First Through The Golden Gate

The San Carlos or "Golden Fleece" first navigates the passage of the Golden Gate on the evening of August 5th 1775  by ship artist W.A. Coulter for the SF Call Bulletin


In 1775, Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa, Viceroy of New Spain (1771—1779), sent three ships to explore the coast of California and to provide support for the second Anza Expedition leading the original colonists from Sonora Mexico to Dolores Lagoon in today's Mission District. One of the ships was a 200 ton paquebote (packet boat) called the San Carlos, and was better known by its sailors by its insider name of the The Golden Fleece (El Toisón de Oro). Its commander was 29 year old Don Manuel de Ayala, and his ship became the first sailing vessel to ever enter the planet's greatest natural harbor, the San Francisco Bay. It left San Blas (opposite coast from Lower California's  La Paz, Mexico) for San Francisco in March of 1775, and entered the undiscovered passage to the great bay and port on August 5, 1775.

"She is the ship of the "Golden Fleece"— so aptly named, that opened the western gate of the New World and was left to rot on the shores of the harbor she found, as told in the old dusty Spanish archives of the dim long ago. The splendid picture that accompanies this article was drawn by W. A. Coulter, the well-known marine artist, from a sketch of the San Carlos made by Father Vicente Santa Maria, the chaplain of the vessel who was one of her complement on her entrance into San Francisco Bay. It is an accurate representation of the high stem and high stern ships 121 years ago. She was a man-of-war, as the guns that look frowning  from her rounded sides testify; and the boom of that battery was the first war like sound that rang over the blue waters of Yerba Buena."

A last minute replacement the young but experienced Ayala, originally from Osuna, Andalucía. was designated to pass through the treacherous strait to be later called the Golden Gate and explore what lay within. Two other ships from his home port of San Blas, the Santiago and the Sonora continued northwards to encounter the unfriendly shores of Washington State, discover the Columbia River and reach Alaska's 60°0′N. Ayala's subsequent report to his superiors praised the the friendliness of the local Native American people and the lack of fog relative to 2nd Mission site in Monterey.

Konstantinos Volanakis (Greek: Κωνσταντίνος Βολανάκης; 1837, Heraklion - 29 June 1907, Piraeus) was a Greek painter who became known as the "father of Greek seascape painting".

Although shores of the bay had been partially explored from the land by Portola and Crespi in 1769, by Fages and Crespi in 1772, and by Rivera in 1773 -no entrance had yet been made from the sea. It was not even know if navigation for ships was possible.

"According to a custom prevailing at that time, the little vessel rejoiced in a double name, the second being a curious mixture of French and Spanish, Toison de Oro, meaning in English "Golden Fleece." Later events make it almost seem as though some prophecy dwelt in this name." - Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez

The myth’s classic quest, following our hero Jason and his band of fortune hunters as they search for the Golden Fleece. The journey Jason undertakes is in an effort to retrieve the token that will grant him the authority to command the throne of Iolcus and banish his tyrannical uncle. The adventure includes a perilous voyage with his soldiers on their ship the Argo, combating gods, monsters, and the multi-headed hydra along the way. Jason's classical craft, after her memorable voyage in search of the Golden Fleece, was hoisted up to the stars, and in the constellation of Argo Navis she sails in the glory of the celestial seas. But this more real and more modern Argos, called — strangely — the "Fleece of Gold." after leading the way to a shore more valuable than the one Jason and his Argonauts could ever even dreamed.

The San Carlos had to overcome three tests before it could open the gate to the world's greater safe harbor. First it had to separate itself from the shore near its anchorage after the ship ran aground and was almost destroyed. Next the vessel's commander, Lt. Diego de Manrique unexpectedly armed himself with six pistols and was raving that his life was in danger. The squadron of three boats sent a rescue boat to escort the commander to shore and shift Alaya The demon behind Marique's sudden insanity was not done yet as a gun left by Manrique in his cabin discharged shooting Ayala in his foot with a pistol that the deranged Manrique had left in his cabin.

Ayala arrived outside the Golden Gate at 8 a.m. after a nine-day voyage from Monterrey and ordered his longboat to find a safe anchorage. Nine hours later with darkness approaching the Captain lost sight of the long boat as the tides shifted. Ayala decided to pass through the straight which had long withheld its golden hills from passing ships. The treacherous currents were overcome under the light of a crescent moon. The ship and its young captain now having more in common with its mythical namesake, the Golden Fleece, than a supply ship called San Carlos now anchored proudly at Angel Island having passed its fourth and final ordeal.

 The  San Carlos or Golden Fleece found safe anchorage within the hospitable cove on  Angel Island where the many visitors to the state park now land. (Officially an island they named La Isla de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles or The Island of Our Lady of the Angels)  Over the next 40 days, Ayala's pilot, Don José Cañizáres, carefully mapped the bay using a launch (long boat) and a cayuco (kayak/canoe), his map recorded the depth of the bay at over 400 points. The local Indians friendly remained friendly throughout. Leaving on September 18th, the San Carlos returned to Monterrey in a single day.

On March 10, 1776, leaving just before the arrival of Anza's party in Monterey, the packet boat San Carlos again left for San Francisco, this time under the command of Fernando Quirós, but with Cañizáres again as pilot. It had many of the supplies and property of Anza's colonists on board. It arrived in Monterey on June 3, and many of its crew were present at the founding ceremonies of the San Francisco Presidio, September 17. 


A damaged San Carlos was abandoned in 1797 by its crew near the end of Battery Street, becoming one of the first to join the great graveyard of ships under today's downtown San Francisco which peaked in the great Gold Rush of 1849. Her first voyage was in 1768, when it left San Blas, (directly across the Sea of Cortez from La Paz) as a supply or packet ship supplying the Spanish Missions of Upper and Lower California.

The Terrestial Paradise long sought by explorers is an Island called California

"The life and Adventures of las Sergas de Esplanandian." published in Spain in 1510, which was the first time the word California was used. Montalvo's famous romance was not only the "best seller" of his day going through 8 editions but a defining myth of the upper West Coast of upper California for Spain's Mexico.

The first voyage of Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century sparked a new interest in the search for "Terrestrial Paradise", a legendary land of ease and riches, with beautiful women wearing gold and pearls.

 “Know ye that at the right hand of the Indies there is an island named California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women, without a single man among them, and that they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body, with strong and passionate hearts and great virtues. 

 The island itself is one of the wildest in the world on account of the bold and craggy rocks. Their weapons were all made of gold . . . The island everywhere abounds with gold and precious stones, and upon it no other metal was found. They lived in caves well excavated. They had many ships with which they sailed to other coasts to make forays, and the men whom they took as prisoners they killed . . .    

There ruled over that island of California a queen of majestic proportions, Calafia, more beautiful than all others, and in the very vigor of her womanhood.”

The explorer Hernán Cortés and his men were familiar with the book; Cortés quoted it in 1524. As governor of Mexico he sent out an expedition of two ships, one guided by the famous pilot Fortún Ximénez who led a mutiny, killing the expedition's leader, Diego Becerra, and a number of sailors faithful to Becerra. After the mutiny, Ximénez continued sailing north by northwest and, in early 1534, landed at what is known today as La Paz, Baja California Sur. Ximénez, who reported pearls found, believed the land was a large island. He and his escort of sailors were killed by natives when they went ashore for water. The few remaining sailors brought the ship and its story back to Cortés. There is some dispute whether the land was named at this time—no record exists of Ximénez giving it a name.  

In 1535, Cortés led an expedition back to the land, arriving on May 1, 1535, a day known as Santa Cruz de Mayo, and in keeping with methods of contemporary discoverers, he named it Santa Cruz. It is not known who first named the area California but between 1550 and 1556, the name appears three times in reports about Cortés written by Giovanni Battista Ramusio. However, the name California also appears in a 1542 journal kept by explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who used it casually, as if it were already popular. The name became the one used popularly by Spaniards, the only name used by non-Spaniards, and by 1770, the entire Pacific coast controlled by Spain was officially known as California. The Spanish speaking people who lived there were called Californios.

The power of the myth was such that even though the explorers on the ground could not confirm the existence of an island, full of gold or not, Europeans still believed in the golden land. The best mapmakers in Europe, the Dutch, showed California as an island almost uniformly until about 1720. Even after that the myth of Calafia’s golden island was so pervasive that in 1747, Ferdinand VII of Spain issued a royal edict declaring California a part of the mainland, i.e. not an island.