Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (ca. 1499 – January 3, 1543) was a Portuguese explorer, known as João Rodrigues Cabrilho in Portuguese, noted for his exploration of the west coast of North America while sailing for Spain. Cabrillo was the first European explorer to navigate the coast of present day California in the United States. He also helped found the city of Oaxaca, in Mexico.
Little is known about Cabrillo’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 Harry Kelsey
, in his exhaustive 1986 biography João Rodrigues Cabrillo,
writes that Cabrillo appears to have been born in Spain, "probably in Seville, but perhaps in Cuéllar [curiously, hometown of Antonio de Herrera]." His date of birth and parentage are also unknown, but events in Cabrillo’s life lead Kelsey to believe he was born of poor parents "around 1498 or 1500," and then worked for his keep in the home of a prominent Seville merchant. Most sources regard him as Portuguese.
Cabrillo shipped for Havana
as a young man and joined the forces of Hernando Cortez
. Later, his entrepreneurial skills, mining gold in Guatemala
, made him one of the richest of the conquistadors
In 1539, Francisco de Ulloa, who had been commissioned by Hernando Cortez, 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.
On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo set out from Navidad (now Acapulco) in New Spain. On September 28, 1542, he landed in what is now San Diego Bay and named it "San Miguel". Going up the coast, he sailed through the Santa Barbara Channel and around Point Conception, eventually sailing as far north as the Russian River before autumn storms forced them to turn back. Notably, Cabrillo appears to have missed San Francisco Bay and Monterey Bay.
On November 23, 1542, the little fleet limped back to "San Salvador" (Santa Catalina Island) to overwinter and make repairs. There 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 January 3, 1543 and was buried. His second-in-command brought the remainder of the party back to Navidad, where they arrived April 14, 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.
The final mystery about Cabrillo is his place of burial. He died off the coast of Southern California, but his burial site is unknown; Santa Catalina Island, San Miguel Island and Santa Rosa Island have all been suggested.
Although his discoveries went largely unnoticed at the time, none of his place names were permanently adopted, and he founded no settlements on the well-populated coast, Cabrillo is now remembered as the first European to travel the California coast, and many streets and buildings in California bear his name. One such example is Cabrillo College
in Aptos, California
, another is the portion of the State Route 1
that runs through Big Sur
, which is also called the Cabrillo Highway. The S.S. 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
) is Cabrillo Middle School, and as well bears his name. 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" as outlined in the California Government Code Section 6708.