Hernan Cortes Expeditions
to the Californias

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Hernan Cortes intended to explore for the Baja California peninsula as early as 1524
as it reads in his fourth "Carta de Relacion" to King Charles I of Spain, datelined Tenuxtitlan, New Spain, 15 October 1524:

" ...and in the same manner I was brought a story from the men of the province of Cihuatlan, which reinforced completely that there is an island populated by women, without a single male....

  ...and that this island is ten days journey from this province; and that many of them have gone there and have seen it. They tell me also that it is very rich in pearls and gold.
I will prepare myself to know the truth and tell it at length to your majesty."

That story was very similar to a legend, popular in that time, about an island called California, inhabited by the Calafias, black amazons that lived with no men and made their weapons with gold because there was no other metal in the area.

The source of this legend was the knight novel "Sergas de Esplandian" written by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, a bestseller in those years.

Queen Calafia

Queen Calafia

Hernan Cortes expeditions were delayed a long time by local political conflicts. He even traveled to Spain seeking for the king's favor. And so the Spanish Crown commissioned him, in 1529, to search for new territories and to look for a passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

As usual in those enterprises, all the expenses would be paid by Cortes and he would be entitled to 10% of all the revenues, in perpetuity, from the new lands conquered.

It took him three years to organize an expedition. Finally, on June 30, 1532, his cousin, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, set sail from Acapulco with two ships, "to search for islands and territories and to take possession of the land, ports and rivers, and to find out whether the natives were adorned with gold, pearls or precious stones... "

They discovered three uninhabited islands which Mendoza named The Magdalenas, nowadays The Marias Islands, afterwards they turned to the mainland coast were some soldiers mutinied over lack of food and water.

The mutineers sailed south in the San Miguel and sank near Bahia de Banderas where the survivors were taken prisoner by Nuño de Guzman's soldiers.
Hurtado de Mendoza sailed north aboard the San Marcos, disappearing without a trace.

Marias Islands

Maria Island beach.

The following year Cortes sent his relative Diego de Becerra with two ships, which left Manzanillo on October 30, 1533. After a day into their voyage, the ships lost sight of each other for good.

The San Lazaro, captained by Hernando de Grijalva, continued sailing west and, on December 20, 1533, Grijalva discovered an island which he called St. Thomas, today one of the Revillagigedo Islands. From there he turned back arriving in Acapulco in February 1534.

The Concepcion, captained by Diego de Becerra, and piloted by Fortun Ximenez, had a very different fate. During the voyage, Ximenez led a revolt in which Becerra was killed.

After setting part of the crew and some Franciscan priests ashore in Jalisco coasts, Fortun sailed north landing, in early 1534, near present day La Paz. This made him the first known European to set foot in Baja California.

In retaliation for the raping of their women, the local natives attacked the Spaniards, killing Ximenez and twenty more soldiers.

The eighteen sailors aboard the Concepcion hastily retreated, sailing erratically for several days until reaching land near Chametla, where they recounted of some islands plenty of black pearls discovered during their voyage.

They were detained and the Concepcion seized by Nuño de Guzman's soldiers.

Fortun route

Conception route.

The third expedition to the Californias, led by Cortes himself, had three main objectives, to confront Nuño de Guzman, to colonize the newly discovered islands and to continue its exploration.

Therefore he recruited an army of about 320 soldiers and settlers, among them 34 women and in February 1535 sent most of them in three ships to Chametla ordering them to wait for him there. Cortes with a small group of soldiers marched by land.

Nuño de Guzman prudently refrained from being hostile to Cortes, which arrived in Chametla on April 15. Two days later, he set sail with his three ships arriving in present day La Paz on May, 3, 1535.

He took possession of the land in the king's name, and named it Santa Cruz, (Holy Cross), founding a town and appointing an Alcalde, (Town Mayor).

Present day La Paz

Present day La Paz.

At the beginning of the year 1536, after suffering the loss of two ships and amidst many logistical problems, Cortes had to leave the area upon receiving letters from his wife and from the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza urging him to return to the New Spain.

Francisco de Ulloa was left in charge of the new colony, but a few months later Cortes received order from Antonio de Mendoza to abandon Santa Cruz and bring all his people back to the New Spain.

The above-mentioned facts all suggest that the Spanish Crown was not eager to allow Cortes to increase his power by colonizing new territories.

The fourth and last of Hernan Cortes expeditions, led by Francisco de Ulloa, failed in its attempt to find the legendary northern passage.

Cortes failure in achieving his goals and the fortune (300,000 pesos) spent in the enterprise caused the decline of the great Conquistador who, in 1541, departed for Spain to try and win the King's favor.

Instead, he was trapped by palace bureaucracy and never allowed to return back to the New Spain.




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