North American Exploration - Vol. 1

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

8 / The Early Exploration of the Pacific Coast

W. MICHAEL MATHES

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the increasingly evident failure of Christopher Columbus to discover a western maritime route to Asia gave rise to intensified activity within the Caribbean basin by Spanish navigators and explorers searching for local sources of wealth, as well as for a way to the Indies. With the immensity of the latitude of the American landmass and of the longitude of the Pacific Ocean, explorations continued for three-fourths of a century following the first Columbian voyage before its initiator's dream was realized and trade was established with Asia. The discovery and occupation of the Philippine Islands and the establishment of a return route from the western Pacific to New Spain were the beginning, and searches for a safe midway port on the California coast for the ships plying this route, as well as for a direct course to Spain via the muchdesired Straits of Anián, would occupy yet another century.

This process began in 1508 when Diego de Nicuesa received a concession for the colonization of the isthmus of Panamá, a region reputedly rich in gold. Nevertheless, climate, the lack of provisions, and yellow fever caused such discontent among Nicuesa's colonists that they rose in revolt, led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who assured his followers that he would conduct an active search for wealth. To comply with his promise, Núñez de Balboa initiated exploration toward the interior, and on encountering a group of Indians with ornaments containing pearls, he was informed that these gems were to be found along the coast of the great sea that was a short distance to the south. Following these indications, in September 1513 Núñez de Balboa became the first European to view the Pacific Ocean from its eastern shore. Named the "South Sea" by Núñez de Balboa due to its location relative to the isthmus, this body of water, because of its heavy tides and surf, was recognized as a great ocean by the Spaniards, who were experienced in maritime matters; what was not realized at the time was that they had discovered the area of the shortest distance between the Atlantic

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