“An Early Explorer,” New Guide to the Pacific Coast: Santa Feroute, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois,1894, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F595.H63.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo

1498 CE - 1543 CE


Primary Goal:

To explore the Pacific coast of North America and find the mythical Northwest Passage, and to sail from Mexico to the East Indies.


He confirmed that California was not an island, as was widely believed at the time, claimed California for Spain, and aided in establishing the Spanish presence in the East Indies.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's beginnings are not well known. His birthplace is a mystery; some have claimed he was Portuguese, others say he was Spanish. The year of his birth is merely an educated guess. And nothing is known of his youth. It is estimated that Cabrillo was roughly twenty or so in 1520, while serving in Mexico with conquistador Hernán Cortés; he had arrived in the New World roughly ten years earlier, under the name of Juan Rodríguez.

What is known is he was quite skillful with a crossbow, which earned him a place of honor in the army of Pánfilo de Narváez, the Spaniard in charge of suppressing the Native Americans on the island of Cuba. By 1518, Cuban resistance had been pacified and since young men like Cabrillo still ached for adventure (and gold), it was decided by Cuba's governor Diego de Velázquez that an expedition to the supposedly rich lands to the east was in order. Velázquez sent Hernán Cortés to Mexico, but quickly became concerned that Cortés was enriching himself with captured Aztec gold. Wanting this gold and glory for himself, Velázquez branded Cortés a traitor to the Spanish Crown and dispatched Narváez and his men (including Cabrillo) to bring him back to Cuba to face the charges.

Cortés was ready for Narváez, however, and in the spring of 1520, infiltrated Narváez's camp and convinced many of his men to renounce Narváez and join him. Cabrillo was one of these men. (Narváez was wounded during a battle between his forces and those of Cortés; he would later end up as the governor of Spanish Florida.) While serving with Cortés, Cabrillo showcased another skill he had developed: shipbuilding.

Already it was apparent that the handy Cabrillo was a skilled horseman and crossbowman, with the ability to read and write (a rarity among many Spanish soldiers who usually had little or no formal schooling), but history cannot account for his ability to build and sail a ship. After Cortés abandoned the captured Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan on June 30, 1520, he retreated to the friendly native town of Tlaxcala, where Cabrillo constructed 13 small vessels with native help. These boats were carted back to Tenochtitlan and reassembled on the lake surrounding the city. With the Spanish controlling Lake Texcoco, the Aztecs found it difficult to oppose Cortés' army and in August 1521, the Spaniards retook Tenochtitlan with a great loss of life.

After Mexico was conquered, Cabrillo headed south with an expedition led by Cortés' lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado, which conquered Guatemala. Cabrillo settled down with plantations in Guatemala and Cuba, and a profitable gold mine in Central America. He left his comfortable life in the New World only briefly in 1532 to marry Beatríz Sánchez de Ortega, who came from a wealthy family in Seville. Returning to Guatemala in 1533, he set up shop in the Pacific coast town of Iztapa, where Pedro de Alvarado, his former commander from his conquistador days, commissioned him to build a fleet of ships.

In 1540, Alvarado was tasked by Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain, to sail from Mexico to the Moluccas, which were also known as the Spice Islands, in the East Indies. Alvarado planned to sail up the Pacific coast of North America on his voyage, claiming the land for Spain and investigating reports of wealthy native cities in the area. Unfortunately for Alvarado, he got sidetracked by a native uprising in Mexico and was trampled to death by a horse. Mendoza's orders were transferred to Cabrillo, Alvarado's lieutenant, and Cabrillo's pilot, Bartolomé Ferrelo.

Cabrillo seemed less interested in sailing to the Moluccas than in exploring the Pacific coastline. Viceroy Mendoza (as well as Spain's King Charles) wanted to know if there was a navigable sea route between the Pacific (which the Spanish tended to still call the "South Sea") and the Atlantic, the so-called Northwest Passage. Others referred to this mythical waterway as the "Straits of Anian," a name first coined by Marco Polo. Spain's rivals, England and France, were both becoming more and more bold in their attempts to find the Northwest Passage that would allow them to sneak past the Spanish colonies in the New World and take advantage of the riches the Spice Islands had to offer. Cabrillo's exact orders from Mendoza are lost, but it appears that his first priority was to poke around the Pacific coast of Alta California (as mainland California was called to distinguish it from the Baja Peninsula) to find this passage and beat the English and French to the punch.

Earlier expeditions mounted by the Spanish had laid to rest the rumor that California was an island off the coast of the North American continent, and Cabrillo's explorations helped reinforce this. On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo left the port of Navidad, Mexico in three ships (Vittoria, San Diego and the San Salvador) he had constructed for Alvarado and sailed north. In early July, he made contact with the Native Americans on the Baja Peninsula and moved on. Over the course of the fall and winter of 1542, Cabrillo and his men explored every available inlet and island along the California coast.


“Diego Velázquez.” In 1511 he founded the town of Baracoa and later became Governor of Cuba, History of Cuba, 1920, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F1776.J7.

In September 1542, modern-day San Diego Bay was named for one of his ships (the name was later applied to the town the Spanish started there in the 18th century) and he named two offshore islands Vittoria and San Salvador (these were later renamed San Clemente and Santa Catalina islands). Cabrillo later stepped foot on the mainland, near present day Los Angeles, and took possession of California in the name of King Charles of Spain. The Spanish would not seriously settle California until the 1700s.

While the Native Americans they encountered were generally friendly, the weather was not. Adverse winds, sudden gusty storms and impenetrable fog kept the men from landing in modern-day Monterey or San Francisco bays. Deciding to spend the winter on one of the islands they had discovered, the expedition turned south and landed on modern-day San Miguel Island (a minor miracle, considering the treacherous reefs that surround the island).

The exact reason is lost to history, but in January 1543, the local native population of San Miguel, the Chumash, turned hostile towards the Spanish. Cabrillo was hurt in the clash, and his wound became dangerously infected and turned gangrenous. His death on January 3, 1543, left Bartolomé Ferrelo in command of the expedition. Having worn out their welcome on San Miguel and buried their leader on the island, Ferrelo lost no time in weighing anchor and setting sail again. The fleet sailed as far as the modern-day Oregon coast, but adverse winds kept them from turning westward and sailing towards China (which they assumed to be fairly close). The expedition returned to Navidad (now Acapulco, Mexico) in April 1543. Twenty-three years later, a Spanish explorer named Andrés de Urdaneta used Cabrillo's notes to devise a map that helped him sail across the Pacific Ocean to the Spice Islands.

Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's contributions to the Spanish empire are not largely remembered. He helped Spain conquer the lands of Cuba, Mexico and Guatemala, and his actions in the coastal Guatemalan town of Iztapa helped spur growth on the Pacific coast. His claiming of California for Spain gave the Spanish an important foothold on the North American mainland, while the map his explorations produced provided Andrés de Urdaneta with a route to the Moluccas and solidified Spain's position in that part of the world.