Spanish Explorers of the Pacific Northwest Coast

Areas of Alaska and British Columbia Explored by Spain

In 1774 Juan Pérez sailed north from Mexico to enforce Spanish claims to the coast of present-day Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.

Within 55 years of Columbus’ landing in America, Spanish explorers had navigated along the Pacific Coast as far north as southern Oregon. Again in 1603, Spanish mariners sighted the coast from their ships. Though these explorers never set foot on land, it was enough for Spain to claim all the lands of the Pacific Coast of North America.

Spain didn’t again explore the coast until 1774. During that gap of years, the Pacific Northwest remained a mystery to European explorers who had navigated most of the globe and traversed distant continents.

Pérez Investigates Rumors of Russian Settlements

The bustling American colonies on the Atlantic coast were only a few years from declaring their independence from Britain when the Spanish got word that Russia was setting up fur trading settlements in Alaska.

Juan Pérez, commander of the ship Santiago, was sent from Mexico to investigate. He reached as far as the Queen Charlotte Islands when bad weather and illness among the crew turned him back south. The ship anchored in Nootka Sound at Vancouver Island, which Pérez named the Harbor of San Lorenzo.

Like his Spanish predecessors, Pérez didn’t go ashore, but met with native Haida and Tlingit traders. An artist who accompanied Pérez made some of the first drawings of Tlingit life.

Heceta Anchors in Present-Day Washington

In 1775 the Santiago was sent north again, this time with Bruno Heceta, of Spain, as commander and Perez as second captain. Sailing with them was the small schooner, Sonora, commanded by Lieutenant Juan Francisco de Bodega y Cuadra.

The Santiago anchored at Point Grenville, north of Grays Harbor in present-day Washington. Here several sailors went ashore, quickly erecting a cross as a sign of their claim to the land in the name of the Spanish king. The native people had seemed friendly during this first brief encounter, but when several crewmen from the Sonora went ashore for fresh water a short while later, they were attacked and killed.

Columbia River Sighted

The Santiago and Sonora separated following the ill-fated landing at Point Grenville and the little Sonora continued north, sailing to present-day Sitka, Alaska, reportedly planting crosses in several spots. As fall approached, Bodega y Cuadra turned his ship south for home, surveying much of the Southern Oregon coastline along the way.

Heceta, on the Santiago, went as far north as Nootka Sound, then turned around at the insistence of his crew.

On the way back he came to what he described as a bay with strong eddies that later proved to be the mouth of the Columbia River. He did not enter the river, however, leaving that to later explorers.

Juan Francisco de Bodega y Cuadra would be seen again in Nootka Sound after the Spanish received word that British seamen had set up fur trading operations at the sound and were running ships to China where they made a tidy profit on the furs. Bodega y Cuadra was among the Spanish representatives sent up the coast to press Spain’s claim to the land.

But as the 1700s drew toward a close, the right of free commerce and navigation was recognized, ending Spanish domination of the Pacific Northwest Coast of America. The Spanish had made the first contributions to European information about the Pacific Northwest Coast.

Captain James Cook would be the next to explore these waters, setting sail in 1776 from Britain.


  1. Before the Covered Wagon, by Phillip H. Parish, Metropolitan Press, Portland, OR, 1931.
  2. On the Path of the Explorers, by Steve Short and Rosemary Neering, Whitecap Books, Vancouver, B.C., 1992.
  3. Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR 97205.