Where Exactly Did ‘Filipinos’ First Land in California?

How did October become Filipino American History Month? The idea of a Filipino American History Month started 22 years ago with the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), a nationwide network of 30 chapters promoting awareness of the long history of Filipinos in America.

In early 1991 the FANHS trustees approved a resolution establishing and promoting October as Filipino American History Month, to be celebrated throughout the United States and its territories.(i) FANHS members persisted in shepherding legislation to gain (California) state and national approval for this resolution. 

Finally in 2009, the California State Legislature and, more importantly, the U.S. Congress adopted resolutions declaring October “Filipino American History Month.”(ii) From start to finish, it took some 18 years of hard work to make this resolution a reality. 

Indios Luzones

What happened in October that is so important to Filipino American history? Nearly 426 years ago the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza commanded by Captain Pedro de Unamuno, which started its voyage from the Philippines on July 12, 1587, arrived in Acapulco, Mexico, on November 22, 1587. Natives of the Philippine archipelago were among the ship’s crew. Unamuno’s log is one of the earliest known documents that mention persons from the Philippines making landfall on what is now the central coast of California. 

Because of the missing topographic description of Morro Rock or Bay from Unamuno’s account, other scholars and writers have proposed alternative landing sites.

FANHS chose October to commemorate this first known landing in the Americas of “Filipinos,” who were not referred to as Filipinos back then but as Indios Luzones or Luzon Indians in Unamuno’s writings. The ship reached the waters off the central California coast in mid-October, and a decision was made to explore the area. The Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza dropped anchor on Sunday, October 18, 1587 and remained for three days before continuing on to Acapulco. 

These Indios Luzones are mentioned within the written account of the three-day land expedition. Here are two snippets(iii) from facsimiles of Pedro Unamuno’s log that are the two instances in the narrative that directly names Indios Luzones and Indios Lucones (variant spelling by Unamuno): 

The English translation of the sentence reads: “I landed with twelve soldiers, with Loyola carrying a cross in his hands, preceding with some Luzon Indians, with their swords and targets.”

The first snippet is from Unamuno’s log entry for Sunday, October 18. The English translation of the sentence reads: “I landed with twelve soldiers, with Loyola carrying a cross in his hands, preceding with some Luzon Indians, with their swords and targets.”(iv) 

The English translation of the sentence reads: “Monday, 19th of said month, at about ten o’clock in the morning, I set out on this exploration with Padre (Fray) Francisco de Noguera and the twelve soldiers and eight Luzon Indians with their swords and targets.”

This second snippet is for Monday, October 19. The English translation of the sentence reads: “Monday, 19th of said month, at about ten o’clock in the morning, I set out on this exploration with Padre (Fray) Francisco de Noguera and the twelve soldiers and eight Luzon Indians with their swords and targets.”(v) The source for these facsimiles is Henry Raup Wagner’s book, Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century, San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1929 (hereafter referred to as Spanish Voyages).(vi)

Central Coast of California

Where in California did Pedro Unamuno undertake his three-day land exploration? The most widely accepted location of the Unamuno landing is Morro Bay on the central California coast. 

Wagner’s Spanish Voyages forms the bedrock for this popular notion. However, some scholars and writers through the years have cited other possible sites for the Unamuno landing. In 1911, Irving Richman identified Monterey, to be later followed by William Schurz in 1920.(vii) W. Michael Mathes came out with a book in 1968 that names Santa Cruz.(viii) In 1957 Arda Haenszel offered San Luis Obispo Bay as a site, but she also emphasized that the landing “has never been definitely located.”(ix) Why are there differing scholarly views on the Unamuno landing? At the heart of their arguments is Morro Bay’s topography, the lack of its physical description in Unamuno’s log and the likely inaccuracies in the computation of latitudes by 16th century mariners. 

Here is a series of three paleogeographic maps created by the Far Western Anthropological Research Group for an educational website in 1997 after archaeological studies at Morro Bay.(x)

The first map depicts Morro Bay at the time of the Great Ice Age. During this period, the sea levels were much lower. As can be seen from the map, Morro Rock and Morro Bay were far from the coast during this time. From distance scale created for this map, Morro Rock was about a mile inland.

Map depicting Morro Bay at the time of the Great Ice Age

The second map advances the clock some 3000 years. The glaciers had melted and sea level had moved a mile or so inland. Morro Rock is now submerged and the long Morro Sandspit or Barrier has emerged. This is Morro Bay at its peak size. Morro Bay is not wide open to the ocean. The north and south entrances are much wider and the bay itself is much bigger. But the key features of Morro Bay were set some 3,000 to 5,500 years ago: Morro Rock at the entrance to Morro Bay and the long Morro Sandspit or Barrier separating Morro Bay from the larger Estero Bay. Archaeological studies conducted in the 1990s have found middens, or refuse piles of Native Americans, on Morro Barrier that date humans living on the barrier from 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.(xi) 

Morro Bay 3,000 years after the Ice Age

The third and final map now places Morro Bay in the 16th century. The north and south entrances are much narrower. The Morro Sandspit had grown bigger through sand deposits and sedimentation from the surrounding creeks. The phenomena had created mudflats and wetlands that reduced the size of Morro Bay.

Morro Bay in the 16th century

While this following map was created by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1897:

Morro Bay in 1897

Some 300 plus years later, Morro Bay looked much like it did in 1587. Now, let’s read excerpts from the 1889 U.S. Coast Pilot for California, Oregon and Washington, describing the features of Morro Rock and Morro Bay nearly 300 years later. Morro Bay and Morro Rock are part of the much larger Estero Bay or Esteros Bay as it was named in the 1889 Coast Pilot:(xii)

El Morro (Morro Rock)—This is a large, high, conical, granitic islet, nearly six hundred yards in extent and five hundred and seventy-three feet elevation. It is a very marked feature in the bay and approaches … Behind El Morro are the several lagoons and sloughs known collectively as Morro Bay …”

Morro Bay—Behind El Morro lies Morro Bay. It is triangular in shape, with a base of three miles towards the ocean, south of the Morro, and its apex two miles towards the east…The entrance to the bay is on the north side of El Morro, and has only nine feet of water in it, although steamers drawing eleven feet are reported to have entered, stirring up the quicksand bottom. It is very narrow, crooked, and close up to the walls of the rock. The tide rushes in and out with great velocity, and no vessel or boat should venture through with the full strength of the ebb … It is hazardous to enter … 

As this description reads, it would have been a risky challenge to enter into the much smaller Morro Bay. Unamuno’s narrative makes no mention at all of the towering Morro Rock, the narrow entry channel into the bay and the long sand spit barrier that separates Morro Bay from Estero Bay.(xiii) Because of these topographical omissions, noted scholar W. Michael Mathes corrects Unamuno’s landing to Santa Cruz.(xiv)

In his narrative, Mathes also adjusts the latitude where Unamuno made first landfall from 35 ½ to 37 30’. The 37 30’ latitude reading would place Unamuno just south of Half Moon Bay and then coasting down to Santa Cruz at about 37.(xv)  As Unamuno noted in his narrative, they were nearly run aground on the evening of October 17 because of two small islands. After being battered about by storms during his long voyage, Unamuno and other mariners would have been extremely conservative and probably would not attempt to enter the narrow northern or southern channel to Morro Bay for fear of their ship breaking apart.(xvi)

Because of the missing topographic description of Morro Rock or Bay from Unamuno’s account, other scholars and writers have proposed alternative landings such as Monterey Bay, San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz. Most likely, Richman and Schurz, who were in the “Monterey landing” camp, viewed Monterey with its long arcing, sandy beach and the Salinas River emptying into its bay as fitting the Unamuno’s description. 

Arda Haenszel also expresses doubts about Wagner’s position and offers her own conclusion that Unamuno possibly anchored at San Luis Obispo Bay with its San Luis Creek. But in closing her narrative on Pedro de Unamuno, she states, “The site of the landing has never been definitely located.”(xvii)

In his critique of the Unamuno Morro Bay landing thesis, Filipino American writer Hector Santos asserts that because of the long passage of time, we can only really be sure of the dates of Unamuno’s expedition and place the landing somewhere in Central California.(xviii)

Another element of doubt on the Morro Bay landing is based on the devices used to calculate latitude. The mariner’s astrolabe, a rudimentary device most commonly used in the 16th century was notoriously inaccurate. A reading taken at sea during the day could be off as much as 5 degrees or 300 miles. In order for a mariner at the time to get an accurate reading during the day, the position of the sun at high noon would have to be factored in, and Polaris or the North Star would have to be referenced to figure latitude at night. However, a much larger land astrolabe (as large as two feet in diameter) afforded the most accurate measurement and ease of reading the larger dial.(xix)

Wagner in his article on the Voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo corrects a number of the latitudes in his explanatory and analytical narrative.(xx) One wonders why he did not do any corrections on the latitudes in Pedro de Unamuno’s log? Instead, he pinpoints Puerto de San Lucas in the Central California coast now known as Morro Bay, as corresponding to 35 ½ degree latitude in Unamuno’s log, and the likely landing site of Unamuno’s party. 

Wagner contends that some physical features of the area – the San Luis range, the small islands south of Pt. Buchon and the sand point, which runs to the north – all agree with Unamuno’s log, as does the topography in the eastern side of the bay. What is more problematic is how Unamuno’s galleon could have negotiated the narrow entrance of the bay. Wagner says that the entrance to the bay was once more navigable: “An examination of the bay develops the conviction that it was once of considerable size, although now almost filled with sand…What has occurred no doubt has been that the long sand-bar was formed which gradually extended north until the entrance of the bay became so narrow as it is now.”(xxi)

Wagner’s 90-year-old conjecture about the Morro Barrier or sand spit forming after the Unamuno landing was based on the scholarship and knowledge of the time. However, as we have shown early in this essay, archaeological and geographical studies undertaken in the last 20 years have found that the key features of Morro Bay were established some 3,000 to 5,500 years ago. If Unamuno did land at Morro Bay in 1587, he would had to pass by Morro Rock before entering through either the narrow north and south openings to Morro Bay and making his way down navigable parts of the lagoon to White Point. And there is that glaring oversight: Unamuno makes no mention of the looming Morro Rock that stands like a lonely sentinel at the mouth of the Bay and is the iconic landmark that defines the area.

Wagner concedes as much: “His (Unamuno’s) failure to mention Morro Rock, certainly a very conspicuous object in the landscape at Morro Bay … might well be urged as negativing the theory that he had been in Morro Bay…”(xxii) However, this doubt is supposed to be dispelled by the encounter some eight years later by Spanish explorer Cermeno with the local Indians in San Luis Obispo, who said they encountered Mexican explorers like him, presumed to be Unamuno’s party. Could such an encounter, in fact, have transpired in San Luis Obispo Bay, a short distance south of Morro Bay? Even Wagner dismisses such a hypotheses and contends that the physical description of the shore and land of San Luis Obispo Bay does not conform to Unamuno’s description. His conclusion: “He (Unamuno) simply forgot to speak of the Morro.”

More Research Needed

While Filipinos (then Indios Luzones) did set foot on the Americas in October 1587, further research is needed to see if the precise location of Unamuno’s landing can ever be truly fixed. One starting point could be to try to discover why noted scholar W. Michael Mathes changed the Unamuno landing to Santa Cruz. Another area to consider would be San Luis Obispo Bay. 

Over four centuries have passed; the research task is a daunting one. But while the landing site of Unamuno remains in dispute, the presence of natives from the Philippine archipelago in his crew and exploration party is undeniable. It is a time to reflect not only on the history and contribution of Filipinos in the United States, but also to step back and consider the history of Filipinos in all of the Americas. 

Consider this, California became the 31st state of the U.S. in 1850. Before that it was known as Alta California, a part of Mexico and under Spanish rule for some three centuries. Filipinos had a long history in Spanish America way before the U.S. ever came into the being. 

Abraham Ignacio Jr. 

Abraham Ignacio Jr. 

Abraham Ignacio Jr. is pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science at San Jose State University. He is the co-author of The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons. He is based in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.

This a revision of the article that was originally published in the Blog of the Filipino American Center at the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch http://filipinoamericancenter.blogspot.com/2013/10/why-is-october-celebrated-as-filipino.html

We would like to thank Mitchell Yangson, Librarian of the Filipino American Center, for allowing this reprinting.


(i)  “October is Filipino American History Month,” Filipino American National Historical Society. Accessed August 30, 2013, http://www.emilylawsin.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/fa-history-month.pdf

(ii) California Senate Bill Number: SCR 48 enrolled: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billVotesClient.xhtml

U.S. Senate (112th Congress) Senate Resolution 287: http://beta.congress.gov/bill/112th/senate-resolution/287/text?q=filipino%20american%20history%20month

U.S. Congress (111th Congress) House Resolution 780: http://beta.congress.gov/bill/111th-congress/house-resolution/780?q=filipino+american+history+month

(iii)  The first and second snippets are from Wagner, Henry R. Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century. San Francisco, California Historical Society, 1929. The first is from page 487 and the second from page 492.

(iv) The first translation is taken from Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 143.

(v) The second translation is taken from Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 145.

(vi) The book is available for reading only at the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch. It cannot be checked out because it is a rare and out-of-print book. However, if you have San Francisco Public Library card and create an online account for yourself, you can access the electronic databases that the library has made available to the public. The database you would access is called JSTOR. The database gives you access to full text academic journals going all the way back to 1838. You access Mr. Wagner’s 1923 article on the Pedro de Unamuno’s voyage to California via JSTOR. Here is citation information: “The Voyage of Pedro de Unamuno to California in 1587”: H. R. Wagner and Pedro de Unamuno

California Historical Society Quarterly , Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jul., 1923), pp. 140-160
 Published by: University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/stable/25177703

See also, an historical account predating Wagner that provides a partial translation of the Unamuno voyage and noting the presence of “Indians from Lucon armed with swords and buckler…” Richman, Irving Berdine. California under Spain and Mexico: A Contribution Toward the History of the Pacific Coast of the United States Based on Original Sources, Chiefly Manuscript, in the Spanish and Mexican Archives and Other Repositories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911., p.26. This 1911 book was digitized and is available via Google Books. See also, Filipino American librarian and scholar, Eloisa Gomez Borah’s article, “Filipinos in Unamuno’s California Expedition of 1587”, Amerasia Journal 21:3 (Winter 1995/1996). Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Press, 175-183 and her webpage, “Americans of Filipino Descent – FAQs” http://personal.anderson.ucla.edu/eloisa.borah/filfaqs.htm#chronology 

If you would like to read Ms. Borah’s article, the San Francisco Public Library main branch carries the Amerasia Journal. Her 1995 journal article broke new ground in revealing the long history of Filipinos in the Americas.

(vii) Richman, Irving Berdine. California Under Spain and Mexico, 1535-1847, A Contribution Toward the History of Pacific Coast of the United States, based on Original Sources, Chiefly Manuscripts in the Spanish and Mexican Archives and Other Repositories, 1911; William Lytle Schurz, “The Manila Galleon and California.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 21, no. 2, 1917, 112. Schurz is basing his Monterey assertion on Richman’s work, California Under Spain and Mexico… The Richman book can be accessed through Google books. Mr. Schurz’s article can be accessed through the SFPL electronic databases.

(viii) Mathes, W. Michael. Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion in the Pacific Ocean, 1580-1630. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1968, 14-18. Like Wagner’s book, Mr. Mathes’ book can only be read at the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library Main branch.

(ix) Haenszel, Arda. “The Visual Knowledge of California to 1700.” California Historical Society Quarterly 36, no. 3 (Sept 1957), 226-227. Ms. Haenszel’s article can be accessed via the SFPL electronic databases. See also, Santos, Hector. “Did Philippine indios really land in Morro Bay?” Mr. Santos offers an extensive critique of the Unamuno landing at Morro Bay. One can access his 1995 article at the following address: http://www.bibingka.com/sst/esperanza/morrobay.htm

(x) Far Western Anthropological Group, Inc., “8000 Years of Change at Morro Bay: An Archaeological Perspective.” http://www.farwestern.com/morrobay/morro.htm

(xi) Orme, Antony R., “The Instability of Holocene Coastal Dunes: The Case of the Morro Dunes, California”, in Nordstrom, Karl, Norbert Psuty, and Bill Carter, eds. Coastal Dunes, Form and Process. Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 1990, 322.

(xii) Davidson, George. Coast Pilot of California, Oregon, and Washington. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889. http://docs.lib.noaa.gov/rescue/csc/103_pdf/CSC-0023.PDF

(xiii) Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 141-151.

(xiv) Mathes in his footnote to Unamuno’s voyages writes, “From the description (Unamuno mentions no large headlands, rocks, or morro) and latitude, this probably was Santa Cruz rather than Morro Bay, the site often stated as Unamuno’s anchorage.”, Mathes, Vizcaíno and Spanish Expansion, (See chap. 2, footnote 19),15. 

(xv) Sadly Mr. Mathes passed away on August 13, 2012. If Mr. Mathes’ personal papers are in an archive, further research could be done to see if he kept notes on his books, and if so, possibly find out what facts he was able to uncover that led him to correct Unamuno’s latitude to the North versus South and why Santa Cruz as the site of Unamuno’s landing.

(xvi) Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 142.

(xvii) Haenszel, “The Visual Knowledge”, 227.

(xviii) Santos, “Did Philippine indios.” http://www.bibingka.com/sst/esperanza/morrobay.htm

(xix) “Astrolabe,” The Mariners’ Museum, Exploration through the Ages, Their Tools of Navigation, http://ageofex.marinersmuseum.org/index.php?type=navigationtool&id=12 See also, Santos, “Did Philippine indios”, http://www.bibingka.com/sst/esperanza/morrobay.htm

(xx) Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 72-79.

(xxi) Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 151-152.

(xxii) Wagner, Spanish Voyages, 152.