Empires In The Northwest


Having thus invoked weather and probability to witness the correctness of his actions, Drake refurbished his leaky vessel in a pleasant California haven, named the land New Albion in defiance of Spain’s prior claims, and sailed on around the world toward home. Nearly 200 years—years which saw the rest of America’s geography take shape—would pass before other men of European stock looked again on the Northwest.

Though Drake might doubt the existence of the Strait of Anian, Martin Frobisher never did. Today we know that Frobisher’s inlet, discovered in 1576 during his first North Atlantic journey, opens into a deep bay and that the marching icebergs at which he marveled were floating on the tide rather than on an ocean-to-ocean current. To Frobisher, however, the chill white parade brought kindled anticipation. The fabled short cut to the Orient lay at his fingertips!

The season being late, he hurried back to England to report and to prepare for further exploration the following spring. Unfortunately he took with him a heavy piece of black rock that one of his men had picked up near the entrance to his inlet. This rock fell into the hands of Michael Lok, Frobisher’s spokesman at court.

Lok, about fifty years old at the time, was a merchant-adventurer in the full, stirring Elizabethan sense of the term. He had sailed over much of the known world, spoke most of its major languages; as a director of the Muscovy Company he traded with mysterious Russia through the far-off White Sea. In spite of his experience, however, he remained so gullible that he spent much of his lifetime fooling himself. As soon as he saw Frobisher’s black rock he became convinced that it was loaded with gold.

His fixation epitomizes a yearning that filled all Europe. Bullion from Spain’s American colonies was ballooning prices; the only answer jealous nonSpaniards could offer to the resultant economic chaos was an attempt to find still more gold somewhere else. Although several London assayers told Lok that Frobisher’s ore was iron pyrites, the stubborn merchant kept on shopping around until he turned up an alchemist who told him what he wanted to hear.

Gold! Promptly the Company of Cathay was chartered, Michael Lok as governor. Though the organization’s name implied that the company would press the search for the Northwest Passage, Frobisher’s next two journeys dwindled, to his disgust, into golddigging expeditions. To complete the anticlimax, the ore he brought back from the trips proved worthless, the Company of Cathay went bankrupt, and Michael Lok spent most of the rest of his life petitioning the court for relief.

During one of his stays in debtors’ prison, Lok whiled away the time completing a map of the world. On it he clearly showed Frobisher’s passage lying north of a curiously misshapen North America. Since Lok presumably believed his own fantasy, he naturally was ready to believe the tales of any mariner who wanted to claim firsthand knowledge of the route.

In 1596 such a man appeared. Lok was in Venice at the time, trying to collect certain moneys he felt were due him. Through an English friend he met a Greek pilot—bronzed, long-bearded, sixty years old—who professed to have passed much of his life in the service of the viceroy of Mexico. The fellow’s real name, so he told Lok, was Apostolos Valerianos, but for the sake of his Spanish masters he had invented the pseudonym Juan de Fuca.

The viceroy of Mexico, according to Juan de Fuca, was convinced that Drake had sneaked into the Pacific by a secret route north of California. He had sent three ships “to discover the Straits of Anian … and to fortifie in that strait, to resist the passage and proceedings of the English Nation.” The attempt collapsed but Juan, who had served as pilot on the expedition, refused to give up. Off he had gone again, Anno 1592, in command of “a small Caravela and a Pinnace.” This time, he claimed, between 47° and 48° of latitude, he had found the strait.

For twenty days, said he, he had sailed in the strait, reached the North Sea, and returned to Mexico, “hoping to be rewarded greatly of the Viceroy.” But both there and in Spain he was welcomed “in wordes after the Spanish manner” but with nothing else.

Through Lok he now appealed to Queen Elizabeth, guaranteeing with his life that he could quickly relocate the passage. Lok wrote eager letters to England’s lord treasurer, to Sir Walter Raleigh, and to “Master Richard Hakluyt that famous Cosmographer,” urging that they bring Juan to England. The court, however, was used to the extravagant tales of self-seekers, and nothing came of the plan.

Nothing official, that is. Unofficially, the tale found its way into Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas His Pilgrimes . There it stayed, fascinating the curious and beclouding the advance of geography. It is but one of history’s many ironies that the prevaricating old Greek was more right than he realized. Between Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, frequently shrouded by fogs so dense that the first authentic explorers never guessed its presence, lies a true strait at almost the exact latitude where Juan de Fuca said a strait did lie. Meanwhile his legend, embellished mightily, persisted in various forms until finally it brought the first cool-eyed searchers to the Northwest. These men found no Strait of Anian. But they did discover furs whose value rivaled the vaunted mines of Mexico. It was this serendipity that watered down Spanish pretensions north of California and helped prepare the way for Lewis and Clark. And so perhaps the lovely passage that leads into the rich new empire of the Pacific Northwest deserves Juan de Fuca’s name, after all.