Pedro Unamuno's 1587 Visit to Morro Bay -- probably not!

(For possible submission to Nature Notes -- Mike Baird)
(this page is
(More historical information about Morro Bay can be found at )

As a new student of Morro Bay's early history, I have run across several recurring salient timeline events.  The typical timeline goes like this: (the one reproduced below is adopted from Lynne Landwehr's web site (see timeline)).  This timeline in turn was derived from Dorothy Gates and Jane Bailey's Morro Bay's Yesterdays, Morro Bay: El Morro Publications, 1982, Third printing 2001 by Central Coast Press... based on newspaper headlines assembled by Mrs. Shirley McGuire during Morro Bay Centennial, 1970.

So, in 1587, only 45 years after Juan Cabrillo sighted Morro Rock (but did not enter Morro Bay due to treacherous currents), this Pedro Unamuno fellow is reported to have landed here.  There seems to be little public doubt about this -- and there is even a plaque posted at Coleman Park in Morro Bay, commemorating his landing.  However, the thesis of this article is that the landing did not, in fact, occur -- at least not near Morro Bay.  Unamuno was soon forgotten.  A few years after his landing, nothing more was heard about him. The "Puerto de San Lucas" that Unamuno discovered did not appear in nautical charts. 

Hector Santos's Sulat sa Tans˘ online newsletter (devoted to ancient Philippines history)  
( see and ) makes the argument, in full detail, that Unamuno did not land in Morro Bay -- it is essential reading for anyone interested further in this topic.

Below is the text of the plaque:  The plaque itself is located off Coleman Drive, near the corner of Embarcadero Road, in Coleman Park next to the playground.  Here is a map to its location. wpe22.jpg (16332 bytes)

Historic Site

During the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade era from 1565 to 1815 Spanish galleons crossed the pacific between the Philippines and Mexico. On October 18, 1587, the Manila Galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza commanded by Pedro de Unamuno entered Morro Bay near here. A landing party was sent to shore which included Luzon Indios, marking the first landing of Filipinos in the continental United States. The landing party took official possession of the area for Spain by putting up a cross made of branches. The group was attacked by native Indians two days later, and one of the Filipinos was killed. Unamuno and his crew gave up further exploration of this part of the coast.

Historical Landmark Declared by the
Filipino American National Historical Society
California Central Coast Chapter
Dedicated October 21, 1995

Unamuno's 1587 landing is chronicled at the Filipino American National Historical Society web site, as follows:

The Spanish galleon, Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza, captained by Pedro de Unamuno, anchored off the coast of present day Morro Bay, California, on Sunday, October 18, 1587. Filipinos (Luzones Indios) were among the crewmembers. Several Filipinos were sent to scout the shore. On October 20, during a skirmish with local Indians, one Filipino was killed. The galleon departed on October 22. -- From Capt. Unanumo's handwritten journal, chronicled by Henry R. Wagner in "Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century," published in 1929 by the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

The Amerasia Journal 21.3, Volume 21, 1995, also reports this event (see  )

Hector Santos details the landing story... (from )

On Sunday, October 18, 1587, the galleon Nuestra Se˝ora de Esperanza under the command of Pedro de Unamuno came into a bay somewhere in Central California. Since Unamuno reached that port on the day of San Lucas, he named it Puerto de San Lucas. From their ship, Unamuno and his men noticed two Indians on a hillside watching them. A council was convened on board ship and it decided to send a landing party ashore to explore and take the port in the name of King Philip.

The party came ashore in two groups: a group of twelve soldiers with coats of mail and arquebuses led by Unamuno himself and another group of Luzon Indios of undetermined number led by the priest from Macao, Fr. Martin Ignacio de Loyola. Fr. Martin carried a cross in his hands while the Indios were equipped with swords and shields.

With two Indio scouts leading the way, they saw five Indians in the distance (plus two babies carried by two Indian women on their backs). They made every effort to get and talk to them, but the Indians were fleet of foot and easily left them behind as they scrambled up the hill.

The shore party explored around for a while before finally erecting a cross to take possession of the territory for the King and returning to the Esperanza.

On Monday, October 19th, Unamuno came ashore again with twelve soldiers and a group of eight Luzon Indios. This time the Indios were led by Fr. Francisco de Noguera. They landed before dawn and again sent two Indio scouts ahead going in a direction different from the one they had taken previously. They found evidence of habitation including footprints, a camp, and seventeen dugouts of various sizes. It seemed that the native population was trying hard to avoid being seen. The rest of the day was uneventful and Unamuno’s party camped for the night under great oak trees near a river but away from the trail.

The next day, Tuesday, October 20, they proceeded to come down from the hills to return to their ship. They came upon another abandoned Indian camp, set on both sides of the river, and saw thirty dugouts similar to those they had seen the day before. They continued on their way to the beach.

Before they got there, the two Indio scouts they had sent up a hill to look for their ship come running back down. The landing party realized they were being attacked and rushed back up the hill to drive away the attackers. Three Spanish soldiers were wounded and one killed. An Indio was also killed by “a javelin which he failed to ward off with his shield.”

Many more Indians came descending from the hill to attack but Unamuno’s party was soon joined by reinforcements from their ship who had seen what was going on. Their superior firepower finally drove the Indians off and only one more soldier was wounded in addition to previous casualties.

At five in the afternoon, they made they way back to their ship as the Indians had withdrawn on account of approaching darkness.

Unbeknownst to those in the landing party, there had been an incident on Monday, October 19th that could explain why they encountered no Indians that day and why they were attacked the next day. Fr. Martin, who was with the original landing party, and some of those who stayed behind on the ship went ashore to check out a fire they had seen the night before and also to get wood and water. A Spaniard, armed with only a sword, was left to supervise a party of Indios in washing clothes, gathering firewood, and obtaining fresh water while the rest of Fr. Martin’s party went on to investigate the site where the fires were seen the night before.

As the Indio team was doing its chores, twenty-three Indians came down the hill to check out what they were doing. The Indians, knowing they were in control, confiscated some clothes being washed and a few water casks and took them up the hill as booty. They came back to continue watching what the intruders were doing. At this point, Fr. Martin and the others came back from their foray. The Indians were apparently upset because they were led to believe that there were no visitors other than those they had been watching.

The Indians tried to capture the team leader but were prevented from doing so by arquebus shots from the ship. After much threat and some fighting, the Indians withdrew with some of their wounded and Fr. Martin’s party returned to the Esperanza.

Fr. Martin and his party had unwittingly set the stage for the attack the next day on Unamuno’s party as they made their way back to their ship.

That evening another council was held on board ship and it decided to leave and continue on to Acapulco before daybreak the next day, Wednesday, October 21, 1587.

This article was rewritten for the World Wide Web and first appeared in the November 1995 issue (2: 8) of Sulat sa Tans˘.

Licuanan, Virginia Benitez and JosÚ Llavado Mira. The Philippines under Spain: A compilation and translation of original documents, Book IV (1583-1590). Manila, 1993. 
Mathes, W. Michael. The capture of the Santa Ana, Cabo San Lucas, November, 1587. Los Angeles, 1969. 
Wagner, Henry R. Spanish voyages to the northwest coast of America in the sixteenth century. San Francisco, 1929. 
To cite: 
Santos, Hector. "The first Philippine Indios in California" in Sulat sa Tans˘ at . US, April 3, 1997.

Here is a 1900 Map of California, showing that the town of Morro Bay was called simply "Morro," and illustrating where alternative landing sites could have been, such as in Port Harford (now called Port San Luis near Avila Beach) about 15 miles to the south.

Here are some arguments suggesting that the Unamuno landing never occurred:

No mention was ever made of the existence of Morro Rock.  Obviously, Morro Rock existed in 1587, and it would have been hard to miss during a two-day stay.  How could anyone have made such an historic landing, lasting several days, and not have mentioned Morro Rock?

Also, no mention was ever made of the presence of a sand spit.  There is only reference to the "beach."  Wagner believed that the sand spit did not exist in 1587 (nor was not described by Unamuno) and that the bay was wide open at the time.  We know today that the sand spit existed in 1587.  Archeological data chronicle native sites on its northern end of the sandspit, dating to 4000 years ago."  Here is a map of the Morro Bay area as envisioned 3000 - 5500 years agomap-morro-bay-3000-5500-years-ago.jpg (70492 bytes), and the sand spit is shown to exist even back then.
(from ).  

It was stated above that the Unamuno party camped for the night under great oak trees near a river.  Of the several small creeks entering, or near, Morro Bay (Morro Creek, Chorro Creek, Los Osos Creek), none of them harbor great oak trees today.  The general area of Morro Bay was essentially treeless before settlement.  The Avila Beach, Port San Luis area 15 miles to the south, however, harbors a sizeable river with surrounding giant oak trees (re-check this *****).

Adopted from Hector Santos notes:  (see )

"The source of information... for the claim of Unamuno's 1587 landing is Henry R. Wagner’s Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century (California Historical Society, San Francisco, 1929) which includes an English translation of Unamuno’s account of his travels.

Wagner’s main evidence for the Morro Bay location is the computation of the latitude by the ship’s pilot, Alonso Gomez. Unamuno said, “While thus anchored, about two harquebus-shots off the beach, we observed the sun between eleven and twelve o’clock noon, and found the port to be in full 35Ż║.” Morro Bay happens to be at latitude 35║ 22', almost exactly what Unamuno reported.

However, the accuracy of astrolabes used in the 16th century leaves a lot to be desired... There are no bubbles or mirrors to aid in obtaining the sun’s altitude. It relies on gravity to establish the horizon so that its use on the pitching deck of a ship requires... a steady hand."

Here is a photo (45499 bytes) of a typical primitive astrolabe of the day (see also Hector Santos's site for another example).  These are hardly devices worthy of computing latitude to a fraction of a degree.

Unamuno stated that they made their observation between 11:00 am and 12:00 noon. It was not a night observation of Polaris, the north star, that would have been more accurate. It was also not made exactly at noon and would have required the interpolation of values in their charts, adding to errors already built in. 

Wagner tries to explain away some of the discrepancies in topological features described by Unamuno in his narrative. He also acknowledges that Unamuno’s failure to describe Morro Rock, a very distinctive feature of the bay that one can hardly miss, speaks strongly against Unamuno’s landing in Morro Bay and that it is possible that Unamuno went ashore from San Luis Obispo Bay... But he thinks that Unamuno “simply forgot to speak of the Morro.” 

The Filipino community (see Americans of Filipino Descent and ) is rightfully proud to want to document Unamuno's reported landing, in which Luzones Indios appear to have been the first explorers to have landed in Central California in 1587.  Whether or not that landing was in Morro Bay is open to interpretation.

There are many photos of the Morro Bay harbor from around 1900 (before the Rock was connected to the mainland, and the channel dredged) (e.g., see ).  The description of the landing from Unamuno does not seem at all consistent with what we know about Morro Bay harbor from 100 years ago.  

Here is a topographical map of Morro Bay from 1897 300dpi_plus51b_plus18c_638x814gl_20pc.jpg (53954 bytes) (view smaller 638x814 map; print larger 2550x3255 map).