Discovery of San Francisco Bay

From the day Balboa first viewed the Pacific Ocean in 1513, it has held fascination as the gateway to Asia from Europe. For over 250 years European ships sailed up and down both the East and West coasts of America looking for the fabled Northwest Passage shortcut to Asia from Europe and never found the great San Francisco Bay. Cabrillo explored the coast of both Baja and Alta California in 1542. The great Manilla galleons would have passed by on their annual circuits between Acapulco and the Philippines from 1565. Drake anchored at Point Reyes and explored inland in 1579.

Juan Cabrillo San Diego Landing of Cabrillo Drake California Landing of Drake

In 1595 Captain Cermeno of a Manila galleon was ordered to look for a harbor in California to better protect the galleon fleets. He probably found Drake’s Bay, but his ship was dashed on the shore, his cargo lost and his sailors barely made it back to Mexico in a small launch. Vizcaino in 1602 explored north in three small ships, naming San Diego Bay, Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara Channel, Monterey and other coastal points, but did not find San Francisco Bay.

After Vizcaino and despite establishment of missions in northwest Mexico, Baja California and even Arizona, more than 160 years passed before the Spanish made use of the Alta California lands they had claimed. And then it was by land the San Francisco Bay was discovered rather than by sea. In 1769 Portola and Serra traveled by land up Baja California and founded San Diego mission, the first in a planned string of missions stretching north in Alta California. Portola continued to Monterey. He continued north and on November 2, 1769, he is believed to have first viewed San Francisco Bay, from what is now Sweeney Ridge.

Portola 1769 Junipero Serra Anza 1775

Other land expeditions from Monterey in 1772 and 1774 mapped the Bay shoreline and discovered the great river flowing into the Bay through the Cartinez Straits. The following year Don Juan Manuel de Ayala was assigned to sail his packet ship San Carlos from Monterey to explore and map the San Francisco Bay. So it was that he became on August 5, 1775 the first known European to sail through the Golden Gate. We can only imagine the visual impressions and feelings generated by the breathtaking splendor as the exquisite natural beauty of the Bay unfolded before him. For 45 days he mapped and explored the Bay’s shoreline from his anchorage and camp in a cove of the sheltered waters of Angel Island.

Although Ayala was able to describe the shores he explored, he could never have imagined the evolution they would see over the next 200 plus years that culminates in our splendid light city, which depending on the sky, rises from a shimmering sapphire, emerald, azure, silver or slate gray bay. To help me better appreciate our waterfront today, following is a three part reflection on what some of these changes might have been like as our North, Downtown and Southeast shorelines were shaped from the natural and untouched beauty of Ayala’s time to the beauty we live with today.

Back to San Francisco Waterfront