Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first of the European explorers to discover Central California. He explored northward from Jalisco, the present location of Guadalajara, Mexico, with two ships in search of the legendary Strait of Anian in 1542. The fabled strait had been thought to exist linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic. He stopped in present day San Diego Bay on September 28, continuing northward arrived at Point Concepcion on October 17 discovering San Pedro, Santa Monica, San Buenaventura and Santa Barbara on the way.
Fierce winds and a storm forced them to turn back when they reached the northern coast of Santa Barbara County. They found refuge in a harbor at San Miguel Island until November 11 when they resumed their northward explorations. Cabrillo and his two ships reached the "Sierra de San Martin" in Southern Monterey county when another storm blew them back out to sea separating the two ships. Cabrillo decided to press on and ultimately reached Point Ano Nuevo. Soon thereafter he found his other ship off present-day Santa Cruz. The crew on that ship was nearly frozen, covered with ice, as the climate in Central California was considerably cooler 450 years ago. Resting, the two ships drifted southward discovering a harbor they called "Bahia de los Pinos", in all likelihood Monterey and its nearby Point Pinos. The explorers made their way back to the safety of the harbor at San Miguel Island once again, where they stayed for several months.
Unfortunately for Cabrillo, he died in January of 1543 from complications caused by a broken limb (historical records are contradictory as to whether he had a broken leg or arm) reportedly injured in a skirmish with Native Americans. Most historians believe he was buried on San Miguel Island where a grave marker can still be found.
Captain Bartolome Ferrelo took command of Cabrillo's expedition and sailed north on February 18, reaching a point around Cape Mendocino two weeks later, on March 1. Another storm blew the ships all the way back to San Miguel Island in just four days, where they recouped and sailed south, arriving in Navidad (Acapulco, Mexico) in mid-April. Disappointed that the expedition did not discover the Strait of Anian, the kings of Spain neglected the area until Sir Francis Drake, also searching for the elusive Strait, reached the Pacific coasts after navigating around Cape Horn in 1578.
Sir Francis Drake, English explorer and privateer raided the Spanish treasure ships and threatened the safety of the fleet. Drake sailed his ship, the Golden Hind, northward along the coast past Monterey Bay and landed in either Drake's Bay or Bodega Bay. Drake sailed further north and became the first European to land on the Northern California coast, ultimately reaching a point close to what is now known as the Umpqua River in Oregon.
The captains of Spanish ships that were returning to Baja California from the Phillipines were instructed to sail north to Latitude 30 degrees where they would find favorable winds, then steer south when they ran into large beds of seaweed, indicating they were close to land. Drake capitalized on this sailing route and successfully pirated numerous Spanish ships returning from the Phillipines with trade goods, including gold.
Another harbor in Central California, Morro Bay, was discovered and explored by Captain Pedro de Unamuno following that return route from the Phillipines. He stopped in Morro Bay on October 18, 1587 re-filled his water casks and explored the area around San Luis Obispo.
Sebastian Vizcaino sailed from Navidad (Acapulco) in 1602 with two ships, the San Diego and Santo Tomas, a frigate the Tres Reyes, and a long boat. Their mission was to further explore the coast and find at least two good ports that the Spanish fleets could use for sanctuary and to reaffirm Spanish dominance. The English pirates and privateers following Drakes' route around the Cape attacked Spanish galleons at will, emphasizing the need for Spanish ports and the need to strengthen her western coast.
Vizcaino abandoned the long ship before they reached San Diego after six months at sea. They arrived in the harbor on November 10, and two days later named the harbor San Diego in honor of the feast of San Diego de Alcala. They left the new harbor of San Diego on November 20, landed on Santa Catalina Island, passed through the Santa Barbara channel, and continued until they reached a prominent point which they named Point Concepcion, for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 7. Leaving there, Vizcaino's expedition passed Carmel Bay and after negotiating around Point Pinos on December 16, named the harbor that they entered in honor of the sponsor of the expedition, the viceroy of Mexico, the Count of Monte Rey.
The trip had been a long and arduous journey, with 16 men dying of scurvy and many others were sick. After landing and celebrating the first Catholic mass north of San Diego in the new world, one of the ships, the Santo Tomas carrying the sick and reports of the expedition's progress, was sent back to Navidad. Of the 34 men on board only nine survived the return journey. After a very cold Christmas with the mountains covered with snow and ice forming in the ponds onshore, an exploration group of 12 men including Vizcaino and a priest, Father Andres, left the encampment at Monterey heading southeast where they found Carmel Bay and the Carmel river. They recorded that they saw signs of Indian activity and found one village but it was deserted. The onshore expedition returned to camp without having seen a single Native American.
The remaining two ships left Monterey on January 7, 1603 sailing northward until they reached Drake's Bay where a storm separated them. The San Diego captained by Vizcaino reached Cape Mendocino but with only six men able to work because of scurvy, the ship returned to Mexico. The frigate, Tres Reyes, found safe anchorage behind Cape Mendocino during a storm and may have subsequently sailed as far as the Oregon border. On January 19, with most of the crew dead or dying of scurvy, the explorers onboard the Tres Reyes turned around and headed south. The ship reached Acapulco on February 23, 1604 but only five men were left alive.
Vizcaino's expedition resulted in some well detailed maps of the coast, and he identified potential ports for Spain to develop. Despite strict orders to the contrary, Vizcaino also re-named many of the locations that Cabrillo had discovered. Many of these names are the ones used today. His enthusiasm and desire to attract attention to his expedition's accomplishments, to promote settlements and convert, to Christianity, the Native Americans he did encounter, caused Vizcaino to give glowing reports. He described a healthy population of well fed and friendly Indians gentle and docile. To entice colonists he described fertile land, a gentle, sunny harbor in Monterey, and, in spite of the cold weather they had endured, described a climate much like Spain's.
Once again however, Spain was distracted and ignored the central California coast. The newly discovered harbors lay hidden in the fog until the expeditions of Gaspar De Portola over a hundred and fifty years later.
Gaspar De Portola left San Diego in mid-July 1769 with a mixed complement of people including soldiers, Native Americans, and two Franciscan missionary priests, Fathers Crespi and Gomez. They were to travel overland, create maps and explore the land between San Diego and the harbor that Vizcaino had found and named Monterey. Traveling overland with pack mules, they planned to rendezvous with supply ships along the way. The expedition reached what is now called Los Angeles two weeks later, and Santa Barbara on August 19, 1769. Traveling over the rolling coastal plains was not difficult until they reached San Simeon about mid-September . The terrain forced them inland until they reached the Salinas Valley, near present day King City and the Salinas River. They followed the river downstream, encountering a few Native Americans along the way, eventually reaching the ocean somewhere around Marina.
The expedition expected to find Monterey harbor easily, but the fog was dense and they could not find anything that looked like what Vizcaino had so glowingly described. They continued northward still looking for Monterey, as well as their supply ship San Jose. By the time they reached the Pajaro river almost a dozen men were so weak from scurvy that they had to be carried. In a deserted village they found a straw bird with wings at least six feet long. They named the river and the area after it -- Pajaro.
The expedition struggled on and reached Santa Cruz on October 18, and the San Francisco Bay area by November 1. Realizing that they must have missed Monterey, they retraced their steps, low on supplies and by now reduced to eating their mules. On November 28 they reached Point Pinos and camped on a beach still without having found Monterey Harbor. Tired, sick and disillusioned, the expedition returned to San Diego without ever having found either Monterey or the supply ship San Jose.
After recuperating, Portola and Father Junipero Serra agreed to mount a land/sea expedition to find Monterey. Father Junipero Serra went with the ship carrying the supplies while Captain Portola led his men overland. Re-tracing their steps they eventually reached Monterey in 36 days on May 24, 1770. The ship, San Antonio with Junipero Serra aboard, reached Monterey on May 31, 1770. The ship made its way into the now visibly magnificent harbor with whales and sea lions all around them.
The mission of Monterey and the Presidio, or fort, were established. On July 9, Portola returned to Mexico with a letter from Father Junipero Serra to the viceroy requesting permission to move the mission to Carmel so that the converted Indians would not be contaminated by the rowdy sailors and soldiers at the Presidio. That mission in Carmel still stands, and is the resting site of Father Junipero Serra's remains, the man who created the California mission system.
In 1791 a mission was built in Santa Cruz across the river from a pueblo settlement called Branciforte, established by the government to encourage settlements in the area. Men convicted of minor crimes were offered a musket, an adobe house, land, a plow and some farm utensils and animals to entice them to colonize the area. Soon, the missionaries were complaining that the converted Indians were being harassed and they too wanted to move the mission. The mission was abandoned after the pueblo and the mission was attacked and sacked by the pirate Hyppolite Bouchard. Bouchard also sacked the Monterey Presidio in October, 1818.
These early expeditions led to the ultimate colonization of the Central California region, onshore of the present day Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Mexico expanded the European settlements in the area and Monterey was the capital of Alta (Upper) California. Ultimately, when the settlers in the region sought and gained freedom from Mexico, Monterey was considered California's capital, and most important city. The constitutional convention for California, where the state's constitution was debated and ultimately signed, was held in Monterey in adobe buildings that still stand today.