A New World
The first foreigners to land on Washington’s shores were probably Chinese and Japanese fishermen who arrived weeks or months after they were blown off course. None of the Asian nations was interested in expanding across the Pacific in those days, and nobody particularly cared about the land to the east. Records, if any, were skimpy and ignored. That was definitely not the case in southern Europe.
In 1592, exactly a century after Columbus made his landfall in the Caribbean, a Greek explorer using the Spanish name Juan de Fuca sailed along Washington’s coast and claimed to have discovered the fabled “Northwest Passage,” an inland waterway crossing North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Later explorers did find a waterway close to where de Fuca indicated, but it led only into today’s Puget Sound, not all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Spain, hoping to regain some of its diminishing power and wealth, sent an expedition out in the 1700s to explore the Northwest Coast. In 1774, Juan Perez explored as far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands off Vancouver Island and was the first European to describe the Pacific Northwest coastline and Olympic Mountains, before he was forced to turn back by sickness and storms.
In 1775, a larger Spanish expedition set out, led by Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Heceta went ashore at Point Grenville, just north of Moclips on the Washington coast, and claimed all of the Northwest for Spain. Farther south, Bodega y Quadra sent seven men ashore in a small metal craft for wood and water; they were quickly killed and their boat torn apart in the whites’ first encounter with coastal Native Americans. The two ships sailed away without further incident; Quadra named the island Isla de Dolores (Isle of Sorrows), today’s Destruction Island. Quadra continued his explorations as far north as present-day Sitka, Alaska, while Heceta sailed north to Nootka Sound. Heceta failed to note the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but he did come across “the mouth of some great river,” presumably the Columbia, though the death or illness of much of his crew prevented further exploration and robbed Spain of an important claim.
Russian exploration of the Pacific Northwest began in the mid-1700s, when Vitus Bering led two expeditions to determine whether a land bridge connected Russia with North America. Bering sailed as far south as the Columbia River before turning back. The abundance of sea otters and beavers led Russian fur traders to establish posts from Alaska to northern California, which posed a serious threat to other nations hoping to stake a claim.
Early English and American Exploration
England was the force to be reckoned with in the battle for the Northwest. In 1776, Captain James Cook took two ships, the Discovery and the Resolution, and 170 men on an expedition that brought him to the Hawaiian Islands, the Oregon coast, and Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound. Cook was killed by hostile Hawaiians in a dispute over a boat in 1779, and his crew returned to England.
Other English sailors continued in Cook’s footsteps. In 1787, Charles Barkley and his wife Frances explored and named the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In 1788, John Meares named Mount Olympus and other features of the Olympic Peninsula.
An American, Robert Gray, sailed out of Boston to explore and trade along the Northwest Coast in 1792. Stopping first at Nootka Sound—the hot spot to trade on Vancouver Island—Gray worked his way south and spent three days anchored in today’s Grays Harbor. Continuing south, Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River and traded there with the Chinook people before heading home.
Best known today, however, is the expedition led by George Vancouver in 1792. His goal was to explore the inland waters and make one last attempt at finding the Northwest Passage. The names of Vancouver’s lieutenants and crew are a list of Washington place-names: Baker, Rainier, Whidbey, Puget. The expedition carefully charted and thoroughly described all navigable waterways and named every prominent feature. When Vancouver heard of Gray’s discovery of the Columbia River, he sent William Broughton upriver to a point east of Portland to strengthen England’s claim on the land.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition