Spanish and British Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the Nootka Sound Controversy, 1774-1789

Part I of the blog series 225 Years Ago: Spanish Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the First Spanish Settlement in Washington State, Núñez Gaona (Neah Bay), 1792

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, in 1792, Spanish Navy Lieutenant Salvador Fidalgo y Lopegarcía established the first permanent European settlement in the present state of Washington, at Neah Bay (latitude: 48.368122 N) on the Olympic Peninsula at the southwestern coast of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This settlement was in fact, the first European settlement in the Continental United States, West of the Rockies and North of San Francisco. Neah Bay, home for the Makah Nation for over 3,500 years, lies five miles to the east of Cape Flattery, just inside the south entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This strait is the wide waterway stretching from the Pacific Ocean on the west to the San Juan Islands on the east, with Vancouver Island to the north and the Olympic Peninsula to the south.

Map of Cape Flattery and Nee-Ah Harbor, Washington, 1853
U.S. Coast Survey, Cape Flattery and Nee-Ah Harbor, Washington, 1853. From Record Group 23, Published Nautical Charts of Coastal Areas of the United States and its Territories (NAID 563731), Chart #645, 1st Edition. Click on the image to open an expanded view.

In some respects, the story of the settlement of Neah Bay begins in 1774, with the expedition of Spanish Navy Ensign Juan José Pérez Hernández. On the day before Christmas, 1773, at the Spanish navy base at San Blas[1], Mexico, 175 miles southeast of Mazatlan, Pérez received instructions from the Spanish crown to conduct a survey of Nueva Galicia (the Spanish name for the Pacific Northwest) and officially reassert the claim of these unknown northern reaches for Spain. The Viceroy governing New Spain, Antonio Maria Bucareli y Ursua, ordered Pérez to go 600 North (about the latitude of present-day Cordova, Alaska) and return to Monterey. He was not to make any settlement on land; he should simply mark with a wooden cross and take formal possession of any site deemed suitable for occupation. Should any foreign settlements be encountered, he was to avoid them and sail farther north, where the ceremony of taking formal possession should be performed.

Spain claimed that its sovereignty of Nueva Galicia had been granted by the papal decree in 1493, issued in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s discoveries of the previous year, and the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed between Spain and Portugal in 1494. Basing his claim on the papal bull, Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean, in 1513, claimed on behalf of the Spanish Crown, all the shores washed by the Pacific Ocean, including the entire west coast of North America. Subsequently, Spain made claims of “prior discovery” for the northwest coast of North America through various voyages in the 16th and early 17th centuries. But, before the early 17th century, these voyages had not reached north of the 440 [in today’s Oregon] and the British challenged the Spanish claims, maintaining that Spain had no “effective settlement” north of Mexico, and the British were claiming that possession could only be established by actual occupation, and thus began challenging Spanish claims to allegedly “uncolonized” land on the Pacific coast of North America. It was not until 1769 and 1770 that the first Alta California missions and presidios were established at San Diego and Monterey.

Pérez chose Esteban José Martínez Fernández y Martínez de la Sierra as the pilot and second officer of his 82-foot long, 225-ton frigate Santiago, built in San Blas in 1773. They sailed from San Blas on January 25, 1774, with a mostly Mexican crew and Father Junipero Serra, the Father Superior of the California Mission. They carried supplies for the Alta California missions and provisions for one year of exploration. Time that he could have used profitably in exploration Pérez wasted at San Diego and Monterey. They headed north, reaching the Pacific Northwest during the summer. Pérez was the first European to see and describe Yaquina Head off the Oregon coast. After sailing northwest and then north, Pérez sighted land at Dixon Entrance at latitude 54040/ North (at the present Alaskan-Canadian border), on July 15. Soon thereafter he sighted the Queen Charlotte Islands. For ten days the Santiago remained in the area of those islands. Pérez continued north, reaching 55°30´ N on 30 July, but he was fearful of proceeding north into heavy weather or of visiting shore to take on water and make a formal act of possession as instructed.

Sailing south along what he believed to be the mainland, but which was actually Vancouver Island, which he was the first European to see, Pérez discovered on August 8 an opening which he named Surgidero de San Lorenzo (Nootka Sound). He dropped anchor off the entrance to Nootka Sound near a point he named Punta San Esteban. The weather prevented him from going ashore and he did not lay claim of Nootka Sound for Spain. Some natives of Yuquot did come out to his ship to engage in trade, but Pérez did not linger long there. Pérez continued south. He sighted the fog-shrouded coastline only occasionally thereafter. The Santiago sailed by the entrance to the Juan de Fuca Strait; Martinez later claimed that he had pointed the opening out to his commander, but Pérez had been reluctant to explore it. They saw a large mountain, which they named Sierra Nevada de Santa Rosalia (Mount Olympus). The Santiago, its crew sick with scurvy, sailed south to San Blas. He returned to port with little to show in the way of concrete discoveries and with no claim to his credit of having planted the flag of Spain or of having made any claim to the territory he discovered. Nevertheless the Spanish believed that Pérez had established an undisputable Spanish presence in Nueva Galicia, and confirmed that no Russian, English, or American presence was there or had been there. The viceroy informed the government in Madrid that Pérez’s meagre accomplishments nonetheless, would facilitate a follow-up voyage then in preparation.

Between 1775 and 1789, Spain continued to send several expeditions to the Pacific Northwest to reassert its long-held navigation and territorial claims to the area.  During those years American, Russian, and British explorers and fur traders also made their presence felt in the Pacific North West and Alaska, ignoring Spain’s claim of sovereignty.

Viceroy Bucareli, sometime after Pérez’s return, wrote his superiors in Spain that in order for him to supply the growing number of Alta California settlements and to meet the perceived Russian threat to Spanish sovereignty, he required more experienced officers. The government in Spain had already reached the same conclusion and King Carlos III approved the proposal to strengthen San Blas with six officers. Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra (who had been born in Lima, Peru, on May 12, 1774), along with five other officers, was sent to San Blas. Although their primary task was to verify the accuracy of the reports from the Spanish minister at St. Petersburg about Russian penetration into Alaska, it was recognized that this investigation could only be accomplished through a detailed exploration of the uncharted coast north of Alta California.

The viceroy decided to mount another expedition to the north. As the senior member of the six new officers, Bruno de Hezeta (Heceta) y Dudagoitia, in the Santiago was placed in command of a new expedition; Pérez was appointed his second-in-command. They were to be accompanied by Juan Manuel de Ayala y Aranza on the 37-foot long, 32-ton schooner Sonora, with pilot Francisco Antonio Mourelle de la Rua. A third ship, the 72-foot long, 16- gun packet boat San Carlos commanded by Miguel Manrique was also assigned to the expedition. Bucareli gave much the same instructions to Hezeta as he had given to Pérez. The viceroy wanted him to attempt to reach 650 North. While examining the coast, he was to stay close to shore, avoid contact with any foreign establishments, and assert possession by Spain in as many places as he could get ashore.

The expedition departed on March 16, 1775 but was delayed. After starting again, Manrique became delusional and Ayala was accidentally wounded in the right foot by one of Manrique’s pistols. It was decided that Manrique should be sent back and that Ayala should take over the San Carlos, which was bound for the California missions. Hezeta then appointed Bodega to command the Sonora. As the Santiago and Sonora continued northward, Hezeta discovered and named a number of points on the coasts of northern California, Oregon, and Washington.

The vessels anchored off the coast of Washington near Point Grenville (which they named Rada de Bucareli) on July 14, 1775. Hezeta sent a party ashore to take formal possession of the land on behalf of Spain. At this point, Hezeta was deeply concerned about the Sonora’s ability to continue in his company. He also believed that his ship could not reach higher latitude because of the advanced season and number of the crew suffering from scurvy.

On July 29 when the two ships were near the latitude of the Strait of Juan de Fuca but well out of sight of land, the weather turned nasty. That night Bodega and Mourelle resolved to carry on the expedition alone. On August 1, the weather improved and the Santiago had disappeared. Bodega began a search for the Santiago on a westerly course. On August 4, the weather caused Bodega to alter his course to the north. By August 15, Bodega calculated he was at a position of 560 N. At noon the next day they sighted Kruzof Island, immediately west of modern day Sitka. Bodega went ashore and took possession. He named the place Puerto de Nuestra Senora de Los Remedies, and situated it at latitude 570 20/ N. On August 22 they reached the farthest north they would achieve. They believed they were at 570 58/ N. Reluctantly Bodega decided to turn back.

On August 24, the Sonora reached a large bay on the west side of Prince of Wales Island. Bodega anchored near the entrance and sent Mourelle ashore to take formal possession. The bay was named the Entrada de Bucareli. The spot on which the cross was raised was most likely a promontory overlooking the bay he called Puerto de la Santa Cruz. They believed they were at 550 17/ N.

As the Sonora sailed along the coast of Dall island, (in the Alexander Archipelago off the southeast coast of Alaska, just west of Prince of Wales Island and north of Canadian waters), the winds changed direction and made it impossible to continue on a southeasterly course. Bodega and Mourelle agreed they should attempt another trip northward in the hope of reaching 600 N.  The weather again forced Bodega to change directions. He headed south passed the Queen Charlotte Islands. By September 17, Bodega was off the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but the winds shifted to the southeast, and he was forced to turn out to sea. Hugging the coast, Bodega began searching for San Francisco Bay. On October 3 he encountered a large bay, into which he sailed. He thought he was in San Francisco Bay. He was actually in Bodega Bay, a small harbor just north of San Francisco. Leaving Bodega Bay, the following morning, he saw the entrance to San Francisco Bay, but decided not to enter, and continued on to Monterey, reaching there on October 7.

Meanwhile, on his return journey south, Hezeta, on August 17, discovered a large bay penetrating far inland. He was the first European to sight the mouth of the Columbia River. He named it Bahia de la Asuncion de Nuestra Señora, although it would later be known to the Spanish as the Entrada de Hezeta   He tried to sail in but with a crew weakened by scurvy and with the strong currents prevailing, he was prevented from doing so. He wrote that the seething currents led him to believe it was the mouth of a great river or a passage to another sea. Later he guessed it to be the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He then sailed to Monterey. At Monterey, Quadra found Hezeta and the Santiago. The two vessels returned to San Blas, arriving there on November 20.

British Captain James Cook, seeking the award of £20,000 that Parliament had offered to the person who discovers the Northwest Passage, with his ships, the 299-ton Discovery and the 462-ton Resolution, sailed along the Pacific Northwest coast, arriving off the coast of New Albion (present day Oregon) on March 6, 1778. He named a promontory at approximately 44°30? N Cape Foulweather. On March 22 Cook reached the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the point land at its entrance he named Cape Flattery. In poor weather conditions, Cook did not enter the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and thus did not see the Makah villages at Neah Bay. He continued northward and on March 31, his ships dropped anchor in a small, sheltered bay in the middle of a sound, and parties went ashore. They were the first Europeans on record to set foot upon what became known as Vancouver Island and claimed surrounding territory for Great Britain. Cook had made his landfall at Friendly Cove (now named Yuquot) in Nootka Sound, a sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Cook then set sail for exploring in Alaskan waters, where he identified what came to be known as Cook Inlet. He left Alaska for Hawaii on October 24.

The Spanish planned another expedition, a most ambitious one, for 1779. This time the expedition was to go to 700 N. Selected for the expedition was the 189-ton Princesa, whose captain was by Ignacio de Arteaga y Bazán, who was also in charge of the expedition. His pilots were José Camacho and Juan Pantoja Arriaga. Accompany the Princesa would be the frigate Favorita, with Bodega in charge of the ship and Francisco Mourelle as his senior pilot. They left San Blas on February 12, 1779. During the night of May 2, Favorita entered Bucareli Bay. The ship departed there on July 1. On July 18, Bodega reached Prince William Sound. The ships reached the northernmost point on July 23 at 610 17/ N, where they performed a possession ceremony. They named the location Puerto de Santiago. Then they sailed to the next anchorage, Nuestra Senora de Regla, near the entrance of Cook Inlet. Turning south they sailed for Cape Mendocino. Both anchored at San Francisco Bay on September 14 and left there on October 30. The Favorita reached San Blas on November 21; the Princesa came four days later. They reported that they detected no signs of any “foreign encroachment.” Five years later, however, the Russians established a permanent post on Kodiak Island (Three Saints Bay) on September 22, 1784. This provided a base from which further expansion onto the Alaskan mainland would be launched.

In the early 1780s, as knowledge of Cook’s voyages became well-known in England and America, and as it was learned that he obtained sea otter furs for next to nothing and sold them in China for a substantial profit, merchants rushed to become engaged in the sea otter fur trade. In England some of these were independent traders, others agents of King George’s Company which was formed in 1785. The Americans, out of Boston, were soon to follow.

John Meares, a British fur trader, then with the Bengal Fur Company, left Calcutta on March 12, 1786, in the 200-ton Nootka, with which he explored part of the coast of Alaska. He arrived at the Aleutian Islands at the beginning of August. The Nootka continued northeast through thick fog before meeting Aleuts and a Russian who escorted the ship to a harbor on Unalaska Island. On August 20, Meares left Unalaska, as the Russians were obtaining all the sea otter pelts in that vicinity. Meares arrived off the Shumagin Islands in late August. Trading all the way, he proceeded into Cook Inlet. He arrived at Cape Douglas and anchored at the entrance to Cook’s River (Cook Inlet). He was able to carry out a little trading. On September 20, he met a party of Russians travelling from their factory on the Kenai Peninsula to winter at Three Saints Bay at the south end of Kodiak Island. He sailed on and reached Snug Corner Cove in Prince William Sound on September 25.

Meares decided not to spend the winter in Hawaii. In early October, still in Prince William Sound, he made contact with local Chugach people but pelts were not plentiful. A local chief then guided the Nootka up to the head of the inlet of Port Fidalgo, fifteen miles from Snug Corner Cove, recommending it as a more sheltered spot. By mid-November, though, the ship was iced in, food was getting scarce and the crew were all falling seriously ill. By May 1787 half the men were dead and the rest were close to death. With the warmer weather in May came rescue in the shape of George Dixon[2] and his crew from the 200-ton Queen Charlotte, which had arrived in Prince William Sound. Dixon had sailed from London accompanying Nathaniel Portlock in the 320-ton King George, to trade on behalf of the King George’s Sound Company. Dixon and Portlock looked on him as an interloper and gave him just enough assistance to enable him and his crew, now numbering twenty-four, to save their lives. But for this assistance Portlock, the senior commander, insisted that Meares sign a bond for £1,000, to be forfeited if he did not abandon his intentions to trade and leave the Coast. Meares took the Nootka out of Prince William Sound on June 21, and continued trading. He made land near Cape Edgecumbe, on Kruzof Island just west of Sitka, and obtained some sea otter pelts from an inlet just to the south on Baranof Island. He then decided to make for Hawaii and reached the islands in early August. The Nootka arrived at Macao on October 20, 1787.

British fur trader Charles William Barkley, with his 400-ton Imperial Eagle, having spent the early months of 1787 in the Hawaiian Islands, arrived at Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound in June. Barkley stayed there for about a month, acquiring a vast quantity of sea otter skins. From there he sailed south, trading, exploring, and naming various parts of the coast between Nootka Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. He rediscovered the strait allegedly described by Juan de Fuca and named the strait as such on his chart. [3] During July, Barkley’s Imperial Eagle was the first non-indigenous vessel to enter the Neah Bay harbor. Eventually, the Imperial Eagle, set sell for China, reaching Macao in December. There Barkley made a tidy profit on the skins he had acquired.

Another British fur trader, James Colnett, in the 171-ton Prince of Wales and his associate Charles Duncan, in the 65-ton sloop Princess Royal reached Nootka Sound in July 1787. Separately, they spent the remainder of the fur trading season on the Northwest coast, in Alaska and southward to the Queen Charlottes, an archipelago off British Columbia’s west coast. They rendezvoused at Nootka Sound, wintered in the Hawaiian Islands, and returned to the Northwest Coast for the 1788 season.

Undaunted by his disastrous trip to the Pacific Northwest in 1786-1787, Meares, at Macao, on January 22, 1788, with the 230-ton Felice Adventurer and the 200-ton Iphigenia Nubiana sailed to the Northwest Coast under Portuguese flags. His objective was to reach Nootka Sound, stake a claim to trade there, forestall other traders, and, gain exclusive control of fur sales at Canton and Macao. As planned, Charles Douglas and the Iphigenia Nubiana had crossed the North Pacific to the Aleutian Islands. He entered Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound in in Alaska, then cruised south, trading for furs along the way. Meanwhile, Meares and the Felice Adventurer reached Nootka Sound on May 13, 1788, and anchored in Friendly Cove, near the native village of Yuquot. A few days later Meares was visited by chiefs Maquinna and Callicum, of the Nuu-chah-nulth people of Nootka Sound. According to Meares, on May 25, Maquinna sold or granted a tract of land to Meares as a site for the construction of a trading post house. Whether Maquinna actually did this eventually became a point of contention between Britain and Spain.

Meares had his men begin erecting the first building on this land. By May 28, the building, atop which he flew the British flag, was ready for dwelling, for the men to be left at Nootka Sound. He erected a breastwork, which surrounded the house, and mounted one three-pounder in the front. Meares also had his men begin constructing a 40 to 50-ton, 48-foot schooner North West America.

Photograph of Cape Flattery Light Station, Washington.
Photograph showing Tatoosh Island with Cape Flattery in background; Cape Flattery Light Station, Washington. SE, 1/2 mile. District: 17. NAID 45708195.

When Douglas and the Iphigenia Nubiana had not arrived at Nootka Sound by June, Meares decided to sail south to collect furs, leaving a group of men at Nootka Sound under the command of Robert Funter. Meares, aboard the Felice Adventurer, left on June 11. He went to Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where apparently he had obtained from Chief Wicanninish the promise of a free and exclusive trade in the area and permission to build whatever shore establishments he needed to conduct his business. Sailing southward, Meares on June 29, sighted an inlet that he, as Barkley the year before, named the Strait of Juan de Fuca. At Tatoosh Island, a half mile off Cape Flattery, that day, Meares, reported: “In a very short time we were surrounded by canoes filled with people of a much more savage appearance than any we had hitherto seen. They were principally cloathed in sea otter skins, and had their faces grimly bedaubed with oil and black and red ochre. Their canoes were large, and held from twenty to thirty men, who were armed with bows, and arrows barbed with bone, that was ragged at the points, and with large spears pointed with muscle-shell.”[4] Getting closer to the island, where the Indians had gathered for summer fishing, Meares saw that the island was covered with inhabitants. He noted that the chief, name of Tatootche [Tatoosh], paid a visit. “So surly and forbidding a character we had not yet seen. His face had no variety of colour on it, like the rest of the people, but was entirely black, covered with a glittering sand, which added to the savage fierceness of his appearance.”[5] Tatoosh told them they were now within the limits of his government. On receiving this information, Meares made him a small present, “but he did not make us the least return, nor could he be persuaded to let his people trade with us.” “We had,” Meares wrote, “indeed, already received some account of this chief from Wicananish[6], who advised us to be on our guard against him and his people, as a subtle and barbarous nation.” [7] Being thus disappointed in obtaining a harbor around the Cape Flattery area, Meares continued his course to the southward, and examined the coast. Meares named the island [Tatoosh] after the chief who had been using the island as a summer base for hunting whales, and catching and drying salmon for years.[8]

Meares then continued south, sighting a snow-covered mountain. Although previously named Santa Rosalia by Pérez in 1774, Meares renamed it Mt. Olympus. His journey south took him to Shoalwater Bay and Willapa Harbor while he searched for the great river rumored to be in the area. Failing to find the Columbia River, he named nearby features Cape Disappointment and Deception Bay and finally returned to Nootka Sound, reaching it on July 26. In early August, when Douglas had still not yet arrived, Meares took Felice Adventurer on another fur trading cruise, this time to Clayoquot Sound. Along the way, Meares encountered the Princess Royal and Captain Charles Duncan. He returned to Nootka Sound on August 24. Three days later Douglas and the Iphigenia Nubiana anchored in Nootka Sound.

Between the two of them Douglas and Meares had collected a valuable cargo of hundreds of furs. Meares decided that as soon as the new North West America, was launched he would sail Felice Adventurer to Macao and China, with the combined cargo of furs. Douglas and Iphigenia Nubiana would remain at Nootka Sound until North West America was ready for sea, then the two vessels would sail to Hawaii and spend the winter there. Meares recommended to Douglas that he ought to be back on the coast from Hawaii as early in 1789 as early as possible, and that he should trade in the Hecate Strait area as far north as 540 with the Iphigenia Nubiana and North West America. This would leave the coastal trade of Vancouver Island to Meares upon his return from China by the first of May when he expected to start a permanent colony.

On September 17, before North West America was finished, the American fur trader Robert Gray, out of Boston, arrived at Nootka Sound with the 90-ton sloop Lady Washington. Two days later North West America was launched. Robert Funter was given command of the schooner and a crew was selected from Felice Adventurer and Iphigenia Nubiana. The combined cargo of 750 furs was loaded into Felice Adventurer which left Nootka Sound on September 24. In October Meares stopped at a few places in the Hawaiian Islands and eventually reached Macao on December 5.

North West America was ready for sea a few weeks after Meares had left Nootka Sound. Douglas, in preparing to sail to winter in the Hawaiian Islands, had all the tools and supplies on shore loaded onto Iphigenia Nubiana and North West America. He also had his men tear down the house that Meares had built, not knowing, or not caring that Meares had promised to give it to the natives. Douglas gave some of the planks to John Kendrick, the American captain of the 84-foot long, 212-ton Columbia Rediviva, which had arrived at Nootka Sound shortly after Lady Washington. Douglas traded some cannons to Kendrick in exchange for additional provisions. On October 27 the Iphigenia Nubiana and North West America headed for the Hawaiian Islands, arriving there on December 6. They would spend the winter there.

OrHi 984
Columbia in a Squall by George Davidson, artist painter who served on board the Columbia Rediviva in 1793. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Colnett and Duncan returned to the Northwest Coast in March 1788. During the summer, in the Prince of Wales, Colnett continued to trade in northern latitudes, while Duncan in the Princess Royal was working southward. Duncan in the Princess Royal went to Clayoquot Sound in early August where he traded with the tribe of Chief Wickaninnish. Sailing south, Duncan found the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Duncan anchored his ship within the strait at the Classet village, midway between Cape Flattery and Neah Bay. There Tatoosh spent three days in exchanging all the skins he had with Duncan. While there, the Makah told him that a “Great Sea” lay to the east which ran a great length northward and southward, undoubtedly the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. On August 17, having secured the available skins, the Princes Royal departed from the Northwest coast, heading for the Hawaiian Islands and rendezvous with Colnett. Colnett then headed for China to dispose of the furs, arriving at Macao on November 11, and Canton on November 24.

While the Americans and British were making their presence felt in the Pacific Northwest in 1788, Spanish authorities were concerned not only with them, but with the Russian presence in Alaska. In March, 1788, two ships were sent north from San Blas to investigate Russian activity. Esteban José Martinez on the Princesa, was in command of the expedition, accompanied by the packet-boat San Carlos under Gonzalo López de Haro, with José María Narváez serving as his pilot. During the summer they explored Alaska, sailing as far west as Unalaska Island, where they found the first clear evidence of Russian commercial activity in the North Pacific. Russian commanders, on two separate occasions, told them that the Russians intended to occupy Nootka Sound. The Spanish expedition left Alaska on August 18, 1788. Back at San Blas they reported what the Russians had told them. Soon Martinez would be placed in charge of a new expedition to occupy Nootka Sound before the Russians did.

When Viceroy of New Spain, Manual Antonio Flores Maldonado Martínez Ángulo y Bodquín, heard the news, he took immediate action to preemptively take possession of Nootka Sound before the Russians or British could. On December 23, 1788, he informed Martinez that he was to command the expedition in the Princesa, accompanied by Gonzalo López de Haro in the San Carlos. The frigate Aranzazu would follow under José de Cañizares. Martinez was to show Spain’s intentions by occupying Nootka with a “humble shed.” Russian and English vessels were to be “received with tact and civility.” Martinez was to make it clear to them that there were “just grounds” for Spain to establish a settlement at Nootka Sound, “without precipitating a harsh expression which might cause serious ill feeling and create a rift.” The viceroy directed Martinez to be firmer with any American ships that might appear.[9]

Martinez and Haro left San Blas on February 1789. In March, Douglas, with the Iphigenia Nubiana, was ready to sail back to the Pacific Northwest coast. The plan had been to sail to Alaska and cruise south, like he had done the year before. But the two ships lacked some necessary supplies and North West America had no anchor. Therefore, Douglas decided to sail directly to Nootka Sound where he hoped to meet Meares and another ship from China. On March 17, Douglas and Funter left the Hawaiian Islands for Nootka Sound. Douglas arrived at Friendly Cove on April 20 and anchored near the Nuu-chah-nulth village of Yuquot. He discovered that the Americans John Kendrick and Robert Gray had spent the winter on the coast of Vancouver Island. Kendrick visited Douglas and told him that Columbia Redivivia was anchored a few miles away in what is now called Kendrick Inlet. Gray during March had taken Lady Washington into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and returned to Nootka Sound on April 22. Douglas found that over the winter Kendrick had built a trading outpost, which he called Fort Washington. It had a house, a gun battery, a blacksmith forge, and various outbuildings. Douglas also learned that the Americans had already taken the winter’s furs, arranged trading commitments from the village of Nootka Sound, gathered furs to the south, and were about to head north. Douglas knew he had to send North West America trading to the north as soon as possible.

Funter and North West America arrived on April 24. North West America was hauled up on the beach for repairs while refurbishing of Iphigenia Nubiana continued on aboard and ashore. When the North West America was ready for sea again, Funter set out on a trading voyage to the north, departing on April 28. Two days later, Gray left with Lady Washington. Thus the only ships in Nootka Sound were Douglas’s Iphigenia Nubiana and Kendrick’s Columbia, when during the first week of May, Martinez and the Princesa entered the harbor at Friendly Cove.

Douglas expected Meares to arrive soon in Felice Adventurer with supplies for establishing a trading post in Nootka Sound and possibly elsewhere. He did not know that events in China, India, and London had caused significant changes in the plan. In Macao, Meares’s Portuguese partner, the merchant Juan Carvalho, had gone bankrupt. Meares and his remaining partners of Associated Merchants had decided to forge a partnership with their former rivals, the King George’s Sound Company, owned by the Etches brothers of London. In the new Associated Merchants of London and India Trading to the Northwest Coast of America Meares stayed in Macao. His ship, Felice Adventurer was sold and a new ship, Argonaut was purchased and placed under the command of James Colnett. The Argonaut and Princess Royal, under Thomas Hudson, sailed from China to the Pacific Northwest coast—but did not arrive until July 1789. Because the Etches brothers had proper licenses with the East India Company and South Sea Company, the ships sailed with British instead of Portuguese flags. Colnett was given overall command of both ships as well as Iphigenia Nubiana and North West America, which were now owned by the new partnership. Until they learned about the new situation, Douglas and Funter continued to fly Portuguese flags in Nootka Sound.

As Martinez, aboard the Princesa, neared the entrance to Nootka Sound on May 2, he met Gray and the Lady Washington heading for the same destination. After an exchange of courtesies, gifts and salutes, Gray left to continue his cruise. Martinez entered the sound, which he named Puerto de San Lorenzo de Nuca, and anchored at Friendly Cover, on May 3. When he arrived Martinez found two ships already there that came into Nootka Sound to trade. One was the Columbia Rediviva, under John Kendrick, a few miles to the north at Mawina. On May 4, Martinez and Kendrick exchanged visits. Martínez left the American traders alone, despite his instructions were to prevent ships of any nation from trading at Nootka Sound, as Kendrick, and Gray, who Martinez had talked to on May 3, had apparently persuaded him that their stay was temporary and that they had no intention of encroaching upon Spanish rights, unlike their British counterparts. They would be in the area all summer, sometimes anchored in Friendly Cove.

The other ship present was the Iphigenia Nubiana, flying Portuguese colors, but manned by English-speaking officers and crew. At first Martínez and Douglas established cordial relations. But with the arrival of the heavily-armed San Carlos under Gonzalo Lopez de Haro on May 12, Martínez’s attitude changed. On May 13, Martinez inspected Douglas’s papers and found that one Carvalho, a Portuguese merchant in Macao, apparently owned the vessel. He also discovered that the ship had not only Portuguese colors, but a Portuguese captain, Francisco Jose Viana. Martinez arrested Douglas, who offered to leave Friendly Cove immediately rather than stay a prisoner, despite the fact that his ship was unseaworthy. Martinez thereupon sent forty or fifty officers and men to board the Iphigenia Nubiana. They seized her as a prize and hoisted Spanish colors. The crew was taken to the two Spanish warships and the ship was emptied of supplies, cannons, ammunition, trade goods, charts, and essentially all removable objects. Martínez charged that the ship was violating Spanish sovereignty and had illegally entered Spanish territory. He claimed that the ship’s papers directed Iphigenia Nubiana, to seize any English, Russian, or Spanish ships found on the Northwest Coast and take them to Macao. Douglas responded by saying the papers had been misinterpreted.

On May 15, Martí­nez chose the location of his fortification, which he named Fort San Miguel, at the entrance of Friendly Cove on Hog Island and his settlement, which he named Santa Cruz de Nuca [Nootka], very nearby. Work progressed so that on May 26 they were able to place their artillery followed by the construction of barracks and a powder storeroom. His men also built a small multi-purpose house and planted a vegetable garden.

Drawing, Reconstruction of Fort San Miguel.
Reconstruction of Fort San Miguel by Sigismund Bacstrum, ca. 1750-1805 – Canadian Military History Gateway. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Preparations were made for taking the captive Iphigenia Nubiana, to San Blas. The Spaniards spent considerable time and effort repairing and refitting the ship in preparation for the voyage. Martínez did not have enough men of his own to spare and had planned to have Douglas’s crew, under Spanish officers, sail Iphigenia Nubiana, to San Blas. However, Douglas’s crew refused to cooperate with the Spanish. On May 22, the day when they were supposed to depart, a heated verbal exchange between Martinez and Douglas followed, as the latter maintained that his papers did not imply the aggressions Martinez claimed. Suddenly, Martínez changed course, saying his interpreters had read the papers again and found them quite acceptable. Martínez dropped the charges against Douglas and released Iphigenia Nubiana, and its crew, so they could, as he insisted, go to Hawaii. Martinez insisted that Douglas sign a deposition which said that Martinez had found him at Nootka in a distressed condition and that although he had stopped his movements temporarily, he had provided him with sufficient supplies to enable him to reach the Hawaiian Islands. Douglas refused to sign. Douglas argued that the Spanish could lay no claim to a port they had neither seen nor entered before.

Finally on May 26, under pressure from his men who wanted to return to the security of their own vessel, Douglas reversed his position and signed papers that admitted his guilt. Douglas said he would sail to Macao because he could not trade, having only six weeks’ provisions and no items left with which to buy either sea otter skins on the Northwest Coast. Martínez supplied Douglas with what he thought was a minimal amount of equipment, food, and other supplies for a direct voyage to Macao via Hawaii. Douglas promised both the Spanish and the Americans that he had no intention of remaining on the Northwest Coast to collect furs. On June 1 he was allowed to depart with instructions not to return. By the late afternoon Iphigenia Nubiana, flying Portuguese colors, was sailing southwest from Nootka Sound, as though headed for Hawaii. But Douglas had no intention of running for Macao with only sixty or seventy sea otter skins. At midnight Douglas ordered the ship to change course and head north to collect more sea otter furs, and to warn Northwest America to avoid Nootka Sound should he come upon it. After changing course on June 2 Douglas took his ship north to the area he had traded in the year before. By late June Iphigenia Nubiana was completely out of trade goods, as most of them had been seized by Martínez. Nonetheless, when Iphigenia reached the open ocean on June 28, Douglas had 760 prime sea otter skins. Douglas set sail for Hawaii, arriving there on July 20. Leaving there on August 10, the Iphigenia Nubiana arrived at Macao on October 5.

Meanwhile, On June 8, Robert Funter and his sloop North West America arrived at Friendly Cove. Funter expected Douglas’s Iphigenia Nubiana to be there. Instead, to his surprise, found Martinez and two Spanish warships. The following day, Martinez seized it on the same basis as he had seized the Iphigenia Nubiana. Martinez maintained that he was also holding it as security for payments for the repairs and supplies he had given to Iphigenia Nubiana. The Spanish seized 207 sea otter pelts and incarcerated Funter and the crew on the Spanish ships. Martinez made repairs to Northwest America and on June 20 renamed it Santa Gertrudis la Magna, intending to keep it for use in trade and exploration. After repairs, Martinez gave the ship to José María Narváez and ordered him to sail south into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for exploration. Narváez departed Nootka June 21 and returned on July 5. While he observed the Strait of Juan de Fuca, he did not enter far. He simply confirmed the existence and reported that it had much promise for further exploration.

In the meantime, in China, Meares organized a new expedition. He purchased the Argonaut under the command of James Colnett and with the Princess Royal, now under command of Thomas Hudson, departed in the spring of 1789, for Nootka Sound. In accordance with his new employers’ instructions, Colnett took with him everything essential for building ships and planting a permanent, well-defended, settlement at Nootka Sound. To be called Fort Pitt in honor of the prime minister, it would be the first in a series of posts designed to establish British claims to the coast. Colnett sailed from Macao on April 26.

The Princess Royal, under Thomas Hudson, arrived in Nootka Sound on June 15. Hudson told Martinez that he was in distress, having had a 116-day stormy crossing from Macao and needed repairs, water, and fire-wood. Martinez subsequently came to an understanding with Hudson that the Princess Royal would continue her voyage as soon as the British attended to these needs, and that he abandon the area. Hudson stayed long enough to have a conversation with Robert Funter, captain of Northwest America, to learn of the seizure of that ship as well as the Iphigenia Nubiana.

On June 24, Martinez had, in the presence of the British, Americans, and local natives, a salvo fired from the new fort, and thereafter, Martínez performed a formal act of sovereignty, taking possession of Nootka Sound and the entire northwest coast for the Spanish king. He performed the possession ceremony again on August 23, this time planting a cross that would be visible from the sea.

At the end of June, Martinez arranged that Kendrick would take on the crew from the Northwest America and its cargo would be carried by the Princess Royal. Hudson and the Princess Royal departed on July 2. That same day, James Colnett, in the Argonaut, arrived at Nootka Sound to find that Martinez had established a Spanish settlement. Martinez immediately went aboard the Argonaut to meet Colnett. The Englishman told Martinez that he intended to build a settlement at Nootka Sound. This lead to a debate over who owned the sound. The next day Martinez seized Colnett and the Argonaut. A Spanish force was put on board and the main hold cleared of its cargo. Martinez decided that the ship should be sailed to San Blas and appointed Jose Tobar y Tamariz to take charge. Martinez then had the Argonaut undergo a refit for a voyage to San Blas.

On July 12, Hudson returned to Nootka Sound in the Princess Royal to see if the Argonaut was there. Martinez, no longer trusting British traders, thereupon arrested Hudson and seized his ship. Then, the next day Martinez succeeded in alienating the native people. He and Chief Callicum, a relative of Maquinna, got into a dispute. Martinez took a musket to shoot him, but it misfired. One of his sailors who saw this took another and fired it, from which shot Callicum died. Maquinna quickly fled his village to seek refuge in Clayoquot Sound with his relative and fellow chief, Wickaninnish.

On July 14, the Argonaut, under Tobar, with a Spanish crew, as well as Colnett and his crew as prisoners, set sail for San Blas. The English sailors confined below her decks suffered. Some officers were kept in irons but Colnett and Chief Mate Duffin were simply kept under guard. The Argonaut reached San Blas on August 15. Upon arrival, Tobar forwarded to his superiors the first news of the year’s events at Nootka Sound. For the prisoners, the tepid climate, poor food, mosquitoes, and fever caused much misery. Eight British sailors died, mostly of tropical ailments. Eventually, the prisoners were given the run of the town and they were even given salaries equivalent to that of Spanish sailors. In mid-November authorities moved them inland to the upland town of Tepic, a comparatively temperate and healthy place. From Tepic, Colnett began sending off messages to the viceroy, appealing for justice.

The crew of the Northwest America was transferred to the Columbia, now under the command of Robert Gray (Gray and Kendrick exchanged ships) for passage to China. When the Columbia Rediviva and Lady Washington sailed from Nootka Sound in July 1789, they were escorted out of the sound by Martínez’s launch. Kendrick was also granted permission to return the following season. Gray took the Columbia to Macao and eventually reached his home port of Boston, becoming the first American to sail around the world.

By late July the supply ship, the Aranzazu, had still not appeared and the Spanish were running out of supplies. Martinez sent Lopez de Haro in the San Carlos south to Monterey with instructions to return with supplies. He sailed July 27, accompanied by Narváez in the Princess Royal, now renamed Princesa Real. The Princesa Real reached San Blas in late August.

On July 29 the Aranzazu, captained by Jose de Cañizares, arrived from San Blas with, not only needed provisions, but also the news that King Carlos III had died and Viceroy Flores had decided that Nootka should be abandoned over the winter. Martinez was instructed to evacuate Nootka Sound by the end of October and return to San Blas. He was most unhappy about this decision and delayed implementing it as long as possible, hoping for further contrary orders. Conditions were extremely hard and had not been helped by most of the supplies on the Aranzazu being bad and unusable. Martinez sent Cañizares south in mid-August with orders for Lopez de Haro to return north with supplies as soon as possible.

During September and October the Spanish began dismantling the fort. On October 20, the small 26-ton schooner Fair American with a crew of four commanded by an 18 year old, Thomas Humphrey Metcalfe, arrived at Nootka Sound. It had come from Macao and had been trading for furs around Unalaska. Martinez seized the schooner and placed John Kendrick’s son Juan Kendrick, who had joined the Spanish, in charge.

Martinez gave up waiting for the San Carlos and prepared to sail. He had tablets erected signifying Spain’s presence and rights, and informing Lopez de Haro of his departure. Haro had left Monterey on September 24 and approached the Nootka Sound coast on October 26, only to encounter storms, which forced him far to the north. Haro decided to forgo searching for Martinez and sailed south.

The fort was dismantled, but anticipating a reoccupation, Martí­nez buried crates of bricks and lime. The artillery from the fort was loaded back aboard the Princesa. The Spanish sailed on October 30, leaving behind no Spanish presence at Nootka Sound. Martinez was in command of the Princesca, Juan Kendrick in command of the Fair American, and Jose Verdia in command of the Santa Gertrudis la Magna, formerly the Northwest America. They carried with them to San Blas the captains and crews of seized vessels as prisoners. As they left, the 190-ton brig Eleanora, companion vessel to the Fair American, captained by Metcalfe’s father, Simon Metcalfe, was sighted but is sailed off after seeing the Spanish flags. It would later sail to Hawaii.[10]

On October 4, the Iphigenia Nubiana reached Macao, where Douglas related to Meares his treatment by the Spanish. And, upon the arrival of the Columbia on November 17, 1789, they became fully aware of the Spanish seizures of ships. As a result, Meares departed China in December, and headed for London to make a report and seek redress. The Nootka Sound incident soon sparked a heated diplomatic debate regarding the question of sovereignty over the Pacific Northwest. Great Britain and Spain both prepared for war if the issue could not be resolved diplomatically.

Part II, Spanish Explorations of the Pacific Northwest and the Nootka Sound Settlement, 1790-1791, will appear next week.


[1] Rumors that Spain’s northernmost, still uncharted, possessions in the Americas could be threatened by the encroachment of Russian explorers provided the immediate motivation for Spanish authorities to take action to protect the coast of Nueva Galicia (the Spanish name for the Pacific Northwest). As a first step, a naval base was built in 1767 on the West Coast of Mexico. The base, called San Blas, was constructed to serve as the strategic pivot for New Spain’s naval advance to Nueva Galicia.

[2] In the summers of 1786 and 1787, Dixon explored the shores of present-day British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Dixon named the Queen Charlotte Islands after his ship.

[3] Captain Barkley’s wife, is believed to have been the first woman to visit this part of the Northwest coast. She recorded in her diary: “In the afternoon, to our great astonishment, we arrived off a large opening extending to the eastward, the entrance of which appeared to be about four leagues wide, and remained about that width as far as the eye could see, with a clear easterly horizon, which my husband immediately recognized as the long lost strait of Juan de Fuca, and to which he gave the name of the original discoverer, my husband placing it on his chart.” Frederick W. Howay, ed., “Early navigation of the Strait of the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society Vol. XII No. 1 (March 1911), p. 8.

[4] Richard W. Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters: Journals and Logs from Six Expeditions, 1786-1792 (Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: Mcfarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004), p. 9.

[5] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, p. 9.

[6] At the time, there were three major chiefs in the area: Maquinna ruled the Nootka tribes, Wickaninnish ruled the Calyoquots, and Tatoosh was chief of the Makahs, who lived along both shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

[7] Blumenthal, ed., The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters, p. 9.

[8] Meares would later maintain that he had acquired from the Makah chief not only rights of trade but a tract of land. One of his officers took possession of it in the King’s name and called it, in the chief’s honor, “Tatooche.”

[9] Freeman M. Tovell, At the Far Reaches of Empire: The Life of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (Vancouver-Toronto: UBC Press, 2008), p. 131.

[10] The Fair American was released in early 1790 without much notice, and the younger Metcalfe departed for Hawaii to join his father.