Filipinos ‘Discovered’ California 432 Years Ago Today

MORRO BAY, CA - JULY 08: A surfer looks out at the Pacific Ocean as Morro Rock stands under evening sun on July 8, 2014 in Morro Bay, California. The route of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which passes through Big Sur, is a popular tourist destination. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Filipinos were among the first to arrive in America, landing on what is now known as Morro Bay, California on October 18, 1587.  

The historic landing, which is 33 years ahead of the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, is commemorated via a special rock in Morro Bay.

The Filipinos were reportedly seamen who served as deckhands for Pedro De Unamuno, who was then sailing for Spain. While among the New World explorers, Unamuno and, more significantly, his Filipino crew, were obscured in history.

According to Filipino American journalist Emil Guillermo, no one would have even learned of the Filipino part of the story without the original research by Eloisa Gomez Borah on Unamuno’s logs. 

Borah, a librarian and a trustee of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), made the case for the presence of the Filipinos in her report published in UCLA’s Amerasia Journal in 1996. Through her efforts, it was finally revealed that Unamuno was not some random explorer, but served under Captain Francisco Gali as part of a Spanish expedition in 1584.

Following Gali’s eventual death, Unamuno reportedly lost command of the two ships he inherited after taking a side trip to Macau.

Unamuno was momentarily stranded in Asia but was finally able to buy a “single-deck three-masted vessel” known as Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza. The hired help who joined him on his journey were mostly from the Philippines.

According to Unamuno’s logs, he sailed with the Franciscan Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola, nephew of the founder of the Jesuit order, a few priests, soldiers and at least eight Filipinos who were then identified as “Yndios Luzones,” or Luzon Indians from the northern Philippines island of Luzon.

Unamuno and his crew began their journey on July 12, 1587 and were at sea until the end of his voyage on November 22, 1587 in Acapulco, Mexico. But before they reached their destination, they spent a three-day land excursion between October 18-20 on California’s central coast.

Borah noted how Filipinos, who were then known as capable seamen, are often left off many of the voyages logs on these early explorations and trade ships. Borah particularly chose Captain Unamuno’s logs, in which “Yndios” appeared 42 times in total. In 23 times, they referenced the native inhabitants of California that they encountered, and 19 times it described the crew.

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Morro Bay, California

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On October 18, after anchoring off the California coast, Unamuno formed a landing party, consisting of 12 armed soldiers led by Father Martin Ignacio de Loyola, bearing the Catholic cross in hand. Based on the party’s typical formation, two Filipinos, armed with swords and shields, marched ahead before them. Being used as fodder meant that the Filipinos were first to venture forth into the unknown.

The logs revealed that the expedition was able to climb two hills and take possession of the land for the King of Spain on day one, seeing no settlements or people. On October 19, an exploration party was led by eight Filipino scouts and followed by a priest and 12 soldiers. On the third day, when the expedition faced hostility, the ship’s barber and some Filipinos were able to counter by offering food and clothing.

All seemed to work out well until the natives allegedly tried to kidnap the barber, resulting in violence between the two parties. The fight resulted in the death of one soldier and one unnamed Filipino, who was killed by a javelin. He is possibly the first Asian man to spill his blood on American soil. Unamuno and the rest of his crew left on October 21 and headed for Acapulco.

Today, Borah and the members of FANHS are championing that this important piece of history is not only recorded but also remembered and valued for its significance.

The state of California has been celebrating October as the “Filipino American History Month” since 2009 in honor of the first Filipinos to set foot in California 432 years ago.

We all know about the pilgrims and their Mayflower in November, but let us all be reminded that before the pilgrims, and before Jamestown, Filipinos were the first to arrive in the so-called “land of opportunity.”

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