First Portuguese in Northern California

Who was the first Portuguese person in northern California?

While thoughts frequently go to the Portuguese immigrants of the early 1800s, that happened long after the first Portuguese visit.

Portuguese João Rodrigues Cabrilho (Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo), sailing for Spain, was off the northern California coast in 1542, but he may have never seen what we now know as Sonoma and Marin Counties. He certainly did not land and meet the Coast Miwok peoples.

If 1579, Englishman Francis Drake landed in Drakes Bay and spent five weeks repairing his ship and meeting with the Native Americans.

While an Englishman, the crew certainly included Europeans from various countries.

In particular, N. de Morena (or N. de Morera) was a European ship pilot who was aboard Drake’s Golden Hind when it arrived at Drakes Bay.

Suffering from bad health, he did not rejoin the crew when Drake headed west to complete the first successful circumnavigation of the Earth.

Recovering his health, de Morena walked back to Mexico, a trip which took four years.

In doing so, he was likely the first European to see San Francisco Bay. His reports probably furthered the idea of California as an island.

While we know little of de Morena, the name is a well-known Spanish and Portuguese surname. Was he the first Portuguese person to visit the northern California area?

What was he doing on an English expedition?

Drake was noted for treating captives well and also for using their knowledge in his own exploits.

A pilot is a sailor who knows coastal waters and can guide a ship near shore.

Drake is known to have kept captured pilots from Spanish ships with him as he continued his travels, ultimately releasing them in favorable situations.

De Morena was likely such a pilot.

Drake’s voyage had taken him through the Strait of Magellan (the first Englishman to do so). He then traveled up the coast of South America capturing towns and ships.

Off Ecuador, he captured the Cacafuego (Spitfire) with 26 tons of silver and other treasure.

From the coast of Mexico, Drake sailed northwest to obtain as high a latitude as the winds would permit. Turning east at 42 degrees north latitude, Drake found the Oregon coast far to the west of what he expected. The idea of an eastward-trending coastline as he sailed north was not to be. There would be no Strait of Anián – the Northwest Passage – across the top of the continent.

Forced to turn south, he sought a good harbor to repair his ship.

Finding the Oregon and northern California coast to be very dangerous, he reached Point Reyes where he found a good harbor.

There, Drake repaired his ship, met with the Coast Miwok, loaded supplies of fresh water and food.

After a stop at the Farallon Islands for eggs and seal meat, the Golden Hind headed west to a glorious return to Plymouth, England.

Second (or First?) Portuguese Visit

The next possible Portuguese visit was also at Drakes Bay. That was the visit of Sebastião Rodrigues Soromenho (Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño) in 1595. Although captain of a Spanish ship, Cermeño was a Portuguese sailor. There is no doubt of Cermeño’s Portuguese heritage.

Why was a Portuguese sailor captain of a Spanish ship? In Manila, the most qualified captain to be found was Cermeño.

The Manila Galleon trade had been active since 1565. That was a pair of voyages. The first was from Acapulco, Mexico to the Philippines with silver. That was a fairly easy trip because the winds made for a direct sailing.

The return trip was much more difficult. Ships had to sail north to catch the winds, cross the Pacific at a northerly latitude, then turn south to return to Mexico. Storms, bad weather, lack of wind and other factors could delay the ships. Scurvy set in. Men died. Ships lacked crews to man them. In a few cases, “ghost ships,” ships without living souls sailed eastward.

Recognizing the need for a northern stopping point for the eastbound ships, Cermeño had orders to stop at an early port, assemble a small boat carried aboard his San Agustin and then sail south with the small boat investigating possible harbors.

Arriving in early November 1595, Cermeño anchored in Drakes Bay and began the work on the small boat. An unusual storm from the south blew in. The San Agustin dragged anchor and was wrecked. Several men aboard died, but most men were onshore.

The crew built up the small boat and successfully sailed to Mexico.

While Cermeño was Portuguese, many of the crew were Spanish and Mexicans, and also included Filipino and likely Chinese men.

Honoring History

While both de Morena and Cermeño have left very light biographies, their early visits have had significant impacts leading to the development of the United States and its Hispanic heritage.

The Drake landing, the Cermeño landing and the interactions with the Coast Miwok peoples is being honored by the creation of the Drakes Bay Historic and Archaeological District.

This is a National Historic Landmark (NHL). An NHL is a high-level honor: there only 2,600 NHLs. This is in contrast to the National Register of Historic Places which recognizes 85,000 sites.

The Drakes Bay NHL was reviewed by the National Park Service (NPS) in an extensive process from 1996 to 2012. In November, 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar established the Drakes Bay NHL.
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The Drake Navigators Guild (DNG) is a not-for-profit research group which has been investigating northern California 16th Century maritime sites since 1949. Working with NPS staff, the DNG prepared the NHL Nomination and presented it at two NPS hearings.

Its primary research has been on Francis Drake’s 1579 landing. More than 1,000 pages of research studies in more than a dozen disciplines regarding the landing have been prepared and made available to the public. The DNG has been the lead agency in most of the archaeology done at Point Reyes over the years. The best publication about Drake’s visit is Discovering Francis Drake’s California Harbor. To order a copy, see

Members of the DNG have also investigated Cermeño’s voyage to Drakes Bay. The best publication about Cermeño’s visit is The Cermeño Expedition at Drakes Bay – 1595 by the DNG’s late president Raymond Aker. For information on this publication, send an email to [email protected].

For more information, see
Article courtesy of Michael Von der Porten