Celebrating Cabrillo

This statue of the Portugese explorer Juan Rodriguez Explorer Cabrillo is the iconic centerpiece of Carbillo National Monument in San Diego. Picture is from the author’s visit in 2012.

Next weekend, September 27th-28th, 2014, Cabrillo National Monument will be joining in San Diego’s 51st Annual Cabrillo Festival.   The Festival commemorates the explorer’s arrival in San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542 – just 50 years after Christopher Columbus’ first arrival in the “New World.”

Cabrillo National Monument is one of three units of the National Park System that is dedicated by name to European exploration of the Americas.   The Coronado National Memorial on the Arizona-Mexico border commemorates the 1540 arrival of Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado – an expedition that would reach as far north and east as Kansas, before returning to Mexico.   The De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida commemorates the 1539 arrival of the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto – an expedition that would reach as far north and west as the Mississippi River before returning to Mexico.

From a “counting the parks” perspective, its interesting to note that the Cabrillo site is designated a National Monument, whereas the other two are National Memorials.    This is because the Cabrillo site was originally established via a proclamation by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 under the Antiquities Act, and all sites designated under the Antiquities Act are established as national monuments.  By contrast, Congress authorized establishment of the Coronado National Memorial in 1941, and the De Soto National Memorial was authorized by Congress in 1948.  As near as I can tell, there hasn’t been any movement to normalize Cabrillo’s designation by redesignating it as a national memorial.   Then again, maybe I’m one of the few people who worry about such things…

This festival caught my attention because it made me wonder if this might not be the earliest date that is marked annually by the National Park Service.  I know that’s kind of an interesting concept to think about.   None of the American Indians in the present-day United States, so far as I know, left us with a written calendar that could correspond to an actual date.  Thus, the “earliest date” marked in the National Park System, would have to date back to the age of European exploration of the Americas.

Right now, I am not aware of any similar “arrival day” celebrations at Coronado or De Soto.  By contrast, the British wouldn’t arrive at Jamestown, which is now part of Colonial National Historical Park, until May 4, 1607.  Three years before that, in 1604, the French attempted to establish a colony on the present-day border of Maine and New Brunswick, at what is now Saint Croix Island International Historic Site.   Even earlier than that was the famous “lost colony” of Roanoke, established by the British in North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1586.  That site is now Fort Raleigh National Historic Site – but that is still 42 years later after these expeditions by the Spanish explorers.

It turns out, though, that to find the earliest candidate date in the National Park System, you have to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands.  There, Salt River Bay Ecological & Historical Preserve marks the spot where Christopher Columbus himself landed on his second voyage to the Western Hemispher, on  November 14, 1493.   So there you have it, as near as I can tell, this is the earliest date marked in the National Park System.

As a postscript to this story, its interesting to note that of the three early Spanish conquistadors/explorers comemorated in the National Park System, 1542 was a rough year.   Hernando de Soto would die of a fever somewhere near the Mississippi River in Arkansas or Louisiana on May 21, 1542.  Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo would shatter one of his legs on sharp rocks later that year in November, and he would pass away on January 3, 1543.  Only Francisco Vasquez de Coronado would safely return to Mexico from his expedition, and he would ultimately live until 1554, when he would die at the age of 43 or 44.  Ironically, this was roughly the age of De Soto and Carbrillo when they met their demises as well.

Mama, don’t let your kids grow up to be conquistadors…..




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