Spain Explores Alta California Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Spanish explored northward from New Spain (modern Mexico), looking for new sources of wealth and locations on which to build military bases and ports for their merchant ships in the Pacific. They successfully mapped much of the coast of California but were unable to establish any significant settlements until the late eighteenth century.

Summary of Event

After conquering the Aztec Empire in 1521 and establishing New Spain (Mexico) in its place, the Spanish were eager to expand northward in the hope of finding wealthy civilizations and a strait running through North America that would allow ships to sail directly from Europe to Asia. They also wanted to protect their empire from rival nations and to convert the American Indians to Christianity. Exploration and colonization;Spain of Alta California Cabrillo, Juan Rodríguez Rodríguez Cermeño, Sebastián Vizcaíno, Sebastián Portolá, Gaspar de Serra, Junípero Jiménez, Fortún Ulloa, Francisco de Ferrelo, Bartolomé Drake, Sir Francis Gali, Francisco de Cavendish, Thomas

In 1533, a ship sailing from New Spain under the command of Fortún Jiménez landed in a bay, later known as La Paz. The land Jiménez found was thought to be an island and was named California after an imaginary island in a novel. In 1539, Francisco de Ulloa sailed along the west coast of New Spain until it met the coast of California, proving that it was not an island but a peninsula. This peninsula became known as Baja California and the mainland above it as Alta California.

On June 27, 1542, three ships commanded by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo left the port of Navidad in New Spain. They arrived in a bay, later known as San Diego, on September 28, marking the first time Europeans had landed in Alta California. Cabrillo continued to sail north along the coast, landing several times on the mainland and on nearby islands. He died on January 3, 1543, and the voyage continued under the chief pilot, Bartolomé Ferrelo, who sailed about as far north as the modern California-Oregon border, then returned to Navidad on April 14.

After Cabrillo’s voyage, the Spanish gained new reasons to be interested in settling Alta California. In 1565, Spanish ships began carrying valuable cargo from Manila in the Philippines Philippines;trade to Acapulco in New Spain. These ships, known as the Manila galleons, made enormous profits, but the voyage was long and dangerous. A port in Alta California would allow the galleons to take on supplies before continuing down the coast. An additional incentive to secure Alta California came in 1578, when the English privateer Sir Francis Drake entered the Pacific Ocean and began raiding Spanish ships and settlements. Privateers;English In 1584, a Manila galleon commanded by Francisco de Gali observed the coast of Alta California but did not land. In 1587, English privateer Thomas Cavendish captured a Manila galleon, increasing the pressure on the Spanish to protect their territories.

Spanish knowledge of the coast of Alta California increased dramatically around the turn of the seventeenth century. In 1595, a Manila galleon, the San Agustín, commanded by Portuguese captain Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño, explored the northern coast. The ship landed in Drake’s Bay (San Francisco) but was destroyed in a storm. Cermeño and his crew made their way down the coast to New Spain in an open boat, continuing to make landings and observations. On May 5, 1602, three ships commanded by Sebastián Vizcaíno left Acapulco and began sailing up the coast of Alta California. Vizcaíno gave new names to places that had been visited previously by Cabrillo and Cermeño. Many of these names, such as San Diego and Santa Barbara, still exist today. On December 16, Vizcaíno sailed into a bay he named Monterey, which he described with some exaggeration as an excellent harbor.


Despite all the reasons Spain had for settling Alta California, little was accomplished for more than 150 years after Vizcaíno’s voyage because of the difficulty of the journey. Settlement began in earnest in 1769, when two ships and two land parties embarked from Baja California. One of the land parties, led by Gaspar de Portolá, included Father Junípero Serra, the founder of the first Alta California missions Missions;Franciscans in Alta California . Franciscans;Alta California These settlement parties created a colony at San Diego—consisting primarily of a mission and a military settlement, or presidio—and reached San Francisco Bay. So many men died of scurvy on the sea voyage north, however, that the initial plans to colonize Monterey Bay had to be scrapped. Large-scale colonization of Alta California remained a vital but impracticable goal.

The sea route to Alta California was long and dangerous because of contrary winds. The settlements in the barren land of Baja California were too poor to supply land parties. A new route had to be found. From 1774 to 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza led explorations north from New Spain and then westward across the Colorado River. The Anza parties established a feasible route to San Gabriel and from there on to San Francisco, where a presidio was founded on September 17, 1776, and a mission on October 9 of that year. Anza’s route continued to be the main route into Alta California for later colonists. The first pueblo (town) in Alta California was founded at El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe (later San Jose) in November of 1777, followed by El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula (later Los Angeles) in September of 1781.

At the time of Spanish settlement, Alta California was more densely populated by a greater variety of Native Americans than any other region in North America. Although violent encounters were less common than elsewhere in the Spanish Empire, exposure to European diseases reduced the Native American population drastically.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cabrillo National Monument Foundation. An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. San Diego, Calif.: Cabrillo Historical Association, 1999. An excellent account of the voyage of Cabrillo, including a foldout map of the expedition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clavijero, Francisco Xavier. History of Ancient and Lower California, 1789. Translated and edited by Felix Jay. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2002. New translation of an eighteenth century survey of California history. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniels, George G., ed. “The Cruel Road to Empire.” In The Spanish West. New York: Time-Life Books, 1976. Includes a lively, anecdotal account of the settling of Alta California. Intended for general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Emanuels, George. Early California Voyages. Sonoma, Calif.: Diablo Books, 2001. Study of the explorers who sailed to California, beginning with Cabrillo. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kessel, John L. Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Comprehensive survey of the history of the American Southwest from the 1490’s to the mid-nineteenth century. Includes illustrations, maps, bibligraphic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kleber, Louis Charles. “California’s Spanish Missions.” History Today 42, no. 9 (September, 1992): 42-47. Discusses the impact of the missions on the Native Americans in Alta California, including the devastating drop in population as a result of disease.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyon, Eugene. “Track of the Manila Galleons.” National Geographic 178, no. 3 (September, 1990): 5-37. A detailed account of the ships that helped promote the settling of Alta California. Colorful maps and photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawls, James J., and Walton Bean. “Discovery, Exploration, and Founding” and “Outposts of a Dying Empire.” In California: An Interpretive History. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003. These two chapters provide a clear, concise account of important events in the history of the Spanish settlement of Alta California, with an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. An exhaustive, wide-ranging history of the northern borderlands of the Spanish Empire in the New World. Includes detailed accounts of the settling of Alta California.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

Early 16th cent.: Athapaskans Arrive in the Southwest

1502-1520: Reign of Montezuma II

Beginning 1519: Smallpox Kills Thousands of Indigenous Americans

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1527-1547: Maya Resist Spanish Incursions in Yucatán

June 17, 1579: Drake Lands in Northern California

Sept. 14, 1585-July 27, 1586: Drake’s Expedition to the West Indies

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition

Categories: History