Spanish Exploration: Arteaga and Bodega y Quadra's 1779 Expedition

  • By Antonio Sanchez
  • Posted 4/29/2004
  • Essay 5689
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In 1779, Spain launched a third expedition from San Blas, Mexico, to Nueva Galicia (the Pacific Northwest). The third expedition was planned after the triumphant return of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and Bruno de Hezeta from the second (1775) expedition, which had reached as far as Alaska and had succeeded in claiming the region for Spain by making a difficult and costly landing on the Olympic Peninsula. After much preparation, in February 1779, two vessels, the Princesa and the Favorita, commanded by Ignacio Arteaga and Bodega y Quadra, set sail. The context was rivalry with England, including Spanish support for the American Revolution. This third expedition reached as far north as present-day Ketchikan, Alaska (southernmost Alaska), landed and named many points, and had extensive contact and trading with Indians. In Alaska the crew suffered severe illness to the point that a hospital was set up on shore; numerous friendly contacts with the Indians continued during this interlude. The two ships returned to San Blas in November 1779. The Spanish had no knowledge of the English Captain James Cook's expedition during 1778-1779 to the Pacific Northwest, and erred in keeping secret their maps and logs. As a virtual tidal wave of traders entered the region, Spain began to lose influence.

Returning to a Hero's Welcome

When news of Bodega’s explorations (in 1775) as far as Alaska, along with Hezeta’s discovery of the mouth of the great Columbia River, reached the Viceroy, he considered it a major triumph for Spain and a credit to the intrepid commanders. In letter of May 20, 1776, Jose de Galvez (the newly appointed Minister of the Indies) responded to the news of the successes and the Viceroy’s request for permission to send another expedition (Thruman, 1967 p. 164). He notified Viceroy Bucareli, who was Spain’s highest administrator of that region, that King Carlos III had authorized a third expedition to Nueva Galicia and agreed to the new commendations for the expedition commanders.

These mariners returned from Spain’s second expedition to a hero's welcome. Juan de la Bodega (who was promoted to Teniente de Navio) and Bodega's second commander Francisco Mourelle were singled out for their special accomplishments. Bruno de Hezeta (Heceta) was awarded Capitan de Fragata.

Imperial Rivals

The success of acquiring new possessions and confirming that other foreign interests had not yet visited the area caused the Spanish authorities at San Blas to increase the pace of this already planned, and even more ambitious, third expedition to Nueva Galicia. However, by the time these ships had lumbered back to port from their second voyage, Spain’s carefully planned shroud of secrecy had already been exposed to both Russia and England.

It appears that clandestine agents had somehow managed to obtain a copy of Mourelle’s journal of the 1775 expedition and had strategically placed it in the hands of English explorer Captain James Cook as early as 1776 (Cook, 1973 p. 85). In that same year the British Parliament had expanded its offer of a cash award of £20,000 to any British merchant or Navy ship to find the fabled Northwest Passage, creating an obvious incentive to all who dared attempt an expedition

The great European powers of the time (Spain, France, and England) were all jockeying to find and secure the fabled Northwest Passage as a means for gaining strategic military and economic leverage over their rivals. In addition, Spain’s rumored maritime activities in the Pacific Ocean, coupled with the revolutionary unrest in the American Colonies (the American Revolution occurred from 1774-1783), created a storm of interest among the powerful sea-voyaging nations in securing a piece of the action in Nueva Galicia. Spain, which once ruled supreme its Pacific coastal claims in the new world as far as Alaska, was about to find itself in the throes of a maritime race to maintain its strategic holdings in Nueva Galicia.

Captain Cook's Spanish Maps and Logs

In July 1776, the Englishman Captain Cook was steadily plowing his way from Plymouth on a journey to the Pacific Northwest. He was on a determined search for the great passage that Juan de Fuca many years earlier (in 1596) had tried to convince the English existed. Spain had its own system of gathering information about the activities of its enemies. Several months before Captain Cook sailed towards Nueva Galicia, Spanish espionage had acquired reasonable evidence to suggest that the English were already mounting a serious expedition to this area.

Ironically, unknown to the Spanish, Cook was using smuggled copies of maps from the previous Spanish expedition to this area to guide his two war ships. Cook’s plans were to expand Britain’s imperial interests by claiming as much of the Pacific Northwest Coast as possible.

Spain had good reason to believe that, if allowed, the English would begin trade with Spanish subjects and undermine the economic strength of the Spanish colonies. Spain needed to cut off this threat at its source and so began a plan to capture or eliminate Captain Cook.

Almost completely dismissing the gravity of Britain's struggle in the ongoing American Revolution and Spain’s claims to the Pacific Northwest, Cook purposefully sailed to the Pacific Ocean. He managed to make a landing in Oregon and sailed to Nootka Sound on the north side of Vancouver Island. He was completely unaware that Juan Perez and Esteban Martinez had already claimed that same area four years earlier. While exploring this area he bestowed English names on many of the bays, islands, mountains, and straits that Perez, Bodega, and Mourelle had previously so clearly marked on their maps.

Cook Sees Spanish Spoons at Nootka

While Cook presumed that no white men had ever been to Nootka, his attention was caught by the sight of one of the Indians wearing a necklace made of two silver spoons. He was certain the spoons were of Spanish or Mexican origin and documented the sighting in his ship’s log. History later revealed that indeed the spoons were from the Spanish frigate Santiago.

However, the English kept his voyage a deliberate secret until four years after his untimely death. (Cook was killed by natives in Hawaii on January 14, 1779.) Cook’s written details of his expedition, followed by confirmation that the spoons had once been the property of the Spanish ship Santiago, became the thread of evidence later used to substantiate the legitimacy of Spain’s original claim to the Pacific Northwest.

The American Revolution

The American Revolution (1774-1783) came as good news to Spain because it created a convenient alliance between France, the American Colonies, and Spain against a common enemy: England. These conditions lulled Spain into the convenient and hopeful belief that there might be less interest in the Pacific Northwest. Spain needed to believe this because it was now preoccupied with the threat of its own war in Europe.

In addition, the Spanish were feeling the painful financial pinch created by aiding the American colonies in their revolution against England and funding the growing costs of maintaining its own colonies in the Americas. Spanish authorities weighed their options and determined that it was not a good time to expend their scarce maritime resources trying to secure their new holdings in far away Nueva Galicia. Faced on one hand with critical shortage of funds, personnel, and vessels and on the other hand with the threat of English expeditions sailing into the Pacific Northwest, Spain ultimately made the uncomfortable choice of postponing its planned third expedition to the Pacific Northwest.

Supplying Missions in California by Sea

England was not the sole purveyor of imperial expansionism during this period in history. Spain was also trying to secure its holding of the outer reaches of New Spain in New Mexico and California by establishing Catholic missions and corresponding military outpost villages throughout this area. However, the Spanish quickly found that uncooperative Native Yuma and Apache Indian nations and other difficulties inherent in the rugged overland routes choked off their ability to supply their struggling outposts.

This condition made it difficult to administer and devote the needed supplies and men required to exert its dominion in Nueva Galicia (the Pacific Northwest). At the same time, it provided an opportunity for creating a new supply line. Secretary of the Indies Jose Galvez felt that the best strategy for addressing the supply challenge to California was to maintain a maritime supply corridor along the coast from San Blas on the western coast of Mexico, to the Pacific Northwest with the meager naval resources remaining in port. Although this new supply route siphoned off the remaining scarce Pacific Coast maritime resources, it also gave the naval authorities at San Blas a wealth of experience in navigating these seas, provided some limited surveillance, and offered renewed motivation to continue planning for additional expeditions into the reaches of Nueva Galicia.

The Third Spanish Expedition

The major differences between this expedition and the previous two (undertaken in 1774 and 1775) were the time required for its preparation, its size, and the accomplishments required by the Viceroy. Postponing the third expedition to the Pacific Northwest allowed the Spanish time to reassess their naval strategy and to revitalize and update their tired naval fleet housed at the port in San Blas, Mexico. During this pause, the Viceroy ordered that a new ship, the Nuestra Senora de Rosario, commonly referred to as the Princesa, (Princess) be constructed at San Blas.

He also sent Bodega to his native Peru to purchase the 72- foot frigate Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, alias the Favorita (Favorite). Both these ships were more comfortable, faster, and better equipped to navigate long distances. They also provided ample protection for the crew and were outfitted to do battle, if necessary, with any English ship they might encounter.

Towards the latter part of 1778, the two new Spanish frigates were thoroughly prepared, manned, and stocked in anticipation of the new and more ambitious expedition north. Lieutenant Ignacio de Arteaga was given command of 98 men aboard the newly built frigate Princesa. His second in command was Lieutenant Fernandez Quiros. The more senior team of Bodega and Mourelle, both proven veterans of this route, became first and second commanders in charge of the Favorita, which carried 107 men. Though Arteaga was overall commander, it appears that Bodega was specifically requested by Spanish authorities to undertake this assignment because of his skill, determination, and bravery.

Setting Sail

The two newly christened frigates left San Blas, Mexico, on February 11, 1779, with 15 months of supplies aboard. Their orders were to sail far from the coastline and aim for 70° North Latitude, and to take formal possession of the land from 50° to 70° North Latitude. By May 1, 1779, they could already see the snowy mountain peaks of Canada, and on the dawn of May 3, they had set anchor in the entrance of Puerto de Bucareli (southeast Alaska).

During the next six weeks the commanders and crew cautiously set out in launches and thoroughly explored these costal areas, preparing precise charts of the coastline, the complex archipelago, and the many waterways that meandered between the islands. They were also able to record detailed descriptions of the customs, dress, language, and material culture of the Indians.

Disease On Ship and On Shore

While the exploring longboats were absent, a serious epidemic of unspecified nature broke out aboard the Princesa, causing severe illness and a number of deaths (Cook, 1973, p. 95). The severity of this outbreak necessitated the construction of a makeshift hospital on shore to care for sick crew members. While the crew was on land, a great deal of trading occurred with the Indians and confidence was gained.

During this time, however, a serious incident occurred when two crewmen of their own accord foolishly left their companions and asked a group of Indians in a passing canoe for a ride. Once the crewmembers were inside the canoe, they were quickly taken hostage and subjected to a night of torture at the hands of their captors. The Spanish retaliated by taking an Indian hostage and holding him for ransom. In the confusion that ensued, native canoes were overturned, shots were fired, and two Indian lives were lost. The crewmen were finally returned and commander Arteaga ordered the two crewmen to receive a hundred lashes each for jeopardizing the safety of the expedition. Before they left the Bay of Bucareli, the Spanish traded copper and other goods for five orphan children who were subsequently taken back to San Francisco.

The last stage of the expedition started at 55° North Latitude (present-day Ketchikan, Alaska), where the Spanish mariners encountered very overcast, cold, and snowy conditions. Several days after reaching this point they sighted a very high mountain: San Elias, the second highest mountain the United States. The Indians they encountered there were quite friendly and approached the ships in streamlined native kayaks, unabashed and wanting to trade. The ships reached the northern-most ascension of this expedition at a place they named Entrada de Santiago at 60° 30΄ North Latitude (known today as Prince of Wales Sound, Alaska). They then sailed south to Puerto de Regla and conducted an act of sovereignty at a location close to what is now known as Cooks Inlet, Alaska.

Continuing on, they made repeated landings to take formal possession and to chart the new territory they discovered. On July 22, they anchored at an island they named Magdalena, known today as Hinchinbrook Island. They also took formal possession of a bay near the tip of Kenai Peninsula. This bay was named “Our Lady of the Rule” (Nuestra Senora de la Regla). They got as far as Afognak Island near Kodiak before driving rains and cold, seven deaths, and a crew that had become extremely ill with scurvy finally forced Arteaga to order the two ships to head south, back to California. Their mission had been completed.

Home to War with England

The ships became separated for five weeks during the return trip to California. However, they reached San Francisco Bay only one day apart on September 14 and 15, 1779. While the sea-weary crew was at port in San Francisco, they were given daily feasts and nursed back to health over a six-week period. Their stay in San Francisco ended prematurely, however, when a courier arrived with news of Viceroy Bucareli’s death and the Spanish declaration of war against England (Thurman, 1967 p. 178). The two ships quickly made their way back to San Blas and anchored at their home port, this time four days apart on November 21 and 25.

Upon their return they were again greeted with news of the passing of Bucareli and formal congratulations for their efforts from his replacement, Viceroy Martin de Mayorga. It was Mayorga who also ordered the suspension of future expeditions to Nueva Galicia due to the war with England. England was exacting retribution from Spain for having come to the aid of the United States in the American Revolution. The Spanish had become angered over the constant attacks on their ships by English pirates.

Accomplishments and Failures

The expedition succeeded in expanding the Spanish presence to the reaches of what is now Kodiak, Alaska, but failed to detect that Cook’s ships had been to the Pacific Northwest and that Russian activities were not just confined to the Aleutian Islands. These oversights created a false sense of confidence that Spain could retain domination over the Pacific Northwest coastline purely because it had been the first European country to take formal possession.

Spain’s decision to postpone further expeditions to Nueva Galicia might have succeeded in aiding the treasury, but it was woefully shortsighted. The decision to leave unprotected Spain’s holdings in Nueva Galicia came at the same time that the English began to show a heightened interest in obtaining the natural wealth offered by this area. Spain’s long-term political interests and claims of discovery were seriously undermined by the fact that they refused to publish the accomplishments of their three expeditions for fear of releasing valuable military secrets.

King Carlos III and his ministers could never have foretold that for the 10 years following Arteaga’s and Bodega’s expedition, traders from many nationalities would create a virtual tidal wave of activity in this area. It was Cook’s casual accumulation of a small collection of pelts taken in trade from the Indians that served to be even more enticing to foreign merchants than the allure of finding the fabled Northwest Passage. These furs became a valuable commodity in the Chinese trade market and news of their source quickly spread to almost every European merchant with a ship sturdy enough to sail to the Northwest.


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