The Strait of Juan de Fuca is mentioned for the first time in April 1596.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 2/18/2020
  • Essay 20970

In April 1596, English merchant Michael Lok and Apostolos Valerianos, a Greek pilot and mariner, meet in Venice to discuss a voyage that Valerianos had taken in 1592. The mariner, who was better known as Juan de Fuca, describes how he sailed from Mexico, north along the Pacific Coast in search of the Strait of Anian, later called the Northwest Passage. Juan de Fuca says that he had reached 47 degrees latitude, turned east, and sailed into the straits for many days before returning to Mexico. Although the Northwest Passage does not exist, the waterway that Valerianos entered now bears his name, the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Meeting in Venice

Historians, mariners, and explorers have debated for more than three centuries as to whether Apostolos Valerianos, better known as Juan de Fuca (1536-1602), actually sailed into his eponymous strait, located between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. Whether one believes he did or not rests upon a single meeting in Venice between Juan de Fuca and Michael Lok (1532-1620), a London-born trader and financier, who had previously backed unsuccesful searches for a Northwest Passage in the 1570s. Also in attendance was Englishman John Douglas, who introduced Lok to Valerianos.

Juan de Fuca was born on the island of Cefalonia, near Greece in the Mediterranean Sea. For the previous 40 years, he had been a pilot and mariner for the Spanish. In 1587, while sailing for the Spanish, he had been attacked and robbed by British pirate Thomas Cavendish, or Candish, who left him in California. Juan de Fuca eventually made it south to Mexico, where five years later, the Viceroy of Mexico sent him north in search of the Strait of Anian. The mythical shortcut connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had first appeared in 1561 on an Italian map. The name comes from a Chinese province noted by Marco Polo in his travels. With its appearance on subsequent maps, the Strait of Anian, or Northwest Passage, soon became a sought after goal of many explorers.

During his meeting with Lok, Juan de Fuca provided key details about his 1592 voyage and "discovery" of the Strait of Anian. He had sailed out of Acapulco, north along the coast of California, with a small Caravela -- a 40- to 60-foot, two- or three-masted sailing ship (Columbus sailed the same type of ship) -- and a Pinnace, another sailing vessel. Juan de Fuca ultimately reached a "broad Inlet of Sea, betweene 47. And 48. Degrees of Latitude" ("Hakluytus Posthumus"). At the entrace to the strait was a broad headland, or island, dominated by a tall pinnacle of rock, "like a piller thereupon" ("Hakluytus Posthumus"). Juan de Fuca estimated the entrance to be 30 to 40 leagues wide, or between 90 and 120 miles. It is actually about 14 miles wide.

Juan de Fuca and his small vessels then turned right, or east, into the strait and sailed for many days. Along the way, they stopped, went on land, and saw people dressed in the skins of beasts. They also found gold, silver, and pearls. Juan de Fuca thought the land to be "very fruitfull" ("Hakluytus Posthumus"). Believing that he had accomplished his task of finding the Strait of Anian and worried that he and his unarmed men could not resist any attacks from "the Savage people," he turned around, and sailed back to Acapulco, where he expected to be greatly rewarded ("Hakluytus Posthumus"). Sadly for Juan de Fuca, the Spanish treated him poorly, so he had decided to return home to Greece, which was why he was in Italy and had the opportunity to meet Lok.

Few knew of Lok's meeting with Juan de Fuca until 1625 and the publication of Hakluytus Posthumus; or Purchas His Pilgrimes. The book was a collection of travel stories that Reverend Samuel Purchas saw as the complement to the great The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, a multivolume set by Richard Hakluyt that had been published between 1598 and 1600. By the time Purchas' volume appeared, both Lok and Juan de Fuca were dead.

'The Long Lost Strait of Juan de Fuca'

Despite its enticing details of potential riches and a quick passage to even greater riches via the Northwest Passage, Juan de Fuca's tale did not attract a host of explorers. A northern route was too cold and the maps false, reports Barry Hough, in his magesterial "Juan de Fuca's Strait: Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotten Dreams." He adds that there were always one or two "who could fan the flames of hope and keep the idea alive" but little exploring occurred until the late 1800s ("Juan de Fuca's Strait").

The debate though over the existence of Juan de Fuca's strait persisted throughout the 1700s and 1800s. A handful of maps included the Strait of Juan de Fuca, such as a 1783 French map with "Entre de Jean de Fuca;" a 1797 English one with "John de Fuca's Straits;" and an 1850 German map with "Strasse de Juan de Fuca." But many others contain the questioning "Supposed Strait of Juan de Fuca," even as late as 1826.

Perhaps the best known skeptic was the great British explorer James Cook (1728-1779), who sailed by the strait in 1778, with a young George Vancouver (1757–1798), as well as William Bligh (1754-1817). Failing to see the opening between Vancouver Island (which at the time was unnamed by Europeans because they did not yet know it was an island), Cook wrote in his journal: "It is in the very latitude we were now in where geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca [emphasis Cook] but we saw nothing like it; nor is there the least probability that iver any such thing exhisted" ("Journals of Captain"). It didn't help that Cook and his crew encountered gale winds and heavy rain, which reduced visibility and kept his ships away from land.

Nine years later, in July 1787, British fur trader Charles William Barkley (1759-1832) would prove Cook wrong. Barkley was sailing south from Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island (still unnamed and thought to be mainland) and to his "great astonishment ... arrived off a great opening," wrote his wife Frances in her journal of the trip. "[My] husband immediately recognized [it] as the long lost strait of Juan de Fuca" ("Juan de Fuca's Strait"). (Frances Trevor Barkley (1769-1832) was just 17 years old when she accompanied her husband on his expedition beginning in 1786. When they arrived in British Columbia, she became the first European woman to reach that shore. She is also considered to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe as a woman. A French woman, Jeanne Baret (1740-1807), traveled the globe disguised as a man on Louis Antoine de Bougainville's round-the-world expedition between 1766 and 1769.)

A second fur trader, Charles Duncan, confirmed Barkley's observation a year later. He added a key element noted by Juan de Fuca, the pillar on the coast. Since Juan de Fuca wrote that the pillar was on the "North-west coast thereof" of the entrance, it is unclear if he meant the American or the Canadian side ("Hakluytus Posthumus"). Duncan also drew a map of the opening to the strait, which he made available to influential geographer Alexander Dalrymple, who published it in January 1790.

Although subsequent map makers continued to refer to the "Supposed Strait of Juan de Fuca" for decades, from the 1790s onward, the Strait of Juan de Fuca was accepted as real and located where it shows up on modern maps. Most historians, in contrast, don't think that Apostolos Valerianos ever sailed into his Strait de Anian. We will never know but, if he didn't, he certainly deserves credit for a fertile imagination and a surprisingly accurate choice of latitude.


Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus; or, Purchas His Pilgrimes: Contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells by Englishmen and others, v. 14 (New York: Macmillan, 1906), pp. 415-418; J.C. Beaglehole, The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery Volume III, Part One, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), pp. CXXI; Barry Gough, Juan de Fuca's Strait, Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotten Dreams, (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2012), pp 80, 93; Adapted from David B. Williams, Homewaters: Natural and Cultural History in Puget Sound (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2021).

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