Portola’s Discovery by Mistake

October 11, 2014 | By | Reply More

The Portola Expedition of 1769

On a clear, cold October morning in 1769 a weary, half-starved little party of Spanish led by Captain Gaspar de Portola trudged up Montara Mountain high above Half Moon Bay – the first white men ever to penetrate this far by land up the Pacific coast of North America.

Gazing over the view from the peak, Portola was puzzled. He had been searching for Monterey Bay, as described by Vizcaino. But the coastline before him was obviously far north of Monterey. The landmarks here, named by Vizcaino, were unmistakable: the Farallon Islands thirty miles offshore and the long headland of Point Reyes to the north, enclosing what Cermeno had named the “Bay of San Francisco.”

Portola realized that he had overshot his goal of Monterey Bay. It was time to turn back.

He decided first, however, to lay over a day or two and send scouting parties out to hunt game and perhaps find a way up the coast to Point Reyes. The scouts came back with a surprising story. A vast lake or arm of the ocean extended north as far as they could see and blocked the way to Point Reyes.

Portola was not impressed by the discovery of the new bay, neglecting even to give it a name. He was concerned with the fact that the way to Point Reyes was not open and even more concerned that the hunters had been unsuccessful in bringing back a good supply of meat.

He remained in the area long enough to probe around the east shore of the inland sea but became discouraged about finding a land route to Point Reyes and its “Bahia de San Francisco.” Famished and exhausted, he and his man turn turned south again. En route they run so low on food that they had to eat their pack animals, arriving at San Diego, according to their chaplain’s diary, “smelling frightfully of mules.”

Gaspar_de_PortoláFrom the reports of Portola and of subsequent expeditions the Spaniards assumed that this newly discovered body of water was simply an arm or estuary of the Bahia do San Francisco under Point Reyes. It was thus first known as the “Estero de San Francisco,” and the confusion concerning the two bays had begun.

Map makers in England contributed further to the mix-up by assuming, as patriotic Englishmen, that “San Francisco” was obviously Spanish for “Sir Francis’ Drake.” When the name was transferred to the present San Francisco Bay, Drake’s name went along with it as its discoverer.

But by the 1880s some historians begun to have doubt. They were led by one of the West’s pioneer scientists, Professor George Davidson, a brilliant, dogmatic, flowing-bearded patriarch who spoke with such authority that his opinions were seldom challenged. Carefully tracing Drake’s voyage down the coast, he placed the anchorage of the “Golden Hinde” in what is now known “Drake’s Bay”, and more particularity in a sheltered cove just inside the hooked eastern tip of Point Reyes. San Francisco Bay and its entrance were not visible from that point, Davidson argued, and Drake would have had no reason to search farther.

Surely if Drake had entered the Golden Gate, the professor speculated, Fletcher in his eyewitness account of the voyage “would have given a graphic description of so unique an entrance and so magnificent an inland sea.”

Davidson cited a map of Drake’s California anchorage published by the Dutch cartographer Jodocus Hondius, a few years after the voyage. The drawing has always puzzled historians. Containing neither scale nor indication of direction, it portrays a horseshoe-shaped bay bounded on the right by the mainland and on the left by a long narrow peninsula. In the center a ship, presumably the Golden Hinde, is shown riding at anchor, and a village is pictured on the shores.

Hondius’ map, Davidson declared, bore a striking resemblance to Drake’s Bay—except in one detail. On the map alongside the outer edge of the peninsula is what appears to be a large island, almost as long as the peninsula itself. There is no such island at Drake’s Bay or evidently anywhere else along the California shoreline.

But off the inner tip of Point Reyes, Davidson pointed out, there is a rock which may be taken as Hondius’ island, simply misplaced and enlarged by the map maker.

Actually, Davidson’s tiny rock bears no resemblance to the Hondius’ island, and the statement may be taken as evidence that Davidson, like most people, was perfectly capable of glowing over discrepancies in order to make the fact fit the theory.

Nevertheless, Davidson’s verdict has been generally accepted by most history writers, although there are a few who maintain that Drake landed at Bodega Bay, 22 miles farther north.

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Category: Fog City - City of Fog, History

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