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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

History of San Felipe pt. 1

By Ronald Saunders

Who discovered San Felipe? How did it get its name? Who recorded the first accounts of its existence? We’ll answer these and many other questions about the history of our beloved little piece of paradise. This is the first in a series of articles where you’ll learn about San Felipe’s past and present.

The first written accounts of San Felipe appeared almost three hundred years ago, but its human history goes back much further. The Spaniard named Francisco de Ulloa in 1539, sailed with three ships on a mission to explore the northern waters separating mainland Mexico and the Baja peninsula. He was the first European ever to sail into, what we now call, the Gulf of California. His journey took him north to the Colorado River Delta. This refuted the claims that Baja California was an island. It was he who named the gulf, 'Mar de Cortez' (Sea of Cortez) in honor of Hernando Cortez, the conquistador of Mexico. While exploring both interior coasts he passed San Felipe Bay, although his diary makes no mention of it or its environs. A year later, in 1540 Melchior Diaz, a captain under Francisco Coronado, travelled overland to the mouth of the treacherous Colorado River and promptly christened it "Rio de Tison" (The Firebrand River). In subsequent years, more ships would sail to the Colorado River but they too would make no note of San Felipe Bay.

The Spanish rulers of Mexico came to the conclusion that this finger of desert and mountains offered no riches to be plundered. Consequently, there was no urgency to take the land or the natives by force. Instead, they resorted to a protracted but very efficient method - the church. For nearly two hundred years, from the mid-1500's to the early 1700's Baja California (Norte) went unexplored and unsettled while the Jesuit-led church gained strong footholds in the south. For over 100 years northern exploration was nearly impossible since it took all the missionaries' energy just to secure their initial southern settlements. Consequently, investigation of the northern peninsula did not begin until the early 1700's. (continued in the February issue)