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and the Northern Coast

Lived: 1700s
Explored California in: 1775
Exploring for: Spain
Explored: by sea along the northern California coast

After more than 150 years of paying no attention to Alta (Upper) California, Spain’s interest was once again awakened in the 1770s. The founding of Spanish missions and presidios (forts) at San Diego in 1769 and Monterey in 1770 made Spain want to know more about the coast of northern California.


Bruno Heceta (sometimes spelled Hezeta) was a Spanish captain. His lieutenant, Juan Francisco de la Bodéga, was the son of a Spanish official in Peru. Bodéga had just arrived in Mexico in 1774 as a naval officer.


In 1774 the viceroy of New Spain was Antonio María Bucareli y Ursúa. It was under his direction that Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition to San Francisco in 1774-75 was organized. Viceroy Bucareli also organized explorations by sea along the California coast in 1775.

This sea journey was made by a fleet of three ships. The San Carlos under the command of Juan Manuel de Ayala was to go as far as San Francisco Bay, enter the bay, and explore it.

The Santiago, captained by Bruno Heceta, and the Sonora, under the command of Heceta’s lieutenant, Juan Francisco de la Bodéga, were to go further north along the coast. Once again, Spain was looking for the legendary Northwest Passage, a water route that was thought to cross the American continent. But more importantly, Spain wanted to keep the Russians and English from claiming any of the land along the coast.


The Santiago, the Sonora, and the San Carlos sailed north together in March 1775 from San Blas on the coast of Mexico. When they reached Monterey in Alta (Upper California), the San Carlos stopped and the other two ships continued on.

The ships found a good anchorage in a bay at 41° latitude on the northern California coast. They named the bay Puerto de la Trinidad (Trinity Bay) because it was Trinity Sunday when they arrived here. They landed on the tree-lined shore and Heceta took possession of the land in the name of the king of Spain. The Indians who came to observe the visitors, probably Yuroks who lived along the coast, were friendly.

The next stop for Heceta and Bodega was not so friendly. Some of the crew went ashore and were killed by the Indians. The ships escaped from a ring of Indian canoes, and headed north.

On July 27, 1775, Heceta noted the existence of a mighty river emptying into the ocean. This was the first recorded mention of the Columbia River. Three days later, a storm arose. The Santiago and the Sonora got separated in the rain and mist. Though both ships continued northward, they did not see each other again until they had turned south and arrived back at Monterey.

Heceta sailed as far north as Nootka, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He then turned southward and sailed the Santiago along the coast back to Monterey. As he passed the entrance to San Francisco Bay, he was curious and wanted to explore it.

When at Monterey, Heceta organized an expedition to travel to San Francisco Bay on land. He took four sailors on horseback, two priests on mules, plus nine soldiers and a pack train carrying a canoe. They went up the peninsula side of the bay. At the tip of the peninsula, Heceta found a cross with a message at its foot. This message had been left by Juan de Ayala, who had been the first to sail into the bay just a few weeks before Heceta visited.

With Heceta on this trip was Father Francisco Palóu, who had made the same trip the previous year with Capt. Rivera. On that trip Father Palóu had chosen a site for a mission near present-day Palo Alto. That mission was never built. Though Palóu went to the tip of the peninsula, where the city of San Francisco is now located, he did not consider this a good mission site. By 1776 he had changed his mind, and founded Mission San Francisco de Asís there.

Bodéga on the Sonora continued on north, surveying the coast as far as Alaska. He came within sight of the mountains near what is now Sitka, Alaska, and claimed it all for Spain. It was now September and the weather was turning cold.

When Bodéga turned south and once again reached the coast of Northern California, he paid particular attention to the area around Cape Mendocino. He named Puerto del Capitan de Bodéga (Bodega Bay) and Tomales Bay.

The three ships that had set out from San Blas in March 1775 now met once again in October in Monterey. They returned together to San Blas in Mexico in November.


The claim of Spain to the west coast of North America had now been extended to the northern border of present-day California and beyond, as far north as Sitka, Alaska. Heceta and Bodega gave to several bays on the Northern California coast the names by which we know them today.


When he returned to Mexico, Bodega was promoted for his explorations. He was given leave to visit his home in Peru, and he was made a Knight of the Order of Santiago.

Almost 20 years later, in 1792, Bodega was again in northern waters. He was the naval commandant at San Blas in Mexico when he was sent to Nootka Sound to negotiate a boundary dispute with the British commissioner, George Vancouver.

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