THE EUROPEAN EXPLORERS
The Aboriginals first contact with the Europeans came in 1744 when the Spanish mariner, Juan Perez made a landfall on the Queen Charlotte Islands, and met the Haida who came out in canoes to trade. Spain claimed the entire Northwest under the Bull of Pope Alexander VI of 1493 which divided the New World lands between Spain and Portugal. It had come to the ears of the Spanish King, Carlos II, that the Russians had been sending out parties to begin a sea otter trade with the Aboriginals of Alaska. The Viceroy of Mexico was instructed to send out expeditions to establish a Spanish claim to the Northwest Coast, and seek for the supposed Strait of Ainan that was believed, on the basis of fictitious maps, to connect the Pacific Coast with Hudson’s Bay.
Perez was sent north in the frigate, Santiago, from Monterey in Alta California in 1774, to sail north to latitude 60º north to investigate what other Europeans might be doing in those waters, to make contact with the natives, and on his return voyage to make “Acts of Possession” at suitable places. The voyage was only a partial success. Dangerous shoal waters, cold, and contrary winds, and sickness among the crew, were all reasons Perez gave on his return for failing to make a landing and turning around at latitude 55º N. The truth probably is that Perez was scared. The precipitous mountains, densely forested, descending to the shore, all empty of human habitation, the fjord-like inlets shrouded in perpetual fogs and beset with hazardous rocks daunted this seaman. To be cast away by misadventure on such an inhospitable shore would mean certain death by starvation to a European. His ship’s carpenters dismantled the wooden cross they had made with a message claiming the land for Spain, and Perez sailed for sunny California and home.
But on his way back, on the 18th of July, sailing past the Queen Charlotte Islands, he was sighted by the Haida Indians. Those aboard the Santiago saw a series of fires lighted along the coast to signal their presence as they sailed past. On the 20th large Haida canoes came out, almost as long as the tiny Santiago. The cautious Haida refused to come aboard the Santiago; the prudent Spaniards refused to go ashore. Some trade ensued with the sailors letting down knives and trinkets from the ship by rope, and pulling up furs and Chilkat blankets. They saw that one of the Indians had a harpoon with an iron head. This may have come from the Russians; alternatively, it may have come from Aboriginal Siberian ironworkers by repeated trades down the Alaska coast. Further south, at Nootka Sound, Perez encountered more natives, and these apparently came aboard his tiny ship, for in the lively trading, one of them lifted some silver spoons from Jose Martinez, the second officer.
The Spanish Viceroy was understandably dissatisfied with this timid expedition. He demoted Perez and sent the Santiago north again in 1775, commanded by Bruno Heceta, along with the even smaller (at 36 feet) Sonora under Bodega y Quadra. This was to overcome the mariners’ objection that all would perish should the Santago be wrecked on one of those hostile shores. Heceta was ordered to sail north to Latitude 65º and make the Act of Possession.
But Heceta, even more cautious than Perez, turned around at the southern tip of Vancouver Island and sailed back to Monterrey. Bodega y Quadra however, in Sonora, not larger than a Haida canoe, went as far north as 57º and there made the symbolic Act of Possession. That seemed to satisfy the Viceroy for the time being, since no more northern expeditions were sent out.
The British, too, had heard of Russian activities on the Northwest Coast, and of the secretive Spanish expeditions in that area. In 1776, the master mariner, Captain James Cook was sent out at his own insistence to explore this unknown Coast for the shadowy Straits of Ainan, which, if they existed, the Admiralty was determined, should be firmly held in British hands as an All British route to the Far East.
Cook, sailing around the Horn, came up through the South Pacific Islands to “discover” Hawaii, whose inhabitants, competent seafarers in their own right, thought they needed no “discovery” by anyone. Cook reached the Oregon Coast in March, 1778, but stormy weather prevented a landing. By 29 March he was in Nootka Sound, greeted by the Indians in their canoes, eager to trade, among other things, the same silver spoons purloined from Jose Martinez four years previous.
Unlike the Spanish, Cook came ashore, sent his men into forest to cut spars and spare masts. He replenished the Resolution’s water casks and brewed spruce beer from the local spruce needles as a remedy against scurvy. Cook again sailed north at the end of April getting his ship into the Aleutian Islands and returning to Hawaii for the winter where he was killed in February 1779 in a skirmish with the locals.
His second in command, Charles Clerke, took over, and entered the Bering Sea, sailing north until he was blocked by ice. Clerke died of tuberculosis in August 1779, and Lieutenant Gore took over to sail the expedition south to Canton, where to their surprise, the crew discovered that the sea otter pelts they had traded for with the Indians, brought amazingly high prices. They sailed back to England with the news, which, like the Russians and the Spanish, the British tried to keep secret. But crew members let it out. John Ledyard, deserting to America published his account of the voyage in 1783, telling the world that “skins which did not cost the purchaser six pence sterling, sold in China for 100 dollars.”
The news that these bleak lands, as hostile as the Norwegian Fjords, would support a trade in furs to China more valuable than anyone had dreamed, brought the commercial world to the Northwest. For the next seventy years the Northwest, that dark and mythic land, would see a great commercial struggle for domination of its trade while distant governments fumbled toward a solution to its sovereignty.