This Week In History: Sept. 24 – Sept. 30 “Exploration” 

The vast majority of exploration for civilizations that prospered centuries ago was conducted by boat. In modern times, it’s near impossible for people who live in developed areas to find any land untouched by man regardless of how hard one looks. Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash.

Here’s a challenge for you: Walk out your door and go somewhere nobody has ever gone before.  

I mean, is that even possible? Could you find any place on Earth left untouched by human interaction? It’s a surprisingly difficult conundrum. Don’t be fooled by the woodlands off the side of long stretches of highway; they may appear untouched, but they’re almost all managed or tended to. Usually nestled in the fringes of these forests are some kind of urban development, such a place is a far cry from wild, unexplored land.  

If you’re living in Connecticut, the prospects are more grim. When walking through seemingly unmanaged woods, the impressive network of stonewalls serve as a reminder of the generations of farming that had once occurred right where you walk. Once again, you’re following a path someone has already tread.  

Researchers now suggest that only around 3% of the earth is left untouched. Sadly, you would need to do some substantial traveling to find a path untrodden; perhaps even requiring a journey to the far reaches of deserts or tundras. But realistically, for those of us living centuries after the Age of Exploration when we are so unfamiliar with the unknown, can we fathom the danger of traveling to unexplored lands? 

One sailor and explorer — from either Spain or Portugal, it’s hotly debated — Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, would have been well aware of the dangers. He knew well that to leave the charted maps was to journey into the unknown, the uncertain, the unpredictable and the deadly.  

Cabrillo had served with the infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés during his brutal engagements with the Aztec Empire, standing by the conqueror as one of Cortés’s finest crossbowmen. By 1521, Cabrillo steadily rose through the ranks due to his actions in the creation of a fleet of ships used to starve out and ultimately destroy the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan. By using handmade boats and rafts, the outnumbered Europeans and their tribal allies were able to besiege a city with a population of hundreds of thousands. In only a few weeks, the city would be utterly destroyed. 

It’s clear that Cabrillo had long been fighting that which he didn’t know, and as the San Diego History Center asks quite succinctly, “What were Cabrillo’s thoughts as he stood in the ruins of the great empire? We do not know. There were to be no great prizes for him here.” 

Cabrillo moved on in search of the unknown. Perhaps he thought he could walk out of his door and quite easily find land untouched by other humans. In this pursuit, he led a fleet of ships north from the western coasts of Mexico. 

On June 27, 1542, Cabrillo and his fleet set sail to travel as far north as they could. They didn’t have an objective as they hadn’t the slightest clue what lay ahead. With two ships, “Victoria” and “San Salvador,” manned by mostly slave crews, Cabrillo sailed beyond what previous explorers had dared to navigate. 

This is where the story of Cabrillo becomes quite interesting. Long ago the actual naval records used by the ship were lost. It is unknown exactly why this is the case, but sadly the usually in-depth ships’ logs are either lost in the depths of the sea or to the depths of time. This means that historically, we can base our understanding of Cabrillo’s trip upon court documents compiled by his son much later — who had a long dispute over inheriting his father’s wealth. 

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, 1542, Cabrillo sailed by several islands off the coast of San Diego, perhaps these islands make up what is now known as Isla Coronado, north of Baja California. Photo by Greg Jurgajtis on Unsplash

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, 1542, Cabrillo sailed by several islands off the coast of San Diego, perhaps these islands make up what is now known as Isla Coronado, north of Baja California. 

That evening, he camped and watched fires on the shore of Point Loma, which juts out into the bay. They had stumbled upon an unexplored, yet inhabited bay that would prove to be the “great prize” Cabrillo was after. 

The following morning the ships were threatened by a brewing storm; consequently, Cabrillo decided to head inland to the shores of what he called San Miguel bay. It was there on Sept. 28, 1542 where what would come to be the incredible city and port of San Diego was first discovered. 

Sadly, it becomes hard to stand behind the statement “was first discovered.” Of course, there were natives already around the port which had either been hostile or friendly to the Europeans as they made their way around the coast. These peoples were described as “comely” and “covered with skins of animals” by Cabrillo’s contemporaries, and later would engage with an increasing number of colonists. 

In fact, the significance of Cabrillo’s journey may not be in the mapping and knowledge gained of what is to become San Diego bay. Rather, it is his role in enabling the future colonization of the west coast and the eventual crossing of the pacific by Spaniards to new regions such as the Philippines or East Indies. 

Yet sometimes, historical impacts are less clear than one would imagine. Cabrillo was one of the last to sail north under the Spanish crown, and it would be another 50 years until significant development happened in the regions he first explored. Perhaps the risks he took were not worth the seemingly absent prestige. 

Like many before him, Cabrillo sought to explore the unknown. Despite his ruthless nature and difficult reputation, his actions altered the course of history. In later years, off the coast of San Miguel Island far to the south of San Diego Bay, Cabrillo was to meet his end while fighting off an attack by native warriors — though rumors are afoot of an unsolved mystery. Ultimately, the risks of exploration had finally caught up to him.  

I hope this exploration of the topic of, well, exploration was as fascinating for you as it was for me! If you would like more information, I highly recommend San Diego History Center’s compiled biography of Cabrillo using information from historian Carl Heilbron’s book, the “History of San Diego County: Volume One.” This source was essential for understanding Cabrillo. Likewise, if you’re still interested in the search of finding untouched land, perhaps you should try instead searching for untouched water, as the ocean still remains largely unexplored.  

Maybe future generations of historians will be chroniclins a new Age of Exploration, not of land or the Earth’s surface, but of the very depths of the sea itself. See you next week! 

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