Empires In The Northwest


Outrage followed outrage. Massacre Bay on Attu received its name when Russian hunters killed all fifteen males of a small settlement in order to make off with the women. On another occasion, after some female hostages had committed suicide rather than endure further oppression, the commander tied up the rest of the group and threw them overboard to drown rather than leave witnesses alive to talk. Eventually, on the island of Unalaska in 1764, the Aleuts struck back, killing in a series of winter-long skirmishes most of the hunters from five different ships. It was a useless spasm. In retribution trader Ivan Solovief wiped out settlement after settlement, even those offering no resistance. Once, so it is said, Solovief bound a dozen Aleuts in a row and fired into them merely to see how many persons a single musket ball could kill. Eight men sagged dead; the bullet stopped in the body of the ninth.

Gradually echoes of the wanton cruelties reached St. Petersburg, and a few perfunctory gestures were made toward reform. More important to America’s Northwest Coast, however, was the decision of Catherine II to resume the exploratory work started by Peter the Great.

Immediately Spanish secret agents in St. Petersburg forwarded garbled word of the projected expeditions to Madrid. By letter of January 23, 1768, the visitador general of New Spain, José Gâlvez, was ordered “to observe such attempts as the Russians may make there, frustrating them if possible.” This suited Gâlvez. Well-educated, unscrupulous, vindictive, and insatiably ambitious, he had already determined to foster his personal glory by colonizing California. Now he had official sanction. Promptly he sent out several expeditions by land and by sea. None of these got very far northward, but they prepared the way for more sweeping efforts under the direction of Gâlvez’s successor, Antonio Bucareli. When fresh alarms about Russia reached Mexico in 1773, Bucareli directed the founding of San Francisco as a defensive outpost for New Spain’s northern flank. He also ordered a naval survey of the Northwest by Juan Perez, onetime commander of the Manila galleon and veteran of earlier California experiments.

Ferez was supposed to sail as far north as 60°, landing here and there along the way to take possession of the best places for settlement. Actually he made no landings, missed both the Columbia River and Juan de Fuca Strait, and at 55° turned back because of scurvy and bad weather. On his way south he anchored by chance on the west coast of what is now called Vancouver Island in a lovely, mountain-girt sound that he named San Lorenzo. When he did not offer to come ashore, several canoes loaded with curious natives paddled out to greet him. Some of these Indians soon grew bold enough to board his vessel, and one of them stole from the ship’s pilot, a man named Estévan José Martinez, two silver spoons. Neither Martínez nor Ferez could foresee, of course, that in sixteen years those spoons would become a matter of international concern or that another name for their remote little anchorage—Nootka—would reverberate angrily through the courts of Europe.

[ The Spaniards explored the coast again in 1775 and again barely missed discovering the Columbia. Bruno Heceta, the Spanish commander, suspected a great river mouth from the churning currents of discolored water, but dared not stop to explore. His sailors were so sick from scurvy that their officers feared they would not be able to lift the anchor, once they let it go. The Spaniards did, however, plant the flag of Spain at points on the Olympic Peninsula and near the southern tip of what is now Alaska. Spanish sovereignty, they thought, was at last solidly rooted. ]

Unknown to the Spaniards, the Russians were already nearby, out in the Aleutians, and in London the English were making plans to search once again for the Northwest Passage, this time from both coasts of America. Thus in 1775, the year of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, three European powers were extending (or were about to extend) their American claims to include the far-off shores of the Pacific Northwest.

The Circle Closes

It seems strange that the dream of a trans-Canadian waterway should be so persistent. In 1771 Samuel Hearne had gone with a group of murderous and sometimes uncontrollable Indians from Hudson Bay westward across the tundra to the Coppermine River. This river he had followed to the Arctic Ocean. By June go, 1772, he was back at Fort Prince of Wales with the knowledge, as he wrote, that the trip “has put a final end to all disputes concerning a North West Passage through Hudson’s Bay.”

Dispute still lingered, none the less. Even granting Hearne’s deductions as true, so argued England’s die-hard geographers, there might well exist a passage from the Pacific into the Arctic Sea (Bering Strait is, of course, such a passage) and the Arctic might well be free enough of ice to allow at least summertime sailing to the Orient. Finally, in 1776, the Admiralty determined to settle the matter. Once again a ship was sent across the Atlantic into Baffin Bay to explore possible northeastern approaches. Then, as capstone to the effort, Captain James Cook was delegated to examine the American Northwest with his famous ship Resolution and an attendant sloop, Discovery .