In search of the seven wealthy cities of Cibola and hoping to find the mythical Strait of Anian, a passageway from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo instead was the first European to discover the west coast of the United States when he landed in 1542 in the harbor of San Diego Bay. Today, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates Cabrillo’s voyage and the cultural interactions that occurred between American Indians and the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. Visitors can also visit the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, learn about how the military used the site, and explore nature.
The place and date of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s birth are uncertain, but the 16th century historian, Antonio de Herrera, believed he was from Portugal. The first documentation of the young conquistador’s existence dates back to 1519, when Cabrillo’s name appeared among the list of officers who served in Hernan Cortes’ army. While in the Americas, Cabrillo gained recognition for his service as captain of crossbowmen during the conquest of the Aztec empire and greater fame after his successful expeditions with Pedro de Alvarado in Guatemala and San Salvador.
Joas Chartes Almeida's sculpture of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo
By 1530, Cabrillo had settled near Guatemala’s Pacific Coast with his wife and two sons and acquired great wealth through the discovery of gold. He also became a prominent businessman from his shipbuilding and trading companies. He remained in Guatemala until 1542, when an Indian uprising killed Pedro de Alvarado, the governor of Guatemala, who was planning an expedition to explore the Pacific. On June 24, after the viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, placed Cabrillo in command of Alvarado’s vessels -- The San Salvador, La Victoria, and San Miguel -- the conquistador led his men on an expedition along California’s coast.
On September 28, 1542, after setting sail from the port of Navidad in Mexico, Cabrillo’s vessels discovered and entered San Diego Bay. Landing on Saint Michael’s birthday, Cabrillo named the bay Puerto de San Miguel to honor the Spanish archangel. The bay bore that name for 60 years until explorer Sebastian Vizcaino reached Puerto de San Miguel and renamed it San Diego Bay. Once on land, Cabrillo and his crew explored the harbor and the surrounding territory. No evidence remains of Cabrillo and his men having been in the bay area. Historians agree, however, that Cabrillo did make contact with the Kumeyaay Indians.
Old Spanish Lighthouse ca. 1930
The American Indians Cabrillo found waiting on shore had long braided hair they adorned with feathers or shells and clothing made of the skin of sea otters, seals or deer. The Kumeyaay Indians were already accustomed to meeting Spaniards from previous invasions that occurred further inland, and they informed Cabrillo how the Spanish army destroyed their homes and murdered their people. Instead of attacking the Kumeyaay Indians, Cabrillo offered them gifts. Cabrillo remained in Puerto de San Miguel until January 1543, when he died from an infection caused by an unfortunate accident that broke his arm during an earlier expedition to the Channel Islands. The location of Cabrillo’s death remains a mystery, and archeologists continue to search for his grave.
In 1852, the United States Congress authorized construction of eight lighthouses along the Pacific Coast. The Federal Government built one of the lighthouses on the highest elevation of Point Loma overlooking the bay to aid navigation to America’s newly acquired territories on the California coast. Completed in 1854, the Old Point Loma Lighthouse became operational the following year after installation of the Fresnel lens. The light shone over the entrance of San Diego Bay until 1891, when keeper Robert Israel extinguished the lamp for one final time. The lighthouse closed because fog and low clouds often obscured its light. Navigators could only see the light on clear nights.
The Old Point Loma Lighthouse aided navigation into San Diego Bay from 1855 to 1891.
The Point Loma peninsula forms a natural protective barrier at the entrance to San Diego Bay, providing views of the harbor and ocean. In 1852, the Federal Government recognized its importance and designated the area a military reserve. In 1899, the War Department dedicated Fort Rosecrans and built a series of gun batteries over the years. During World War I and II, military facilities on the Point provided vital coastal and harbor defense systems. Between 1918 and 1943, the Army constructed searchlight bunkers, fire control stations, and gun batteries.
Despite its inability to serve as a watchful light over San Diego Bay, Old Point Loma Lighthouse became a favorite tourist destination that continues to illuminate past events that have shaped America’s history. In 1913, recognizing the significance of the San Diego Bay location and the importance of Cabrillo, the first European to discover it, President Woodrow Wilson designated the lighthouse and the surrounding one-half acre as Cabrillo National Monument. Original plans called for demolishing the lighthouse and placing a statue of Cabrillo or plaque in its place that would commemorate the discoverer of San Diego Bay. During World War II, the US Army took over the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, painted it in camouflage colors, and converted it into a signal station. At the end of the war, the Army returned the lighthouse to the National Park Service, which restored it to resemble its 1880s appearance.
The National Park Service also added a visitor center at Cabrillo National Monument and erected a statue of Cabrillo near the lighthouse. The original statue at the site by Portuguese sculptor Alvaro DeBree suffered great damage from the marine air. In the 1980s, the National Park Service hired Portuguese sculptor Joas Chartes Almeida to carve an exact replica of the original statue out of a more resistant stone. The duplicate statue stands on an overlook where it continues to commemorate the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and his discovery of California.
The visitor center offers an "Age of Exploration" exhibit, films, and ranger-guided programs about the history of Cabrillo. Visitors can tour the Old Point Loma Lighthouse and learn about what life was like for light keepers and their families and view interactive exhibits about lighthouses of Point Loma in the nearby Assistant Keeper's Quarters. In a historic military building close by, another exhibit interprets the history of Fort Rosecrans. Visitors can also enjoy the panoramic views of the harbor and explore the natural surroundings and wildlife while walking on the Bayside Trail. Cabrillo National Monument is the home of a Whale Overlook where visitors can watch gray whales in their natural habitat in January and February.
Cabrillo National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr. in San Diego, CA. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The monument is open daily, including holidays, from 9:00am to 5:00pm. There is an admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Cabrillo National Monument website or call 619-557-5450.
The National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey has documented the Point Loma Lighthouse No. 355. Cabrillo National Monument is also featured in the National Park Service Early History of the California Coast Travel Itinerary.
Last updated: August 8, 2017