The Coveted Pacific Coast

Early Explorations of the Northwest Coast

Lieutenant Esteban José Martínez Fernández y Martínez de la Sierra, Marina real, circa 1785

Caption: Lieutenant Esteban José Martínez Fernández y Martínez de la Sierra, Marina real, circa 1785

Prior to these events, the Spanish had not really explored the west coast at Canada's current latitude, making no more than a few reconnaissance trips. They thus had no accurate map of the area. Viceroy Antonio Maria Bucareli y Ursua, who succeeded the Marquis de Croix, therefore assigned the navy the task of exploring the coastline to the north of California, not only to locate the position of the Russians, but also to take accurate map readings. In January 1774 Ensign Juan Josef Pérez Hernandez, commandant of the frigate Santiago, left San Blas to sail northward. In addition to his second in command, Estebân José Martinez, a chaplain and surgeon, his crew consisted of 84 seamen, one of whom was a gunner. There were no soldiers on board, but a dozen sailors had been trained in weapons drill and could fight if required. The Viceroy ordered them to avoid fighting with the Natives.

On July 18, 1774, the lookout of the Santiago signalled land on the horizon: the north of what is today the Queen Charlotte Archipelago in British Columbia. Without knowing it, Pérez and his men were the first Europeans to reach this part of northwestern North America and to meet the Haida. The Haida came out to greet them in large canoes, one of which carried as many as 22 paddlers and a drum. Impressed by the advanced civilization of these Amerindians, the Spanish deemed it wise not to go ashore, but they did trade goods. After continuing northward for a few days, Pérez headed south. On August 7 he reached the proximity of Nootka on Vancouver Island. As had the Haida, the Nootka Amerindians approached the Santiago in canoes. Relations were very cordial; the Spanish and the Nootka traded, the Spanish offering a variety of goods, including silver spoons, and received in exchange skins, finely braided hats decorated with scenes of whale-hunting, and various other items. This time Pérez wanted to go ashore but was prevented from doing so by bad weather. Finally, the Santiago turned southward and returned to Mexico. 51