.”


October 1, 1939 [OC]: “Cabrillo Islands. Off the California coast we have some islands unromantically dubbed ‘Channel.’ In history and legend there is every reason they should be given title to remind Californians and others in the future of the man who may have seen them first. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo…”


December 26, 1972 [Desert Sun]: “Berkeley — A University of California anthropologist believes he has found the grave marker of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the Spanish “discoverer of California.” Dr. Robert F. Heizer, professor of anthropology at Berkeley, said Wednesday the foot-long block of sandstone was found on the Channel Islands of Santa Barbara. It bears the crudely carved initials ”J.R.,” a cross and a stick figure gouged into it. Heizer said he believes it was placed over Cabrillo's grave after he died Jan. 3, 1543, while leading the first exploration of the California coast by Europeans. Heizer conceded that it was impossible to prove the stone was the oldest historical relic of Spanish California because of the fragmentary accounts of Cabrillo's voyage and a lack of scientific tests to date the block. ”Without the means of proving that the stone is or is not the one which marked Cabrillo's grave, we are simply left with the possibility it may be that marker,” Heizer said in a monograph published Wednesday by U.C.'s Lowie Museum of Anthropology, where the stone went on display. ”I personally believe that it is probably the grave marker of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo,” said the anthropologist, who later described his conclusion as ”an intuitive one.” Heizer found the stone on campus in the Lowie Museum's collection. It was placed there by Philip Mills Jones, who picked it up from Santa Rosa Island in the Channel group in 1901. The UC professor began researching the possibility it was Cabrillo's gravestone last summer after looking through a report on Jones' trip that Heizer and a colleague edited 16 years ago. On reviewing the report, it occurred to him ”that the initials might be those of the discovered of California, Juan Rodriguez, usually known as Cabrillo.” He said Spanish historians confirmed that a stone, rather than the usual wooden cross, might well have been used to mark the grave of the leader of an expedition. And they said the joined letters were consistent with lettering used in 16th century Spain. Cabrillo voyaged north from Mexico in 1542 after serving with Cortez in the conquest of the Aztec empire. His two ships dropped anchor in San Diego Bay in September 1542, the first Europeans to land on the shores of California. They sailed further north, making several stops before arriving at Monterey Bay. They turned back to winter on the Channel Islands, where Cabrillo died on Jan. 3, 1543 from injuries suffered in a fall during a previous stop at the islands off Santa Barbara. The two ships later sailed north past the mouth of San Francisco Bay, to Point Arena, then returned to Mexico. The voyages had little impact, except to convince the Spanish the Indians possessed no gold or silver. The next Spanish voyage of exploration didn't come for 60 years and settlement began a full two centuries later. Heizer said objections to the stone being accepted as Cabrillo's grave marker includes the possibility it is a fake, the possibility the initials refer to some missionized Indian, a vaquero, a shepherd or a casual visitor of recent centuries, and historians' generally accepted view that Cabrillo was buried on San Miguel Island and not Santa Rosa where Jones picked up the 13.5-inch long, 4.5-inch wide, 2-inch thick chunk of sandstone. It was not marking a grave at the time and may have been carried to Santa Rosa from some other island, Heizer said. He also noted that records of Cabrillo's voyages are a confused abstract of the original log which is unclear about the exact burial site. ”The fact of his death resulting from a broken limb we can accept, and we can also take as fact that his body was taken ashore and buried,” he wrote. ”But where he was interred we are not told with certainty, and nothing at all is said about the circumstances of his burial.” The University of California's Bancroft Library in Berkeley holds another disputed artifact from 16th century California, a brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake when he anchored somewhere on the north coast above San Francisco Bay.” [The Drake plate was later found to be a fake.]