In 1510 Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo wrote a book entitled Las Sergas de Esplandian, The Deeds Of Esplandian, which described a mythical island full of riches called California ruled by black Amazons, and their Queen Califa (CALAFIA). The story was fictional, but the Spanish conquistadors had found great wealth after conquering the Aztecs from 1519-1521 and the Incas from 1532-1572 in the Americas, making any story seem possible.
Hernan Cortes, the man responsible for defeating the Aztecs, had heard the stories of an island north of New Spain (Mexico), and was intrigued to find out if it was the California of Montalvo’s book. In 1539 he sent Francisco de Ulloa on a sea expedition to investigate. He discovered that Baja California was in fact a peninsula rather than an island, but he was not believed. Three years later Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo was sent on a similar trip, and was the first Spaniard to land in present day California. He found no island and no riches, leading the Spanish to forget about California for the next 59 years.
Beginning in 1565, twice a year ships would travel from the Spanish colony in the Philippines, an important foothold in the Asian trade of spices, silk, and china, to New Spain to stop for badly needed supplies and rest. The Spanish ships would typically make landfall near Cape Mendocino on the California coast then make their way south to Mexico. Following their long journey across the Pacific, the battered ships and weakened crews were prone to attacked by pirates looking to relive them of their goods. The need for safe haven along the California coast prompted the next visit by European seafarers.
In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaino led a reconnaissance expedition of the California coast, searching for ports and giving some of the first place names such as San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Monterey. However the goal of the trip proved futile as the governor of New Spain dropped the idea of a way station, thinking that settling California would be more trouble than it would be worth. It would be another 167 years before the Spanish would finally colonize California because it had no riches and was therefore considered of no importance.
The decision by the Spanish to finally establish settlements in California in 1769 was spurred by fears that rival European powers such as Russia or England would seize it and threaten New Spain. Known as the Sacred Expedition, this party was led by Captain Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra. Portola and Serra had constant battles over the purpose of the trip. Portola thought the primary purpose was to find Monterey Bay described by Vizcaino, and set up a presidio, or fort, to protect New Spain. Serra on the other hand was more interested in converting the local Indian population to Christianity. Together they ended up establishing Mission San Diego in 1769, Mission Carmel in 1770, and the presidios at San Diego and Monterey, the first Spanish settlements in California. During Portola’s attempt to find the location of Monterey Bay, his men stumbled upon San Francisco Bay, but it would be several years before the news was followed up.
The incorporation of the San Francisco Bay Area into Spanish California began when Juan Bautista de Anza created the first overland trail to California from New Spain on two trips in 1774 and 1776, the second of which led to the founding of Mission San Francisco de Asis and Presidio San Francisco. De Anza brought the first Spanish families and livestock to California, some 240 soldiers and colonists, but the area was always considered a backwater, existing simply as a buffer to protect the much more important territories father south. Until Mexico declared independence in 1821 there were never more than 4,000 non-Indians in California.
In the 279 years that the Spanish laid claim to California, they named many of the major areas in the state, established a permanent European presence on the west coast of the future U.S., and began the process of converting California Indians, while destroying their culture in the process.