The First Explorers
Before human curiosity and imperial edicts brought Europeans to the Pacific Northwest, a Chinese adventurer named Hwui Shan crossed the Pacific to Mexico in A.D. 458, and then followed the Japan current north to Alaska.
Centuries later, in September 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa "discovered" the Pacific after struggling across the swampy Isthmus of Panama. Following that momentous event, Spain dispatched a number of legendary captains to the West Coast of North America, including Hernando Cortez, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and Bartolome Ferrelo. Ferrelo was the first European to sail north to a point near Oregon's Rogue River.
The flood gates now opened. In 1579, Britain's pirate Francis Drake sailed off the Oregon coast; during the early 1740s, Vitus Bering opened the North Pacific to Imperial Russia; during the late 1700s, English captains James Cook and George Vancouver charted the Pacific including the bays and inlets of Puget Sound (Vancouver); and in 1786, Comte de La Perouse, representing France, sailed to the Queen Charlotte islands.
These mariner exploits were followed by a number of breathtaking overland expeditions, mostly British, to the Canadian and American West Coast seeking New Albion, land of the fabled Northwest Passage.
Spain Takes the Lead
With the rise of imperialism, European governments vied for dominance of the earth's known and mythical lands. After Balboa's 1513 encounter with the Pacific Ocean, Spain sent naval expeditions from Mexico northward along the Pacific Coast. In 1542-1543, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Bartolome Ferrelo sailed the Pacific Coast in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola, described tantalizingly by their countryman Cabeza de Vaca. Ferrelo continued north, experiencing a harrowing, storm-tossed trip to Oregon's mid-point, but kept few records of his adventure.
Discouraged by the great distance between her investments and the Pacific Northwest, Spain lost interest in the Pacific Northwest for more than a half century. Eventually, in 1602-1603, after Spain had conquered the Philippines, Sebastian Vizcaino sailed as far north as Cape Mendocino, California.
Was Juan de Fuca Telling it Straight?
In April 1596, Englishman Michael Lok met an old Greek sailor in Venice. The seasoned mariner's name was Apostolos Valerianos, but took the Spanish name of Juan de Fuca. Valerianos boasted of his sailing adventures aboard Spanish ships in search of the Strait of Anian, better known as the Northwest Passage or River of the West. He also gave credible descriptions of what could have been the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.
Lok and Valerianos, both down on their luck, were seeking money and new opportunities. Lok's letter outlining his conversations with Valerianos did not resuscitate the careers of either man, but the Greek's tall tale gave impetus to the legend of a great uninterrupted waterway across the North American continent. Debate continues today about whether the Lok-Valerianos story is myth or fact.
The Pirate Drake
During the late 1500s, English pirates preyed on Spanish and other vessels off North America's West Coast. One of those freebooters, Francis Drake, was so accomplished and brazen that Queen Elizabeth I knighted him. Drake also became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe by piloting his ship, the Golden Hind to England via the stormy Stait of Magellan.
Peter the Great, Russia's enlightened leader and a confirmed imperialist, sent Danish captain Vitus Bering to search for the Strait of Anian and to find new commercial opportunities. Bering's two Pacific expeditions, in 1728 and 1741, were relative disasters except that they led to the creation of profitable Russian fur companies, especially, in the early 1800s, the long-running Russian American Company under Alexander Baranov.
Besides establishing trading posts, often in competition with Great Britain's Hudson's Bay Company, Baranov sent his minions to explore the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. The crew of one of his ships was massacred by Washington coastal tribesmen, but the establishment of Fort Ross at Bodega Bay, California, resulted in a mildly successful Russian agricultural and cattle-raising station.
Russian incursions prompted Spain to take another look at the Pacific Northwest. In 1774, Juan Perez reached 55 degrees North, near today's Canada-U.S. border, followed in 1775 by Bruno de Heceta (or Hezeta) and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Heceta, who felt a strong current and saw discolored water, missed discovering the Columbia River because his men were down with scurvy.
Despite his own scurvy-miserable crew, Bodega y Quadra crept along the British Columbian and Alaskan coasts, making charts and naming points of land. (The Spanish returned one last time to local waters. In 1790, an expedition led by Lt. Francisco Eliza and Sub-Lt. Manuel Quimper charted and named most of the San Juan Islands.)
English Captain James Cook, trader-geographer-explorer, may have been one of the world's greatest sailors. Parliament offered 20,000 pounds for the discovery of the Strait of Anian. Cook's friends encouraged him to give it a try, and he made three scientific and commercial trips to the Pacific Ocean. On the third trip Cook reached what the British called New Albion, or the Pacific Northwest. Having established a base at Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, he proceeded north to chart the rugged Alaskan coastline. Cook was killed by enraged Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islanders on February 13, 1779.
Many other Europeans, such as Comte de La Perouse, John Meares, and Alexander Mackenzie, belong in this pantheon of Pacific Northwest explorers and seekers of the Northwest Passage, but one individual -- George Vancouver -- stands alone because of his investigations of Admiralty Inlet, Hood Canal, and Puget Sound.