Who discovered California? There’s not really a single answer to that question. But at least there’s a single place to celebrate their achievements.
Between 1533 and 1579, three different European-based navigators landed on what is now the coast of California. Exhibiting bravery, extraordinary navigational skills and a sometimes ruthless gift for survival, they are all remembered in the Turtle Sundial that sits in front of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.
The first to find California was Fortun Ximenez, a Spanish sailor who served under Captain Diego de Becerra, until he spearheaded a mutiny that left the captain dead. The mutineers, now led by Ximenez, landed on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula—thinking they had landed on an island. Among the things they brought back to Spain was the (entirely made up) story of black pearls on the island, which prompted many future explorations that no doubt ended in frustration.
Next was the Spanish-born but Portuguese native João Rodrigues Cabrillo. With the help of his chief pilot Bartolomé Ferrelo, Cabrillio was the first European to land on what is today the State of California when he set foot on the shore of San Diego Bay in 1542. From there, he continued north but died a short time after from an infection. Ferrelo took up the helm and continued up the coast, by some accounts reaching Oregon in early 1543.
Finally, in 1577, Sir Francis Drake of England, during his successful circumnavigation of the world, claimed California for the English after pillaging Spanish settlements on South America’s west coast on the way. He called his discovery Nova Albion (New England) long before that term acquired its modern meaning.
Unveiled in Golden Gate Park in 1907, the Sundial that commemorates the feats of these early European navigators was commissioned by the CA Society of the NSCDA and created by noted San Franciscan sculptor, M. Earl Cummings. For the centennial celebration in 2007, the Consul Generals of Spain, Portugal, and England were all invited–letting bygones be bygones.