The San Carlos, First Spanish Ship to Enter the S.F. Bay

Click here for a letterbox commemorating the San Carlos’ entry into the S.F. Bay.

Sketch of the San Carlos based on known dimensions of the small ship, built in 1767.

Prior to the Portola expedition’s encounter with the San Francisco Bay in 1769, European ships had  sailed up and down the California coast for more than 200 years without sighting the fog-shrouded entrance to San Francisco Bay. The first ship ever to enter the San Francisco Bay was the San Carlos, a Spanish  packet-boat under the command of captain Juan de Ayala.  It was sent by viceroy Antonio de Bucareli to survey the waters of the San Francisco Bay. The San Carlos reached the entrance to the San Francisco Bay on August 5th 1775, but the strong current pushed it back out to sea.  Using a tailwind, the boat made slow progress against the tide, and eventually slipped through the Golden Gate guided by the dim light of a half moon at 10:30 pm.

The San Carlos dropped anchor behind an island which was christened Isla Santa Maria de Los Angeles (Spanish for Saint Mary of the of the Angels), following a practice then common among Catholic explorers of naming sites for the religious feast days nearest to the time of discovery.  It is now known as Angel Island.  Over the next forty-four days, ship pilots set out in longboats to chart the various arms of the bay.  Unfortunately, captain Ayala himself was unable to directly supervise this survey, due to an accidental gunshot wound to his foot which occurred several months earlier when the ship-lieutenant Miguel Manrique suffered a mental breakdown and tried to force the ship to turn around.

While the pilots charted the bay as best they could, the chaplain of the San Carlos, Father Vicente Santa Maria, kept a journal of his fascinating encounters with local Huimen and Huchiun Indians.   Here is an excerpt from Santa Maria’s journal, describing his first exploration of Angel Island:

…Today the captain decided to go to an island that we called Santa María de los Angeles.  This was done, and when the cip was anchored again, we went ashore to reconnoiter the island terrain. 

With one sailor along, I was foremost in making a diversion of this duty, in hopes of coming upon Indians.  All afternoon of the 14th I wore myself out at it.  On the pitch of a hill slope I discovered two huts, certainly Indian lodgings, though deserted.  I went near them, and seeing them unoccupied, I was minded to take the path to a spring of fresh water to quench a burning thirst brought on as much by the great seasonal heat as by the hard work of climbing up and down such rugged high hills.  In a short while I came to a large rock with a cleft in the middle of it, in which rested three remarkable, amusing objects, and I was led to wonder if they were like-nesses of some idol that the Indians reverenced. 

These were slim round shafts about a yard-and-a-half high, ornamented at the top with bunches of white feathers, and ending, to finish them off, in an arrangement of black-and-red-dyed feathers imitating the appearance of a sun.  They even had, as their drollest adornment, pieces of the little nets with which we had seen the Indians cover their hair. 

At the foot of this niche were many arrows with their tips stuck in the gorund as if symbolizing abasement.  This last exhibit gave me the unhappy suspicion that those bunches of feathers representing the image of the sun (which in their language they call gismen) must be objects of the Indian’s heathenish veneration; and if this was true – as was  a not unreasonable conjecture – these objects suffered a merited penalty in being thrown on the fire.  After spending several days in going over other parts of this island, I came upon two Rancherias with no one in them.  I inferred that they served as shelters to Indians when they came there to hunt deer, which are the most numerous animals on the island. 

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