COMTE DE LA PEROUSE
Explored California in: 1786
Exploring for: France
Explored: the Monterey Bay Area
In 1786, Spanish settlements in Alta (Upper) California were few and far between. There were nine missions and four presidios (forts) strung out between San Diego and San Francisco. Any visitor to these isolated settlements was a cause for excitement.
Jean François Galaup, Comte de
la Pérouse was born in southern
La Pérouse served in the French
Navy for many years, earning the rank of lieutenant. In 1777 he was in command
of a small fleet of ships in Canadian waters, assisting the Americans in their
When that war ended, La Pérouse
settled down in
King Louis XVI of
LA PEROUSE’S JOURNEY
La Pérouse outfitted two ships for the journey, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe. On the ships were a geologist, a botanist, an ornithologist, two astronomers, and other scientists. The King’s gardener went along to collect plants. There were cartographers to draw maps, and illustrators to draw pictures of what they saw. No expense was spared in supplies for the voyage, nor in gifts to give to the people they would meet. Their orders were to visit every European colony in the Pacific.
They sailed in July 1785 from the French port of Brest, heading south across the Pacific Ocean and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. Then traveling north, they stopped at Hawaii. From here their route lay straight to California, but the winds took them to Alaska. They spent three weeks in a bay there, collecting plants and trading for otter pelts. Sadly, 21 men were lost in a boating accident in this bay.
La Pérouse then sailed south along the coast and arrived at Monterey Bay on September 14, 1786. The Spanish soldiers at the presidio were watching for them, and began firing the cannon to lead the French ships through the afternoon fog and into the bay. When they anchored the next morning near the presidio, a seven-gun salute was fired in welcome.
La Pérouse visited first with Governor Fages and his family in Monterey, and then with Father Lasuén and the other padres at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel. Father Lasuén had become President of the missions when Father Serra died two years earlier. Each tried to outdo the other in their hospitality and gifts to the French visitors.
For ten days the scientists and illustrators surveyed the area, recording in words and pictures everything they saw. The ship physicians gave special attention to the Indians, measuring their bodies and describing their actions. A linguist recorded words and structure of the Indian languages.
Their report shows that Monterey and Carmel at this time were simply a few mud-brick and thatch buildings, and that life here was hard for the Spanish. The Indians, who had lived well and happily before the Spanish came, were now ill-fed and depressed by the strict mission routines. La Pérouse likened their condition to that of slaves on a plantation. In contrast, La Pérouse praised the fertility of the soil and the numbers of plants and animals found here.
On September 24, 1786, La Pérouse sailed away to continue what had been planned as a voyage around the world. The Spaniards supplied his ships with wood and water, and gave him chickens, cattle, vegetables, milk and grain. In return, the French gave the Spaniards cloth, blankets, tools, and seeds.
WHAT HE ACCOMPLISHED
La Pérouse was the first non-Spanish visitor to California since Drake stopped by in 1579, and the first to come to California after the founding of some Spanish missions and presidios. His detailed description of what he saw and experienced at Monterey is the first objective report on Spanish settlement here.
La Pérouse guided his expedition
across the Pacific Ocean to the south
But the results of La Pérouse’s
careful scientific investigations were not lost. At three ports after they
left California, members of the expedition returned to