Discovering the Region: Commentary

3. Spanish Explorers: Juan Pérez, José Navaéz, and Tomás de Suría

The Spanish were the first non-Natives to make a record of explorations along the Northwest Coast. Yet their approach to discovery of the territory was never very systematic. Spain approached the region somewhat defensively. It had colonized so successfully in South and Central America that it did not feel compelled to settle a place as remote as the Pacific Northwest. Moreover, in light of the fact that it had a very difficult time recruiting colonists to occupy a much closer shoreline—coastal California—actually getting Spaniards or mestizos to relocate in the Northwest would have been next to impossible. Yet for a couple of decades the Spanish felt it was important to make recorded voyages to the region, and claim it on behalf of the King of Spain, because they wanted to keep the region out of Russian and British hands. So after 1774 a series of voyages left Mexico, traveled northward, and scouted out the Northwest coast. Some expeditions undertook symbolic acts of possession on behalf of the Spanish king; others attempted to defend Spanish claims against European rivals; still others recorded scientific information about the region. By the mid-1790s, however, Spain had decided that in claiming the Northwest Coast it had overreached itself, and that the prudent course was to retrench to Alta California and Mexico (Cook 1973).

The documents here illustrate different phases of Spanish discovery. The first comes from the diary of Juan Pérez, the first Spaniard to sail along the Northwest coast in 1774. The selection records the Santiago’s journey along the southern tip of Vancouver Island and just off the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Perez never went close enough to shore to actually land and perform the ritual claiming possession of the land for Spain (and as a result Spain sent two more ships to the same coastline the following year). His diary notes the challenges of sailing along a rocky, windy, foggy, and unfamiliar coastline, and makes it clear why he felt so reluctant to go ashore. In general, Spanish navigators lacked the resources that their British counterparts had for both long-distance ocean voyages and close exploration of coastlines.

The second selection comes from the narrative of José Narvaéz, who sailed along the Northwest coast in 1788. During this era, Spanish colonizers had become worried about the advent of British and American fur traders on a shoreline that they claimed. So ships moved north from Mexico to reassert Spanish interests in the area. Narvaéz’s account of a journey along the coast of southern Alaska actually depicts a much more assertive mood among these discoverers—a “commander” was in charge of the expedition; ritual acts of possession were undertaken; efforts were made to impress native peoples with the Spanish power. In the end, the Spaniards’ efforts did not achieve the desired ends. Rather than driving away foreign interests, the Spanish provoked an international incident—the Nootka Sound Affair—that ultimately weakened their grip on the Northwest Coast.

Before the Spanish decided to abandon strong defense of their claims along the Northwest coast, they sent expeditions to explore and, briefly, occupy the region during the early 1790s. These discoverers left behind many of the Spanish place names that dot the Northwest coast, and they catalogued the native and natural worlds that they found. The artist Tomás de Suría accompanied the scientific expedition of Alejandro Malaspina in 1791-92, and recorded his impression of the region and its peoples.

See also: Indians and Europeans on the Northwest Coast, 1774–1812

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Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest