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An Account of the Voyage of Juan Rodríquez Cabrillo, translated by Thomas E. Case and edited by Terry DiMattio, Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, San Diego, Calif., 1999, $8.95 paperback.

Although there is much that remains a mystery about Juan Cabrillo, he is celebrated at the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego as the first European to discover Alta (“Upper”) California. He did so by sailing into San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. Also, having departed from New Spain (present-day Mexico), Cabrillo led the initial expedition to explore the west coast of what later became the United States.

While this 98-page book is filled with maps, photos, illustrations and biographical commentary on Cabrillo and his role in expanding the Spanish empire, the work is essentially a new translation of the account of Cabrillo’s famous voyage of discovery, 1542-43. It is not the actual “log” written by Cabrillo or his crew during their Pacific travels, but rather a condensed report obtained by interviewing the sailors upon their return.

As one of the conquerors of Guatemala and a well-known shipbuilder, Cabrillo was given the task of finding the mythical passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Although this proved impossible, he nonetheless discovered Catalina Island, the sites of San Pedro and Santa Monica, and the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. On the island now called San Miguel he fell and broke his arm, but he soon continued his voyage north to a point on the northern California coast where Fort Ross would be built centuries later (1812).

Heavy seas and winter weather forced Cabrillo to turn his ship back to San Miguel, where, on January 3, 1543, he died, probably from an infection in his injured arm. Cabrillo’s pilot, Bartolomé Ferrelo, carried out his captain’s dying wish to explore northward and reached the present Oregon-California border before being forced to return to New Spain in starving and sickly condition.

This information and much more is related effectively in the account of the voyage by Thomas Case, who provides “as literal a translation of the 16th-century text as possible” without embellishment. As for Cabrillo himself, it is not certain whether he was Portuguese or Spanish, where or how he spent his youth, exactly how he died or where he is buried. There is no known portrait of him either. Still, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Cabrillo stamp in 1992 on the 450th anniversary of his voyage to California, and his story of courage and determination is one worth remembering, even outside the borders of the Golden State.

Richard H. Peterson