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and the Manila Galleons

Lived: in the late 1500s and early 1600s
Explored California in: 1587
Exploring for: Spain
Explored: by sea and inland near Morro Bay

Looking for a good harbor along the California coast, Unamuno explored inland to the site of present-day San Luis Obispo.


Pedro de Unamuno had a reputation as a good navigator. He had served under Captain Francisco Gali, a skilled pilot in the service of Spain. Gali was captain of the San Juan Bautista, a galleon used in the trade with the Philippines, and Unamuno was his second in command.


The Philippine Islands became part of the Spanish empire about 1565. The Spanish then began to send ships from New Spain (Mexico) to Manila in the Philippines. These large ships, known as Manila galleons, carried silver and gold from the mines of Mexico to Manila, and returned with cargoes of silks, ivory, jade, spices, porcelain, Persian rugs, and other luxuries from the Orient.

The Manila trade was very important to the economy of New Spain for more than 200 years. The authorities in mainland Spain, however, did not want its colony of New Spain to take away any business from the Spanish merchants and silk manufacturers. For this reason, they limited New Spain to just one Manila galleon each year.

In 1584 Captain Gali, on his way back from one of these trips to the Philippines, had sailed off the coast of California and noted signs of large rivers entering the sea there. When Gali reported this to the Spanish authorities, he was asked to make another trip to the Philippines. This time on his way back he was to look for a good harbor along the California coast, so the galleons would have a place to stop for water and food supplies.

When Gali and Unamuno reached Manila, in the Philippines, their ship was in bad shape. While waiting for a new ship to be built, Gali died. Unamuno was now in command of the exploration. He was given two ships.

Somehow, Unamuno was reported to have plans of becoming a pirate and of conspiring with some Portuguese merchants in Macao, a Portuguese island in the South China Sea. He denied this, but then sailed to Macao despite orders not to do so. There he was jailed and his ships taken from him.

When he got out of jail, he found himself stranded in Macao. He managed to get funds to purchase a small ship. He may have had the help of a Franciscan priest, Martín Ignacio de Loyola, who wanted to get away from Macao.


Unamuno’s ship was sturdy but too small for a safe crossing of the rough waters of the North Pacific Ocean. Unamuno and about 40 companions set out anyway in July 1587. On board was the pilot, Alonso Gómez, two other Franciscan priests besides Father Martín, a few sailors, some Spanish soldiers, and a few Luzon natives from the Philippines. The little ship was loaded with trade goods from Portugal.

The ship’s log from this voyage shows that it was a rough one. The crew had to keep making repairs to the ship. After more than three months of wet, cold weather, they saw the coast of California. Their first landing was on October 18 in a bay that they named Puerto de San Lucas, because it was the feast day of St. Luke. This is now called Morro Bay.

Unamuno and a group of soldiers, led by Father Ignacio carrying a cross, left the harbor to explore inland. They spent three days exploring, walking as far as the present-day site of San Luis Obispo. Unamuno reported that the hills were beautiful with oaks and sycamores, and that the harbor he had found was a good one for ships stopping on the way home from Manila. There were freshwater streams, trees for making new masts, and fish to eat. Unamuno also looked around for signs of silver, gold, or other precious metals, but found none.

On a hill overlooking the harbor, Unamuno took possession of the port and the country in the name of the king of Spain.

The group of visitors were seen by Indians (probably Salinan) living in the area. The exchange between them was hostile, with one of the Spaniards being killed by an Indian arrow. The Indians were forced to retreat by gunfire from the Spaniards. Some Indians were killed and more Spaniards were wounded.

Unamuno left Morro Bay as quickly as he could. He kept close to land as they sailed south, hoping to find other good harbors. But the wind was strong and there was fog. The wounded men needed medicine. So the little ship hurried on south to Acapulco, on the coast of Mexico.


Unamuno’s brief exploration of the land around Morro Bay was the furthest inland that any European had ventured from the Pacific Coast.


Though the government in New Spain had wanted this exploration, they paid little attention to it. The bay that Unamuno had charted and named did not appear on any maps in the next years. The galleons coming from Manila did not use it as a harbor. Unamuno’s feat of bringing his small ship safely across the North Pacific and down the coast of California was forgotten.

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