Lady Washington: Pacific Ocean Explorer and Trader

painting of Lady Washington

Lady Washington, by James R. Williamson

by Connie Allen and David Cottrell

The original Lady Washington story begins with an accidental discovery after the death of the English explorer, Captain James Cook. His mission to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific Ocean across North America was unsuccessful. Instead the sailors of his ship discovered the high value of sea otter skins, which they acquired from indigenous hunters in the Pacific Northwest, and subsequently sold in China. John Ledyard, one of Cook’s marines, returned to his home in Connecticut with dreams of fortunes to be made in the new fur trade. Ledyard spent the rest of his life lobbying rich and influential citizens of the new United States to take advantage of this “soft gold.”

Shortly before Ledyard’s death, a group of Boston merchants led by Joseph Barrel financed a trading mission to the Pacific Northwest. They outfitted the 212-­ton ship Columbia Rediviva, with Captain John Kendrick as master, and a coastal tender, the sloop Lady Washington, commanded by Captain Robert Gray. Departing from Boston on September 30, 1787, the two vessels sailed around Cape Horn loaded with trade goods.

Rough seas and crew disagreements made a long, miserable, and dangerous voyage. Near Cape Horn, the ships lost sight of one another in a storm, and they would not see each other again for over six months. Robert Haswell, a member of Lady Washington’s crew, kept a journal during this passage. He wrote:

“The wind blew a perfect hurricane accompanied with rain, hail, snow and sleet, with an intense frost. The sea immediately [rose] to an immoderate height and frequently threatened us with instant destruction, for had the smallest of these huge overgrown seas struck us it would infallibly put a period to our existence….

Unfortunately for us at 4 AM we carried away our jib stay in a sudden squall and with the greatest difficulty we saved the sail…. It was now we first materially felt how greatly our hardships had debilitated all the crew, for there was not one sailor on board who was able to go aloft and take down the old jib stay or fit a new one….”

After over ten months, Lady Washington made landfall at Tillamook on the Oregon Coast. “Marcos Lopez, a native of the Cape Verde Islands … being employed carrying grass down to the boat had carelessly stuck his cutlass in the sand. One of the Natives seeing this took a favorable opportunity to snatch it … and run off with it.” (Haswell) A violent conflict followed, in which Tillamook people and Lady Washington crew were killed, including Lopez. Fear and retaliation marred the aftermath of this early encounter.

Lady Washington exchanged goods with local Quinault[link] whalers near Ocean Shores before she rendezvoused with Columbia in Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Americans stumbled into the middle of a conflict between Spanish and British traders. Kendrick walked a fine line between the two groups in what became a major international dispute. Visitors also learned that trading with various indigenous people had mixed results, sometimes with tragic, long­term outcomes. The indigenous Pacific Northwest nations engaged in a complex trade culture prior to the Euro­American arrival and frequently got the best of bargaining with the newcomers. In Haida Gwaii[link], Kendrick had a misunderstanding and publicly humiliated a Haida chief named Coyah. This was to have serious repercussions when he returned the following year on Lady Washington.

After a winter and summer on the Pacific Northwest coast, the two captains exchanged commands. Gray sailed Columbia back to Boston by way of China and Hawaii, where he picked up the first Hawaiians to visit the United States. Kendrick followed in the Lady Washington, leaving three of his crew in Hawaii to build a boat for Kamehameha, a young leader who would later unite the islands, and instruct his people in the use of firearms.

Kendrick probably received sandalwood and provisions in exchange. Arriving in China, Kendrick was disappointed with the return on his cargo. He spent most of his earnings re-rigging Lady Washington as a brig. This would allow better use of the trade winds for her many trips across the Pacific. Kendrick “sold” the ship to himself, allegedly to avoid third party fees connected with this repair.

The following spring, Lady Washington sailed for the Northwest Coast in company with the American schooner Grace, stopping in Japan for supplies and becoming the first American vessels to visit that country. A samurai chronicler later recorded, “During the eleven days that the foreign ships were off Oshima Island, the local officials were unable to prevent them from landing to get water and wood for fuel. The local people thought the Americans were quite rude to cut so many trees.” [translation by M. Malloy]

Returning to the Pacific Northwest for a second load of furs, Kendrick again visited Haida Gwaii where his previous insults were remembered. Coyah brought a number of Haida people on board, overpowering the crew and holding Kendrick at knife point until crew were able to scrounge a few weapons from below deck and lead a counterattack. The crew recaptured the vessel and killed many Haida people.

Returning to China that winter, Lady Washington again stopped in Hawaii and left three people on Kauai to gather sandalwood. During the subsequent eastward voyage, a typhoon stripped away the tender and nearly destroyed the ship. She limped back to China for more costly repairs. At this time, Lady Washington may have been re­rigged as a snow, similar to a brig with a higher, loose­footed sail aft. The repairs took about a year and were probably financed in part by John Howell, an Englishman acting as a shipping agent in China.

Kendrick made a final trip to the Pacific Northwest the following year, stopping again at Hawaii on his return to China. This time inter­island rivalry was coming to a head and Kendrick steered clear of alliances. Not so the masters of the vessels Jackal and Prince Lee Boo. These ships were celebrating their role in a victory with a cannon salute while Lady Washington was anchored at Honolulu Harbor. Unfortunately, the Jackal’s gunner accidentally fired a live round. “It pierced the side of the Lady Washington and killed Captain Kendrick as he sat at his table, and killed and wounded many upon the deck.” (Boit)

On Kendrick’s death, John Howell took possession of Lady Washington. James Rowan, the mate, stepped up as captain and proceeded to China. Roger Simpson, a British captain hired by Howell, attempted to take Lady Washington on one last trading voyage to the Pacific Northwest, but persistent leaks stopped her at Hawaii. Returning to Macao, the vessel was outfitted for a voyage to Manila, this time with Howell in command. Daniel Paine was a passenger on that final voyage. His journal describes the storm and the chain of events on the fateful day of July 21, 1797 that lead to the Lady Washington running aground and breaking up near Vigan, Philippines as they attempted to take shelter in the mouth of the river:

“We struck abaft and lifted our rudder, attempted to throw the ship into the wind but she would not come up. Weathered the helm and then let go an anchor. But the violence of the tide and sea set us fast on the east side before we could bring the vessel up in the stream. We kept all sail set, the wind blowing off shore, but the force of the tide and swell of the sea counteracted all our endeavors…. It was now thought advisable to get everything possible out of the vessel and leave her until the weather should moderate, it blowing hard and very heavy surf beating on shore…. The people all came on shore excepting the mate and the Portuguese steward that would not leave the ship.”

The Lady Washington served in the American Northwest fur trade for ten years under five captains. It crossed the Pacific Ocean ten times, touching a myriad of nations and cultures along the way.

Connie Allen is former education programs manager for Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority. David Cottrell is a current board member and long­time volunteer for the modern replica of Lady Washington.

Further Reading
Howay, Frederic W., “Voyages of the Columbia to the Northwest Coast,” OHS Press 1990.
Nokes, Richard J., “Columbia’s River,” WSHS, 1991.
Knight, R.J.B. and Frost, Alan, editors, “The Journal of Daniel Paine 1794­1797,” Library of Australian History, 1983.

American Explorers: Charles Wilkes

painting of Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes

In the early years of the 19th century, the young United States developed a self-image as a continental power with interests that stretched to North America’s west coast. After the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, the most important expression of the US’s international aspirations was the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, which established the country’s naval and scientific interests in the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was led by Charles Wilkes, who played a key role in the exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

Born in New York City in 1798, Charles Wilkes’ mother died when he was three years old. Raised by his aunt, he entered the Navy as a midshipman at age 18. He taught himself how to survey and map coastlines, a skill that earned him the appointment as commander of the United States Exploring Expedition. The government ordered six ships fitted out for a mission that would take now-Lieutenant Wilkes around the world. As well as a military and diplomatic mission, the flotilla also included nine scientists and an artist to collect specimens and record the journey.

After departing Hampton Roads, Virginia, and stopping at Rio de Janiero, Wilkes visited Antarctica and mapped an area now called Wilkes Land, proving that Antarctica is a continent and not an island. Moving on to the South Pacific, Wilkes and the expedition had a number of tragic encounters with indigenous people. On Fiji, Wilkes’ men killed about 80 natives in retaliation for the killing of two seamen, one of whom was Wilkes’ nephew. Wilkes was later court-martialed for the action, but acquitted.

In 1841, Wilkes mapped portions of the west coast of North America. Entering Puget Sound, he dropped anchor in Discovery Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca 50 years to the day after Capt. George Vancouver visited the area. Wilkes sailed south in Puget Sound and surveyed much of the estuary, including naming Elliott Bay, the deep water harbor for Seattle. While in Puget Sound, he learned of the loss of the sloop-of-war USS Peacock, which foundered on the Columbia River bar, though most of the scientific samples and drawings were saved. Wilkes eventually traveled overland to San Francisco Bay, which he declared one of the finest harbors in the world, along with Puget Sound.

Wilkes returned to the US in 1842 after circumnavigating the globe. Until the Civil War, he worked on the enormous 19-volume history of his expedition. The narrative and atlas became one of the most important US scientific works of its time. His reputation as a strict disciplinarian was sealed when he was convicted in a court-martial of illegally disciplining his men during the expedition. With the outbreak of the war, Wilkes was given command of a squadron to combat blockade runners. He caused an international incident when he arrested two Confederate diplomats aboard a British Royal Mail ship. It took a disavowal by President Lincoln to smooth things over and avoid a war with Great Britain.

After the war, Wilkes retired and died a rear admiral in 1877. Though controversial, Wilkes established the United States as a naval power in the southern and eastern Pacific Ocean, and he strengthened US claims to the Oregon Territory, paving the way for further exploration, settlement, and annexation of the region by America.

HistoryLink: Wilkes, Charles (1798-1877)
Encyclopedia Brittanica: Charles Wilkes
Wikipedia: Charles Wilkes
Wikipedia: United States Exploring Expedition

English Explorers: George Vancouver

painting of George Vancouver

George Vancouver

Of all the early European explorers of the west coast, few have had the long-term impact of Capt. George Vancouver. His expedition of 1791-95 in the ships HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham left an indelible mark on the maritime history of the region. For example, many of the place names associated with the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, such as Puget Sound, Whidbey Island, and Vancouver Island, come down from his explorations.

Born in 1757 as the youngest of five children in a well-to-do family, George Vancouver entered the Royal Navy at age 13. Unique among British institutions, the Royal Navy rewarded competence with advancement, and after accompanying the explorer Capt. James Cook on his voyages to the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver was commissioned a lieutenant in 1779. After years of practice charting coastlines, he was given command of a new British expedition to the Pacific and the west coast of North America.

Vancouver’s expedition of 1791-95 included Australia and the South Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands, and the coastline of North America from the northern border of California to Alaska. Accompanying him were several officers who would later distinguish themselves, including Peter Puget, Joseph Baker, Joseph Whidbey, William Broughton, Zachary Mudge, Thomas Manby, and Robert Barrie. Vancouver named Puget Sound, Mount Baker, Whidbey Island, and other landmarks after his officers. He named Admiralty Inlet, the main entrance to Puget Sound, after the British navy’s governing body, and Mount Rainier, Washington State’s tallest mountain, after Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. In this process, much of the early Spanish accomplishments in exploration were lost or forgotten as Vancouver’s names gained favor by English and American cartographers.

Vancouver also encountered Capt. Robert Gray, an American who had left Boston for the Northwest Coast in 1787. During his voyage in Columbia Rediviva, Gray had entered the Columbia River, which other explorers had missed. Vancouver didn’t believe Gray at first, but changed his mind after receiving confirmation. Vancouver later explored the river using two small boats, naming Oregon’s Mount Hood after another prominent British officer.

Like most exploratory expeditions at the time, Vancouver’s mission was partly scientific, partly political. A botanist accompanied the voyage to collect and catalog plant species for later study. On the political front, Vancouver formally claimed the lands around Puget Sound for Great Britain, naming the area New Georgia. (Great Britain would later cede these claims to the United States.) Vancouver also played a role in keeping the Nootka Crisis from becoming a full-scale war between Great Britain and Spain. He maintained cordial relations with Spanish explorer and diplomat Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra until later negotiations settled the territorial dispute.

The strain of command and the years away at sea took their toll on Vancouver. Attacked in the press and physically on a London street by a former midshipman aboard Discovery, the explorer died in 1798 at age 40. Though few monuments exist to his memory in England, apart from his grave, he earned a permanent place in west coast maritime history every time a sailor refers to a place he explored.

HistoryLink: Vancouver, George (1758-1798)
Wikipedia: Vancouver Expedition
Wikipedia: George Vancouver

Spanish Explorers: Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra

Painting of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra

The influence of the Kingdom of Spain on the northwest coast of North America reached its zenith in the late 18th century. Competition with Great Britain and Russia forced Spain to confirm its claims, and the crown sent several expeditions to formalize its control. Among the explorers was Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who also played a role as a diplomat and peacekeeper with Britain.

Born in Lima, Peru in 1743, Bodega y Quadra entered the Spanish Navy at age 19 and soon earned a reputation as a competent naval officer. In 1775, he joined the second Spanish exploratory expedition to the lands of “Nueva Galicia,” as Spain called its possessions north of the modern border between California and Oregon. As commander of Sonora, the smaller of two ships, he visited the modern Trinidad Bay and explored Grenville Bay on the coast of later Washington State. Near Point Grenville, most of his crew was slaughtered by a party of Quinault Native Americans, who may have been defending their ancestral lands. After the Spaniards killed another group of natives in self-defense, the expedition moved on, though Bodega named the place “Punta de los Martires,” or Point of the Martyrs.

In July 1775, Bodega took his ship north, while the other, larger vessel, Santiago, under Bruno de Heceta, turned south. Determined to accomplish the core mission of formalizing Spanish claims to lands south of the 60th parallel, Bodega reached a body of water he named Bucareli Sound after the viceroy of New Spain. The bay is now in the state of Alaska. Four years later, he was in charge of the vessel Favorita as second-in-command of another expedition to the area under Ignacio de Arteaga, which reached as far north as modern-day Ketchikan, Alaska.

His reputation set as an intrepid explorer and naval leader, Bodega was promoted numerous times and served in high positions in the Spanish Navy, until he was sent back to command the naval department at San Blas, which oversaw west coast possessions. In the meantime, tensions between Great Britain and Spain nearly exploded into war after a hotheaded Spanish officer, Esteban José Martinez, seized British vessels at Vancouver Island, precipitating the Nootka Crisis, which ended with the Nootka Convention of 1790, committing Spain to handing over seized lands to the British.

In 1792, Bodega arrived at Nootka Sound to administer the agreement, and after negotiations with British explorer Capt. George Vancouver, the diplomat succeeded in maintaining Spanish influence over the area. During the summer, Bodega hosted parties and banquets attended by Capt. Robert Gray, whose two ships, Columbia Rediviva and Lady Washington, traded furs with local indigenous tribes on behalf of American investors. Bodega also established a short-lived Spanish colony at Neah Bay.

The government in Madrid, however, was losing interest in its northwest coast lands. Responsible for the other Spanish colonies further south, Bodega returned to Monterey, followed by San Blas. Suffering from poor health, he died after a siezure in Mexico City on March 26, 1794. Distracted by the growing conflict with Great Britain that would reach its head during the Napoleonic Wars, Spain never again reasserted its influence on the northwest coast, despite the accomplishments of Bodega and the Spanish explorers who came before him.

Present-day Bodega Bay in California is named for Bodega y Quadra, though he never entered the body of water. The bay was also the site of the southernmost Russian fur trading post at Fort Ross.

HistoryLink: Arteaga and Bodega y Quadra’s 1779 Expedition
Dictionary of Canadian Biography
HistoryLink: Hezeta (Heceta) and Bodega y Quadra Expedition of 1775
Wikipedia: Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra

Spanish Explorers: Bruno de Heceta

Heceta map

Map of Washington coast (present-day Grenville Point, Grays Harbor County), drawn by Bruno de Heceta, July 1775. Map courtesy Historical Atlas of the North Pacific Ocean, by Derek Hayes

In 1775, pressure by British and Russian explorers put greater strain on Spain’s historic claims on the west coast going back to the late 15th century. To strengthen its claims, Spain mounted a series of expeditions from its bases in Mexico to “Nueva Galicia,” its name for the modern Pacific Northwest. The second of these expeditions was lead by Bruno de Hezeta y Dudagoitia, a Spanish naval officer.

Hezeta, more commonly called “Heceta,” was an ethnic Basque born in 1743 in Bilbao, Spain. In 1774, an expedition led by Juan Perez failed to make landfall, a requirement for establishing sovereignty. The following year, Hezeta, with Perez among his crew, sailed two ships, the three-masted Santiago, and a schooner, Sonora, which could get close to shore. Leaving Santiago behind, the Sonora, under the command of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, reached present day Sitka Bay and lay claim to the land for the Spanish crown.

Heceta’s expedition also suffered one of the largest losses of life of these European voyages. A short time after Heceta conducted a ceremony at a place now called Grenville Bay, near the modern town of Taholah on the Washington Coast, Bodega y Quadra aboard Sonora sent a party of sailors ashore to forage for food and water. The party was attacked by warriors from the Quinault Indian Nation. Seven sailors were killed. Warriors attempted to board the Sonora, but many were killed by small arms. The expedition decided not to retaliate, though Bodega y Quadra named the headland now known at Point Grenville “Punta de los Martires” or “Point of the Martyrs.”

Heceta’s expedition continued south until he found a large bay with strong currents which prevented his ships from entering. The explorer wrote in his journal, “These currents and the seething waters [lead me] to believe that [the bay] may be the mouth of some great river or some passage to another sea.” The feature was later confirmed as the mouth of the Columbia River, named almost 20 years later after the first ship to enter the river, the Columbia Rediviva under the command of American Robert Gray, who also commanded the original Lady Washington.

Heceta continued exploring the coast, giving Spanish names to several familiar features, most of which were changed to British names after Great Britain gained control over the region. However, Heceta’s name stuck to two Oregon features: Heceta Head and Heceta Banks. The lighthouse at Heceta Head is one of the most photographed tourist attractions on the Oregon Coast.

HistoryLink: Bruno de Hezeta (Heceta) party lands on future Washington coast
Wikipedia: Bruno de Heceta
Oregon Encyclopedia: Bruno Hezeta (1744-1807)

Spanish Explorers: Juan Perez

juan perez painting

Juan Perez

In the last quarter of the 18th century, Spain, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States struggled for predominance on the west coast of North America. A common method for claiming territory was the exploratory expedition. In 1774-1775, the Spanish sent a naval officer, Juan Perez, to explore the coasts and claim the land for the Spanish crown, in part to protect Spain’s interests further south in California and Mexico.

Juan José Pérez Hernández was born around 1725 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and served as a pilot aboard Manila galleons, which were trading ships that sailed a route between Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico) and Manila in the Spanish-colonized Philippines. In 1768, Perez’s superiors assigned him to the naval base at the Pacific Coast port of San Blas. The encroachment of British and Russian traders into the lands of what the Spaniards called “Nueva Galicia” north of California forced officials to mount an expedition to formally claim the coasts for the crown.

In early 1774, the government ordered Perez to take a new frigate, Santiago, north to the 60th parallel (slightly south of present-day Anchorage, Alaska), explore the coastline, trade with the natives, and establish Spanish claims by landing and conducting a brief ceremony. Though Santiago was built for a crew of 64, the manifest lists 88 official members of the expedition and 24 passengers, including Father Junipero Serra. The missionary left the ship along with several passengers at Monterey, Calif.

In June and early July, 1774, Perez reached 52 degrees north latitude and named the islands he found “Santa Margarita,” later called the Queen Charlotte Islands. Intense fog and rain forced the Santiago south, but not before the crew encountered the Haida people, who had lived in the area for generations. At Nootka Sound, Perez made a failed attempt at landing to conduct the ceremony claiming the area for Spain. However, Haida visitors to the Santiago took two silver spoons ashore, an act which formed the basis of Spain’s claim over the area. Historians also credit Perez as the first European explorer to describe the region and make contact with the indigenous people.

Perez returned to San Blas in late 1774. The next year, he sailed aboard Santiago on a second expedition to the Pacific Northwest under the command of Bruno de Heceta. During the voyage, Heceta described a large bay between two headlands, which was later identified as the mouth of the Columbia River. However, Heceta did not enter the river, instead returning south. Worn out by the dangerous voyage, Perez died at Monterey on November 3, 1775.

Seventeen years later, Capt. Robert Gray, a former commander of the original Lady Washington, would become the first Anglo-European to sail into the Columbia River.

HistoryLink: Juan Perez Expedition of 1774
HistoryLink: Hezeta (Heceta) and Bodega y Quadra Expedition of 1775
Spanish Explorers: Juan Pérez, José Navaéz, and Tomás de Suría
Wikipedia: Juan José Pérez Hernández
Wikiwand: Juan José Pérez Hernández

Spanish Explorers: Juan de Fuca

Image of Juan de Fuca

Juan de Fuca

The story of Juan de Fuca is part fact, part legend. The 16th century explorer employed by the Spanish gave his name to the east-west strait between Washington State and Vancouver Island, but he called it by a different name. For almost 250 years, many disbelieved his story or thought the man never existed. And he could not have guessed the other places on the west coast that bear his name today.

Born on the Greek island of Cephalonia in 1536, Ioánnis Phokás was the descendant of Greek refugees from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. His father settled in the village of Valeriáno, which accounts for de Fuca’s Greek name, Apostolos Valerianos. Little is known of his early life, but he entered the service of the King of Spain in 1555, eventually earning his stripes as a pilot in the Spanish Navy.

In 1592, he found himself in New Spain (now Mexico), and he was ordered to take two ships, a caravel and a pinnace, and search for the Strait of Anian, which geographers believed connected the Northwest Passage to the South Seas. When de Fuca returned, he announced the discover of a strait between 47 and 48 degrees north and that he had sailed past a pillar of rock, now called Fuca Pillar on Cape Flattery, into the strait. He eventually returned to Spain to claim rewards promised to him by the Spanish government, but he never collected a penny and returned home to Greece a disappointed man.

After his death in 1602, his story passed into legend. No Spanish records existed to verify de Fuca’s claims. (Spain was notorious for its secrecy, which later complicated its territorial claims to the west coast.) His own accounts were vague and confusing. If it weren’t for an Englishman, John Lok, who wrote about de Fuca’s voyages, historians might still doubt them. English mariners, due perhaps to de Fuca’s proposal to work for Elizabeth I, believed his claims, however. Captain James Cook, one of Britain’s greatest explorers, was on the threshold of the strait in 1778 when he sighted Cape Flattery. Nine years later, an English fur trader, Charles William Barclay, entered and named the strait after Juan de Fuca, which was later explored by a succession of Spanish and English mariners.

Though Juan de Fuca could not have known it, he sailed over two other natural features that bear his name today: Juan de Fuca Ridge and Juan de Fuca Plate, both located off the coasts of Washington State and British Columbia. The features are part of the vast system of tectonic plates that cover the earth, though the plate is slowly disappearing under its neighbor to the east. It will be millions of years, however, before this piece of history will pass into legend.

Wikipedia: Juan de Fuca
Wikipedia: Strait of Juan de Fuca
Greek Consulate, Vancouver, Canada, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine
Lighthouse Friends: Cape Flattery, Wash.
Kefalonia Appreciation Society

Spanish Explorers: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo image

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo

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.

Sources: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo
Wikipedia: Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo
Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego