The Hispanic-American History Timeline
1540 Hernando de Alarcon Reaches California
Spanish explorer Hernando de Alarcon sails northward from Acapulco, along New Spain's Pacific coast, through the Gulf of California, enters the Colorado River, and becomes one of the first Europeans to reach what it is now California. He also confirms that California is not an island.
After sailing with three ships and for three months, avoiding sandbars that slowed the journey, de Alarcon finds the mouth of the Colorado. He selects about 20 experience seamen, takes two boats, and spends 12 days leading the first Europeans to ascend the river for a considerable distance.
Their mission is to meet and resupply the simultaneous overland expedition into North America led by Francisco Vasquéz de Coronado. Although the meeting is not realized, de Alarcon's expedition finally discards a fictional legend.
For many years, the civilized world thought that California was an island. That misconception comes from a 1510 Spanish romance novel that made the first known mention of "an island called California." It was to be found "on the right hand of the Indies" and "very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise," and it apparently led early Spanish explorers to wishfully assume that the body of land to the west of New Spain (Mexico) was the legendary island of California. They named California and called it an island even before circumventing it.
In 1539, an expedition led by Spanish navigator Francisco de Ulloa had reached the head of the gulf and turned back, finding no path to the Pacific Ocean, which seemed to prove that the peninsula is not an island. Yet even cartographers had been so convinced that the peninsula was an island, that it took the Alarcon expedition to dispel that misconception one year later.
Today, the State of California recognizes Hernando de Alarcon with a roadside plaque, in Andrade, California, which notes that "The Spaniards led by Hernando de Alarcon ascended the Colorado River by boat from the Gulf of California, past this point, thereby becoming the first non-Indians to sight Alta California."
By Glenda Fred, Lehman College