Cabrillo National Monument: History

Fifty years after Columbus landed in the New World, Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo set out on his epicvoyage of discovery. Commanding two small ships, Cabrillo's expedition explored the entirelength of the California coast, taking possession in the name of the King of Spain and theViceroy of Mexico. In the quest, the conquistador was injured and died.

A Portuguese"well versed in affairs of the sea," Cabrillo had marched with Hernan Cortes onMexico City and sailed with Pedro de Alvarado to Mexico's west coast. After Alvarado died inan Indian uprising, Cabrillo assumed command of the ships San Salvador and Victoria. On June27, 1542, he set sail from the tiny Mexican port of Navidad "to discover the coast of New Spain."He took supplies for 8 months, a priest, and several Indian interpreters.

The lure of gold and a lust for power motivated Cabrillo's patron, Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroyof Mexico. A rival of Cortes, he sent Francisco Coronado overland in 1540 to search for thefabled Seven Cities of Cibola in present-day New Mexico. At the same time Mendoza dispatchedanother expedition by sea, under the command of Hernando de Alarcon. Hugging the coast,Alarcon sailed up the Gulf of California and entered the mouth of the Colorado River, a voyagethat earned him the honor of being the first European to stand on California soil.

A year and a half later Cabrillo stepped ashore at a harbor "closed and very good." He named itSan Miguel, the site of modern San Diego. The Spaniards were met, recounts a summary ofCabrillo's lost log, by a people "comely and large" wearing animal skins. The Indians, related tothe Yumas, made signs that inland were other bearded men armed with swords and crossbows-possibly old news of Coronado's party. Cabrillo's crew waited out a storm, then continued up thecoast, "where they saw many valleys and plains, and many smokes, and mountains in theinterior." They sighted the islands of Santa Catalina and San Clemente, which Cabrillo originallynamed San Salvador and Victoria, after his ships. The shouting, dancing Indians laid down theirbows and arrows and beckoned the Spaniards to land. A day later Cabrillo turned toward themainland, to a pleasant bay shrouded in haze from Indian campfires. He christened it Bahia delos Fumos, today's Los Angeles.

Pounding up the coast, his ships darted in and out of coves, often trailed by Indians in canoeseager to barter. Cabrillo noted some two dozen villages "very thickly settled." The inhabitantswore long hair braided with cords and adorned with scraps of bone, wood, or stone. Their foodincluded acorns and a seed, perhaps maize, from which they made tamales. In the villages of"round houses, well covered down to the ground" stood totems-"very thick timbers like mastsstuck in the ground ... covered with many paintings."

Going ashore in November for water, several soldiers scuffled with Indians on the island theSpaniards dubbed La Posesion - now known as San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands.According to a crew man's account, Cabrillo, rushing to aid his men, broke a leg while jumpingfrom a boat. He apparently became infected with gangrene, for within 6 weeks he died. He spenthis last days battling storms so fierce that his ships "could not carry a palm of sail." Off the BigSur, "so great was the swell of the ocean that it was terrifying to see, and the coast was bold andthe mountains very high." Cabrillo sailed on to Cabo de Pinos, near present-day Fort Ross, beforeturning back to Isla de Posesion. There, the log noted, he "passed from this present life, January3, 1543." In his memory, the Spanish crew renamed the island Juan Rodriguez.

Heeding Cabrillo's wishes "not to fail to discover" more coastland, chief pilot Bartolome Ferrerpushed farther north, reaching southern Oregon. In early March Victoria disappeared in a storm,and her crew feared they would be lost. But the sailors "made a vow to go to their church starknaked, and Our Lady saved them." Reunited after 3 weeks, the ships found their way back toNavidad, arriving April 14.

Visiting Cabillo

The Gray Whale -- If you visit the park between late December and the end of February, you may see one of natures great spectacles: the annual migration of the gray whale.Each year, as they have from time without memory, the whales pass Point Loma on their wayfrom the Arctic Ocean to the lagoons of Baja California. They leave their summer feedinggrounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas in late September when the surface begins to freeze.Their journey takes them 5,000 miles to the sheltered waters of Scammons Lagoon andMagdalene Bay, where the pregnant females bear their calves.

Hunted almost to extinction in recent times, these magnificent giants are under the protection ofinternational agreements. Thousands of whales migrate past the park each season. The bestplace to see them is at the whale overlook. Scan the ocean beyond the kelp beds for the spoutsthat mark the location of the whales. During the migrations, rangers present programs on thenatural history of the whales. Whale Overlook: a protected shelter has exhibits, a tactile model of an adult gray whale and calf, and a recorded message in English, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish.

The Old Point Loma Lighthouse is a reminder of simpler times: of sailing ships andoil lamps and the men and women who day after day faithfully tended the coastal lights thatguided mariners. In 1851, a year after California entered the Union, the U.S. Coastal Surveyselected this headland as the site for a navigational aid. The crest seemed like the right location:it stood 422 feet above sea level, overlooking the bay and the ocean, and a lighthouse there couldserve as both a harbor light and a coastal beacon.

Construction began 3 years later. Workers carved sandstone from the hillside for the walls andsalvaged floor tiles from the ruins of an old Spanish fort. A rolled tin roof, a brick tower, and aniron and brass housing for the light topped the squat, thick-walled building. By late summer1854 this work was done. But more than a year passed before the lighting apparatus-a 5-foot, 3d-order Fresnel lens, the best available technology-arrived from France and was installed. At duskon November 15, 1855, the keeper climbed the winding stairs and lit the oil lamp for the firsttime. In clear weather its light was visible at sea for 25 miles. For the next 36 years, except onfoggy nights, it welcomed sailors to San Diego harbor.

The light had only a short life because the seemingly good location concealed a serious flaw. Fogand low clouds often obscured the light. On March 23, 1891, the keeper extinguished the lampfor the last time. Boarding up the lighthouse, he moved his family and belongings into a newlight station at the bottom of the hill.

Today the old lighthouse is refurbished and open to visitors, a sentinel from a vanished past. Interpretive panels along the Bayside Trail provide information about the ecology of Point Loma Lighthouse.

Tidepools -- On the western side of Point Loma, where the ocean meets the land, is arocky environment of marine plants and animals that have adapted to harsh tidal conditions:pounding surf, exposure to sun and wind, and sharp changes in temperature and salinity. Thesetidepools are host to the flowery anemone, the scavenging lined shore crab, grazing limpets,spongy dead man's fingers, and a hundred other species of plants and animals. If you are patient,you might see the elusive octopus, a brightly colored nudibranch, or the darting, camouflagedsculpin. Please observe them only and do not take anything from the tidepools: they areprotected by law. The best time to explore the pools is during the low tides of fall, winter, andspring. Check with a ranger for the dates and times of these tides. Groups who wish to use thetidepools for study must make a reservation. When you explore, wear rubber-soled shoes andwatch your step. The rocks are slippery.

Bayside Trail -- Before Cabrillo, Digueno Indians lived on Point Loma. They huntedsmall game and gathered the things they needed for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Alongthe trail are reminders of their use of the land: rabbit and squirrel, buckwheat, sage, and yucca.Also visible are the remnants of a coastal artillery system that defended San Diego harbor duringWorld Wars I and II. The trail is a mile long hiking trail through a coastal sage scrub forest. It follows a gentle down hill slope toward San Diego Bay, and returns along the same route. The trail is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

About Your Visit -- Cabrillo National Monument is located within the city limits of San Diego at the southern end of Point Loma. To reach the park, take Rosecrans Street, turnright on Cahon Street, turn left onto Catalina Boulevard, and proceed through the Naval OceanSystem Center gates to the end of the point. Public buses make several trips each day to themonument. There are no service stations, eating places, or picnicking and camping facilitieswithin the Navy gates.

The monument is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Stop first at the visitor center and see theexhibits on Cabrillo's voyage and pick up literature on features. Wayside exhibits along thewalkways, at the lighthouse, the whale overlook, and the tidepools interpret the park's diverseresources. Programs are presented daily in the auditorium; check at the visitor center for thecurrent schedule and other ranger-conducted activities.

Services for Disabled Visitors -- The visitor center is accessible to wheel chairs, andan electric shuttle to take disabled visitors to and from the lighthouse is available upon request.Check with a ranger for other services that help make programs arid facilities accessible.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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