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Pirates, Priests, and Pericues: The History of Cabo San Lucas

They had never seen men such as these, carrying thunder-throwing harquebusses and bucklers, armored with breastplates, greaves, gorgets, and heavy steel helmets.

The Pericu Indians lived in and around Cabo San Lucas for nearly 10,000 years before their first contact with European explorers. They were considered part of the Guaycura peoples, nomadic hunting and gathering tribes that roamed throughout Baja California Sur. Recent DNA evidence suggests that the Pericues and Guaycuras originally migrated from the Pacific Rim, and were among the New World’s first colonizers.

An 18th century drawing of two Pericu women by George Shelvocke, an English privateer.

They were “tall, straight, and well-formed,” according to George Shelvocke, who visited the area in the early 18th century, and whose writings and drawings provide much of our knowledge about the daily life of the Pericues. We know that they were one of the few coastal tribes to possess watercraft of any sophistication, and they were undoubtedly the first–if certainly not the last–to take advantage of the abundance of  fish, shellfish, and other marine life teeming in the waters off Los Cabos.

Hernando Cortez, whose name would later be given to these waters, was the acknowledged Spanish discoverer of Lower California in 1534, although Fortun Jimenez had set foot on the peninsula a year earlier. The Spanish colonization of Mexico was underway, and soon to become linked to imperialist designs in other parts of the world via the lucrative Manila Galleon trade, which began in earnest in the late 16th century.

This trade route extended from Luzon in the Philippines to Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast, with plundered silver and gold headed one way, and silks and spices the other. The galleons used The Arch, the rock formation at Land’s End, as a navigational aid. They would pull into Cabo San Lucas Bay for repairs, taking in fresh water at San Jose del Cabo before continuing on to Acapulco, where the goods were unloaded and carried overland, bound for Spain. The presence of these treasure-laden galleons had a magnetic effect on English and Dutch pirates, who were soon cruising the coast, lying in wait for Spanish ships.

Illustration of an engagement between a Spanish galleon and Dutch privateers.

Sir Francis Drake himself was sailing the waters off San Lucas by 1578, and the English privateers scored their greatest victory in 1587, when Thomas Cavendish and crew sacked the reputedly invincible Santa Ana, seizing a fortune in gold and other valuable goods. Legend has it that freebooting privateers like Cavendish hid their treasure in coves and inlets up and down the coast, and locals have been looking for these stores of buried booty ever since.

The presence of English and Dutch privateers was a source of continual consternation to the Spanish, who decided to found a permanent settlement in the Capes region before the idea occurred to their European competitors, who had been afforded a friendly reception by the Pericues. The Spanish were not as well received, and sent in troops to quell Indian uprisings throughout the 1720s.

The first Jesuit mission was founded at San Jose del Cabo in 1730, with conversion efforts spearheaded by Nicolas Tamaral. Tamaral was ultimately unsuccessful, and was killed during an uprising in 1734, instigated by the punishment of a Pericu shaman who had violated the Jesuits ban on polygamy. This rebellion turned out to be the last hurrah of the Pericues, who were extinct, at least as a culture, by 1768. As was the case with most North American Indians, the Pericues’ contact with European “civilizers” had led to widespread disease and devastation.

An engraving of Thomas Cavendish, who sacked the Santa Ana off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in 1587.

Evidence suggests Cabo San Lucas was sparsely populated throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Pericues and the Jesuits were both long gone. So too was the Manila Galleon trade, and the pirates who preyed on it. Mexico declared independence from Spain, and what settlement that remained was of little consequence, and far removed from the days of sea battles and spirited insurrections.

San Lucas did not begin growing again until after the first world war, when a tuna cannery operation arrived, and unwittingly participated in Cabo’s slow yet inexorable rise as an international tourist destination. As with the Pericu Indians, the place was all about the fish.

 

What do you think about Cabo’s history?  Weigh in with your knowledge in the comments below.

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About Chris Sands

Chris Sands is the author of Bohemia by the Bay, and writes about wine, golf, and travel for publications such as Baja.com, Los Cabos Guide, Los Cabos Magazine, 10 Best, and USA Today. He is a full-time resident of Cabo San Lucas.

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