This Day in History
Discovery of San Francisco Bay

Portolá Discovers San Francisco Bay
November 4, 1769

Originally believing Baja (or Lower) California to be an island, the Spanish by mid-sixteenth century had recognized it as a peninsula attached to the mainland of North America and had sailed along the coast as far north as Monterey Bay. For the next two centuries sailors continued to chart the coast, searching for the fabled Straits of Anian and safe harbors for the very real Manila Galleons. Such expeditions caused priests - dreaming of the innumerable “lost souls” to be discovered and converted to Christianity - to call for further explorations. The Spanish Crown was engaged in almost incessant warfare in the Old World and was disappointed by bleak reports - such as that of Coronado who in the 1540s had ranged as far from Mexico as Kansas - of never-ending deserts and grasslands, countless herd of buffalo and tribes of hostile Indians (but never any gold) in the New World north of the Rio Grande. The Spanish government wanted no part of further expansion, which could not only drain the already depleted national treasury.

In the Caribbean, the Floridas, and the Argentine, the imperial designs of other nations had forced the Spanish to send out colonizers to unsettled regions to hold what they had claimed. Likewise, Russian movement down from Alaska in the mid-eighteenth century renewed royal interest in California. Moving out from the established settlements in Baja, Spanish sailors, soldiers, and priests traveled by land and sea, choosing sites for the string of mission-forts that were to dominate the area for nearly a century. Beginning with San Diego, settled in 1769, the Spaniards moved northward until they occupied San Francisco in 1776. Here, Mr. Künstler depicts one of the overland expeditions - that led by Gaspar de Portolá - sighting for the first time the beautiful San Francisco Bay.

Never successful at attracting many colonists to her California possessions, Spain was fortunate in holding the area for so long. The Mexicans, winning California along with their independence in 1821, were not so lucky. The very bay which excited the members of the Portolá expedition also excited the expanding American republic in search of a port for the China trade. How ironic that California, lost to the Spanish-speaking peoples in 1848, would prove to be the long sought, but always elusive, El Dorado - the land of gold.

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All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2019. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.