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Lived: 1741-1788
Explored California in: 1786
Exploring for: France
Explored: the Monterey Bay Area

In 1786, Spanish settlements in Alta (Upper) California were few and far between. There were nine missions and four presidios (forts) strung out between San Diego and San Francisco. Any visitor to these isolated settlements was a cause for excitement.


Jean François Galaup, Comte de la Pérouse was born in southern France into a family of nobility, which gave him the title of count (comte in French). He went to sea at the age of 15 as a midshipman in the French Navy. By the age of 18 he had taken part in a battle with the British. The French lost. La Pérouse was wounded and taken as a prisoner to England, where he learned English customs.

La Pérouse served in the French Navy for many years, earning the rank of lieutenant. In 1777 he was in command of a small fleet of ships in Canadian waters, assisting the Americans in their revolution against England.

When that war ended, La Pérouse settled down in France on a farm. A few years later, at the age of 44, he was chosen to lead a French expedition in the Pacific and to California. He was an experienced seaman and military officer. He was also known as a tactful person who got along well with others.


King Louis XVI of France ordered the four-year expedition to the Pacific to gather scientific information about the land, plants, and animals of the Pacific region. He also wanted to know how strong the Spanish settlements were in California, and whether there were places where France might have a share in the fur trade.

France and Spain were on friendly terms at this time. The Spanish officials told California Governor Pedro Fages in Monterey to welcome the French visitors.


La Pérouse outfitted two ships for the journey, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe. On the ships were a geologist, a botanist, an ornithologist, two astronomers, and other scientists. The King’s gardener went along to collect plants. There were cartographers to draw maps, and illustrators to draw pictures of what they saw. No expense was spared in supplies for the voyage, nor in gifts to give to the people they would meet. Their orders were to visit every European colony in the Pacific.

They sailed in July 1785 from the French port of Brest, heading south across the Pacific Ocean and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Then traveling north, they stopped at Hawaii. From here their route lay straight to California, but the winds took them to Alaska. They spent three weeks in a bay there, collecting plants and trading for otter pelts. Sadly, 21 men were lost in a boating accident in this bay.

La Pérouse then sailed south along the coast and arrived at Monterey Bay on September 14, 1786. The Spanish soldiers at the presidio were watching for them, and began firing the cannon to lead the French ships through the afternoon fog and into the bay. When they anchored the next morning near the presidio, a seven-gun salute was fired in welcome.

La Pérouse visited first with Governor Fages and his family in Monterey, and then with Father Lasuén and the other padres at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. Father Lasuén had become President of the missions when Father Serra died two years earlier. Each tried to outdo the other in their hospitality and gifts to the French visitors.

For ten days the scientists and illustrators surveyed the area, recording in words and pictures everything they saw. The ship physicians gave special attention to the Indians, measuring their bodies and describing their actions. A linguist recorded words and structure of the Indian languages.

Their report shows that Monterey and Carmel at this time were simply a few mud-brick and thatch buildings, and that life here was hard for the Spanish. The Indians, who had lived well and happily before the Spanish came, were now ill-fed and depressed by the strict mission routines. La Pérouse likened their condition to that of slaves on a plantation. In contrast, La Pérouse praised the fertility of the soil and the numbers of plants and animals found here.

On September 24, 1786, La Pérouse sailed away to continue what had been planned as a voyage around the world. The Spaniards supplied his ships with wood and water, and gave him chickens, cattle, vegetables, milk and grain. In return, the French gave the Spaniards cloth, blankets, tools, and seeds.


La Pérouse was the first non-Spanish visitor to California since Drake stopped by in 1579, and the first to come to California after the founding of some Spanish missions and presidios. His detailed description of what he saw and experienced at Monterey is the first objective report on Spanish settlement here.


La Pérouse guided his expedition across the Pacific Ocean to the south China coast, then north to Russian Siberia, and then south again to the islands of Samoa. From there they sailed to Australia. When the ships left Australia in March 1788, they were not heard from again. The French government alerted other countries, and sent search parties out, to no avail. Not until 1826, 38 years after his disappearance, was his fate known. The ships had been wrecked on a reef east of the Solomon Islands.

But the results of La Pérouse’s careful scientific investigations were not lost. At three ports after they left California, members of the expedition returned to France on other ships or by land. With each, La Pérouse sent bundles of reports. From these, Voyage de La Pérouse autour du Mônde (Voyage of La Pérouse around the World) was published in 1797.

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