wb01727_.gif (697 bytes)

History of the Las Cruces Trail and Adjacent Canal Area
Part 1 - Pre-History - Early Spanish Rule and Captain Drake 

A Historic Review of the Events and Persons Associated with the Different Trans-Isthmian Crossings and Routes in Panama
from the Camino Real and Las Cruces Trail, the construction of the Panama Railroad and the subsequent construction and operation of the Panama Canal and the Trans-Isthmian Highway


By Susan Harp,
Darién Information Systems, Inc.

Panama City, Panama

June 1, 2001  


Please feel free to use this document for educational and non-commercial purposes.  If you find the document useful and do use text from it you should reference the title, author and page number at the appropriate place.


Download this document in .PDF format


When satellites took the first photographs of tiny earth from space, the Isthmus of Panama showed up as a slender thread connecting the North and South American continents.  Unlike Michelangelo’s almost-but-not-quite touch between God and Adam in the heavens of the Sistine Chapel, Panama’s reach between the two continents was solid and complete for three million years – until humans rendered it in two with the construction of the Panama Canal.  They had dreamed about an all-water route between the great seas for 400 years. 

The land link between the continents began as a slow, gradual rise from the ocean bottom 20 million years ago.  When it finally formed a solid link between the continents 17 million years later, it had emerged as an influential focal point in world geography and natural history.  The rise of the isthmus changed the ecology of the earth’s oceans, continents and climate.  The link also became an important player in human history.

By virtue of Panama’s unique geography, a path across the link became key to transcontinental travel and commerce.  First the Las Cruces Trail, then the Panama Railroad and the Panama Canal provided the path and, in the process, shaped five centuries of local, regional, national and international history.  This article focuses on the events and the players that created these unique pathways, from Fort San Lorenzo and Portobelo on the Atlantic coast to Panama City on the Pacific shore.  We begin our story three million years ago in geological pre-history.

Although today Panama is best known for the Panama Canal, the waterway that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for maritime trade, its first important link was not as a path between two oceans.  It was as a path between two continents.  When the Isthmus of Panama rose from one great ocean three million years ago, it connected the North and South American landmasses and opened the way for a north/south migration of plants and animals.  Giant anteaters and sloth and 12-foot-tall predatory birds began moving northward.  Bears, early horses, deer, weasels, dogs, cats and mice ventured south across the new link.

The isthmus also blocked a once-immense ocean.  The west-moving equatorial current in the newly formed Atlantic was forced to turn north, and it eventually developed into the Gulf Stream.  The northward movement of that warm water triggered rain in northern latitudes and the water froze and formed new glaciations and ice ages in the far north; but the Gulf Stream also warmed western Europe.

The ocean on the Pacific side grew cooler, its upwelling currents carrying rich nutrients and developing abundant fishing grounds.  The Atlantic side grew warmer and nutrient poor; coral reefs grew in the shallow Caribbean Sea.  Marine species that had been separated turned in different evolutionary directions. 

Land link between two continents

Eons later, humans arrived from the north.  East Asian peoples crossed the Siberian Peninsula land bridge into what is now Alaska and made their way south across the North American Continent toward warmer climates.  Bands of hunters and gatherers arrived in Panama at least 12,000 years ago.  A myriad of separate culture groups developed all over the isthmus, from the lowland rainforest at the easternmost point to the highlands at the western end.  Some estimates put Panama’s indigenous population at the time of European contact at 2 million, just slightly less than Panama’s modern-day population of 2.8 million in the year 2000.

Before the time of European contact (1500), hierarchical chiefdoms with agriculture and highly developed art forms had developed in Panama’s western sector.  Their artisan skills in the highly complex craft of making solid gold figurines, called huacas, created a demand for Panamanian art, and the huaca trade reached as far north as the Mayan culture in Mexico and south into Colombia.

Time of the Conquistadors

But Panama’s fame for gold eventually brought downfall for its native residents, as was true for all New World people who revealed golden treasures to the Spanish Conquistadors who arrived on their shores in the 1500s.  Gold drove Spaniards mad with desire;  it drove them right into the heart of Panama and up and down the length and breadth of Latin America.  Beginning with their arrival, Panama was transformed into an important link between the two oceans.  The new discovery immediately attracted merchants and middlemen, experts in extracting their share of the riches that passed through on their way to other destinations.

The importance of gold continued to dominate the course of Panama’s history for three centuries of Spanish rule. 

Gold Rush

After a brief lull in activity in Panama, the discovery of gold nuggets in California in 1848 triggered a rush of people seeking the fastest route from the east coast of the United States to San Francisco.  Because there was no railroad transportation built across the United States at that time, many traveled by sea on a route that required a land-trek across Panama.  The Gold Rush brought thousands of prospectors to Panama, and the sudden activity brought the Las Cruces Trail and the new Panama Railroad into the limelight again.

Golden commerce

Activities in the 20th century created a new kind of gold for Panama: an all-water passage between two oceans.  In the 1500s, explorers had confirmed there was no all-water westward passage to the Orient; in the 1900s, industrialists built their own.  The Panama Canal gave the isthmus renewed importance for maritime commerce and opportunities for the merchants and middlemen to take advantage of its return to a prominent role in world commerce.

The path across

Throughout the past five centuries, Panama’s mighty Chagres River played an important role in the system of trails leading across the isthmus.  From the Caribbean Sea, the mighty river provided a water route halfway across, where the Las Cruces Trail continued on land to Panama City.  In the twentieth century it would provide water for the Panama Canal.  In the sixteenth century, the Spanish recognizing the strategic importance of the river and built the Castle of San Lorenzo to guard its entrance.  For almost 300 years the fort remained a symbol of Spanish control over access to Latin America, and the history of its rise and fall provides a barometer for the general state of Spanish dominance in the region.

The discovery of Panama in 1500 may have changed the significance of the narrow isthmus, but not its importance.  Its geographical heritage meant that the monarchy that controlled a path across Panama could dominate the New World. 

Rodrigo de Bastides

The Spaniard Rodrigo de Bastides was the first European to visit the coast of Panama.  He arrived in 1500 by sailing up the Atlantic coast of South America to what is now called the Darien, which even today forms a formidable barrier between Panama and Colombia.  On board his ship were two men who would later make history in their own right, the ship’s chandler, Amerigo Vespucci (from whom the word “America” evolved), and an adventurer named Vasco Núñez de Balboa (who would become the first European to see the Pacific Ocean).  However, the group set sail for Hispaniola, (the island that today hosts Haiti and the Dominican Republic) before they reached the Chagres River and the narrow portion of the isthmus.

Christopher Colombus

In October 1502, Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón) and his men were the first Europeans to see the Chagres River during Columbus’s fourth and last voyage to the New World.  Columbus was still searching for an ocean passage to the Orient, working his way south in four caravels along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica toward the coordinates that Bastides had mapped.  After stopping in Bocas del Toro near the border between what is now Panama and Costa Rica, he proceeded east until reaching a great river.  Seeing a large number of crocodiles on its banks, Columbus named the waterway River of Crocodiles.  Later it became known as the Chagres.

The Chagres River

Hearing native accounts of a hill where he could look out to another sea, Columbus started up the Chagres in longboats, but turned back after realizing the journey would take him too far from the safety of his ships.  He explored what is now called Limón Bay, thinking it was perhaps a strait leading to the Indian Ocean.  He left disappointed, never to know that the bay would someday become the northern entrance to the Panama Canal.

Charting Portobelo

Eventually, the ships arrived at an excellent harbor where natives maintained productive gardens along the banks of a river there.  Columbus and his men stayed a week in this place to shelter from a storm, and named it Porto Bello (Beautiful Port, now called Portobelo).  Traveling farther east, they reached the same coordinates charted by Bastides and realized there was to be no Westward Passage for their ships.  Disappointed, they named the point of land near the coordinates “Nombre de Dios” (Name of God).  Six later, the place would have the distinction of becoming one of the two earliest permanent Spanish settlements on the mainland.

Exploring Manzanillo

After fighting a storm for nine days, Columbus re-entered Limón Bay and stopped at Manzanillo Island.  He looked for a site to establish a settlement on Tierra Firme in order to solidify his legal claim on the land.  (By order of the Crown, he was entitled to the viceroyalty of all lands that he charted as well as a tenth of all the revenue produced by them.)  But Manzanillo Island was too low lying and infested with insects and crocodiles.  Columbus rejected it.  Ironically, 400 years later the island would become the site for two cities, aptly named Cristobal and Colon, that formed the Caribbean terminus for the first trans-continental railroad in the Americas and, subsequently, for the Panama Canal.  But Columbus sought a healthier site and made his way westward along the Caribbean coast toward Bocas del Toro.

Settling Belén

Reaching a grand river, they chose a settlement site and christened the site.  The first attempt to establish a settlement on the Americas mainland endured only four months, for hostile Indians and the lack of food were reason enough for the men to abandon the settlement and return to Hispaniola.

Change of command

New opportunities

Columbus died in 1506, soon after leaving Panama.  His son Diego inherited claims to vast amounts of newly discovered lands in the New World, claims that hindered King Ferdinand’s desire to control them.  In a clever maneuver to take the mainland away from Diego’s jurisdiction, the king awarded Diego the viceroyalty of Hispaniola in 1508 in exchange for his relinquishing control over the mainland.  The king divided the newly discovered continent in half, with the dividing line going right through Panama’s Darien province at the Gulf of Urubá.  He appointed Alonso De Ojeda ruler of everything south of the line and Diego de Nicuesa master of everything north.  Included in their jurisdiction were the lands and all native inhabitants, who instantly had the status of “slave” bestowed upon them.

Spain focuses on Panama

Just ten years after proving the earth was round and discovering the New World, Spain had claimed the entire – but only partially mapped –  American Continent and placed it under the jurisdiction of just two men.  Europeans had not even discovered the Pacific Ocean at this time.  By some fluke of luck, Spain chose to establish the first New World mainland settlements in Panama – ostensibly for the abundance of gold they believed existed there.  Their luck would bring them control over Panama’s geographic advantage: of the entire continent, Panama was the narrowest strip of land separating the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  But by another, more sinister fluke of luck, the location was also one of the most disease ridden.

First conquest settlements

Diego de Nicuesa was named lord of everything north of the dividing line to include all of Central and North America (still undiscovered).  Nicuesa chose Portobelo as the first settlement site, but hostile Indians forced his group to flee.  They headed east to their second choice, Nombre de Dios.

Alonso de Ojeda sent an envoy, Martín Fernández de Enciso, with a group to settle Santa María de la Antigua, far down the Darien coast toward what is now Colombia.  Accompanying Enciso was the young Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who had seen this coast before with Bastides.  Balboa had stowed away on one of Enciso’s ships in order to escape his debtors on Hispaniola.  He joined the settlers at Antigua.

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa

In two years, Balboa emerged as the leader of the new settlement.  He rallied the group to defend themselves against Indian attacks and succeeded in establishing friendly relations with some of the neighboring groups.  Enciso was jealous of Balboa’s natural leadership skills and spread malicious gossip about Balboa during a trip to Spain.  Understanding what Enciso was up to but left at a disadvantage in Antigua, Balboa reacted by sending gold that he had collected from the natives to Diego Colon on Hispaniola.  Colon reacted with goodwill, and approval of Balboa as a leader.  Balboa also wisely dispatched a ship carrying the king’s royal share of gold directly to Spain in order to improve his reputation.

As a leader, Balboa’s policy was to deal fairly but firmly with the Indians.  The history of Latin America might have been different if he had remained in charge, for these were the formative years before the discoveries of Central and South America.  Balboa established good relations with the Indians, but also collected all the gold he could find.  When the starving and feverish men at Ojeda’s settlement abandoned Nombre de Dios, Balboa helped them establish a new settlement at nearby Acla.

Search for a new ocean

After hearing many tales of a great ocean on the other side of the mountains from the Indians, Balboa finally embarked on his historic expedition across the isthmus on September 1, 1513.  On September 24th, his Indian guides led the group to a mountain lookout along the Continental Divide.  Balboa walked alone to the summit and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.  Five days later, the expedition reached the Pacific shore.  Wading into the salt water, Balboa claimed all the seas and lands, coasts, ports and islands there and to the west in the name of King Ferdinand.  Unknowingly, he had just claimed most of the world for Spain, including all of the Americas and Asia,

For four months Balboa explored the new coast.  The expedition returned to Antigua on January 19, 1514, with a treasure of pearls from the coast and a respectable sum of gold.  Elated, Balboa immediately dispatched samples of the treasures to King Ferdinand with the great news of the Pacific Ocean.

Unlucky timing

However, Balboa was not destined to reap the benefits he had worked so hard to earn.  Burning to find a Westward Passage, King Ferdinand had appointed Pedro Arias de Avila (more commonly known as Pedrarias) the new governor of the isthmus and provided him with 1,500 men to continue the search.

Balboa’s ship arrived in Spain just a few days after Pedrarias set sail.  It was too late for Ferdinand to cancel the expedition, and the bloody future of Latin America began with Pedrarias’s arrival at Acla.

Pedro Arias de Avila

Pedrarias the manipulator

Pedrarias soon realized the residents had chosen Balboa as their leader by popular vote.  Seeking to gain Balboa’s allegiance, Pedrarias offered his eldest daughter (then living in Spain) in marriage.  Balboa accepted.

The future father-in-law kept Balboa busy by sending him across the isthmus to build ships and explore the new coast.  Meanwhile, word arrived from King Ferdinand rewarding Balboa with the titles of Admiral of the South Sea for Life and Governor of the Pacific Shores of Castilla del Oro (“Castle of Gold,” the Spanish name for the isthmus at that time).


Fearing that these appointments were encouraging Balboa to be too powerful and independent, Pedrarias made trumped-up accusations of treason against Balboa and sent Francisco Pizarro (the future conquerer of Peru) to arrest Balboa and his supporters.  Balboa, trusting in his personal view of a just world, accepted his arrest with the conviction that a face-to-face conversation with Pedrarias would clear up any misunderstanding.  But the entire group, including Balboa, was found guilty.  All were beheaded on January 17, 1517.

First trail across the isthmus

History almost took a different turn at this point, with King Ferdinand’s death occurring shortly before Balboa’s demise.  Ferdinand’s young son, Charles I of Spain, (also called Carlos V) replaced Pedrarias with a new governor, Lope de Sosa.  Scrambling to strengthen his own seat of power before Sosa arrived to kick him out, Pedrarias sent a soldier named Gaspar de Espinosa to build a royal road, the Camino Real, across the isthmus.  Espinosa took 4,000 Indian slaves and, starting from Nombre de Dios, hauled river cobbles to pave the road.  The trail intersected with a trail coming from Portobelo, continued southwest along the eastern bank of the Pequeñi River, crossed the Chagres at Venta de Cruces, and turned south to climb over the Continental Divide.  It descended onto the Pacific shore to a fishing village called “Panama” by the local fishermen.

Pedrarias’s legacy

Despite his cruel nature, Pedrarias seemed to be blessed with good fortune.  His replacement, Governor Lope de Sosa died on the trip to Panama.  Pedrarias would remain governor for twelve more years.  With the elimination of Balboa’s fair-minded but firm conquest methods, Pedrarias was free to proliferate his brutal ways of treachery and torture of the Indians.

These activities set the stage for the entire Spanish conquest of Latin America, including Peru and Mexico.  Memoirs written by the historian Oviedo y Valdes, who traveled the New World during that time, estimated that Pedrarias caused the death or enslavement of some two million people. (Howarth, 53)  The Spanish spent the decade (1520-1530) exploring the Pacific coast.  Many conquistadors lived in Panama before leading expeditions to their destiny and fame.

Balboa had named the northern area’s provincial department “Chagre,” after a district in Spain.  The name was soon applied to the River of Crocodiles as well, becoming the River “Chagres.”  By August 1519, a road at least three feet wide stretched from Nombre de Dios and Portobelo to the Pacific coast.

On August 15, 1519, Pedrarias rode his horse across the isthmus on the new road and officially established Panama City.  He named the loyal Gaspar de Espinosa governor of Panama City and returned to the Atlantic coast.  These acts marked the beginning of European commerce across the isthmus.

Some history books (Anderson, 213) claim it was fortunate coincidence that the first permanent settlements on the isthmus (Portobelo and Panama City) were located at the narrowest part and in an almost directly north-south path crossing one of the easiest Continental Divide passes.  But the first discoverers of the American Continent, migrant hunters and gatherers from the Siberian Peninsula, had occupied these lands for at least 15,000 years before the Europeans’ arrival.  Certainly the Indians had ample time to identify the best and shortest trails in their areas.  They graciously shared this information with the Spanish as they led them on their expeditions.

What is absolutely amazing is that the early Spanish explorers, without any idea of how huge the New World land mass actually was, established the first mainland settlements on the very thread that connected North and South America.  Santa María la Antigua, Nombre de Dios, Acla and Portobelo – the first four settlements were all located on what would later become the Republic of Panama.  They were also located on one of the rainiest and most disease-ridden coasts.

Early explorers

Gil González Davila

Under Pedrarias, Gil González Davila, the treasurer of Hispaniola, mounted an expedition north along the Pacific shore as far as Lake Nicaragua.  Warned that Pedrarias was plotting to kill him and claim Nicaragua for himself, Davila quietly left for Hispaniola instead of returning to Panama.  Pedrarias went on to become governor of Nicaragua in 1529.

Ponce de Leon and Hernan de Soto

Ponce de Leon and Hernan de Soto had a lucrative contract to deliver slaves to the isthmus.  Later, de Leon later was the first Spaniard to explore Florida, and de Soto explored the Mississippi River.

Francisco Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, mounted three expeditions from Panama.  On November 14, 1524, Pizarro set sail in one of the boats that Balboa had built to explore the southern Pacific coast.  Thus Pizarro instead of Balboa, discovered the Incan Empire.  On his third voyage in 1531, Pizarro succeeded in conquering the Incas and gaining access to Peru’s rich gold and silver mines.

The Spanish immediately began stripping Peru of all its gold and silver.  The vast silver mines of Peru would provide an enormous amount of treasure for the next 100 years.  Panama was transformed into a conduit for all goods traveling between Spain and Peru, and the Camino Real trail system was the only way to cross the isthmus.  The gold route to Spain began in Lima, with ships carrying the treasures to Panama City.  Then the precious metal crossed by mule on Pedrarias’s road and was registered and cleared in Portobelo for the trip to Spain.

Spain rises, Panama follows

This enormous influx of wealth into Spain helped finance the ongoing Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish Armada and King Charles’s domination of Europe (until his abdication in 1556).  It also created an extremely wealthy merchant and bureaucrat class in Panama.  Silks, pearls and spices began arriving on Spanish ships returning from exploring the western Pacific.  Panama established itself as the middleman for all maritime trade going to and from the Pacific, supported by the king’s monopoly on all ships landing in Panama.  Its geographical position, development of the Camino Real and Spain’s domination of the seas gave Panama a monopoly on east-west trade.  Panama’s special status also made it a target for thieves, pirates and unscrupulous businessmen.

Las Cruces Trail

Along the Camino Real, way stations sprang up for the weary traveler.  The most important one was at Venta de Cruces, where the trail from Panama City crossed the mighty Chagres River.  But during the wet season, from April to December, the road was muddy and slow.  A new route that included travel along the Chagres River was established.

This route allowed boats to enter the Chagres from the Caribbean and follow it almost halfway across the Isthmus to a landing at Las Cruces, where goods could continue by mule on the road to Panama City.  Most merchandise followed this combined sea-land route, but precious metal was seldom sent by river because the short coastal leg from the Chagres to Portobelo was too exposed to pirate attacks.

 Trade fairs and Spanish monopoly

Because of the danger of piracy, all the gold, silver, pearls and jewels from Peru, Bolivia and the Pacific were held in the king’s treasury house in Panama City or at either Las Cruces or Venta de Cruces until January, when drier weather allowed easier mule-train passage.  The expedition began after confirmation that the Spanish caravels had arrived in Cartagena (Colombia) and would soon appear in Portobelo.  The caravels unloaded manufactured goods, such as furniture and European foods, and took on the treasures headed for Spain.

Much to the frustration of the Dutch and English sea traders, Spain enforced a strict monopoly on ships landing in Portobelo.  The Spanish monarchy sent only its own ships and collected high taxes on every imported item sold in the streets of Portobelo.  Since the trade fair was held only once a year, the wealthy citizens of Panama City were desperate and paid high prices for the European goods they missed.  But they also realized they only had to be in Portobelo for the fair.  They abandoned the fever-ridden cities of Portobelo and Nombre de Dios for Panama City, returned once a year for the trade fair. 

Spanish economy

The Spanish kings welcomed the arrival of new riches from the New World, but there was so much gold and silver that it actually disrupted the European economy and devalued the price of gold.  It is estimated that 200,000 tons of silver crossed the isthmus between 1545 and 1600.  Free spending and devaluation caused the Spanish monarchy to go bankrupt three times during this time period. (Howarth, 55)

The Cimarrones, 1560

By the 1560’s Panama had a large merchant population supported by slave labor.  All native peoples of the New World were considered the property of their Spanish conquerors.  European diseases – such as smallpox – that New World peoples had never seen and had no natural resistance to, ravaged their populations.  The Spanish began importing African slaves, who proved to have natural resistance to malaria and other diseases.  The Africans took every opportunity to escape, however, and small groups soon banded together in hidden jungle settlements.  They took their revenge on the Europeans by hiding along the Camino de Cruces trail system (the Camino Real and the Las Cruces Trail) and attacking unfortunate travelers and mule trains.  They also allied with pirates who were hungry for a share of the treasure.

Sir Francis Drake, 1572-1573

Spain’s good fortune fostered piracy, some of it sanctioned by England’s royal court.  In 1572 a young rogue pirate named Francis Drake sailed from Plymouth, England, with his two brothers and only 70 crew.  They landed along the Darien coast on July 12 that same year.  They attacked and overcame Nombre de Dios, finding huge piles of silver bars stacked 12 feet high in storage.  But Drake had been wounded and his men insisted on leaving the silver and retreating in order to save their leader.  (Anderson, 346; Minter, 128; Howarth, 65)

Joining forces – the gentleman pirate

While recovering, Drake befriended the Cimarrones, who informed him that no Spanish gold would cross the isthmus until the rains abated in January.  Drake decided to wait and attack the mule trains.  To pass the time, the pirates manned two small ships and began harassing Spanish ships sailing between Cartagena (Colombia) and Panama.  During this time, Drake gained the reputation of a “gentleman” pirate because he only stole supplies and cargo and never sank a ship or executed its crew.  As a result, his victims surrendered almost as soon as Drake’s ships overtook them instead of risking being wounded or killed in a fight. 


Drake’s skill as an excellent sailor and navigator gave him much success at sea, but his skills for land-based attacks were plagued by bad luck, despite all of his careful planning.  As January approached, the Cimarrones led Drake and his crew across the isthmus by blazing their own trail.  They kept the group from starving by hunting wild game and collecting fruit.  They marched to within sight of Panama City, where the pirates were awestruck upon seeing the legendary city and the Pacific Ocean.  They sent a spy into the city and soon discovered that the treasurer of Lima (Peru), was in town and planned to cross the isthmus with a mule train carrying his personal fortune that very night.  The group retreated to Venta de Cruces to plan their ambush.  There they hid along the trail, waiting until they heard the tinkling bells of the mule train approaching.

Unfortunately, some of the corsairs passed the waiting time by drinking liquor.  As fate would have it, a lone rider passed the group first, riding toward Panama City.  Also as fate would have it, one inebriated pirate raised his head to be the first to spy the treasure.  The rider spotted him but rode on and was able to warn the treasurer and his entourage, who hurriedly turned back toward Panama City.  However, a mule train carrying their food continued on toward the pirates.

The pirates gleefully seized the group, but were crestfallen to discover absolutely no treasure.  The Cimarrones were more than glad to take the food, as for them it was a greater treasure than gold.

Second attempt

With only 31 men left alive, Drake returned to the Atlantic coast, where he met and allied with a French pirate named Captain Tetu and 19 of his men.  They planned another attack on the trail, this time against three mule trains laden with silver and gold.  With the Cimarrones’s help, they captured about 200 mules carrying almost 30 tons of silver and a quantity of gold near Nombre de Dios.  There was no way to carry it all, so they began burying the silver.  But the delay gave time for an armed group from Nombre de Dios to arrive and send them running.  Captain Tetu lost his life during the retreat.  A captured Frenchman revealed the buried silver’s hiding place, and the Spanish set about digging it up.  Meanwhile, the unlucky Drake retreated to the coast, only to find that his ships had disappeared.  Undaunted, he and three others constructed a log raft and, using biscuit sacks for a sail, set out to find the boats.  Through sheer tenacity, they finally located them in another anchorage.

Success at last

Disappointed in the loss of men and with very little booty to show for their efforts, some of Drake’s crew risked capture by returning to the ambush site and digging up a small amount of overlooked silver and gold.  They ended up with a reported 130,000 pesos, an immense sum of treasure that they divided 50-50 with the remaining French corsairs and at last set out for their homeport in Plymouth, England.

Twenty years later - Drake’s end

Drake went on to distinguish himself by being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe (in the ship, the Golden Hind) and then by participating in the defeat the Spanish Armada.  He became an admiral and was knighted, but seemingly that was not enough.  Panama City’s legendary riches still called to him.  Drake was over 50 years old in 1595 when he set sail once more for Panama with an immense army – 27 ships and 2,500 men – to fulfill his dream.  But Drake had lost his fire, and attacks on both Nombre de Dios and along the Camino de Cruces failed.  Disappointed at their defeat, his ships had just set sail for Nicaragua when Drake fell ill with fever.  When his conditioned worsened, they returned to the harbor at Portobelo, where Drake died.  Legend has it that he was buried at sea just outside the bay.

Drake’s legacy – San Lorenzo and San Felipe

However, as a result of Drake’s attacks, in 1597 King Philip II ordered the installations at Nombre de Dios moved to Portobelo, the building of a fort at Portobelo and reinforcement of fortifications at the mouth of the Chagres River.  The results were the San Felipe Castle in Portobelo and Castle San Lorenzo at Chagres.




Introduction.. 5

Three million years ago.. 5

Twelve thousand years ago.. 6

Land link between two continents. 6

Sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. 7

Time of the Conquistadors. 7

Nineteenth century. 7 Gold Rush. 7

Twentieth century. 8

Golden commerce. 8

The path across. 8

Spanish discovery and dominance, 1500-1821. 9

Early explorers. 9

Rodrigo de Bastides. 9

Christopher Colombus. 9

The Chagres River 10

Charting Portobelo. 10

Exploring Manzanillo. 10

Settling Belén. 11

Change of command. 11

New opportunities. 11

Spain focuses on Panama. 11

First conquest settlements. 12

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. 12

Search for a new ocean. 13

Unlucky timing. 13

Pedro Arias de Avila. 13

Pedrarias the manipulator 13

Treachery. 14

First trail across the isthmus. 14

Pedrarias’s legacy. 14

Panama. 15

Early explorers. 16

Gil González Davila. 16

Ponce de Leon and Hernan de Soto. 16

Francisco Pizarro. 16

Golden crossroad.. 16

Spain rises, Panama follows. 17

Las Cruces Trail 17

Trade fairs and Spanish monopoly. 17

Spanish economy. 18

Rebellion and attack, 1560 – 1597. 18

The Cimarrones, 1560. 18

Sir Francis Drake, 1572-1573. 19

Joining forces – the gentleman pirate. 19

Ambush. 19

Second attempt 20

Success at last 20

Twenty years later - Drake’s end. 21

Drake’s legacy – San Lorenzo and San Felipe. 21


20 million BPE the Isthmus of Panama begins to form the Archipelago of Panama

3 million year BPE the Isthmus of Panama create a land bridge between the continents

12,000 BPE or there about the first people arrive in Panama

1494 - Columbus leaves Cuba on his fourth voyage to seek a passage to find Malacca, the Spice Islands.  Four ships.  He predicted there was an ocean passage between the north and south "continents" of Cuba (north) and South America and estimated the passage's location at what turned out to be occupied by the Isthmus of Panama.

1494 - In  October 1494, sailed from Chiriquí Lagoon east along the Panama coastline.  November 2 reaches and named Puerto Bello, comments on the heavy rains and stays in the bay for a week.  Stops at the site of Nombre de Dios and names it Puerto de Bastimientos because they found food there.  Visited Limon Bay and the Chagres.,  where they may have passed Christmas and the New Year.        

1501 - 1st European visits the Isthmus - Rodrigo de Bastidas, eastern half of the Isthmus from Gulf of Dariens to Bastimientos and Punta Manzanilla. (Anderson notes that some attibute Ojeda as first sighting the Isthmus in 1499 but says the claim is not well founded.)

1503 - Diego  de Nicuesa, governor, establishes Nombre de Dios as the first capital of Castilla de Oro.  Of 800 men who sailed with him from Santo Domingo, only 43 remained alive in Castillo de Oro in 1511

1519 - Diego de Albites founds another twon on the site of Nombre de Dios, which remains the northern teminus of trade across the Isthmus until 1597  "Thus by chance, there was established on either coast a stable settlement, directly opposite each other n a north and south line, and at on eof the narrowest regions and easiest passes on the Isthmus.  A roadway was gradually opened frm sea to sea, which became the famous Camino Real."  (Anderson, 213.)

1513 -  September 1, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa leaves Santa Maria la Antigua del Darien.  September 15, 1513 sees the South Sea (actually the Golf of San Miguel)

1517 - Balboa beheaded by Pedrarias

1519, August 15, Governor Pedrarias Dávila founds town of Panamá

1521 - September 15, Emperor Charles V creates Panama, "Nueva Ciudad de Panamá.  Established coat-of-arms.Royal tax reduced from 1/5th to 1/10th.  Panama Viejo was the first settlement by Europeans on the western shore of America.

1524 - Santa Maria de Antigua, Darien,  burned by the Indians and abandoned

1526 - March 10, Francisco Pizarro, Diego de Almagro and Hernando de Luque(a priest) in Old Panama City, make a contract for the discovery and conquest of Peru.

1526 - May 3, governor of Castilla del Oro Pedro de os Rios (who came after Pedrarias) ordered a group to explore the Chagres River to find a better route for trans-isthmian travel.  In 1527 they reported the Chagres navigable 12 leagues from the sea, and further by canoe and flat-bottomed boats.

1527 - Pizarro returns from first voyage to Peru to Panama City

1531 - Pizarro leaves Panama City for his third and successful expedition to conquer Peru

1532 - governor Gama begins clearing obstructions from the Chagres to improve navigation; to open a road, passable for carts, from Panama city to the river, and to construct warehouses on the Chagres for the loading, unloading and custody of goods in transit.

1533 - Licentiate Espinosa, October 10 1533, sends a letter to the king that the Chagres route is a good one and recommends building a town or arsenal for goods at its mouth

1534 - Emperor Charles requests a survey of the land between the Chagres and the South Sea to find a way to open a navigable route across the isthmus (Anderson 302)

1535 - Fray Tomas de Berlanga, bishop of Panama, wrote to the  king  and suggested that Nombre de Dios be moved to the mouth of the Chagres, and the people of Acla as well.  This did not happen, but warehouses and defenses were built at the mouth of the Chagres.  The Chagres route was used in the rainy season because the river had water at that time and the land trails were very difficult.  Cleaning of the river of its fallen trees helped navigation.                                                

1550 - March 12 - Pedro de la Gasca arrives in Panama from Peru with the royal share of the Potosi and other mines, valued at 11 million castellanos.     He sent 1200 mule-loads of gold and silver to the town of Cruces, to be shipped in barges to Nombre de Dios.  This was not the entire shipment, as more awaited shipment from Panama City. 

1550 - April 20th, Hernando and Bermejo and their followers seize the royal treasury at Panama City while the governor is in Nombre de Dios with Gasca.  (Hernando and Pedro de Contreras, grandsons of Pedrarias.  Their father was governor of Nicaragua, but lost his power.  The Contreras teamed up with Juan Bermejo to seize the government of Castilla del Oro and Peru and proclaim Hernando Contreras the king of Peru, on the basis of rights inherited from his grandfather, Pedrarias. )  Pedro Contreras continues to Las Cruces to intercept Gasca's shipment, but find they have left, but finds 500 bars of silver.  Hernando with 40 men goes to Nombre de Dios and a place called La Venta de Chagre (along the las cruces trail) and waits at Nombre de Dios for Gasca to reach there by way of the Chagres River and the sea.  (so the gold came by river from Las Cruces, went by San Lorenzo, and arrived at Nombre de Dios by sea).  Bermejo also starts across the Isthmus, leaving Pedro with the treasure, some in ships and some in Panama City.  The merchants in Panama City attacked Pedro, and Bermejo returns to help him.  Then Hernando also goes back to help him.  They are defeated and their numbers disband along the coast.  Gasca arrives in Nombre de Dios and hears the rebellion has been crushed (Anderson 266-267)

1572 - Drake arrives at Panama to take Nombre de Dios.  July 29 (Anderson 345) Description of the silver in the governor's house:  Stack of silver 70 feet long, 10 feet broad and 12 feet high, each bar weighing between 35-40 pounds - they did not take this because of the weight.  They ended up taking only some  of the gold and pearls from the king's treasure, but the Spanish arrived and they retreated (Drake had been wounded in the leg by an arrow)in a Spanish wine-ship to Bastimentos island, to the west.

1573, February 14, Drake captures plate-train near Las Cruzes.  Drake and 18 Englishmen and 30 Cimarrones, but they are tricked and get nothing.  March 31 successfully  capture a train, but Anderson (356) says they were on the Camino Real just outside Nombre de Dios. 

1579 - the Cimarrones agree to become peaceful

1596 - August 13, English burn Nombre de Dios

1597 - Nombre de Dios abandoned as a port and settlement, 

1597 - D. Francisco de Valverde y Mercado founds San Felipe de Puertovelo, the population of Nombre de Dios moves there.  Fort San Lorenzo constructed at the mouth of the Chagres, and forts at Portobello also.

1601 - February 16, sack of Portobello, by Englishman William Parker (Anderson says Diego de Nicuesa named Portobello in 1509, Diego de Albites attempted a settlement there in 1518)

1620s - Dutch and French begin settling West Indies islands despite Spanish claim on them.  Privateers renew activities against the Spanish.  

1654 - Cromwell (English) go to war with Spain, opening the last and most serious period of English privateering activity against the Spanish in the West Indies.

1656 - English take Jamaica from the Spanish and set up center for privateers to guard the island from the Dutch and French, and then the Spanish. 

1657-1660s - Jamaica issues privateer commissions against the Spanish sporadically, with periods of prohibition.   1660, Gov. of Jamaica issued letters of marque against the Spanish once again, beginning a new campaign.

1667 - Morgan receives commission from Jamaican Governor to take prisoners of the Spanish nation (Earle, 59) and becomes an admiral   

1668 - July 11, 1668, Morgan takes Portobelo          

1669 - Don Juan Perez de Guzmán returns from prison in Peru to his presidency of Panama in April. That same month Henry Morgan destroys the Armadad de Barlovento, the last remaining defense of the Spanish Main.  For the first time in 2 years, the Spanish fleet arrives from Lima laden with silver and riches gathered in Peru.  The treasure goes overland from Panama to Portobelo.  On October 24, seven Spanish galleons and 2 frigates arrived in Portobelo Bay to receive the goods and leaves in December.     

1671 - Morgan burns Cruces, proceeds overland to take Old Panama.

1739-40   - March, Admiral Vernon captures Portobello  "War of Jenkins' Ear"

1745 - Capt. Wm. Kinhills (English) battered Portobello

1751 - the three castles at Portobello and the castle of San Lorenzo were rebuilt by Don Ignacio de Sala, lieut-gen. And engineer, governor of Cartagena.  The war with England and the Buccaneers drove the Spanish to  go around Cape Horn or the straights of Magellan and the land route across Panama ceased to be an important route for the time being.

1819 - British filibuster Gregor MacGregor seizes Portobelo but fails to reach Panama City.

1821 - November 28, New Granada, which includes Panama, Colombia and Ecuador, wins independence from Spain

1838 - New Granada grants concession to a French company to construct a railway or canal across Panama.  French later forfeit the concession.

1847 - New Granada grants a contract for a French group, the Panama Company, to build a railroad across Panama.

1848 - New Granada signs treaty for the United States to provide transport across the isthmus under the condition of neutrality for all using it, resulting in the construction of a railroad across the isthmus.

1852 - U.S. Army Capt. Ulysses S. Grant leads a military detachment of several hundred men and their dependents across isthmus en route to California.  Later that year, 150 men, women and children die from a cholera epidemic.

1854 - US investors complete the Panama Railroad from Colon to Panama City.

1855 - Panama Railroad construction completed in January.

1856 - 1866 - Over 400,000 people cross the isthmus by train.

1869 - U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant  orders surveys for a canal that are conducted in Tehuantepec, Mexico, and in the Darien region of Panama.

1869 - US Union Pacific transcontinental railroad completed, making the Panama Railroad obsolete. 

1878 - French survey party led by Lucien Napoleon-Bonaparte Wyse surveys the isthmus for a canal route and negotiates with Colombia for a concession.  Brokers a concession for the Société Civile Internationale du Canal Interocéanique de Darien.

1880 - French Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique begins effort to build a canal across Panama, led by Ferdinand DeLesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal.

1881 - First death from yellow fever among canal employees.

1888 - the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique declared bankrupt.

1889 - French Canal company dissolved.  DeLesseps' son continues trying to build a canal under a new company.

1899 - remains of French company offered for sale to the United States

1903 - November 3, Panama wins independence from Colombia

1903 - November 18, Panama signs the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty granting the United States permission to build a canal across the isthmus.

1904 - John Findley Wallace hired as chief engineer of the Panama Canal construction.  Executive order places the commission under the direct supervision of the Secretary of War, William Howard Taft.  Dr. William Crawford Gorgas, a colonel in the Army, named sanitary officer and put in charge of solving the yellow fever and malaria problems.  The United States purchases French canal company's rights and properties.

1905 - John Stevens hired as chief engineer of the Panama Canal construction, replacing J.F. Wallace.

1905 - Yellow fever was completely and permanently wiped out on the Isthmus, with the last case reported in Panama City on November 11, 1905

1906 - President Theodore Roosevelt visits Panama to inspect the construction effort.  It is the first time an American president has traveled internationally while in office.

1907 - Chief Engineer John Stevens resigns and Roosevelt appoints an Army colonel, George W. Goethals, chief engineer.

1909 - First concrete poured for locks construction, at Gatun.

1913 - the dike holding back the Chagres River waters at Gamboa is blown up and water begins to fill Gatun Lake and the Panama Canal.

1913 - The maximum effective work force was reached on March 26, 1913, with the total number of men actually on the job at 44,733, not including the sick, those on leave and other absentees.

1914 - August 3, Germany declares war and World War I begins.  The ship Cristobal makes a trial transit of the Panama Canal.

1914 - August 15, Panama Canal officially opens with the crossing of the Panama Canal ship Ancon.  News of the opening is eclipsed by the war.

1929 - Beginning of the U.S. Depression era.

1934 - Franklin D. Roosevelt becomes the first U.S. president to travel through the Panama Canal.

1964 - Protests against the U.S. presence in Panama lead to a break in U.S.-Panama diplomatic relations and make clear the need for an agreement on the future of the Canal

1977 - U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panama General Omar Torrijos sign a treaty to turn over control of the Canal to Panama by the year 2000.

1979 - October 1, the Panama Canal treaties go into effect.  The Panama Canal Company ceases to exist, replaced by the Panama Canal Commission.

1989 - Panama General Manuel Noriega declares a state of war with the United States.  The U.S. military invades Panama and arrests Noriega under drug trafficking charges.

1990 - Gilberto Guardia becomes the first Panamanian administrator of the Canal and head of a U.S. federal agency.

1997 - Panama enacts a law to regulate the newly formed Panama Canal Authority, the entity that will administrate the Canal as a Panama government agency.

1999 -  Noon, December 31, Panama officially takes over full responsibility for the Panama Canal.  All U.S. military bases in Panama are closed.