March 12, 2022.
We didn’t have time to visit the small historic mining town of El Triunfo as we traveled south in Baja, so we stopped in as we drove back north. We strolled around the village and visited the old mine. But for me, the highlight of El Triunfo was a museum. It was filled with brain-tickling info about many things I had never learned or had known and then forgotten. Did you know all of these?
The name ‘California’ is based on fiction. Hernando Cortéz, who “discovered” what we now call Baja, was mildly obsessed with a fictitious novel called Calafia. The book was a European renaissance work. It described California, an island ruled by dark-skinned female warriors. Approaching the peninsula from the south, Cortéz named it California after that island.
Later the Spaniards discovered that the isle was, in fact, a peninsula (though for many decades other European maps still depicted it as an island). They renamed the lower California peninsula “Baja”, and most of the western continental US “Alta California”.
It didn’t take long for the Spanish Conquistadors to determine they could ride the currents carrying New World silver and gold westward to the Philippines, then bring goods back across the northern Pacific to Mexico. They wanted to land in mainland Acapulco, but conditions often forced stops in Baja. The Manila Galleons, which were made of hardwood from the Philippines and could carry 200 tons of cargo and 300 passengers, sailed this route for two and a half centuries.
Observation of the 1769 Transit of Venus was a huge global scientific effort. Teams were stationed all over the world to watch as Venus passed between us and the sun. The results would refine measurements of the Earth’s size and would improve worldwide navigation. French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche led a team to Baja California Sur to record the transit.
Joaquin Valesquez de Leon, an astronomer, and mathematician living in Baja wanted to join this expedition. But Chappe asked him to observe from a different spot instead. Chappe’s team successfully logged data from the transit, then caught yellow fever. All but one of them, including Chappe, died. Both Chappe’s and Valesquez’s notes eventually made it to Paris to be recorded with all the others.
There was another transit in 2012. A team from Baja tried to recreate the Valesquez observations. They found a hilltop described in his notes and used the fact that the top of the hill had been cleared of vegetation as evidence they were in the right place. (It takes a long time for desert plants to grow.)
In 1853 William Walker (from the US) decided to defy the neutrality agreement between US and Mexico after the Mexican-American War. He was going to take over Mexico. He traveled by land from Arizona to Sonora, Mexico, where he was promptly defeated and sent back.
His next attempt was to conquer Baja California. He sailed to Ensenada with a couple hundred of his closest friends and proclaimed himself President. He was chased back to San Diego, CA, where his small army surrendered. He was tried and acquitted by a jury of his peers.