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Spanish Explorers in S.F. Bay

By Larry Clinton, President

This tale of the first Spanish vessel to visit San Francisco Bay has been excerpted from a translation of the journal of Father Vicente Santa Maria, aboard the supply ship San Carlos under the command of Frigate-lieutenant Juan de Ayala in the year 1775.  It provides a glimpse into how precarious such explorations could be:

It was thought impossible that His Majesty’s supply ship San Carlos should make an expedition. Though sailing under orders on other occasions, she was never to be counted on since her mission could never be accomplished as the orders called for. The best that could happen to her was to escape being wrecked or to have a few days’ relief from danger. Even on this voyage there was no confidence in her at the start, since the first moves she made while yet at San Blas [Mexico] were omens of bad luck; just as she was getting to open water she ran aground, and as she kept pounding on the sand she was in danger of breaking up.

Even the least fainthearted were terror-struck, so many and so great were the alarms that popular rumour scattered abroad; but as matters turned out, without dire mishaps the San Carlos arrived in a hundred and one days at the harbour of Monterey. We stayed as long as it took to unload cargo, renew our supplies of water, get firewood, and do other things needful for the farther part of our journey.

On the morning of the 27th of July, favoured by a southwest wind, we set sail from the harbour of Monterey for that of San Francisco. We went on so well that by the 31st we had made six leagues. This was owing not so much to the ocean currents, we thought, as to our holy father St. Francis, in whose honour we were holding a novena.

The same good luck continued, so that neither rough seas nor strong contrary winds were enough to put us in desperate case by disabling us, or to vex us by holding us back.

So it was that on the 5th day of August, at 8 o’clock in the morning, the captain decided that the first sailing master should take the longboat and make a reconnaissance of the shore and the entranceway to the harbour so that the ship might enter safely. The long-boat was thus employed all that day and the night following.

At sunset we lost sight of the longboat. This made the captain feel anxious and exposed to danger, and with good reason. The wind favoured and he wished to take advantage of the clear night to enter the harbour; but he feared that the longboat, in changing direction from going northerly along the shore of the San Francisco peninsula to easterly in the Golden Gate,  had lost sight of us, and with that the chances of success were not good at all. Nevertheless, his fears could only be allayed by reaching his goal, so the captain decided on following with the utmost caution the course indicated by the direction the longboat had taken. A great help to us in doing so—and we were now at the entranceway to the harbour—was a crescent moon that could be seen ahead of us above a high and distant shore.

Neither the very strong currents nor mistrust of striking a submerged rock could check the captain’s resolve not only to make his way into an unknown harbour, but, even more worth remarking, to go in as far as to the place where we should best be anchored. The next day we observed an odd thing, which was that as we were proceeding broadside to an island beyond which, further ahead, there was not much depth, the current and a dead calm stopped us, and it was as if we dropped back. So as not to lose headway it was decided to cast anchor opposite the island of Santa Maria de los Angeles [Angel Island]. Thus we passed the night in anxiety from not knowing the whereabouts of the longboat.

At half past 6 o’clock the next morning the longboat came to the ship. When the captain asked the sailing master why he had not returned the preceding evening, he answered that (after having reconnoitered a good and safe anchorage for the ship)  he had tried to go out to meet her and guide her in but was prevented by the strength of the current against him. He had therefore decided to anchor and pass the night in a cove near the mouth, on the south side.


Next time:  the Spaniards encounter the indigenous “heathens.”




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