As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 – Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

The Discovery, Exploration, and Founding of Spanish California

Map of World Colonization 1700

Above map at

Cold Call: Second Cold Call on required reading - Read Introduction and Goal 1 in the discussion guide for today at

Introduction: Last time we met, we learned about the first inhabitants of California and how they were politically, socially, economically, and spiritually self-reliant at the time of European contact. Nonetheless, we also learned that they were not prepared for either the racist, stereotypical attitudes of Europeans or the military force that was used to subjugate them. Today, then, we move to the next chapter in our story - the European discovery, exploration, and occupation of California. And we begin with the Spanish.

California was discovered as a consequence of Spanish imperialism in the Western Hemisphere. Between 1520 and 1540, the Spanish relentlessly pushed northward from Mexico, exploiting Indian villages along the way and vastly expanding their frontier. It was in 1533, that the first group of Spanish explorers crossed the Gulf of California and reached Bahia de la Paz near the tip of the Baja Peninsula. When they tried to land, Indians killed all but two of them. While sailing back to Mexico, the survivors spread tales they had already heard about an island inhabited by Amazon women.

Goals for our discussion:

  1. To review a chronology of the early exploration of California.
  2. To understand the founding and development of Spanish California.
  3. To understand the trajectory of the growth of Spanish missions in Alta California.
  4. To examine an "insider" and "outsider" view of the Spanish Missions
  5. To learn about the impact Spanish rule had upon California's environment and upon the California Indians.
  6. To trace the early growth of the Spanish California colony and examine what the colony had achieved by the end of Spanish occupation

Goal #1: To review a chronology of the early exploration of California.

Map of Spanish conquests in North and South America between 1492-1615

1542 - Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his chief pilot Bartolome Ferrelo sailed two ships from Mexico with the goal of exploring the Pacific Coast in search of a northern route connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean - the Strait of Anain. Instead, Cabrillo became the first Spanish explorer to sail along the coast of what is now California. Below is a map of North America, Asia and Europe first published in 1540, showing the Strait of Anian or Northwest Passage.

Sailing north Map of Cabrillo voyage 1542along the west coast of Baja California, Cabrillo's ships arrived at the bay of present-day San Diego, which Cabrillo named the bay of San Miguel on September 28th. They then established Spanish claim to the California coast, naming various sites and occasionally going ashore to take possession of the land in a formal ceremony.

Continuing northward, they discovered San Pedro, Santa Monica, San Buenaventura and Santa Barbara. Fierce winds and a storm forced them to turn back when they reached the northern coast of Santa Barbara County.

1579 - Sir Francis Drake is believed to have been the first European to land on the Northern California coast - probably at what is now Drake's Bay or Bodega Bay which he named Nova Albion (seen below in one of Drake's drawings) because "the white bancks and cliffes, which lie toward the sea" reminded him of home. This was accomplished during his famous circumnavigation of the globe between 1577-1580.

Francis Fletcher, a chronicler of the voyage, noted that the sailors detested the harsh climate of Nova Albion because of the "nipping colds" and "those thicke mists and most stinking fogges." He also wrote of the most extensive contact with local American Indians, describing the men as "commonly so strong, that that which 2 or 3 of our men could hardly beare, one of them would take upon his back, and without grudging carrie it easily away up hill and down hill … They are also exceedingly swift in running, and of long continuance." The Indians "are a people of a tractable, free and loving nature, without guile or treachery."Map of Sir Francis Drakes Central California finding

A bronze plaque inscribed with Drake's claim to the new lands fitting the description in Drake's own account was discovered in Marin County in 1937 and put on display in Berkeley's Bancroft Library. However, it was later declared a hoax. Indeed, today, some scholar’s believe the entire story - about New Albion and their adventures with the local American Indians - may have been a fabrication. Not only did the Spanish ignore any English claim to Nova Albion, but recently, some historians and anthropologists claim that a careful reading of the journey's diaries indicates he never set foot on California soil. Garry Gitzen's Francis Drake in Nehalem Bay 1579, Setting the Historical Record Straight disputes all other hypothesized landing sites by comparing ethnographic, language, floral, fauna, geography, topography and a sixteen century survey land claim that Drake made. Gitzen states, "Drake never set foot in California as we know it today."

1580s - The Spanish continued their search for a harbor in California.To this end, they used the Manila galleons - trade ships that sailed the route between Spain's new claim on the Philippines (1521) and Mexico.

1587 - Pedro de Unamumo - directed to thoroughly examine California's coast - arrived in what was probably Morro Bay. He led a group of 12 heavily armed soldiers and a priest ashore to make contact with the inhabitants. Pelted by arrows and javelins, five of the explorers were wounded - two of them mortally. Concerned about the Indians' aggressiveness, Mexican officials ordered later explorers not to leave the protection of their ships and venture inland. They did not want to expose their entire expeditions and their precious cargoes to attack.

1594 - The Spanish decided to resume their exploration of what was clearly a remote and troublesome region. Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeno sailed his Spanish galleon, San Agustin, with orders to search the California shoreline. He reached the coast just north of present day Eureka and then sailed southward. A storm forced him to anchor at a harbor which he named San Francisco - probably present-day Drake's Bay. Boatloads of Indians soon surrounded the ship and the men went ashore for a month.

Cermeno's scribe, Pedro de Lugo, compiled extensive reports about Indian dress, foods, and their reactions to the Spanish explorers. Lugo observed that although the Indians went about "naked without covering and with their private parts exposed," they were "a well-made people, robust and more corpulent than the Spaniards in general." During the month, most local groups were friendly.

This changed in November when a fierce storm destroyed Cermeno's ship. He ordered a sweep of the countryside to gather acorns, wild nuts, and salvage from the ship. In one village when the Spaniards tried to retrieve ship planks, the Indians attacked and wounded one man. The Spaniards fired at the Indians, stripped the village of wood and its food, and built a makeshift boat to sail back to Mexico.

Further attempts to explore California via the Spanish galleons coming back from the Philippines were abandoned. This directive stayed in force until 1602 when Sebastian Vizcaino was ordered to sail three ships to California and to chart the California coast.

1602 - Sebastian Vizcaino sailed up the coast of Alta Vizcaino voyages of CaliforniaCalifornia. His mission was to further explore and map the coast and find at least two good ports that the Spanish fleets could use for sanctuary from English pirates and to reaffirm Spanish dominance in the area. After 60 days at sea, they sailed into the harbor they named San Diego in honor of the Spanish feast San Diego de Alcala. After landing, they celebrated the first Catholic mass in the new world.

They left 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. Vizcaino's expedition continued northward until they entered a harbor that they named Monterey in honor of the expedition's sponsor, the Count of Monte Rey. After a few days, a group of 12 men left the encampment and headed southeast where they found Carmel Bay and the Carmel River.

The ships left Monterey on January 7, 1603 and sailed northward until they reached Drake's Bay where a storm separated them. The ship captained by Vizcaino reached Cape Mendocino but the ship immediately returned to Mexico because only six men were able to work due to scurvy. The other ship found safe anchorage behind Cape Mendocino during a storm and may have subsequently sailed as far as the Oregon border.

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 to convert the Indians he encountered 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.

1606 - Spain, frustrated by interactions with the troublesome California coast and distracted by its prosperous trade with the Phillippines, passed a royal order that ended further exploration of California.

1769 - Over 150 years after Vizcaino's expedition, the Spanish government set out to seriously explore California. They sent Jose de Galvez to strength New Spain's northern frontier defenses and to establish a colony in Alta California.. To lead and serve as governor of the new colony, he chose Captain Gaspar de Portola, the governor of Baja California.

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. Their goal was to travel overland, create maps and explore the land between San Diego and the harbor that Vizcaino had found and named Monterey. 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 Monterey.

After recuperating, Portola launched a joint land/sea expedition. Its goal was to create the governmental infrastructure of Alta California - a structure that consisted of three types of communities: missions, presidios, and pueblos.

And what are the "bottom line" messages from these Spanish explorations?

Goal #2: To understand the founding and development of Spanish California

Map of North America in 1763

After 150 years of disinterest in California, Spain rekindled its involvement in California again due to imperialism - this time, the imperialistic rivalries between the French, English, and Russians for North America.

After the French and Indian War in 1763, the Spanish relinquished Florida to Great Britain while the French lost Canada and the eastern Mississippi Valley to Britain. Map of Spanish possessions in North America 1800

Thus, the development of Spanish California - known as Alta California - was the direct result of Russian, Spanish, and finally American imperialism in North America.

Russian Imperialism in North America

Spanish Imperialism in North America. Although Spain demonstrated little interest in California between 1606 and 1769, it had been busy creating an inland empire in the states now known as New Mexico and Arizona, as well as parts of Nevada, Colorado, and Texas. In so doing, the Spanish developed a successful strategy for creating an empire in the North American interior by constructing a series of presidios, pueblos, and missions. Thus, the Spanish developed a government-coordinated millitary, civilian, and religious conquest of the North American frontier. Image of Monterey Presidio in 1791

Thus, by the 1750s, strings of presidios, pueblos, and missions gave the Spanish a hold on their North American possessions. This three-pronged effort insured Spanish control over Northern California and secured their imperialist claims over much of the "New World."

Goal #3: To understand the trajectory of the growth of Spanish missions in Alta California.

The California missions experienced the longest Spanish legacy in North America. The missions, like much of California history, are deeply shrouded in mythology. To get a better understanding of the reality of California missions, it is essential to understand the original goals of the Spanish mission system in California:

  1. To create temporary schools to civilize the Indians by giving them a proper Catholic education as well as providing experience in European cultural skills and an understanding of Spanish political and social customs. This would make them gente du razon - civilized people of Spanish, mixed Indian and Spanish, and mixed African and Spanish descent.
  2. To dissolve the mission schools after the Indians were civilized.
  3. To give many of the mission lands to the neophytes - converted Indians who became civilized - who would, in turn, become tax-paying members of Spanish California.
  4. To secularize or end the religious basis of the missions once the above goals had been met.

Establishing the California Missions:

End of 9/1 discussion

Goal 4: To examine an "insider" and "outsider" view of the Spanish Missions

We learned a great deal about the missions last time we met. Today we begin with a group assignment that will help us better understand the missions from two perspectives - that of Guadalupe Vallejo (an insider) in the reading assigned for today and that of Henry Dana (an outsider) in the excerpt that you will all receive.

Directions:  Please make into 8 groups of five people each.  In these groups, please complete the following:

  1. Select two volunteers - one to record the findings of each group, and the other to be a spokesperson who will share your group’s answers with the entire class.
  2. Discuss the following for 10 minutes and try to reach some collegial agreement on your answers:
  3. Take another 15 minutes to complete the following two tasks:
  4. Take a final 5 minutes to decide on at least three things your group can agree upon about mission life that you learned from these articles. Be sure that your spokesperson is prepared to adequately present these three things to the entire class.  When we reconvene as a class, each spokesperson will share the group’s responses to this “bottom line” question.

Now we are going to tackle what is perhaps the biggest myth about California history - a myth that is still prevalent in many elementary classrooms across the state: how the missions impacted both the California Indians and the environment.

Goal #5: To learn about the impact Spanish rule had upon California's environment and upon the California Indians

Drawing of padres and Indians

The Spanish, like most Europeans of their time, believed God had devised nature for the sole benefit of humankind and thus, the Christian tradition appeared to justify environmental exploitation. Over the centuries, Europeans had destroyed forests, reduced fertile valleys and hillsides to wasteland, and eradicated many plant and animal species. In California, the Spanish both intentionally and unintentionally introduced physical, economic, and biological changes that dramatically altered the environment.

Thus, while there were few Spanish settlers in California by 1821, they had drastically altered its fragile natural landscsapes and wildlife, especially along the coast. Not surprisingly, this environmental degradation had drastic consequences for California Indians. While the missions were created to mold the relationship between the Spanish settlers and the Indians, in so doing, they altered the culture of many Indian people. The degree of that change has been the subject of debate within the historical and anthropological communities.

So, what do we know? Initially, some Indians were attracted by the new culture, the valuable trade items it offered, and new agricultural and industrial skills they could learn from the foreigners. These groups freely interacted with the Europeans and often provided food, labor, protection, and assistance as guides. For example:

However, few Indians completely adopted Spanish religion, culture, or economies. Even the most assimilated Indians took what they believed to be valuable from the new culture while adapting it to their own. For the vast majority of California's Indians, the consequences of Spanish colonization were disastrous. The impact could especially be seen in three areas: punishment in the missions, disease, and resistance.

Resistance. Many Indians actively and consistently resisted missionization. They knew the presence of white colonists threatened tribal territories, disrupted family and community traditions, challenged the authority of Indian leaders, upset the balance of power between tribe, and irreversibly altered the environment. In so believing, some Indians moved their villages beyond the Spanish frontier, while others retaliated whenever the opportunity arose. The following chronology provides a selected list of Indian resistance efforts against the mission system.

If time permits, we will read an account of a major resistance that happened at Mission San Diego in 1775 -

Goal #6: To get an understanding of California at the end of Spanish Rule

At the end of Spanish rule, California could best be characterized by its strong mission system, its highly stratified society, its reputation as a "cultural wasteland", and a weak economy that was largely dependent upon Spain.

The Spanish Mission System. By the 1820s, the missions - which existed on 10 million acres of land or about 1/6 of all California - and the priests who ran them, had established flourishing agricultural and cattle economies.

Spanish Californian Society. For decades, Map of California SPanish and Mexican Ranchosthe Spanish colonists struggled. Cut off from the outside world and hampered by scarce rainfall, capital, labor, supplies, machinery, transportation, markets, and business institutions, Spanish Californians lived lives of subsistence. Further, the colony was underpopulated during the entire period of Spanish rule. Beginning with 100 when Father Serra settled Monterey, it grew to 500 by 1779, to 1,800 by 1800, and 3,300 by the end of Spanish rule in 1821.

The Spanish society that did exist in California was stratified and consisted largely of three classes: the Spanish elite, the Mexican settlers, and the California Indians.

California's "cultural wasteland".Photograph of mission style architecture Some of the wealthier Californio families had fine furniture and clothing - all of which was designed and made in Mexico or Spain - but there was very little effort to educate Californios in either the arts or letters.

California's Economic dependence on Spain. Economic independence evaded Spanish California. Almost all Spaniards were dependent upon Spanish shipments of clothing, food, furniture, and luxury items. Instead of developing its own economic infrastructure or agriculatural base, the colony relied almost exclusively upon outside manufacturers and financial support from the Spanish government. While the pueblos virtually had no profitable agriculture, the missions did enjoy some agricultural success, largely because they had a large and free labor supply of Indian labor. At some missions, Indians processed raw materials and farm produce into cloth, blankets, rope, pottery, bricks, tiles, leather goods, candles, soap, funiture, and iron hardware. Others specialized - San Gabriel made wine and San Juan Capistrano specialized in smelting and cast iron. Some began to trade with other parts of the Spanish Empire in cowhides and tallow. In short, the economy in general advanced very little during Spanish rule and the standard of living for ordinary people rose very little. There were very few exports until after 1800 - and most of this was grain traded to the Russian colony at Fort Ross.

Map of Alta CaliforniaAs the 1800s unfolded, the era of Spanish colonization in Alta California was drawing to a close. Just as the discovery, exploration, and founding of California was directly related to European imperialism, Spain's loss of California was ultimately begun by another battle for European imperialism.

Conclusions - Discovery, Exploration, and Founding of Spanish California

  1. California's discovery and colonial founding was a byproduct of Spanish imperialism in the Western Hemisphere.
  2. The goals of the Spanish explorers were to map the California coastline and claim a safe harbor for Spain. While some explorations produced a variety of maps, it was not until 1769 that the Spanish were able to claim a safe harbor for their empire.
  3. The existence of substantial Indian defiance hindered Spanish exploration and eventually, the threat of Indian resistance forced the Spanish to suspend exploration of the California coast for 150 years.
  4. The relationship between the early Spanish explorers and the Indians was complicated and consisted of a wide range of interactions - violence, friendship, economic exchange, cultural and biological interaction.
  5. The Spanish missions had three original goals: to create temporary schools to civilize the Indians; to dissolve the mission schools after the Indians were civilized, thus making them neophytes; and to give many of the mission lands to the neophytes who would, in turn, become tax-paying members of Spanish California. However, the last two goals were never achieved for several important reasons:
  6. Several patterns arose during the Spanish efforts to discover, explore, and colonize California: Ilustration of Indians working on the mission
  7. Although there were few Spanish settlers in California by 1821, they had drastically altered its fragile natural landscsapes and wildlife, especially along the coast.
  8. Spanish California was not the pastoral land celebrated in romantic legend and romanticized history.
  9. By the end of Spanish rule, California was an isolated and ignored part of the Spanish Empire in which very few people of Spanish and Mexican descent lived, in which very few people prospered economically, in which society was deeply stratified, and in which most people lived a economically difficult and culturally deficient frontier life.