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Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument

Views of the Monument

and dedication plaques

Cabrillo National Monument Cabrillo National Monument

dedication plaque - 1957

APRIL 1957

re-dedication plaque - 1988 A TRIBUTE FROM THE




Visitor Center

The information below can be found at the visitor center, which features a series of displays pertaining to exploits of Cabrillo, and life during the early days of the exploration of California.

visitor center entrance view of visitor center

In 1906, Congress authorized the president to set aside significant historic and scientific sites. President Woodrow wilson officially proclaimed a portion of Point Loma as Cabrillo National Monument in 1913. In 1933, President Roosevelt transferred authority for this and other sites to the National Park Service and a number of improvements were made at that time. It was then the smallest (1/2 acre) unit in the National Park System.

The Cabrillo statue was brought to the park in 1949 after much legal and political wrangling. In 1965, the visitor center was built, and was followed by additions and improvements to the facilities, trails, tide pools, parking areas and other features. The park now encompasses 160 acres and is one of the most heavily visited in the National Park System.

Little is known of Cabrillo's early years. What is certain is that he had arrived in the New World by 1520, and by 1521 was a corporal of crossbowmen under Cortés in Mexico.

The 16th century Spanish Historian, Antonio de Herrera, identified him as "Portuguese, a man well versed in matters of the sea." Some historians argue, though, that Cabrillo was Spanish.

On the night of June 30, 1520, the Mexica (Aztecs) surprised Cortés and his soldiers, driving them from their capital, Tenochtitlán. Vowing to retake this island city, Cortés ordered a fleet of boats, bergantines, to be built; and appointed Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo to oversee the job of making pitch to caulk the seams of these boats.

On August 13, 1521, Cortés used these boats to recapture the Aztec capital.

Guatemala Invasion

After the recapture of Tenochtitlán, the Spanish conquest of Mexico began in earnest and Cabrillo played a prominent role. He served as a captain of crossbowmen with Francisco Orozco in the conquest of Oaxaca and then, under Pedro de Alvarado in Guatemala. This latter conquest was fought in high mountain forests against fierce Mayan warriors defending their home. This campaign was one of the bloodiest in the Americas. For his contribution, Cabrillo would be richly rewarded.

Cabrillo's Life in Santiago

Abandoning the life of a conquistador, Cabrillo settled in Guatemala to enjoy the fruits of his conquests. In August, 1524, his name was entered on the roll of the first citizens of the colony's new capital, Santiago. Cabrillo found life there rewarding. He took an Indian "common law" wife, with whom he had children. He later married Beatriz Sánchez de Ortega, the sister of a fellow conquistador and began to raise a family. His success in gold mining, farming and shipping, and his friendship with Pedro de Alvarado, who had become governor, made him one of the leading men of the colony.

The conquest of Central America sharpened the conquistadores' appetite for riches. Governor Alvarado dreamed of finding a western route to the Orient and commissioned Cabrillo to build a fleet of 13 ships. Cabrillo established his shipyard at the Guatemalan port of Iztapa and, despite the hardships present in the Americas, constructed a fleet as good as any built in Europe.

On June 27, 1542, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo set sail with three vessels -- San Salvador, Victoria and San Miguel -- and about 250 men to explore the uncharted Pacific coast of the Americas. Sailing north from Navidad, Mexico, he hoped to find a passageway to the Atlantic or a coastal route to the Spice Islands (Moluccas) and the riches of Asia. At that time, no one had any idea of the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

San Diego Bay

On September 28, 1542, Cabrillo's fleet entered what is today San Diego Bay, their first landfall im the present-day United States. Cabrillo called this inviting harbor "San Miguel" in honor of the saint whose feast was the next day. The local 'Iipay and Tipay (Kumeyaay) Indians were initially wary of the Spanish, attacking several of Cabrillo's men who went ashore that evening for provisions. After an exchange of gifts and communicating through signs, relations became friendlier.

Cabrillo Injury, Death, Burial

The details of Cabrillo's death are as mysterious as those of his birth. One account says that on Christmas Eve, 1542, he fell and broke a leg. The Account of the voyage says he broke an arm near the shoulder on an earlier visit to the island of Posesión. Presumably, complications ensued and on January 3, 1543, Captain Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo died.

Historians believed this happened on the island of Posesión, known today as San Miguel, the northwesternmost of the Channel Islands. In 1901, however, an amateur archaeologist found what appeared to be an Indian grinding stone on a neighboring island, Santa Rosa. This stone was inscribed with the initials "JR" and a cross and stick figure of a man, leading anthropologist Robert Heizer to hypothesize that it might have marked Cabrillo's grave. However, men who died aboard Spanish ships were traditionally buried at sea. Could it be something else?

Ship's route and Account of the Voyage

The actual log of Cabrillo's voyage disappeared some time after the fleet's return. Therefore, historians are uncertain how far the expedition traveled. Cabrillo may have reached the vicinity of Point Reyes before turning back. According to the account of the voyage we have today, on November 16, 1542 the fleet anchored in Monterey Bay. They returned to the Channel Islands where they remained until mid-January. With Ferrer in charge after Cabrillo's death, they once again sailed north, perhaps reaching the Oregon/California border. On March 1, they headed back to Navidad.

On April 14, 1543, Cabrillo's ships returned to Navidad, Mexico. The expedition, like those of Soto and Coronado, was considered a failure. They found no golden treasure, no exotic spices and no trade route to Asia. But, they returned with something even more valuable. They returned with the first recorded account of the people, places and climate of California.

In the centuries that followed, "Manila galleons" sailed past California, but they rarely ventured near land. Sebastian de Vizcaino retraced Cabrillo's route in 1602 -- creating new charts and changing many of Cabrillo's place names -- but he did not establish a colony. Not until 1769 did Spain colonize Alta California. In that year, Juan Bautista de Anza pioneered an overland route from Mexico to California and Gaspar de Portolá became the first European to explore San Francisco Bay.

Displays of Clothing and Equipment


Model of San Salvador
This model of Cabrillo's flagship, San Salvador, was built by Señor Manuel Monmeneu in association with the Naval Museum in Madrid, Spain. The model project was sponsored by the Portuguese-American Social and Civic Club of San Diego.

model of San Salvador illustration of San Salvador

map display of voyage Chronicle of the Voyage

There is also a interesting presentation of Cabrillo's voyage. It consists of a map which traces the route in lights along with an audio narration of what took place at different points in the journey.

The Cabrillo National Monument is located on Point Loma, in San Diego. See map.

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