The Spanish Conquest
Following its conquest of Mexico and Central America in the early 16th century, Spain turned its attention farther west. Early explorers believed the Baja Peninsula was an island and that the present-day Sea of Cortez was a northwest passage to the Atlantic.
Legendary conquistador Hernán Cortés directed four voyages into the Sea of Cortez beginning in 1532. In 1534 the first Europeans set food on the peninsula, landing at La Paz, but most were promptly killed by the indigenous inhabitants. A few survivors returned to the mainland with stories of rich pearl-oyster beds on a big island.
Cortés himself landed in the Bahía de La Paz in 1535, but he failed to establish a permanent colony. He sponsored a fourth voyage in 1539, led by Captain Francisco de Ulloa, who explored the entire perimeter of the Gulf of California and then continued north along the Pacific coast, as far as Isla Cedros. Ulloa is credited with naming the Mar de Cortés.
Cortés returned to Spain in 1541 and was replaced by a Portuguese explorer named Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, whose expedition explored the Pacific coast, as far north as Oregon.
When the Portuguese conquered the Philippines, they quickly established a trade route from Manila to the New World, following the Japanese Current across the Pacific Ocean. The ships that made this arduous journey were called the Manila galleons; in order to make it safely to Asia, their crews needed a place to stop for freshwater and a protected harbor to hide their treasure from enterprising pirates like the famous Sir Francis Drake. Baja’s fate as a target for European colonization was sealed.
As English and Dutch privateers began to raid Spanish ships with increasing frequency and success, the Spanish got more serious about settling Baja. Sebastián Vizcaíno landed in Bahía de La Paz in 1596, encountered friendly indigenous inhabitants, and named the place La Paz. From there, he traveled north along the Gulf coast and then returned to mainland Mexico. He returned in 1602 and sailed around the cape and up the Pacific coast to Mendocino, California, renaming the islands, bays, and points along the way. But the Spanish would not prevail in Baja for another 80 years.
© Nikki Goth Itoi from Moon Baja, 9th Edition