Empires In The Northwest

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The English were still nursing the dream of a Northwest Passage to the Orient. The Spanish were trying to nail down the ancient edict of Pope Alexander VI which made the whole Pacific a Spanish lake. The Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, thought it would be a neat coup if he could beat the maritime powers at their own game of exploration.

Thus it was that the power drives of three European empires converged, in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, on the Northwest Coast of America. They found no Northwest Passage, and no gold, but they found the sea otter. This was the rich prize which brought more ships, and the threat of worldwide war, to the remote waters of Nootka Sound. It brought, too, a fleet of Yankee traders, who snatched the prize, and one of whom discovered the great River of the West.

This story of exploration and conflict comprises the first part of David Lavender’s forthcoming Land of Giants: The Drive to the Northwest, 1750-1950 . The book is one of the “Mainstream of America” Series, published by Doubleday & Company. Mr. Lavender, who is head of the English Department at the Thacher School in Ojai, California, wrote Bent’s Fort , a best seller two years ago. On the following pages A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents excerpts from his new book.

In the Year of Salvation 1579 Spanish concern over an enemy-controlled entry into her private ocean, as she deemed the Pacific, took on frightening substance. Red-bearded Francis Drake, materializing out of nowhere in his Golden Hind , fell first on the ports of Valparaiso and Callao de Lima. Next he seized a treasure galleon bound for Panama and from her stripped strongboxes full of emeralds and pearls, thirteen chests of coined silver, eighty pounds of gold ingots, twenty-six tons of silver bars. Glutted with plunder, the Golden Hind then vanished toward the north.

North! What attraction, the ravaged Spaniards wondered, could lie in that direction … unless it was the Strait of Anian, western end of the long-sought Northwest Passage through America. Had Drake found it? Was he now planning to escape through the same alarming channel?

Other circumstances added to the fear. As Spanish agents in London were well aware, a reformed semi-pirate named Martin Frobisher had already made two trips across the North Atlantic, hunting among the icebergs beyond Greenland for the eastern end of the passage. Was it only coincidence, then, that shortly before Drake’s raids Frobisher had embarked on a third expedition? To be sure, his ostensible purpose was to dig for Arctic gold. But what of the inlet whose mouth Frobisher had discovered on his earlier trips, an inlet reputedly pointing straight in the direction of Spain’s Southern Sea? Did he and Drake plan to meet and concoct more devilment somewhere up in those bleak waterways?

The Spanish were, of course, jumping at bogies. Drake had entered the Southern Sea through the Straits of Magellan. He had, however, no intention of returning that way. On his outward journey Cape Horn’s “hell-darke nightes and the mercyless fury of tempestuous storms” had swallowed one of his accompanying ships while sending another scudding in terror back to England’s green and pleasant land. Only the Golden Hind was left, and now the aroused Spaniards, as well as the wind-racked seas, awaited any attempt to retreat via the south. Escape to the north was preferable—if a navigable northern waterway back into the Atlantic indeed existed.

Drake tried to learn. Quite probably his own desires were fortified by secret orders he carried, enjoining him to search for the far end of Frobisher’s inlet. We cannot be sure, for no record remains beyond Drake’s own enigmatic remarks. But we do know that something prompted him to sail doggedly northward for more than three thousand miles and so become the first white man to glimpse the lower reaches of what we today call the Pacific Northwest.

The landfalls he made dismayed him. Although his means for determining longitude were crude, they none the less showed him that he had gone far to the west. Central America might be relatively narrow, but this part of the continent was enormous. Frobisher’s inlet lay thousands of miles off, and the likelihood of a strait spanning so tremendous a distance was remote indeed.

Equally discouraging was the weather: “extreame gusts and flaws … most vile, thicke, and stinking fogges.” Their tropic-thinned blood chilled by one of the Northwest’s infamous mists, the English buccaneers decided to abandon the search for the passage, particularly since they now possessed captured Spanish charts showing the way to the Philippines.

Yet Drake could not ignore his secret orders without giving good cause. Voicing those causes became the work, in part, of Parson Francis Fletcher, the ship’s chaplain. Piously Fletcher wrote that as the Golden Hind gave up her northward cast and turned south, seeking a bay where the men could careen the ship before tackling the open ocean, every hill they passed “though it was June … [was] covered with snow”- this in a California spring! Only fools, of course, would push ahead under such circumstances. And as for the Strait of Anian, “wee conjecture that either there is no passage at all through these Northerne coasts (which is most likely) or if there be, yet it is unnavigable.”