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.