historians (Bancroft, Hittel, Chapman, Wagner, Davidson, Coy) all had
problems trying to reconcile places delineated on the plat of the Vizcaino
Voyage of 1602. Wagner, in particular, tried very hard to retrace that
voyage in an attempt to match the charted bays and rivers with the actual
coastline of California, in particular the account of the Tres Reyes finding
a bay and going up a large river which came into the bay from the north. It
should be remembered that when these honored historians wrote their accounts
they already knew where Humboldt Bay was located — north of Cape Mendocino
and south of Trinidad Bay.
frustration they felt is sensed in the writings of men like Henry Wagner who
wrote (page 408, note 205 of his book, Spanish Voyages to the Northwest)
that “the river seen was probably Mad River, which empties into Humboldt
Bay” — it doesn’t. Coy wrote (page 21 of The Humboldt Bay Region,
1850 to 1875) that “the location [of Humboldt Bay] is obscured in confusion
and speculation,” and suggests the body of water the Spaniards saw was the
mouth of the Eel River. The writers give “probable” sites, because their
problem was in correlating the drawings on the Spanish chart with the known
position of Humboldt Bay, which was in 41° latitude.
Spaniards claimed they went to 43°, which would put them above Trinidad Bay,
but their latitude is only in their writings, and not marked on their
charts. They used French maps which they claimed were off by 2°. Davidson3
puzzled over the problem and wrote, “It is too extravagant a conjecture to
suppose that the bay [Humboldt] was then a great open bight, such as he
[Ascension] actually portrays it.” Davidson knew where the bay was — he
conducted a scientific survey of it in 1851. The only new discovery Vizcaino
actually claimed was finding Monterrey Bay.
early writers, who made guesses based on the Vizcaino charts concerning
Humboldt Bay’s early site, wrote their accounts from 80 to 100+ years ago.
New data has now surfaced everywhere that brings those long-ago explorations
into a clearer alignment with reality than was possible when the early
histories were written. Disciplines have joined their knowledge — e.g.
archaeology, geology, etc. — to present a truer picture. New research should
be welcomed with excitement and tested for accuracy. Never mind who does the
research. Put egos aside for the sake of truth.
Vizcaino account of a bay north of Cape Mendocino with a river emptying into
it from the north, does not resemble the familiar shape of Humboldt’s large
body of water with the two peninsula arms. From the reports we currently
have, no expedition cruising along this part of California’s coast actually
saw present Humboldt Bay.
Trinidad Bay was sighted by Sebastian Rodriques Cermeno in 1595. He saw the
large rocks that are still there today, but was skittish about entering an
unknown harbor. That harbor cannot be mistaken for any other one. It is odd
that those rocks were not mentioned by anyone from the Vizcaino Expedition,
if they truly did come up to 43°N? Cermeno coming down the coast, less than
a mile from shore was looking for a port and yet missed the “large bay with
the river coming into it from the north” that was declared to be there seven
years later. Bays don’t change position, do they?
have given several reasons why no one saw Humboldt Bay in the 1600s: the fog
being too thick; the bluff that sat behind the entrance made it appear there
was no entrance; vessels were too far out from the shore and due to the
earth’s curvature it was not seen. Wagner wrote: “California presents a
frowning face from the sea, showing only high cliffs and mountains.” But
there is better evidence for it not being seen by those early explorers than
any yet presented — the simple fact that it was not there!
There is geological evidence that
explains more fully why the present shape of the bay differs so drastically
from the indenture that was thought to be Humboldt Bay’s early site by early
writers. Its present hourglass shape is the result of an earthquake that
happened on January 26, 1700. That idea (the difference in the shapes of the
bay) was first proposed by Evelyn McCormick to Gary Carver, who taught
geology at Humboldt State University. Carver, intrigued by the idea, took
over 100 core samples from Mad River Slough (thought to have been the “large
river” coming into the bay) as well as core samples from around the bay
itself, and found that the samples from Mad River Slough were not the usual
river-bottom cores. He concluded that Mad River had not emptied into
Humboldt Bay as early writers thought, and the bay shore samples indicated a
totally different concept. He consulted a colleague, Dr. Satake6 of the
Geological Survey of Japan, University of Michigan. They found evidence that
an earthquake had occurred close to the coast of present Humboldt County
on January 26, 1700 — one
of magnitude 9.0 — the largest temblor
proved to have occurred in modern times in the
western United States.
Lori Dengler, who teaches geology at Humboldt
State University, said “that [magnitude 9.0] is as large as it gets.”
That 1700 earthquake formed the shape of
the bay we now know as Humboldt Bay, through the subduction and upthrust of
land. The tremendous shaking, and we can assume the many aftershocks,
completely rearranged the topography of the area and forged new landmarks.
Bear in mind that the cataclysmic quake occurred 100 years after
Vizcaino’s voyage past this area of California’s coast, so how could Spanish
explorers have seen it? How could Sir Francis Drake (thought to have come up
past present Trinidad Bay) have seen it, since it was not there.
Photo of bay and
their stumps is copyrighted and courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor
Added proof of the 1700 earthquake
was revealed in September 1998 when the weather caprices of El Nino revealed
the existence of submerged stumps of a forest off the shore of Neskowin, Oregon. A low tide one day showed tree stumps, the
tops whacked off as if by a giant scythe. The cut-down forest extended out
into the Pacific Ocean. The amazing site drew throngs of visitors from far
and near to take photographs. Wood cores from the stumps were carbon dated
to 1700 to 2000 years ago. Sand covering the stumps had cut off air and
preserved them. What could have broken upright trees and submerged such a
swath of Sitka spruce and cedar? Nothing but the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in
1700 could have caused such damage. We learned tragically how devastating
nature’s force truly is, from the explosion of Mt. St. Helens on May 18,
In 1775 an expedition was led by
Captain Bruno Hecate and Lieutenant Don
Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Mollineda y Quadra. Sailing north, they saw
only a sparkling sheen of water to the east glimpsed from the crow’s
nest on the main mast of the Sonora
as they sailed past the area where Humboldt Bay is located. They did not
stop to visit or explore it then or later. They moored their vessels in
Trinidad Bay, named it as a new discovery and claimed the land for Spain by
erecting a cross on Trinidad Head. They explored the country for nine days.
The body of water they saw to the east was likely Humboldt Bay, but they
cannot be said to be its discoverers, any more than Cermeno can be the
discoverer of Trinidad Bay.
The credit for the discovery and the
exploration by nonnatives of present-day Humboldt Bay goes to an
American, Jonathan Winship Jr., the Boston sea captain of the ship O’Cain
on June 10, 1806. At 7 a.m. the captain sent two men east in baidarkas to
examine a dark silt pattern that stained the ocean six miles offshore. That
sign usually meant the entrance to a bay, or the mouth of a large river. The
men returned with news of the bay, and that “otters were seen in the
greatest plenty.” The next day a party of 18 men under the command of First
Officer Nathan Winship and the supercargo of the Russian American Company,
Sysoi Slabodtchikof, crossed over the northern peninsula (about where the
settlement of Manila is now) and entered the bay in baidarkas. A survey was
made. After three days in the bay the party slipped away in the night, since
the natives were “gethering from every quarter” and they feared a
confrontation. They returned to the O’Cain, moored at Trinidad Bay.
The O’Cain, itself, did not risk entering an unexplored, landlocked
bay, and left the area on June 21, headed south.
Captain Winship made no maps of the
bay (despite the cut line given to the 1848 Russian map in Dr. Owen Coy’s
book, page 29). Coy cited Bancroft and the Phelps manuscript, Solid Men
of Boston in the Northwest, as sources. One of Bancroft’s writers,
reporting activities of the Russian American Company, even made up a story
about a man who did not exist.12 So
we would have to question other passages and probe them for their accuracy.
The maps Winship used, according to the
entries in his logbook, were those of England’s Captain George Vancouver,
who had visited along the coast in 1792, not that Vancouver saw the bay
(Humboldt). He makes no mention of it in his writings. Winship was there on
a commercial venture, hunting sea otters for their pelts. Humboldt Bay’s
were not so plentiful to warrant a return trip, therefore he had no reason
to return. The Russians, on the other hand, were interested in exploring the
territory, and were looking for a good site to colonize.
The earliest chart we have of present
Humboldt Bay was done by Russian cartographers. It was refined from the one
done as a handwritten sketch, likely by Sysoi Slabodtchikof. He had been in
the bay in 1806 with Nathan Winship.
Colonel E. W. Giesecke showed a slide of
the early sketch when he was the speaker at the annual dinner of the
Humboldt County Historical Society in 1996.
Giesecke has since published the Winship
account of the 1805-1808 voyage of the ship O’Cain, “which sailed
68,120 miles, conducted a successful partnership with the Russian American
Company, discovered Humboldt Bay in the process, and circumnavigated the
The bay was rediscovered in 1849 by the
Josiah Gregg party, and its presence, thought to be near the gold fields of
the Klamath and Trinity rivers, set off an eager search to be first to find
and enter it.
race was won by the schooner Laura Virginia in April 1850. She was
captained by Lieutenant Douglas Ottinger of the U.S. Revenue Service, and
men from the schooner gave the bay its name, Humboldt, after the German
naturalist, Baron Alexander von Humboldt.
Note: The original article in the California HISTORIAN has quite a number of
references and footnotes, which we were unable to include in this
web-version. If you are interested further, we request that you obtain
a copy of the Spring 2003 edition.