Cabrillo National Monument, Point Loma, San Diego

I have wanted to visit the Cabrillo National Monument for a long time.


We were traveling to San Diego earlier this summer and realized we had the time to visit Point Loma, a community within San Diego. The Point Loma peninsula separates San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Although my memory was spotty, I felt like I’d perhaps visited Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery before, but I knew I’d never been to the nearby monument.

Ever since we visited Drake’s Bay and the Point Reyes National Seashore I’ve been fascinated with tales of European explorers, flying the flags of Spain and England, who sailed along the coast of California in the 16th century prior to the first European settlements.



Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo was the first European to set foot on the west coast of what is now the United States, September 1542.

What was it like to “accidentally” find this new land and encounter the Indigenous people living along the lush coast? Cabrillo was searching for a possible route to Asia or the Spice Islands or gold. What did he imagine before coming ashore? Did he have any thought that the land would be populated?

Archaeologists have dated human history in what would one day be California with indigenous people arriving between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, at one point comprising some thirty tribes or culture groups gathered into six different language family groups. At the time of first European contact there were at least thirteen different tribes living in various regions.

Coastal sage scrub covered the hills and valleys and as Cabrillo came ashore he named the area San Miguel, the site of modern-day San Diego. He stayed on San Miguel waiting out a storm and then traveled north along the coast.


Cabrillo died in January 1543 presumably from gangrene following a broken bone. There are two stories concerning his injury. One is that while on one of the Channel Islands he rushed to aid his men caught in a skirmish with the Chumash. In this version he jumped from a boat and broke his leg. Another story suggests, however, that he broke his arm or shoulder during an earlier event.

Regardless of his injuries, it is clear from journals that complications ensued, and it is believed he died of infection and was buried somewhere along the coast of California. Chief pilot Bartolomé de Ferrer took command of the voyage, and following Cabrillo’s original plan to explore more of the coast, headed north. Exactly how far they traveled we don’t know, but the expedition claimed over 800 miles of coastline for Spain.


In the 20th century, the Portuguese community claimed the explorer as one of their own and in the 1930s, the artist Alvaro de Bree was commissioned by Portugal to create the fourteen-foot sandstone sculpture.  The original was brought indoors for restoration in the 1980s, and instead of returning to the five-foot pedestal, an exact replica made out of denser limestone was dedicated in 1988.

I think I just figured out why I remember Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery but not the statue! I’ve claimed for years that I don’t really remember the 80’s. I’ll bet we visited while the statue was absent. That sounds plausible!

Historians today believe Cabrillo was probably Spanish, not Portuguese, and they also question the statue’s appearance, believing the figure does not look like Cabrillo. I’d love to know how they accurately know what he looked like? We do love our controversies!

I have a very vivid imagination when I think of early California history. I think it’s fascinating that Cabrillo made his discovery sixty-five years before the Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia and seventy-eight years before the Mayflower landing.

I think that’s worthy of more than a footnote in our history books.

Next time, I’ll share more about Point Loma and its military position during World War II.












36 thoughts on “Cabrillo National Monument, Point Loma, San Diego

    • Well, sadly we do know that the story for the indigenous people did not end well after European intervention. I’ve been watching a PBS short series that is telling some of the stories of early California with input from the descendants of some of the few remaining tribes. I sometimes think one reason we don’t know more about our history is because much of it is just hard to read…you are so right about human nature. Not a pretty story. 🙂

    • LOL! My children tease me all the time about what I don’t remember about the 80’s, which is the decade when they were in elementary school. I think stress was high during those years when so many different plates were spinning. 🙂

  1. Love it when you give us a bit of history, Debra. It’s always fascinating and the accompanying photos quite beautiful. That photo of the shoreline is truly stunning. I can almost hear the surf. Had the locations been switched, with Jamestown on the west coast and San Miguel on the east, I’m sure we’d know far more about Cabrillo and his explorations. For much of our history, we’ve been east coast-centric, although things are changing. There is plenty of history yet to be unearthed and explored on your coast. Wonderful, eh?

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, John, and I thank you for your kind words. I so often believe that Southern California is not much more than Hollywood and Disneyland in some minds, and there are so many other locations that I find very intriguing. I am a little sorry that I discovered my interest in history so much later in life. I would have enjoyed teaching history, but having a blog and considerate readers such as yourself, John, makes it all the more enjoyable for me to share. Thank you!

  2. I agree with you, Debra; Carbillo’s discovery is worth more than a footnote. Imagining that trip from Europe to the west coast is even more harrowing (not to minimize to the east coast), and should have been covered and, honestly, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t covered in American history classes but for a mere footnote or date to be memorized. I think our history books are too often revised for the times we live in and that we should all aspire to be more like you, my friend, and dig a bit deeper – become explorers ourselves.
    The history of California is so very interesting, and all the more so with your own intimate historical explorations, Debra.
    I am now very curious as to Loma’s role in WWII.Your photos are magnificent.

    • I have no memory of my social studies elementary education being taught with any emphasis on “place.” I don’t know if that is precisely the best word, but I think probably not enough story was ever included in teaching history at that time. I just find the background stories so interesting that I can barely contain myself. I am so grateful for your feedback that you find it interesting, too. I think you’ll enjoy the photos and the World War II information. The coasts were so vulnerable and I remember my parents telling me stories of how as children they were very aware of that danger. I will look forward to sharing what I learned. 🙂

  3. Somewhere in a photo box, currently sitting in storage between the old house and this new one, I have a snapshot of my late hubby and my two boys standing at the base of that statue. It would have been the original statue, too, because the photo was taken in December, 1978. Thanks for the memory and the beautiful photos, Debra. San Diego is one of only a few places I ever vacationed and truly didn’t want to leave to go home.

    • Karen, I’m so glad you didn’t miss this post and that you could see the photo! And I’m very envious of your having seen the original statue. I must admit I was a little disappointed when I learned the current one is an imposter. 🙂 I know what you mean about San Diego. I think it’s a really wonderful city known for its almost perfect climate. I’m really pleased I could help you revisit a happy memory, my friend.

  4. Unquestionably, a beautiful spot. Unfortunately for me, I was in SD only one day, thus didn’t make it to this location. But you have a way of taking us there … well done … and cheers to your love for local history.

    • I really do love San Diego, Frank, for all the history, of course, but also it’s nearly perfect weather! When I wrote the post I mentioned to my husband that I really didn’t know if anyone would be at all interested, but I just couldn’t help myself. I mentioned that maybe a 6th grader would at some point Google the name Cabrillo and I could help fill in some details for an elementary school report! 🙂

  5. I love those coast views Debra 🙂 And it’s always great to read you snippets of history bound into the post – makes me want to read further. So I’ve been to read up on the Chumash people and the areas where they lived / live. And, as you know, research tends to go round in a big loop back to something else – Ventura – and one of my all time favourite songs… Ventura Highway by America! Thanks for a fun post 🙂

  6. I always enjoyed history in school…I bet a lot of what I studied is all just footnotes now. Thank you for your interesting post, Debra. I was only in San Diego once many years ago and didn’t see the monument or cemetery.

    • I’m so glad you’re willing to come along on some of my tours! I can’t seem to post as often as I once did, but I love sharing some of the places that “speak” to me. 🙂

  7. Where are the flags!? I remember visiting the federal military cemetery at around Memorial Day, perhaps the only time they put the flags by the epitaphs? Sorry for the monument, but my favorite spot there was the rocky intertidal zone. 😉

  8. Pingback: Point Loma, San Diego: Is that a whale or submarine? | breathelighter

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