On this day in 1542, the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovers San Diego Bay while searching for the Strait of Anian, a mythical all-water route across North America.
Cabrillo was not the first to search for a water passage across the North American continent, and he would not be the last. Ever since the voyages of Columbus, Europeans had dreamed of finding a shorter trade route to the Orient. Once it became clear that North America was not India, as Columbus had believed, but an entirely new continent, explorers hoped that an all-water route through the New World might still be found. Vastly underestimating the breadth of the continent, early 16th and 17th century explorers like Cabrillo believed that one such route might be the elusive Strait of Anian, a navigable passage some sailors claimed linked the Pacific with the Gulf of Mexico.
In June 1542, Cabrillo departed from the West Coast of Mexico and sailed northward to probe the complex broken coastline of the Pacific. Repeatedly turning east to follow any inlet that held the promise of being the Strait, Cabrillo was the first European to explore many of the Pacific Coast bays and inlets. Though San Diego Bay–as well as all the other inlets he subsequently explored–never led to the mythic Strait of Anian, Cabrillo did succeed in mapping many of the most important features of the California coast, though he missed discovering San Francisco Bay.
Despite the failure of the Cabrillo mission, other explorers continued to search for the Strait of Anian and its northern cousin, the Northwest Passage, for many years to come, though with no more success. Ironically, a passage across the continent actually did exist, and in 1905, the Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen became the first man to make an all-water crossing of North America. But Amundsen’s cold and treacherous far-northern route was hardly the shortcut to the Orient Cabrillo and countless other explorers had dreamed of, and died for, over the course of more than five centuries.