The Discovery of San Francisco Bay (1542-1769)

Historical Essay

by K. Maldetto


Early Spanish map of the Bay Area from the Presidio in Monterrey (sic) to Bodega Bay in the north.

San Francisco Bay, one of the great natural harbors of the world, lay undiscovered for over two centuries from the time of first navigation along the California coast. Appropriately enough, it was under the leadership of the great conquistador Cortez that plans for the exploration of the western coast of North America began in 1522, just thirty years after Columbus' discovery of the New World.

Cortez, the conqueror of the great Aztec Empire, was amassing a fleet near Acapulco on the Pacific coast of Mexico with the intention of discovering the mythical straits of Anian, the northern passage believed to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, hence providing a shortcut to the Orient. However, political struggles and other voyages of exploration delayed Cortez' plans for another 10 years. Finally in 1532, Cortez sent several ships up the Pacific Coast of Mexico. While this expedition was largely a failure, one vessel did reach the tip of Baja California, where Cortez himself established the first Californian colony in 1535 near present-day La Paz. The colony, however, was abandoned after only a year.

Throughout the second half of the 16th century, Spanish, Portuguese and English navigators sailed along the California coast in search of a safe harbor yet repeatedly failed to sight the entrance to the great bay. Geography, fog and chance forever altered the region's history by hiding the Golden Gate and delaying the beginnings of European settlement along the bay. It was not until 1769 that Europeans first sighted the bay during a land expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá and dispatched by Spain in a vain attempt to bolster its waning military influence in the region. To add to San Francisco's less-than-glorious beginnings, the Portola men only discovered the great bay by accident after overshooting their real target, Monterey, and then failed to even realize they were the first Europeans to sight the bay!

By the mid-sixteenth century, Spain, the dominant European power, had established colonies throughout much of South and Central America. Bible and sword in hand, the conquistadores plundered the natural resources and ruthlessly destroyed the native cultures. By the late 1530s, Spain's control extended as far north as present-day Mexico and starting in the early 1540's Spain began a campaign of exploration of the territories north of the Rio Grande.

In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was sent by Mexico's viceroy to explore the coast north of western Mexico. On September 28 Cabrillo landed in a bay he named San Miguel, now the city of San Diego, and became the first European to sail along the coastline of present-day California. Cabrillo sailed as far north as the mouth of the Russian River passing by the coast of Marin County and Point Reyes. Cabrillo and his crew, however, did not sail too close to the shoreline for fear of being shipwrecked and thus he became the first of a number of European explorers who missed the great bay east of the Golden Gate.

Exploration of the California coastline resumed after the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in 1565. Starting in 1566, Spanish vessels known as Manila Galleons carried trade between Mexico and the Philippines. The voyage to the Philippines was a fairly direct one, while the journey back required the Manila Galleons to take advantage of currents across the north Pacific which ended in northern California. There was thus a need for a safe port in northern California, which would allow vessels to stop for repairs and supplies.

English buccaneering activities along the California coast and western Mexico during the latter half of the 16th century lent further urgency to the need for a safe port. One of the more legendary buccaneers of the period was Sir Francis Drake, who was pillaging Spanish ships for Her Majesty the Queen while traveling around the globe. In the summer of 1579 he anchored his ship, the Golden Hind, in what was likely Drake's Bay, the bay South East of Point Reyes that Cabrillo had first sighted in 1542. (This bay was not named so until 1792 when English navigator Vancouver visited the area and named the bay in honor of the buccaneer). Drake went on shore and had his crew nail a plaque of brass claiming the land for the Queen of England. Though he remained for 6 weeks he never sighted the entrance to the bay, the reason probably being fog.

In the meantime, Spain was still looking to establish a safe port as a midpoint on the Manila-Acapulco route and in 1595, in view of this objective, Portuguese-born Sebastiano Cermeo was instructed to explore the California coastline. After a trying four-month trip across the Pacific, Cermeo landed his ship, the San Agustin, in present-day Drake's Bay. While Cermeo and part of his crew explored the surrounding region, a winter storm struck the bay and sunk their ship. The navigator and his crew of 70 men eventually made it back to Acapulco on a small manufactured vessel, an amazing feat possible mostly because of the assistance of friendly coastal Indians. For fear of another shipwreck, the sailors kept far away from the coast and Cermeo saw nothing of the entrance to the great bay. Before he left, though, Cermeo named present-day Drake's Bay, La Bahia de San Francisco, after Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan order.

The fourth near-discovery occurred in 1602 when Sebastian Vizcaino, one of Cermeo's officers, sailed back to Drake's Bay in search of the sunken San Agustin. He failed to locate the ship, yet explored the coastline more methodically than his predecessors. His exaggerated praise of Monterey Bay greatly influenced future exploration of northern California and was a deciding factor in establishing the capital of Alta California in Monterey. While Vizcaino did well as an explorer, naming today's San Diego, Santa Barbara and Monterey, he too failed to spot the Golden Gate.

At this point it is hard not to wonder how it was possible for all these explorers to come so close to San Francisco Bay yet fail to see its entrance. How could they be such crude explorers, unable to discover one of the world's great bays despite numerous expeditions? Chance certainly seemed to be on the side of the Bay Area Indians, at least for another 200 years or so. Yet, the 200 or more voyages which had already been made between Mexico and the Philippines by the early 17th century indicates that factors other than chance were involved. For one, geography played an important role in keeping the Golden Gate hidden. From the open ocean, Alcatraz and Angel Islands are often in the line of view thus making the already narrow entrance appear as solid coastline. In addition, the top of the Berkeley hills merges with the sides of the Golden Gate thus further obscuring the opening to the bay.

The navigational practices of the time also constituted an important factor. During the 16th and 17th centuries sailing vessels were small and entirely dependent upon wind for propulsion. As a result, captains needed to stay away from the coast lest adverse winds blow them against the shores and wreck their ship. Finally, fog itself, ironically one of the characteristics so commonly identified with San Francisco, often hid the Golden Gate from navigators.

In any event, Vizcaino's expedition was the last systematic effort at exploration along the California Coast for another 150 years. Though the Spanish Empire spread very rapidly from 1492 to 1542, its borders remained virtually fixed for the next two centuries. In addition to the constant danger and misery* involved in sea exploration, several factors explain this period of Spanish lethargy. By the early 17th century, trade between Mexico and the Philippines had dwindled to just one ship a year, thus reducing the need for a port in northern California. Over-land expeditions into the South-West U.S. had failed to identify mineral wealth. The Spanish colonization model did not encourage exploration and settlement. And finally there was no competition from other European powers for these lands. In the end, the one factor that changed and rekindled Spain's interest in California was competition from another European power, namely Russia.

Starting in the 1750's, Russian fur traders, backed by government funds, began to expand their business on the western coast of North America starting in Alaska and gradually descending the coast until Fort Ross was established in northern California in 1812. The Spanish monarchy had noticed Russian ambitions in this area almost from the beginning, and in 1768 King Carlos III ordered the Viceroy of Mexico and his second, the Visitador General Jose de Galvez, to send land and sea expeditions to colonize Alta California. Jose de Galvez and Father Junipero Serra, Franciscan monk and head of the Baja missions, decided to set up a chain of missions, some protected by forts (presidios), to ensure control and communication along the coast of Alta California. The first two sites to be colonized were San Diego and Monterey.

Don Gaspar de Portolá,** Military Governor of the Californias, was given command of the land expedition and Captain Vila led the sea expedition which consisted of two vessels. The land and sea parties were to meet in San Diego by June, 1769, and then set out for Monterey. Portol left Velicat in Baja California (about 200 miles south of San Diego) on March 9 of 1769 with a party of approximately 60, including soldiers, Franciscan monks and christianized Indians and arrived in San Diego by mid-June. The two vessels left in January and February 1769 and arrived in late April after a grueling trip (two thirds of the naval expedition died from scurvy). On July 14, the land party set off into unknown territory in search of Monterey where they were to meet one of the two ships.

The Portola expedition of 1769, the first land exploration of California by Europeans, was a defining moment in the history of the region: it marked the end of the Spanish colonization of the New World and the beginning of the destruction of the California Indians. Miguel Costans, the engineer of the expedition, and Father Juan Crespi kept detailed diaries of the trip, describing how they traveled,*** the natural landscape, as well as the appearance and lives of Indians they encountered (most of whom were apparently friendly). The expedition reached Monterey Bay on September 30 after an arduous journey but failed to recognize it. In the words of Costans: "A port so famous as that of Monterey, so celebrated, and so talked of in its time, by ... expert sailors who came expressly to reconnoiter these coasts ... - is it possible to say that it has not been found after the most careful and earnest efforts, carried out at the cost of much toil and fatigue?" What the Portola men failed to understand was to what extent Vizcaino had exaggerated. At this time, they were also expecting to meet up with the supply ship from San Diego that was nowhere in sight. So they continued further north in search of Monterey.

The Portola expedition reached the San Francisco Peninsula by late October. On October 31, the crew climbed to the top of the western ridge of Montara Mountain west of San Bruno and sighted**** the Farallones Islands and to the north Cermeos Bahia de San Francisco (Drakes Bay) and Point Reyes. Some members of the expedition, though, thought this to be Monterey Bay. Portola thus decided to send a scouting party under the command of Sergeant José Ortega to dispel any confusion.

In the meantime, a small group of soldiers went off into the hills to hunt deer for the hungry party. It was this group of soldiers which reached the top of Montara Mountains' Sweeney Ridge and beheld***** a body of water so great that Father Crespi described it as a harbor such that not only the navy of our most Catholic Majesty but those of all Europe could take shelter in it. On November 2, the hunting party returned to the camp with news of their discovery. The following day Sergeant Ortega confirmed the hunters account: while attempting to reach Point Reyes, they too had seen a vast body of water which channeled to the ocean through a strait, today's Golden Gate. On November 4, the entire Portolá expedition saw the magnificent bay while crossing Sweeney Ridge.

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Portolá sights the San Francisco Bay, November 4, 1769.

So, ironically, after more than 200 years of naval exploration of the California coastline, San Francisco Bay was discovered by a land expedition and only by accident! In fact, Portola and his men did not even realize they were the first Europeans to sight the bay. Everyone was convinced that what they were seeing was a large inner arm of Cermeo's Bahia de San Francisco. In Costans's words, the accounts of the hunters confirm(ed) us more and more in the opinion that we were at the port of San Francisco. A few years later, Mexican authorities, confused over the presence of these two bays, began associating the name San Francisco with both, until the practice spread to Monterey and the larger, clearly superior bay, appropriated the name.

Mainly worried about locating Monterey Bay, Portola and his men did not even realize the significance of their discovery. Here before their eyes was one of the worlds great bays, a natural harbor vastly superior to Monterey Bay and clearly befitting Spain's new colonial ambitions for Alta California, yet Portol completely failed to grasp the importance of his greatest discovery. In his memoirs of this trip, written four years later, Portola spoke mainly of boredom, hunger and illness and said only of the San Francisco peninsula: I did not linger there, nor did I see anything worthy of description there, save only a labyrinth of bays and channels which inundate the territory. So modest was the Governor's view of the bay that it was not until 7 years later that the Spaniards settled its shores. And so it was that fog, chance and a misnaming had finally given birth to the Bay of San Francisco, site of the future Queen City of the West.

--K. Maldetto

  • While today one easily imagines these naval voyages as ones of great excitement and discovery they also involved considerable misery, danger and often death. Cabrillo, the first explorer of the California coastline, died during that voyage of an infected arm injured after a rare hostile attack from indians on Santa Catalina Island, off of Santa Barbara. The danger of shipwreck was also great as Cermeño's case clearly illustrates. Finally, scurvy was probably the greatest killer: of Vizcaino's three ships, all three returned to Acapulco but one returned with only 9 survivors and another with only five. The naval expedition that was supposed to accompany Portolá to Monterey did not fare any better. By the time San Diego was reached, two thirds of the expedition had already died from scurvy.
    • Gaspar de Portolá was born in 1717 or 1718 in Catalonia, Spain. He was the son of a nobleman and destined for a military career. He joined the Spanish army at age 17 and gradually rose the ranks, faithfully serving the King until the end of his life. After fighting in Portugal and Italy and reaching the rank of captain, he was sent to New Spain (today's Mexico) in 1764. Portolá had not volunteered for the mission but given his rank he had little choice in the matter. In 1767, he was made military governor of Baja and Alta California. His first assignment was to expel the Jesuit monks who ran the California missions - disgraced for reasons of court politics - and replace them with Franciscan priests. Portolá handled the matter diplomatically and ensured a fairly smooth transition between the two religious orders. His superiors were apparently pleased with the results of his first assignment and in 1769 they gave him a second, more important mission, that eventually resulted in the discovery of San Francisco Bay. The Viceroy of New Spain instructed Portolá to establish colonies in Alta California, at San Diego and Monterey Bay, in view of preventing Russian expansion into this region. Portolà left Velicatà in Baja California (about 200 miles south of San Diego) on March 9 of 1769 with a party of approximately 60, including soldiers, Franciscan monks and christianized indians, and arrived in San Diego by mid-June. After setting up a colony in San Diego, where they were met by another land expedition and two ships, on July 14 Portolà and his men set off into unknown territory in search of Monterey. Upon reaching Monterey Bay, they failed to recognize it and continued north up the California coast. In early November 1769, Portolà and his men, still searching for Monterey, stumbled upon San Francisco Bay. They were the first Europeans to sight the great bay yet, mistaking it for Drakes Bay (discovered 250 years before), they did not even realize this. Disappointed that he had not sighted Monterey Bay, Portolà headed back south to San Diego. Completely failing to realize the importance of San Francisco Bay to Spain's colonial ambitions, Portolà only mentioned it as an aside in his report to his superiors. Portolà finally did locate Monterey Bay during a second expedition led in 1770. He was then sent to Mexico City, congratulated and promoted to the rank of Colonel. In 1777, he was congratulated again and promoted governor of Puebla, a town not distant from Mexico City. In 1786, after 9 years as Governor of Puebla, Portolà would finally be rewarded for his faithful service to Spain: he was appointed as the Kings royal deputy in Lérida, his native province in Catalonia. Despite the numerous years of faithful service on the rough colonial frontiers, the reward proved to be brief: a few months after his arrival in Lérida he became ill and died (by coincidence he was buried in Lérida's Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, namesake of the great bay he had discovered by accident).
      • ‘’From Miguel Costansó's Diary’’

The following order was observed on the marches: at the head rode the commander with the officers, the six men of the Catalan volunteers, who had joined the expedition at San Diego, and some friendly Indians with spades, pick-axes, crow-bars, axes, and other implements used by sappers to cut the brush and to open a passage where necessary. Next followed the pack train, which was separated into four divisions, each one with its muleteers and an adequate number of soldiers of the garrison as an escort. In the rear guard came Captain Fernando de Rivera, with the rest of the soldiers and friendly Indians, conveying the spare horses and mules. The soldiers of the presidio in California, of whom justness and fairness oblige us to say that they worked incessantly on this expedition, use two sorts of arms--offensive and defensive. The defensive arms are the leather jacket and the shield. Their offensive arms are the lance, the broadsword, and a short musket, which they carry securely fastened in its case. They are men of great fortitude and patience in fatigue; obedient, resolute, and we do not hesitate to say that they are the best horsemen in the world, and among those soldiers who best earn their bread for the august monarch whom they serve. It must be borne in mind that the marches of this body with so great a train and so many obstacles, through unknown land, and on unused roads, could not be long. Not to mention other reasons that made it necessary to halt and camp early--the necessity of reconnoitering the country from day to day in order to regulate the marches according to the distance between the watering places, and consequently to take the proper precautions. Sometimes they resumed their journey in the afternoon immediately after watering the animals, upon reliable information that on the next stage there was little or no water, or a scarcity of pasture. Stops were made, as the necessity demanded, at intervals of four days, more or less, according to the extraordinary hardships occasioned by the greater roughness of the road, the labor of the sappers, and the straying of the animals--which happened less frequently with the horses--that had to be sought by their tracks. At other times, because it was necessary to accommodate the--sick when there were any and in course of time there were many whose strength gave way under the continuous fatigue, and the excessive heat and intense cold. But the pack animals themselves constitute the greatest danger on these journeys and are the most dreaded enemy though without them nothing could be accomplished. At night and in a country they do not know, these animals are very easily frightened. The sight of a coyote or a fox is sufficient to stampede them, as they say in this country. A bird flying past, or dust raised by the wind, is likely to frighten them and to make them run many leagues, throwing themselves over precipices and cliffs, defying human effort to restrain them, and it afterwards costs infinite pains to recover them, nor is this always possible; and those that were not killed by falling over a precipice, or lamed in their headlong race, are of no service for a long time. This expedition, however, suffered no serious detriment on this account, owing to the care and watchfulness that were always observed; and although, on some occasions, the animals were stampeded, no accident or injury whatever followed, because the stampede was of short duration. In the order and manner described, the Spaniards made their way over vast territories, which became more fertile and more pleasant the farther they penetrated to the north.

        • Tuesday, 31 October--The hills that prevented our passage along the shore, although easy of access for the ascent, had, on the other side, a very difficult and rough descent. The pioneers went out in the morning with the sergeant to make a road over it, and, afterwards, at eleven o'clock, we followed him with the pack animals. From the summit we saw to the northwest a large bay formed by a point of land that extended a long distance into the sea, and about which many had disputed on the preceding day, as to whether or not it was an island; it was not possible at that time to see it as clearly as now on account of the mist that covered it. Farther out, about west-northwest from us, seven rocky, white islands could be seen; and, casting the eye back upon the bay, one could see farther to the north some perpendicular white cliffs. Looking to northeast, one could see the month of an estuary that appeared to extend inland. In consideration of these indications we consulted the sailing-directions of the pilot Cabrera Bueno, and it seemed to us beyond all question that what we were looking upon was the port of San Francisco; and thus we were convinced that the port of Monterey had been left behind. The latitude of 37' and 33' or 35' --according to the reckoning of the engineer- in which we found ourselves, confirmed our opinion. And thus the point that appeared seawards, and which had seemed to many to be an island, must have been the Punta de los Reyes.

Wednesday, 1 November--Some had not yet been convinced that we had left the port of Monterey behind, nor would they believe that we were at the port of San Francisco. Our commander ordered the scouts to set out to examine the land for a certain distance, and gave them three days within which to return, hoping that from this exploration they would, perhaps, bring back information that would remove the perplexity of the incredulous. From the coast or inner shore on the south of the bay, the Farallones were sighted west by southwest; the Punta de los Reyes, west sixteen degrees northwest, and some ravines with white cliffs, farther in, northwest by west.


Thursday, 2 November--Several of the soldiers requested permission to go hunting, since many deer had been seen. Some of them went quite a long way from the camp and reached the top of the hills, so that they did not return until after nightfall. They said that to the north of the bay they had seen an immense arm of the sea or estuary, which extended inland as far as they could see, to the southeast; that they had seen some beautiful plains studded with trees; and that from the columns of smoke they had noticed all over the level country, there was no doubt that the land must be well populated with natives. This ought to confirm us more and more in the opinion that we were at the port of San Francisco, and that this was the estuary of which the pilot Cabrera Bueno spoke; we had seen its entrance between some ravines while descending the slope of the bay. In regard to this, in his sailing directions, Cabrera Bueno uses the following words: "Through the middle ravine, an estuary of salt water enters, without any breakers; coming in, you will find friendly Indians, and you will easily obtain fresh water and firewood." We also conjectured from these reports that the scouts could not have passed to the opposite side of the bay, as it was no mere three days' undertaking to make the detour rounding an estuary, the extent of which was greatly enlarged upon to us by the hunters.

Friday, 3 November--During the night the scouts returned to camp, firing salutes with their arms. They had kept us in a state of great expectation until we all went out to meet them on the road and began to satisfy our curiosity by asking questions and hearing their answers. The reason for their demonstration of joy was none other than that they had inferred from the ambiguous signs of the natives that two days' march from the place at which they had arrived there was a port and a vessel in it. Upon this simple conjecture some of them had finally persuaded themselves that they were at Monterey, and they had no doubt that the packet San Joseph was awaiting us at that place.

Saturday, 4 November--We went out in search of the port. We followed the south shore or beach of San Francisco until we entered the mountain range to the northeast. From the summit of this range we saw the magnificent estuary, which stretched toward the southeast. We left it on our left hand, and, turning our backs on the bay, advanced to the south-southeast, through a canyon in which we halted at sunset. We traveled for two leagues.



--Bancroft, Hubert Howe, History of California, Volume I, 1542-1800, Publisher Wallace Hebberd, 1963 (first published 1886).

--Bean, Walton and Rawls, James, California: An Interpretive History, 5th ed., McGraw-Hill, 1988.

--Chapman, Charles E., History of California: The Spanish Period, MacMillan, 1949 (first published 1921).

--Costansó, Miguel, The Discovery of San Francisco Bay, The Portol Expedition 1769-70 (Diary of Miguel Costans), Great West Books, 1992.

--Faber, Harold, The Discoverers of America, Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1992.

--Lewis, Oscar, San Francisco, Mission to Metropolis, Howell-North Books, Berkeley, 1966.

--Wollenberg, Charles, Perspectives in Bay Area History, UC Berkeley Press, 1984.

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