For 13 years, Ronald L. Rindge has sifted through library books and worked through calculations to solve a mystery nearly 4 1/2 centuries old: the location of Pueblo de las Canoas, the site where explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first landed on the California mainland and claimed the territory for Spain.
Rindge is certain that he knows the answer. He believes he has proved that Malibu Lagoon was once the "town of Indians close to the sea" that Cabrillo described visiting in October, 1542. The explorer named the town for the canoes that carried dozens of curious Chumash Indians out to greet his fleet.
Rindge, an Agoura accountant descended from a Malibu pioneer family, is an unlikely challenger to the traditional historians' view that Cabrillo landed farther north, in Ventura County. He does not speak Spanish, the language of a 16th-Century summary of Cabrillo's log. He is not a sailor with a wide knowledge of navigation.
But some scholars are impressed with Rindge's work and believe now that Malibu is indeed the probable landing spot of Cabrillo. And so Rindge's research has reopened an old dispute and added a new contender to the list.
"He definitely has widened the debate and he definitely has some strong lines of argument," said Clement W. Meighan, a UCLA professor of anthropology. Doyce B. Nunis Jr., a USC history professor, wrote in the Southern California Quarterly that Rindge "makes a solid argument."
Rindge's contention has not won universal acceptance, however. "I don't think that Malibu has much to support it," said Harry Kelsey, who wrote a biography of Cabrillo published in 1986.
For now, at least three spots claim the distinction. On the beach at Ventura stands a city sign that reads in part: "Here, Europeans first encountered California Indians when Cabrillo landed in 1542." Kelsey writes that Canoas "was very probably the large village at Mugu Lagoon." Based on Rindge's work, Meighan said he will teach his students that Malibu may well be the place where Cabrillo met the Indians. Guides at the Malibu Lagoon Museum tell visitors unequivocally that Cabrillo landed there.
For more than a year, a network of Ventura County history buffs has been aware that an out-of-county upstart had entered what was once an internal difference of opinion.
"Our docents visited the Malibu museum and they listened to the Malibu docents say this about Cabrillo and they just looked at each other," said Alberta Word, librarian for the Ventura County Historical Museum in Ventura.
"They didn't say anything then, because they're a very polite group," she added. "But when they got back, they said, 'Where do those people get off saying that?' "
That was the extent of the reaction at first. Then they discovered that Rindge had applied to the State Historical Resources Commission for landmark status for Malibu Lagoon and a plaque there identifying the lagoon as the site of Canoas.
"We began to try and research this ourselves," said Patricia Allen, who serves on the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Board.
Last month, the state turned down Rindge's request, saying the evidence he had presented was not conclusive. But commission Chairman John H. Kemble, a retired Pomona College history professor, said later in an interview that "Mr. Rindge did a tremendous piece of research on this" and is welcome to come back later with more information.
To the north now, researchers are renewing efforts to prove, instead, that Cabrillo landed on Ventura County shores. A Ventura businessman enlisted his sailing experience to argue that the fall winds would have pushed Cabrillo to Point Mugu. Allen hopes to spark interest in a search for Cabrillo's original log to settle the matter once and for all.
Rindge's involvement in the debate began when he was asked in 1974 to prepare a history of the lagoon for the Malibu Historical Society. As the youngest grandson of Frederick and May Rindge, the owners of the rancho that once covered nearly all of Malibu, he had long been interested in local history. He spent his boyhood playing in the Malibu canyons where blackened sand laced with shell fragments was evidence of long-ago Indian habitation.
"The old-timers had all heard stories that Cabrillo landed at the lagoon," Rindge said. "But only the local people had ever talked about Canoas being at Malibu. I decided to find out."
He compiled an extensive bibliography, haunted libraries and consulted with experts. It soon became clear that historians differed on whether Cabrillo was Spanish or Portuguese, whether he set forth with two ships or three and the length of the league he used to measure distance.
So he set about charting Cabrillo's course with each of the proposed lengths. The summary of Cabrillo's log mentions the distance between Canoas and three other locations. Rindge found that a 2.5-mile league would place each of those points the approximate distance from Malibu that Cabrillo measured from Canoas.
He also worked out Cabrillo's daily progress. The explorer sailed 16.7 miles per day from San Diego to San Pedro. From San Pedro to Malibu would have been 17.5 miles per day and from Malibu to Point Conception would have been 17.3 miles per day. "Cabrillo would have had to greatly increase his daily progress to reach Point Mugu (28.5 miles per day) or Ventura (37.5 miles per day)," Rindge wrote in a letter to the state.
Rindge was apparently the first to embark upon such extensive calculations. "I'm an accountant and accountants are not artistes," he said. "Accountants are analytical. Accountants are comfortable with numbers."
Excavations in 1970s
A sizable Indian village did indeed exist at Malibu, which was confirmed by archeological excavations during the 1970s. Rindge contends that Cabrillo would probably have stopped at the first town he saw and Malibu was the southernmost settlement of the Chumash.
But others raise questions about his conclusions. They said Malibu Lagoon does not fit Cabrillo's description of the physical setting of Canoas: A large valley with a backdrop of high mountains where the shoreline runs northwest by southeast. And they said Rindge depended too heavily on speculation.
"This has nothing to do with civic pride," Allen said. "I would be happy to back him if I thought he was right."
Later this year, Rindge said, the board of directors of the Malibu Historical Society will meet. And it will consider raising money to place its own plaque at the lagoon.
"It would say that Malibu is the likely spot," he said. "We'd word it acceptably." He paused, then added, "even though the first landing couldn't have been in all three places at once."