Within a half-century after Christopher Columbus’ successful voyage from Spain to the New World, the Spanish conquered the lands they would call New Spain, now Mexico and Central America. Soldiers, such as Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, expanded Spain imperial ambitions by exploring lands unknown to Europeans. In 1543, Cabrillo became the first Spanish mariner to reach the coast of what would become the state of California.
Little is known about Cabrillo’s early life. Some historians believe he was born in Portugal, and the Portuguese consider him a national hero. However, he was most likely born in Cordoba, Spain in 1499. As a young man, he joined the conquistadors under Hernán Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs and established New Spain. Cabrillo settled into the life of a miner and businessman under the encomienda system of land grants and slavery of natives. He returned to Spain to marry, brought his wife back to the New World, started a family, and developed a reputation as a shipbuilder.
In 1539, the Spanish colonial government commissioned a ship from Cabrillo, and in 1542, he sailed north with two other ships from Navidad, Mexico. He hoped to find an easy route to the Orient, or the Pacific Ocean entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage. On September 28, after a voyage of 103 days, he dropped anchor at what would later be called Ballast Point in San Diego Bay. The explorer became the first European known to set foot on the west coast of the future United States. He continued north, visiting Santa Catalina and possibly sighting Point Reyes, though he missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay.
After autumn storms drove his fleet south to the Channel Islands, Cabrillo died of gangrene after suffering an injury during an attack by native inhabitants. His ships, under the command of a lieutenant, again sailed north, possibly reaching the mouth of the Rogue River in Oregon, though the ships were again driven back by winter weather. Though contemporaries considered the expedition a failure, it established Cabrillo as an important figure in the history of California and a pioneering maritime explorer of the west coast of North America.
In 2015, the Maritime Museum of San Diego launched a full-size replica of Cabrillo’s flagship, San Salvador. Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain berthed next to the three-masted replica during their visit to the museum in December, 2015.