USC News

Menu Search

Cortés’ California misadventure

Hernan Cortés presents a globe to the king of Spain in this drawing from "Historia de Nueva-España" (1770), part of the USC Libraries' Boeckmann Center collection.

In the spring of 1535, Hernán Cortés set sail for an island he believed to be “rich in pearls and gold” and “populated by women, without a single mate.” When the conquistador made landfall on May 3 with a group of settlers, he established the town of Santa Cruz and set about searching for his spoils.

As it turned out, Cortés was not on an island. Instead, he had landed on the peninsula we know today as Baja California and, in the process, began the colonization of California — more than 250 years before the founding of San Diego in 1769.

Santa Cruz would not survive long. More than 20 colonists starved on the desert coast, and a hostile reception by the peninsula’s native inhabitants compounded the settlement’s troubles. Within two years, the colony —located at the present-day site of La Paz — was abandoned.

The story of Cortés’ misadventure is told in W. Michael Mathes’ The Conquistador in California, one of several books on display inside USC’s Doheny Memorial Library as part of an exhibition honoring Mathes ’62, a historian who died in August.

An award-winning author, editor and translator, Mathes was considered a leading expert in the history of Baja California. Barbara Robinson of the USC Libraries’ Boeckmann Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies, who worked with Mathes in the past and organized the exhibition, compared him to another distinguished historian with USC ties.

“He was the Kevin Starr of Baja California,” Robinson said. Mathes’ work on the exploration and colonization of the Californias, like his book on Cortés, demonstrated that “history did not just begin at our southern border.”

Mathes earned his Master of Arts in history from USC in 1962. He later received his PhD from the University of New Mexico and was a professor of history at the University of San Francisco from 1966 to 1994.

A Fulbright fellow and Del Amo Foundation fellow as a young scholar, Mathes earned many decorations throughout his career. In 1985, the president of Mexico awarded Mathes with the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the country’s highest honor for noncitizens. In 2005, the king of Spain named him to the Order of Isabella the Catholic.

Published in 1973, The Conquistador in California was the product of a fruitful collaboration between historians and the Los Angeles small press of Dawson’s Book Shop. Though best known as an antiquarian bookseller, Dawson’s also published limited-edition books about California and the West, including an indispensible, 51-volume series on Baja California history.

The Conquistador in California is the 31st installment in the series. The slim, illustrated volume includes documents related to the Cortés expedition and excerpts from early historical accounts, all translated by Mathes.

The exhibition, on display in Doheny Library’s Friends of the USC Libraries Lecture Hall (Room 240), features some of Mathes’ major publications, his 1962 USC master’s thesis and other items from the USC Libraries’ Special Collections.

For more information about the Boeckmann Center’s collection of books by Mathes, contact Barbara Robinson at or (213) 821-2261.

More stories about:

Cortés’ California misadventure

Top stories on USC News