João Rodrigues Cabrilho

João Rodrigues Cabrilho ( ca. 1499 – January 3, 1543) was a Portuguese explorer noted for his exploration of the west coast of North America on behalf of Spain. Cabrillo was the first European explorer to navigate the coast of present day California in the United States. He helped found the city of Oaxaca, in Mexico

Early life

Not much is known about Cabrilho’s early years. His nationality was first addressed by contemporary Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, who, in his Historia General de los hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano, referred to Cabrillo as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo Português. For that reason, most biographies describe him as Portuguese. Still, historian Henry Kelsey, in his exhaustive 1986 biography Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, writes that Cabrillo appears to have been born in Castilla.

In Lapela, Parish of Cabril and municipality of Montalegre (Portugal), the land where allegedly the nickname Cabrilha originated (allegedly pronounced at the time Cabrilhe in Galician and Cabrillo in Spanish according to João Soares Tavares, biographer of João Rodrigues Cabrilho), and still existing in Portugal as a surname (because of this Castro Daire, in Beira Alta, was also claimed as his birthplace), there is the ancient house called today by local people and alleged local descendants of branches of his ancient family, who have the same surname, as Casa do Galego (House of the Galician) and Casa do Americano (House of the American) where allegedly Cabrilho was born, as stated in plaque and where there is also a statue of him.


Cabrillo shipped for Havana as a young man and joined forces with Hernán Cortés in Mexico (then called New Spain. Later, his entrepreneurial skills, mining gold in Guatemala, made him one of the richest of the conquistadors in Mexico).

In 1539, Francisco de Ulloa, who had been commissioned by Hernán Cortés, discovered the Gulf of California, reaching as far north as the 28th parallel. Cabrillo was then commissioned by the new Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, to lead an expedition up the Pacific Coast in search of trade opportunities, perhaps to find a way to China (for the full extent of the northern Pacific was still unknown) or to find the mythical Strait of Anián (or Northwest Passage) connecting the Pacific Ocean with Hudson Bay. Cabrillo, who had started life as a shipbuilder’s boy, built and owned the flagship of his venture (two or three ships), and stood to profit from any trade or treasure.

In 1540 the fleet sailed from Acajutla, El Salvador, and reached Navidad, Mexico, on Christmas Day. While in Mexico Alvarado went to the assistance of the town of Jalisco which was under siege by hostile Indians. He was killed when his horse fell on him. Following Alvardo’s death the Viceroy of Mexico took possession of Alvarado’s fleet. Part of the fleet was sent off to the Philippine Islands under Ruy Lopez de Villalobos and two of the ships were sent north under the command of Cabrillo.

On 27 June 1542, Cabrillo set out from Navidad (in Jalisco) in New Spain with three ships: the 200-ton galleon and flagship San Salvador, the ship La Victoria (c. 100 tons), and the lateen-rigged, twenty-six oared “fragata” or “bergantin” San Miguel. On 1 August Cabrillo anchored within sight of Cedros Island. Before the end of the month they had passed Baja Point (named “Cabo del Engaño” by de Ulloa in 1539) and entered “uncharted waters, where no Spanish ships had been before”. On 28 September, he landed in what is now San Diego Bay and named it “San Miguel”. A little over a week later he reached Santa Catalina Island (7 October), which he named “San Salvador”, after his flagship. On sending a boat to the island “a great crowd of armed Indians appeared” — which, however, they later befriended. Nearby San Clemente was named “Victoria”, in honor of the third ship of the fleet. The next morning, October 8, Cabrillo came to San Pedro Bay, which was named “Baya de los Fumos” (English: the Bay of Smoke), after the burning chapperal that raised thick clouds of smoke. The following day they anchored overnight in Santa Monica Bay. Going up the coast he saw Anacapa Island, which they learned from the Indians was uninhabited. On 18 October the expedition saw Point Conception, which they named “Cabo de Galera”. The fleet spent the next week in the northern islands, mostly anchored in Cuyler Harbor, a bay on the northeastern coast of San Miguel Island. On 13 November they sighted and named “Cabo de Pinos” (Point Reyes), missing the entrance of San Francisco Bay – which mariners would repeat for the next two centuries and more. The expedition reached as far north as the Russian River before autumn storms forced them to turn back. Coming back down the coast, Cabrillo entered Monterey Bay, naming it “Bahia de los Pinos”.

On 23 November 1542, the little fleet limped back to “San Salvador” (Santa Catalina Island) to overwinter and make repairs. There, around Christmas Eve, Cabrillo stepped out of his boat and splintered his shin when he stumbled on a jagged rock. The injury developed gangrene and he died on 3 January 1543 and was buried. His second-in-command brought the remainder of the party back to Navidad, where they arrived 14 April 1543.

A notary’s official report of Cabrillo’s inconclusive expedition was lost; all that survives is a summary of it made by another investigator, Andrés de Urdaneta, who also had access to ships’ logs and charts. No printed account of Cabrillo’s voyage appeared before historian Antonio de Herrera’s account early in the 17th century.


His discoveries went largely unnoticed at the time, therefore none of his place names were permanently adopted. Despite this, Cabrillo is now remembered as the first European to travel the California coast, and today many streets and buildings in California bear his name.

One such example is Cabrillo College in Aptos, California; another is the portion of State Route 1 that runs through Big Sur, which is also called the Cabrillo Highway. The SS Cabrillo was a great wooden steamer launched in 1914 to serve as a ferry across the San Pedro Channel to Santa Catalina Island. It was later requisitioned by the U.S. army and served as a troop transport all over San Francisco Bay and surrounding areas in Northern California during World War II. In San Diego, the National Park Service operates a monument, Cabrillo National Monument, overlooking the bay at Point Loma commemorating his first landing in California and offering views of both San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. The Cabrillo Bridge and Cabrillo Freeway running through San Diego’s Balboa Park are also named for him. In Santa Barbara, scenic Cabrillo Boulevard runs parallel with the coast through the eastern part of the city.

There are also two high schools, one in Lompoc, California and the other in Long Beach, California, as well as a school in Malibu, California and one is Santa Clara, California named for him. A middle school in San Buenaventura, (also known as Ventura, California), Cabrillo Middle School, is also named for him. In northern California, the Point Cabrillo Light is also named after Cabrillo. In San Pedro, part of the City of Los Angeles, Cabrillo Beach and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium are also so named. A street in San Francisco is also named after him, next to Balboa Street. Torrance, California also has a main street in its center called Cabrillo Avenue.

In 1992, the United States Postal Service issued a 29¢ stamp in honor of Cabrillo.

In the state of California, September 28 is officially “Cabrillo Day”.

San Salvador replica construction. Started Spring 2011 in San Diego, California

The Maritime Museum of San Diego is building a full-sized, fully functional, and historically accurate replica of Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo’s flagship, San Salvador. San Salvador will be constructed in full public view (village opening June 24th 2011) at Spanish Landing in San Diego California, giving people the opportunity to watch from a close perspective as an example of the first modern industrial activity in the Americas comes to life in full public view. After construction, San Salvador will remain on exhibit as part of the Museum’s fleet of historic and replica ships and will travel along the California coast as an ambassador for San Diego.



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