Spanish and English Explorers


The search for wealth and power which brought Europeans to the New World in the fifteenth century eventually carried them to the northwestern corner of the continent. The ill-shaped pearls and small treasures of gold that Columbus found led his successors to the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and plundered riches only stirred imaginations to dream of "opulent countries" and of "pearls and riches on the coast of the South Sea." Quivira and the Seven Cities of Cibola were fabulous kingdoms, hovering mirage-like somewhere on the western horizon.

Map-makers at various times placed Quivira on the Missouri River, in the Colorado Rockies, in California, and eventually in the Northwest near a hypothetical inland sea. Spanish explorers of the Mississippi Valley and the great Southwest, at great cost in lives and suffering, corrected the map-makers with reports of crude Indian villages and impoverished pueblos. Obviously, then, Quivira lay father to the west, near the shores of the great South Sea, or perhaps on the Strait of Anian which, it was believed, narrowly separated the northwestern coast of the continent from Asia.

So Spanish explorers turned to the great South Sea. In 1513 Balboa first looked upon the waters of the Pacific. Seven years later Fernao Magalhaes (Ferdinand Magellan) and Juan del Cano revealed the terrifying extent of the sea on whose western edge they discovered the Philippine Islands.

Undertaking the conquest of the Islands in 1565, the Spanish learned by bitter experience that the prevailing winds south of the equator, which sped their ships to the Islands, made it impossible for them to return to Mexico by the same route. The aged monk Andreas del Urdaneta, once a navigator, charted a theoretical course which, when put to the test, proved that by heading north form the Philippines on the great circle, their sails would catch the westerlies and bring them to a landfall on the California coast. For the next two and one-half centuries Manila galleons crossed annually from Acapulco to the Philippines and returned by this long and hazardous route.1

In the meantime, Juan Cabrillo in 1542 cautiously explored the coast of Lower California, and his pilot, Bartolome Ferrelo, sailed north to the 42nd. or 44th. parallels. Continental shores did not turn to the west--there was only the immense and lonely sea. If the Strait of Anian existed, it lay further north than Ferrelo had voyaged.

From the start of the Philippine-Mexican trade, Spain's coastal explorations were limited to a search for harbors where her galleons might take refuge. Beyond this, she moved only to protect her claims when others threatened them.

Search For A Northwest Passage

For Spain's rival, England, the North American continent lay athwart hopes for a short route to the Indies. If there were a passage through the continent--a Northwest Passage--her merchants would have a great advantage over Spain's.2 The wish was father to the thought, and English ships in the sixteenth century intensively sought an Atlantic entrance. Martin Frobisher, John Davis, and William Baffin discovered the bays and straits named for them, and Luke Foxe and Thomas James entered and explored portions of Hudson Bay (1631); but the Northwest Passage eluded them.

One persistent advocate of further exploration was Michael Lock (or Lok), a London merchant who had helped finance Frobisher's and Davis' voyages in 1576 and 1585-1587. In 1596 Lock published a letter purportedly written by a Greek explorer in the service of Spain, Juan de Fuca, who claimed to have found the western opening of the Northwest Passage. By his account, in 1592 de Fuca had entered a broad inlet on the Pacific coast located between 47 degrees and 48 degrees north latitude, had sailed inland for more than twenty days, and found a land rich in gold, silver, and pearls, and a people who wore the skins of beasts. The Juan de Fuca story was a kind of fiction common the the day; but the legend of his voyage was perpetuated when map-makers put his strait in the latitude where, 200 years later, the strait leading into Puget Sound was discovered.

Francis Drake And Spanish Defenses

Despite Lock's energetic propagandizing for Pacific exploration, the first English ship to enter the Pacific had other purposes. Francis Drake, having tasted the fruits of piracy with John Hawkins at Vera Cruz (1568), returned to the Spanish colonies in three successive raids (1570-1573). In 1577 he sailed in search of the route to the Moluccas, but instead entered the Pacific and looted undefended Spanish ports. While immediately profitable, his act was politically distressing to Anglo-Spanish relations.

Since Drake sailed north to some undetermined coastal point, it has been assumed that he sought the western entrance of the Northwest Passage, and because he took possession of the land at a California bay, that he was an agent of early English national interest in the Pacific. However, in "all his enterprises, booty seems to have been somewhere in sight."3 There was no booty on the coast between the 38th. and 48th. parallels, the possible limits of his northern voyage. He found only a region where the rain was "an unnatural congealed and frozen substance," followed by "most vile, thick and stinking fogges."

From this unpleasant climate Drake turned south again. Before his departure to circumnavigate the globe and return to England, he is supposed to have given the name New Albion to the northern California coast. This name later appeared on maps but was shifted to the shores of Oregon and Washington.

Spanish loot inspired other English seadogs to emulate Drake, with the result that Spain was forced to take defensive action to protect her Caribbean colonies and ports and trade in the Pacific. Having dealt resounding punishment to English privateers in 1594, the Spanish government set moving the slow, cumbersome machinery of colonial administration to launch an expedition of discovery in the Pacific. In 1602-1603, Sebastian Vizcaino and Martin Aguilar were commissioned to look for the city of Quivira and for harbors as far north as the 43rd. parallel. Aguilar may have reached this latitude, but through an error of the Mexican historian, Torquemada, the "rapid and abundant river" noted by Aguilar at about 41 degrees north latitude was placed on the map at 43 degrees, almost at the location where the Columbia River was discovered in 1792. Thus the maps of the day, by accident and design, took on features approximating the truth.

Burt for more than a century and a half after Aguilar's voyage no vessel came with the purpose of exploring the Northwest Coast. Accidental landings cannot be wholly ruled out. Oregon Indian legends tell of white-sailed ships and of men who buried treasure on Neahkahnie Mountain. Finds of beeswax, marked with numerals and symbols as yet undeciphered, lend substance to takes of long-ago shipwreck and disaster.

From 1603 to 1769 Spain turned to South Sea voyages in search of an unknown continent which map- and myth-makers had projected; to the development of a Japanese-Philippine-Mexican trade, and to the protection of her established colonies. In 1763, as a result of the Seven Years' War, Spain acquired French Louisiana, an administrative burden but a hopefully comforting barrier between her mineral-rich provinces and aggressive English colonies to the east and north. Almost simultaneously, she began to occupy California, Russian expansion being the immediate cause of her renewed activity on the Pacific Coast.

Russia In The Pacific

The eighteenth century was an age of tremendous energy. It was an age of enlightenment and of scientific interests, of imperial pretensions and of derring-do. Nations competed to advance the arts and sciences and their own interests. In some cases it was possible to serve both science and the empire.

Peter the great of Russia had ambitions not only to unify his country and to end her isolation but also to win a share in the riches of the East. By 1639, enticed by rich fur resources, Russian traders had undertaken the conquest of Siberia, had reached the Pacific, and had founded ports on the Sea of Okhotsk and Kamchatka Peninsula. Before his death in 1725, Peter drew up instructions for an expedition to search out an ice-free passage to China and India through the Arctic Sea, by which ships from Archangel could sail eastward through the polar regions into the Pacific. On Peter's map this passage was called the Strait of Anian. "In my last travels I discussed the the subject with learned men and they were of the opinion that such a passage could be found," he wrote; and he continued: "Now . . . . we should strive to win for [Russia] glory along the lines of the Arts and Sciences."4

Vitus Bering, Martin Spanberg, and Alexei Chirikov were charged to locate the Pacific entrance to the passage. In 1728 Bering sailed from Kamchatka to 67 degrees north latitude, and following the Asiatic coastline through the strait which bears his name until it turned abruptly westward, he concluded that America and Asia were not far apart. A second expedition was authorized in 1732. Its public purpose was scientific inquiry; its private one, to acquire information about the geography and fur trade potentials of the North American coast. In 1741 the St. Peter and St. Paul, commanded by Bering and Chirikov, sailed from Kamchatka. Chirikov sighted the American coast on July 15, 1741, at about 57 degrees, but the loss of his small boats compelled him to return to his home port. Bering, in the meantime, sighted the coast on July 16, one degree father north. He was forced to winter on Bering Island, where he and many of his crew perished. The survivors returned with sea otter furs, and within a decade Siberian traders, promishlenniki, were voyaging yearly to the Aleutian Islands and collecting immense quantities of fine furs.

Spanish Ships On The Northwest Coast

Three semiofficial Russian expeditions between 1765 and 1768 were interpreted by Spain as threats to her claims in the Pacific. Spain decided therefore to strengthen her position by settling Upper California and further exploring the Northwest Coast. Between 1769 and 1776 missions and presidios were established at San Diego, Monterey, San Gabriel, and San Francisco, and in 1774 Juan Perez was dispatched north to 60 degrees to explore and to take possession of the land. Perez was forced back at the 54th. parallel, after scurvy had seriously weakened his crew. He reported that so far he had found no Russian settlements, discovered no ports, and taken possession of no lands. He described the western coasts of Vancouver and Queen Charlotte islands, and gave a vague description of Oregon and Washington shores. In recognition of his experience he was chosen in 1775 to pilot a second expedition of two vessels, the Santiago and the Sonora, under Bruno Heceta and with Juan Francisco de Bodega y Quadra second in command. They were to explore to the 65th. parallel. Again the dread scurvy thwarted their plans, forcing Heceta to turn back at 49 degrees and Bodega at 58.

On July 14, 1775, the flagship Santiago anchored in the shallow bay under Point Grenville, and Heceta took possession of the land for Spain. At the same time Bodega anchored in the schooner Sonora probably near Cape Elizabeth, for fresh water supplies from the Quinault River. The landing party was attacked and massacred by Indians. To commemorate the dead the nearby rocky island was named Isla de Dolores, the Isle of Sorrows, and the present Point Grenville (or Cape Elizabeth) received the name Punta de Martires.

Coasting south on August 17, Heceta came upon a large inlet which he named Assumption Bay in honor of the feast day on which he made is discovery. The northern headland he called Cape San Roque and the southern spit, Cape Frondoso. Currents and eddies in the bay led him to believe that he was at "the mouth of some great river, or of some passage to another sea." "Had I not been certain of the latitude of this bay . . ." he reported, "I might easily have believed it to be the passage discovered by Juan de Fuca, in 1592, which is placed on the charts between the 47th. and 48th. degrees; where I am certain that no such strait exists."5 Heceta did not explore the bay. His depleted crew could not spare men for the longboat, nor had they strength to get up the anchor if it were dropped. The "Rio San Roque" appeared on subsequent maps. but Heceta failed to enter the Columbia River.

Perez, Heceta, and Bodega gave form to the shoreline, and names--few of which have survived--to many of its mountains, harbors, and bays. Their voyages entitled Spain to claim the original discovery of the Northwest Coast.

The Spanish did not pursue these discoveries. Their fear of Russia was alloyed when it appeared that her traders were not attempting a settlement. It was the British who next challenged Spain.

Cook In The North Pacific

As we have seen, the English first entered the Pacific Ocean to prey upon Spanish treasure ships. In the following two centuries they sent expeditions of discovery into southern waters looking for the Unknown Continent and vying with the Spanish for possession of South Sea islands. British merchants secured a foothold in India and the East India Company pursued a rich trade with China. While their ships plied the long voyage around Africa, the Northwest Passage only intermittently engaged their attention.

In the mid-eighteenth century English interest was sharpened with the revival and popularization of an old tale of an apocryphal Spanish voyage. In this story, Admiral bartolomeo de Fonte had coasted the North Pacific and entered a great waterway extending far into the continent. At the eastern end of the "sea of Ronqillo" he had met the ship of a Boston trader who had entered through a Hudson Bay inlet.

For those who in 1745 still believed in a practicable Northwest Passage, this tale confirmed the Juan de Fuca legend. A flurry of private explorers searched the shores of Hudson Bay and the ice-locked channels of Arctic waters, while influential voices demanded a government-supported exploration of the North Pacific.

In 1763, at the end of the war in which she acquired France's Canadian provinces, Britain embarked upon a new colonial policy designed to fit the American colonies into her imperial plans. While pursuing policies that led to the American Revolution and the breakup of her first empire, she was busy creating a new one in India. As befitted her imperial role in the Age of Enlightenment, Britain also engaged in exploration to serve the arts and sciences.

In 1768 Captain James Cook of the Royal Navy, privately subsidized in part, made his first voyage into the South Pacific to observe the transit of the planet Venus and to search anew for the Unknown Continent. Unfortunately, astronomical research was not advanced by his voyage and there was reason to doubt the existence of the Unknown Continent; but England now had a claim to New Zealand, Tasmania, and Australia whose coasts Cook mapped. A second voyage (1772-1775) proved conclusively that there was no other southern continent inviting occupation, and Cook's speculations as to the existence of Antarctic lands were left for a later century to prove.

Cook's two voyages to the Antipodes and the much enlarged world revealed by his reports, stirred men's imaginations. Even James Boswell, biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson and London's literary set, "catched the enthusiasm of curiosity and adventure, and felt a strong inclination to go with him on his next voyage." Boswell was not alone in being "carried away with the general grand and indistinct notion of A Voyage Round the World."

It was Cook's third voyage, 1776-1780, that had historical significance for the Pacific Northwest.6 Planned while the American colonies were debating their declaration of independence, it was inspired in part by "a desire to know as much as possible with regard to the planet which we inhabit," but primarily to satisfy public pressure for a thorough search for the Northwest Passage. The government offered a 20,000-pound prize for its discovery.

Cook was directed to proceed around the Cape of Good Hope into the Pacific, to cross from the Society Islands to the western coast of North America and to waste no time in exploration until he reached 65 degrees north latitude. His search was to concentrate about this parallel on the theory that there, if anywhere, could be found the western entrance of the Northwest Passage. If he failed, he was to continue into the Arctic through Bering Strait and look for an open-water polar passage. Such confidence was placed in Cook's competence that the Admiralty dispatched naval vessels to meet him in Baffin Bay.

On March 7, 1778, he sighted the Oregon coast at Yaquina Bay. Though his instructions did not require close examination of the area, he saw and named Capes Gregory (now Arago), Foulweather, and Perpetua. Haste and bad weather combined to make him miss the mouth of the Columbia River.

On March 22 at the entrance of the strait between Vancouver Island and the Washington coast, Cook sighted a cape which he named Flattery, with nice attention to meaning. Approaching, he said, "there appeared to be a small opening, which flattered us with the hopes of finding a harbour. . . . It is in this very latitude where we now were, that geographers have placed the pretended strait of Juan de Fuca. . . .But," he concluded, "we saw nothing like it; nor is there the least probability that ever any such thing existed."

His first landing was at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island where he spent most of April repairing and rerigging his ships. Here, as elsewhere, his crew carried on a lively trade for furs which they used as bedding or to repair their worn-out clothes and which they bought from the natives with any piece of metal or trinket. The Indians' eagerness for metal led them to dexterous thieving which, in spite of watchful guards, practically stripped the ship of ironwork.

For the remainder of the season Cook examined the coastline to the north. On August 9 he passed through Bering Strait where, he said, he reached the "hitherto unknown" western extremity of North America. Ahead lay the Arctic Sea, and at his right the frozen wastes of North America. After a three-week search he concluded that there was no passage here by which his ships could return home.

Cook was a great explorer and a great seaman. In the Pacific, he charted the course for his successors. He discovered the islands which he honored with the name of the Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty. The Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands became a regular stopping place and supply depot for ships destined for the Northwest Coast.

Cook had the advantage of new navigational instruments--the chronometer and an improved sextant--that made possible accurate determination of latitudes and longitudes. He proved a godsend to sailors when he applied rules of sanitation to life at sea. In the four years of his third voyage, only five men were lost by sickness, and three of these had been ill when they left England. He used "sour krout" and "portable soup" as preventives for scurvy and limited the use of salt foods. He ordered his crews, when ashore, to vary their diet with native foods, which at times the men found so nauseous that it took "the joint aid of persuasion, authority and example, to conquer their prejudices and disgusts." At any rate, his crew did not suffer seriously from the dread disease.

Cook's voyages became a training school for ambitious young seamen. Six names enrolled on the third voyage reappear in Pacific Northwest history: Lieutenant George Vancouver was to be Cook's principal successor in exploring the coast; Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon were to return in 1786, and James Colnett in 1787, as pioneers in the fur trade; Corporal John Ledyard of the Marines was to become a publicist for the Pacific fur trade area; and Joseph Billings was to lead a Russian expedition into the North Pacific and eventually become a commodore in the Russian Navy.

Cook's third voyage proved to all but the most intransigent that the navigable passage visualized by armchair explorers did not exist. Subsequent search was more by way of justifying his conclusion than challenging it. Not until the summer of 1954 did specially built and powered vessels manage to break through the ice of the Arctic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In Northwest history, Cook's name is usually associated with the beginning of the fur trade. Actually, the Russians in Alaska and, in small measure, Spanish garrisons in California had already been dealing in furs. Though Cook did not live to realize the trade's possibilities, his men did. Following his murder in the Hawaiian Islands in the spring of 1779, the Resolution and the Discovery returned once more to the Northwest Coast before sailing for China.

In China, the seamen were astonished to find that sea otter skins for which they had paid trifles were in high demand. One man sold his stock for $800. A few prime skins, clean and well preserved, brought 120 silver dollars each. This windfall led the crews to the verge of mutiny in their eagerness to return to the Northwest Coast. Captain Clerke noted in his official history that "there is not the least doubt . . . that a very beneficial fur trade might be carried on with the inhabitants of this vast coast," and some officers proposed to East India Company merchants that they outfit two small vessels to sail immediately. Within five years Portlock and Dixon were among pioneers of the "fur rush" to the Pacific Northwest.

This Cook's final voyage may be said to have closed one phase of maritime exploration and opened another. The first was concerned primarily with Spain's exploration to claim land, and Britain's to find a route to the Indies--the elusive Northwest Passage. The second period began when it was learned that the sea otter had value in world trade.

The men who followed Cook were principally interested in profit from Indian trade. With rare exceptions, subsequent discoveries and explorations were merely incidental. Traders translated legend into reality by finding the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Columbia River; the fur trade led to settlement of the Pacific Northwest.

Coastal Navigation and Exploration of the Monterey Bay Area


1William L. Schurz, The Manila Galleon (1959).

2 Glyndwr Williams, The British Search for a Northwest Passage in the Eighteenth Century (1962); Leslie H. Neatby, In Quest of the Northwest Passage (1958); Nellis M. Crouse, The Search for the Northwest Passage (1934).

3Henry R. Wagner, Sir Francis Drake's Voyage Around the World; Its Aim and Achievements (1926), 212; Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast of America in the Sixteenth Century (1929).

4Frank A. Golder, Russian Expansion in the Pacific (1914), 133.

5Extract from the Report of Captain Bruno Heceta," in Robert Greenhow, The History of Oregon and California (1845).

6James Cook and James King, A voyage to the Pacific Ocean . . . in 1776 . . . 1780, 3 vols. (1784); James A. Williamson, Cook and the Opening of the Pacific (1948).