Discovering the Region: Commentary

1. Account of Juan de Fuca's Voyage

The body of water separating Washington’s Olympic Peninsula from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island is called the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The name comes from a man who claimed, in 1592, to have been the first European to locate this passage. That the same man claimed not only that the lands through which the strait passed were “rich of gold, Silver, Pearle, and other things,” but also that he sailed out the far end of the strait into the Atlantic Ocean, of course cast doubt on this so-called discovery. De Fuca’s tale reminds us that Europeans had numerous ideas about the Pacific Northwest long before they actually set eyes on it. Whether factual or fanciful, these ideas shaped later experiences with the region.

The man named Juan de Fuca was really the Greek pilot Apóstolos Valerianos, who said he had been sailing on behalf of Spain. In 1596, in Venice, Valerianos told his tale to Michael Lok, an English merchant-adventurer. Lok passed the story along to other promoters of English overseas empire, who in turn published the story in 1625. Even more than the Spanish and French, the British were keenly interested in the prospect of a Northwest Passage, i.e. a waterway through the North American continent that would greatly expedite travel between Europe and East Asia. They therefore took a strong interest in Valerianos’s story, even though they also had a stake in refuting it in order to deny Spain’s claim to have arrived first on the Northwest Coast. In the later eighteenth century the English explorers James Cook and George Vancouver were clearly driven in part to find the Northwest Passage that Valerianos had described. When they did not find it, their priority became denigrating Spanish claims and promoting their own discoveries (see the selections below from George Vancouver).

Valerianos’s descriptions of the interior of the Strait of Juan de Fuca discredit the tale. Moreover, no other documents have turned up to corroborate the claim that he entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 1592. Yet certain details of Valerianos’s story—such as the names of certain sailors, a few maritime incidents, and some geographical details—do find support in the Spanish record of maritime activities off the coasts of Mexico. Moreover, if Juan de Fuca never entered the strait that bears his name, how did he know that it lay in the vicinity of the 47th and 48th parallels? Earlier scholars tended to see the Juan de Fuca story as almost entirely without basis (Wagner 1931 [Wagner 1931 is an accessible version and introduction to Valerianos’s account]). More recently, Warren L. Cook (1973:22-29), the foremost historian of Spanish expeditions to the Northwest Coast, has suggested that Valerianos may well have traveled to the vicinity of the strait. (Incidentally, the Spanish called the passage the Strait of Anián.)

In recent years still another explanation for the Greek’s information has presented itself. The English sailor Sir Francis Drake, while circumnavigating the world, visited the western coast of North America in 1579. Drake’s voyage produced little reliable documentation, so it has been difficult to pinpoint just how far north he sailed. Heretofore, students of his voyage mostly agreed that his ship did not go north of the 42nd parallel (the California-Oregon border). But recently a new theory has been proposed that suggests that Drake reached the coast of British Columbia or Washington. If this is true, it may explain how Valerianos heard about the existence of a strait near the 48th parallel, and was then able to claim that he himself had been there.

Until we receive more definitive documentation, however, we cannot know for certain whether Drake or Valerianos really visited the Northwest Coast before 1600. In 1616, still another English student of the Northwest Passage asked, “How often are the usuall Charts rejected by experience in these Navigations . . . ? Painters and Poets are not alwayes the best Oracles” (cited in Purchas 1906: 413).

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