Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (died 1543) was a Portuguese explorer in service to the Spanish. He is best known for his exploration of the coast of California in 1542-1543.
Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo served under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez and aided him in the conquest of Cuba about 1518. When Narváez was sent to Mexico in 1520 to control the ambitious Hernán Cortés, Cabrillo went along. Once in Mexico, however, Cabrillo joined Cortés in his assault on the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán (Mexico City).
After the conquest of Mexico, Cabrillo remained in the Spanish service as an officer under Pedro de Alvarado. With Alvarado he journeyed through lower New Spain and into what is now Guatemala. When Alvarado was killed in 1541 during an rebellion by native peoples, Cabrillo was one of the most experienced military men in New Spain. He was authorized by Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, to undertake an exploratory mission into the northern limits of New Spain along the Pacific coast. He was also instructed to discover and claim all new lands for Spain and, it was hoped, to meet with Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who was crossing overland to the sea. Mendoza also instructed Cabrillo to try to find the opening of a trans-American strait like that described by Giovanni da Verrazano. Cabrillo hoped that he, like Cortés, would find a highly civilized, easily controlled native population.
Cabrillo left from the port of Acapulco in two primitive ships, the San Salvador and the Capitana, on June 27, 1542. Cabrillo's ships sailed north, reaching the coast of southern California. During his voyage he made the first known European contact with the natives of that area. His accounts contain the first European observations of such places as San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina Island, and Santa Barbara. There Cabrillo found the friendly Chumash tribe, who would subsequently serve as hosts for the Franciscan missionaries.
The expedition was not very successful in any of its larger objectives. He never met with Coronado, who was already returning to Mexico by the time Cabrillo reached California. He found friendly natives, but they were neither wealthy nor highly civilized. Further, he obviously never found the mythical strait that opened to the Atlantic Ocean.
Cabrillo's major contribution was the discovery and claiming of a rich new land for Spain. Until he traveled the coast of California, the Spaniards had no real idea of the enormity or the outlines of the lands they claimed to the north. The inaccuracies of his cartographical observations have not diminished the importance of his discoveries.
During an attack by hostile natives, Cabrillo fell and broke his leg; he died on Jan. 3, 1543, from complications. Before he died, Cabrillo named Bartolomé Ferrera (Ferrelo), his chief pilot, as his successor. Ferrera took the ships farther north to Oregon, through winter storms and hazardous conditions. The remnants of the Cabrillo mission returned to Mexico in April 1543.
A full-length study of Cabrillo is Henry R. Wagner, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Discoverer of the Coast of California (1941). See also Wagner's Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century (1929) and Harold Lamb, New Found World: How North America Was Discovered and Explored (1955).