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Other explorers followed the Cabrillo expedition, including Pedro de Unameno who opened the Acapulco-Manila trade route between the Philippines and Mexico in 1565, allowing Spain to realize Columbus' dream of a new trade route with the Indies. The Manila galleon trade lasted until 1815 (Schurz,1939; Keistman, 1964; Hole and Heizer, 1973). Another expedition led by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602 produced fairly accurate charts of the coast and harbors of Southern and Central California. The development by Spain of the Manila galleons in 1565, which transported Chinese porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and other exotic goods from Asia to Spanish settlements in Mexico, resulted in the inclusion of the west coast into global trade (BOEM, 2013:188).

Between 1565 and 1815 Spain is reported to have owned 108 galleons. The Manila galleons were restricted by the Spanish Monarch to one or two ships/year and typically carried all the goods accumulated in the Philippines in a year's worth of trading silver, from the Mints in Peru and Mexico, with the Chinese and others, for spices, silk, gold and other expensive goods. The Manila galleons sailed annually from the Philippines bound for Acapulco. Convoys of two to five ships left Acapulco, Mexico, setting sail for the Spanish colony of Manila in the Philippines. On an average, three to five million silver pesos were shipped annually from Mexican mints to Manila, the “Queen of the Orient.” The sliver and gold was waggishly referred to as “silk money.” Silk stockings were prized by the fashionable Spanish gentry in Mexico and Spain. But the silver and gold bought other lavish exports as well. They came from all over the Far East: spices, Ming porcelain, opals, amethysts, pearls and jade. There were art treasures, ebony furniture, carved ivory and other exquisite rarities found only in China, Japan, India, Burma and Siam.

The sailing masters steered the galleons as near to 30 degrees north latitude as possible, often having to travel further north to find favorable winds. After the long trip across the Pacific, the ships turned south upon seeing the first indications of land and thus avoiding the uncharted hazards of the California coast (MMS, 1987). If all went well, the first land seen by the sailors would be the tip of the Baja peninsula. The ship then sailed to Acapulco.

The galleons, after a long and laborious return voyage eastward, often made landfall around Cape Mendocino, California, then sailed on to Acapulco. Once unloaded, the cargoes were transported overland by mule train to Veracruz and then taken by Spanish galleons to Seville, Spain. Five Manila Galleons are known to have sunk off the west coast of the United States. One, the San Agustin, sank in 1595, victim of a gale in Drakes Bay, northwest of San Francisco.

Many galleons never made it to safe harbor in Acapulco. Five Manila Galleons are known to have sunk off the west coast of the United States. One, the San Agustin, sank in 1595, victim of a gale in Drakes Bay, northwest of San Francisco. Others include:

  • San Agustin (Cermeño's vessel lost at Drake's Bay in 1595);
  • Capitana (unknown location, circa 1600);
  • Nuestra Señora de Ayuda (Catalina Island, circa 1641);
  • Francisco Xavier (Columbia River, Oregon, circa 1707)

Galleons also fell prey to pirates:

  • Sir Francis Drake
  • Thomas Cavendish (Santa Ana, off the tip of Baja, 1587)
Upon reaching the Gulf of California in October 1587 Cavendish and his two ships put in at an island above Mazatlan where they careened their ships to clean their bottoms and made general repairs. They had to dig wells for water. They sailed for Cape San Lucas on the Baja Peninsula and set up patrols to see if they could spot the Manila galleon. Early on 4 November 1587 one of Cavendish's lookouts spotted the 600 ton galleon manned with over 200 men. After a several hour chase the English ships overhauled the Santa Ana—which conveniently had no cannons on board, in order to carry the added cargo. After several hours of battle during which Cavendish used his cannon to fire ball and grape shot into the galleon while the Spanish tried to fight back with small arms, the Santa Ana, now starting to sink, finally struck her colours and surrendered. While burning, the Santa Ana drifted onto the coast where the Spanish survivors extinguished the flames, re-floated the ship and limped into Acapulco. Cavendesh was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I of England for his capture of the spoils.
  • George Compton (San Sebastian, aground on Catalina Island, 1754)

(Schurz,1939; Bancroft, 1886; Meighan and Heizer, 1952).

When Spain finally colonized California, all Spanish ships sailing along the California coast including the Manila galleons, were required to stop at Monterey. Schurz (1939) states that over 30 Manila galleons were lost over the 250 years of trade. A few were wrecked on the westward passage and others shortly after leaving Manila. At least a dozen remain unaccounted for. During the following period of Spanish rule, George Vancouver, an Englishman, explored much of the Pacific coast between 1791 and 1795, which was the last documented exploration of coastal California by ship.

[Manila Galleons]

Santa Marta Santa Catalina Island 1582 Crew and some cargo was saved.
San Pedro Santa Catalina Island 1598
Nuestra Señora de Auyda [west of Santa Catalina Island] 1641 Some crew survived. All cargo lost.
San Sebastian Santa Catalina Island 1754 Run aground on Santa Catalina Island and sunk.