Wednesday, March 09, 2005 | Juan Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay in October of 1542 and claimed the bay and surrounding land for Spain. We know this and remember it by naming famous places for him, like Cabrillo Point. We assume he must have been an experienced seaman and a Spaniard, and perhaps we even assume he gave us our name – after his favorite Saint – St. Diego.

But a closer look shows he was not named Juan and not named Cabrillo and was not Spanish. In fact, he was a poor navigator which would later lead to the death of many seaman who passed our bay using his charts. He did not name us “San Diego” after his favorite Saint, but San Miguel, after his favorite beer. OK, I made up the beer part to see who was still paying attention.

Cabrillo was baptized Joao Rodriguez in the Portuguese city of Cabrilho. He joined the Spanish Army as a young man and accompanied the famous Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortez, during his exploration of Mexico and his battles against the Aztecs. The Spanish Army apparently changed his name to the more familiar Juan. However, his official signature was always J. Rodriguez, thus paying honor to the name his parents gave him.

His service in the Spanish Army was legendary during his time. After conquering the Aztec capital, the Spanish were later routed by a reunified tribe of Aztecs, and Cabrillo was sent to cover the Spanish retreat where he was injured 11 times in one evening. For his service, he was awarded large grants of land on the Pacific in what is now Central America.

He became a merchant, shipbuilder, farmer and one of the richest men in the Americas. In 1549, when the Spanish king wished to explore and claim lands to the north, he commissioned Cabrillo -now known as Juan Rodriquez de Cabrillo – to build two ships. As part of the contract, Cabrillo wangled a naval commission. While the name San Miguel did not last at our port, it did on the San Miguel Islands, and it is here that Cabrillo as he has become to be known, died from injuries suffered in a fall and was buried under a marker reflecting the name Juan Rodriguez.

With half of San Diego’s history written in Spanish and the other half, since 1848, written in English, much of the time the people who wrote our history would not even know what they were reading since so many names have been changed through translation.

Peter Q. Davis, whose great great grandfather, George Foster, was Coronado’s first full time resident, has developed a life long interest in our city’s history. He is the founding producer of “Heart of San Diego,” a TV series of interviews that tells the history of our City through the word of those that contributed to it.

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