Spanish Exploration: Juan Perez Expedition of 1774 -- First European Discovery and Exploration of Washington State Coast and Nueva Galicia (the Pacific Northwest)

  • By Antonio Sanchez
  • Posted 4/07/2004
  • Essay 5677
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Juan Perez (Juan Josef Perez Hernandez), sailing on the frigate Santiago with a crew made up mostly of Mexicans, was the first non-native to sight, examine, name, and record the islands near British Columbia, including what are now Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Island.  Perez sailed from Mexico on behalf of Spain, reaching the Pacific Northwest during the summer of 1774. He visited Nootka Sound, and named what is now Mount Olympus in Washington state as Cerro Nevada de Santa Rosalia.  He sighted the Strait of Juan de Fuca and much of the coastal territory of present-day Washington. Perez was the first European to see and describe Yaquina Head off what we now know as the Oregon coast.  He sailed farther along the coastal stretch of California, Oregon, Washington, Canada, and Alaska than any sailor had done before him. During this mission he peacefully traded with the Haida, carefully recorded facets of their customs and culture, and mapped and recorded nautical details for others who soon followed his heroic and historic accomplishments.

Ship of Destiny

Documented rumors, originating from England, that Spain's northernmost, still uncharted, possessions in the Americas could be threatened by the encroachment of rogue Russian explorers provided the immediate motivation for Spanish authorities, led by Viceroys Antonio Bucareli and Jose de Galvez, to mount a proactive secret plan to protect the coast of Nueva Galicia (the Spanish name for the Pacific Northwest). A naval base was built in 1767 on the West Coast of Mexico on the hot, isolated desert coast of what is now the state of Nayarit. The base, called San Blas, was constructed to serve as the strategic pivot for New Spain's naval advance to Nueva Galicia.

After waiting in anticipation for almost an entire year at San Blas, Ensign Juan Perez, on the day before the Christmas, 1773, finally received formal instructions from the Spanish crown to conduct an ambitious and secretive survey of Nueva Galicia and officially claim these unknown northern reaches for his country. Juan Perez was chosen to take command of the frigate and its mostly Mexican crew for this expedition. His ship, the three-masted frigate Santiago, alias the Nueva Galicia, was 82 feet from bow to stern, had 26 feet of beam, and weighed 225 tons (Cook, 56). The Santiago was crafted in the port of San Blas from the finest and most durable woods Mexico had to offer. It was the largest ship to be built in the San Blas naval base and was constructed of sufficient size and strength to take on the anticipated rough waves and unpredictable currents of the northern Pacific Ocean. However, the ship was not small and nimble enough to conduct inshore reconnaissance.

Perez chose Juan Jose Martinez as the second officer in command of the Santiago. Martinez would go on to play an important role during later voyages to this area. The crew list for this expedition also included Manuel Lopez Insua as Boatswain, Pasqual de Rojas and Diego Nicolas as midshipmen, Francisco Rua as caulker, Jose Padilla as gunner, and Carlos Ortega as coxswain (To Totem Shore,. 44). The job of attending to the religious duties aboard the ship, spreading the word of God, and recording the customs of the natives fell upon Fray Juan Crespi, a seasoned veteran of previous Spanish expeditions inside Mexico, and his assistant Fray Tomas de la Pena Y Saravia.

Joining for only a brief part of the mission was Father Junipero Serra. Father Junipero is famous for establishing the missions in California. Accompanying him was a small flock of civilians who would serve as reinforcements for his struggling mission at Monterey, California. The ship's log lists a total of 88 official members of the expedition plus 24 passengers (Beals, 28). Many of the official crew and passengers were native-born Mexicans, who were more at home in the warm Mexican climate than in the frigid and foggy Northwest. The Santiago's original design accommodated only 64 crewmen. The additional load of passengers added difficulty and delay to this already complex and historic journey.

Provisions For A Long Journey

The Viceroy required that the ship be sent with sufficient provisions to cover a long and difficult journey. Besides the usual provisions such as water, medicine, ammunition, and small arms, it also included five-and-a-half tons of jerked beef, 3,400 pounds of dried fish, 17 tons of hardtack, a half-ton of lard, quantities of beans, rice, wheat, lentils, onions, cheese, chili peppers, salt, vinegar, sugar, pork, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, pepper, chocolate, 12 barrels of brandy, five barrels of wine, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. Adding to the already overcrowded condition of the ship, were 12 bulls, 24 sheep, 15 goats, and 79 chickens (Cook, 57). To complete the supply, 468 bundles of beads and cloth were added for trade to the native inhabitants they predicted they would encounter.

At midnight on January 25, 1774, at high tide, Father Juniper Serra presided over a Salome ritual blessing of the Santiago and watched in anticipation as it dropped its sails and then eased out of its original harbor home on an expedition that Spain kept as a closely guarded military secret. It was a ship of destiny, carrying men, goods, and ideas that were to be exported to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in this region's history.

Not long after it was out of port, the Santiago encountered structural problems and Commander Perez chose to have his ship spend 25 unscheduled days under repair in San Diego. With repairs completed, it set off again, reaching Monterey on May 8. Father Juniper Serra and his accompanying group, having arrived at their point of destination in Monterey, remained there and did not continue with Perez's expedition.

The Santiago's Secret Orders

After 26 days of respite in that port the ship was under sail again (about June 3, 1774). When the ship had been maneuvered just out of sight of the shores of Monterey, Ensign Perez opened Viceroy Bucareli's secret orders in the presence of Second Pilot Martinez, a priest, and the ship's surgeon. The letter consisted of 24 articles that laid out explicit instructions for what was to be accomplished and exactly how the operation should be conducted. They included: 

  • The method for accurately chronicling events throughout the mission;
  • Instructions for making landfall when they reached 60° north;
  • Requirements to search for usable harbors and sites for possible colonization;
  • What to say and do if other foreign vessels or establishments were encountered;
  • A directive to formally conduct the act of possession for Spain; and
  • The regulations and conduct with the native people whom they encountered.

The Viceroy dedicated a great deal of attention to the way relations with the native inhabitants were to be addressed. If native settlements were found, their inhabitants were to be treated "affectionately and given the articles which he carried for that purpose" (Beals p. 27). Natives were to be treated with dignity and respect and conflicts were to be avoided at all times. Evangelization of new subjects to convert them to the Christian religion was of primary importance. The Spaniards had learned from previous colonization attempts in the Americas that maintaining a friendly relationship with the native population was the key to long-term success.

For the next 30 days of the journey, intense rain and fog exacted its toll on the health of the crew and Perez's ability to gage the ship's exact location. However, Commander Perez managed to keep the small, sturdy frigate on a steady course until they sighted land and reached three islands at Latitude 52°, near what is now referred to as the Alaskan panhandle. They baptized the islands with the name of Santa Margarita (now known as Queen Charlotte Islands). Although the Santiago landed short of its planned destination, by arriving at this point the stubborn commander and his crew became the first Europeans and Mexicans to reach this latitude by sea, map the Alaska coastline, and describe the customs of the Haida Indians. This accomplishment remains as one of the most important naval accomplishments in Pacific Northwest maritime history.

First Contact: The Haida

Moving farther south, on August 6, they spotted another large land mass now known as Vancouver Island in Canada. The ship dropped anchor at a bay they named Rada de San Lorenzo de Nootka, known today as Nootka Sound. While they were there, a group of natives from Nootka surrounded the ship in 15 dugout canoes. Having never seen a ship of this size, the natives were reluctant to approach it. However in due time, the bravest cautiously paddled out, keeping a safe distance, to inspect this wooden marvel and get a closer look at the strangers aboard. Occupants of three of the canoes, disturbed by the foreign intrusion, signaled for the invaders to leave. Perez communicated by hand signals that he meant them no harm and was in need of fresh water.

The next morning a small launch was readied to go ashore to take formal possession and find the much-needed fresh water. Just as the launch entered the water, an unexpected strong gust of wind sent the mother ship drifting towards a dangerous shoal. The commander quickly reacted by cutting loose the ship's anchor to keep it from drifting hopelessly ashore. During this frightening episode, the crew in the small launch quickly abandoned their plans. In an effort to save themselves from drowning in the freezing waters, they frantically paddled to re-board the Santiago. Shortly after this incident, the ship hastily made its way back to the safety of deeper, less turbulent waters. Seeing the fate that had befallen the Spanish ship, a throng of natives returned to the side of the ship, cautiously assured that the intruders would not send a landing party.

Two Silver Spoons

When the situation had calmed down sufficiently, the natives approached even closer to the ship and soon initiated the first known trade with non-natives in the Pacific Northwest. Abalone shells, knives, and clothing were traded to the natives in exchange for wolf pelts, sea-otter robes, and fresh sardines.

It was during this exchange of trade goods that an event took place that forever left its mark on the history of this area. Several of the Indians boarded the Santiago to get a closer look at the vessel. At some point while the native guests were making their historic visit on board, a pair of silver spoons belonging to second pilot Martinez were ether traded or pilfered. These spoons would become definitive evidence confirming that the Spanish, not the English, had actually landed in this area first, thus legally establishing Spain's claim to this area of the Pacific Northwest. Because Perez failed to send a party on land to officially take possession, as he was instructed to do by the Viceroy, this key evidence was needed later to confirm their presence at that latitude.

The Spanish Legacy

This failure was criticized more by historians eager to erase Spain's vast accomplishments and claims, than by his own superiors. Spanish authorities trusted Perez's experience and understood that his decision was motivated by caution for the safety of his crew and based on his years of experience in the high seas of the Pacific. Spanish authorities measured the shortcomings of his mission against the stark backdrop of the dangers and difficulties of having only one ship on a very unforgiving and uncharted, cold, foggy voyage where no mariner had gone before. Above all, the Spanish knew that Perez and his crew had established an undisputable Spanish presence in Nueva Galicia, and confirmed that no Russian, English, or American presence was there or had been there.

The state of Washington owes a great homage to the expedition mounted by Perez and his mostly Mexican crew. If it had not been for the two spoons "traded" with the Indians at Nootka, latter used as evidence to prove for Spain's claim of formal contact with the Haida Indians at Nootka, the international border now between Canada and Washington would have been located at what is now the Columbia River, as the English insisted based on Cook's later discoveries. Although the expedition did not reach its intended latitude, the sea path to Nueva Galicia was now secure and ready for other Spanish expeditions soon to follow in the wake of these intrepid sea goers.


Herbert K. Beals (translator), For Honor and Country: The Diary of Bruno de Hezeta (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1985; Herbert K. Beals (translator), Juan Perez on the Northwest Coast: Six Documents of His Expeditions in 1774 (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 1989); Warren L. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest, 1543-1819 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973); Lucile McDonald, Search for the Northwest Passage (Portland: Binfords and Mort Publishers, 1958); Santiago Saavedra, To the Totem Shore: The Spanish Presence on the Northwest Coast (Madrid, Spain: Ediciones El Viso, 1986); Gordon Speck, Northwest Explorations (Portland: Binfords and Mort Publishers, 1954).

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