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Mike Vouri: Isla y Archipelago de San Juan: A Spanish Expedition

  • Written by Mike Vouri

 Farewell and adieu unto you Spanish ladies

Farewell and adieu to you ladies of Spain

For we've received orders for to sail for old England

But we hope very soon we shall see you again

Seventeen year-old Frances Trevor Barkley knew something was up by the commotion on deck of the Imperial Eagle.

It was an unseasonably stormy afternoon off West Coast of Vancouver Island in July 1787. Her husband Charles’ ship had been bucking heavy seas when land suddenly gave way to a wide-open channel roiling to the east. The entrance “...appeared to be about four leagues (14 miles) wide and remained about that width as far as the eye could see,” she later wrote in her diary, expressing the astonishment that seized captain and crew.

 An early 17th century chart of the fanciful Strait of Anian, or Northwest Passage, based on the apocryphal story of Juan de Fuca, the Greek sailor Apostolos Valerianos.

It had to be the “long lost” Strait of Juan de Fuca, a chimera sought by mariners for more than 200 years in hopes that it might be a short cut to the Atlantic. Now here it was with “a clear westerly horizon as far as the eye could see.” Captain Barkley, 27, professed as much on his charts, naming the channel for the Greek sailor who claimed he’d discovered it while serving as a navigator for Imperial Spain. Had Barkley steered to port and headed east, however, he would have found only the bluffs of Whidbey Island and a labyrinth of passages north and south.

But the English merchant captain had no interest in heading east—not with 800 otter pelts in the hold, bound for the Macao market. That would be left to explorers from three nations who from late spring to early fall would venture up the strait into terra incognita. Like the Barkleys, these sailors were not old salts. The captains were in their early 30s, the navigators a mix of veterans and talented novices. But they would follow every shoreline, sound every depth and journal all they saw, leaving the shapes and names that we know today. Some of the names would change over time. Some would be lost forever.

Initially it was all about determining if Fuca’s strait really did cross America. Even then skeptics such as James Cook and George Vancouver doubted such a voyage had ever been made or that the passage even existed. And when the myth was at last disproved, the scientific process of mapping, cataloging and naming took over with a final aim of dividing up the spoils, which nearly led to war in 1859. That was when the San Juan Islands, an afterthought on the various expeditions, became an international sensation.

The Spanish were the first to explore the Strait to its end in June 1789. Pilots Jose Maria Narvaez and Juan Carrasco reconnoitered as far as today’s Port Townsend in the schooner Santa Gertrudis la Magna, a vessel captured only weeks before. The ship formerly known as Northwest America, was built by Chinese shipwrights in Nootka Sound where fur trader, John Meares, was attempting to establish a mercantile empire. But then Captain Esteban Martinez appeared with a flotilla of warships, accused the British of trespassing and confiscated every ship he saw, including three from Britain and one from America, lamely reporting them as derelict. When word of Martinez’s actions reached Britain months later, war seemed imminent, until the Spanish backed down and agreed to jointly explore the region. George Vancouver eventually would be chosen to settle the details. However, that was three years away and unknown to the two pilots aboard the Santa Gertrudis. On their return to Nootka Sound, they each submitted detailed reports and rough sketches, but only Martinez’s official report survives. They would both soon have another chance to record history.

The first opportunity was Carrasco’s, who in 1790 was assigned as second pilot under Gonzalo Lopez de Haro in another “abandoned” British vessel, the 42-foot sloop, Princess Real, captained by Manuel Quimper. Carrasco led the way while Lopez de Haro compiled the first accurate charts of the strait, all the way to Boca de Caamano or Admiralty Inlet. They then came about and while tracing the north side of the strait charted and named the Boca de Fidalgo and Canal de Lopez de Haro (“boca” is an inlet, “canal” a channel). The bocas and canals were named for fellow explorers Salvador Fidalgo, Jacinto Caamano and Haro himself.

The remarkably familiar 1790 Carrasco/Quimper map of the Strait of Juan de  

Quimper’s chart also offers the first glimpse on paper of Gran Montaña del Carmelo, or Mt. Baker, and Sierras Nevadas De San Antonio, or Mt. Rainier. These were renamed along with almost every geographical feature two years later by George Vancouver who sought to affirm the British claim to the region. He also did a little influence peddling by naming things after fellow officers and important people back home. He wasn’t alone in this respect. Incidentally, the locals knew the mountains as Koma Kulshan and Tahoma respectively. No one asked them about those or any other places or features.

The Narvaez/Eliza map released after the 1791 passage around the San Juan Islands into the Strait of Georgia. The San Juans appear as a single mass because the explorers did not enter the inner waterways. You can’t chart what you haven’t seen unless you want to make it up like the Anian map. 

The Spanish were not yet finished. By the spring of 1791 the empire was in decay and going broke. However, the new viceroy of New Spain—Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco de Padilla y Horcasitas, the second count of Revillagigedo—ordered Lieutenant Francisco Eliza back up the strait to find that Atlantic passage. And failing that, he was to locate a site for a new Spanish base in the region. This is the expedition that would put the San Juan Archipelago on European maps for the first time, draw praise from colleagues in both navies and give Eliza more credit than he deserved over posterity.

The 32-year old Eliza commanded the expedition aboard the 85-foot, 196-ton packet San Carlos, with veteran pilot Juan Pantoja y Arriga as first mate and pilot. Though only 23, Narvaez was given command of the 42-foot, 32-ton Santa Saturnina, actually the rebuilt Northwest America/Santa Gertrudis. In its fresh configuration the schooner was ideal for probing inland waterways with four sets of oars. Carrasco was first mate and second pilot.

The Santa Saturnina and the longboat from the San Carlos strike out across the Georgia Strait in a fair wind, as depicted by Canadian artist Gordon Miller, who is renowned for recreating historic voyages. As you can readily tell there was not a whole lot elbow in either vessel, which made their explorations all the more remarkable. (gordonmiller.ca)

While Eliza remained at Puerto de Cordova (Esquimalt Bay), the grunt work of probing Haro Strait was done by the three pilots, commanded by Narvaez, along with apprentice pilot, Don Jose Verdia. The officers and 38 sailors and soldiers were apportioned between the schooner and the San Carlos longboat, which also could be rigged for sail. With cramped quarters and food and water at a premium, Narvaez had hoped they could deploy the two vessels on both shorelines and finish charting in four days. But the longboat, conned by Pantoja, was stymied by “strong currents” that he likened to a “very copious river.” Instead, with the longboat in tow (and sometimes vice versa) they hugged the west side of the passage until reaching Saturna Island (later named for the ship). That was when they entered the vast open arm of the Salish Sea, today’s Strait of Georgia. Narvaez would call it El Gran Canal de Nuestra Senora del Rosario la Marinera (The Grand Canal of Our Lady of Rosary the Seafarer), for the patron saint of the San Carlos.

The Santa Saternina was roughly the same size as the 46-foot Mexicana and Sutil, which visited these waters in 1792.

The survey party spent the night of June 16 off a little island they called Patos (for ducks) where Pantoja writes, “...we passed the night during all of which the wind continued very fresh.” That day they had seen “...many gulls, seals, tunny and whales of great size.” The vessels continued east, both under oars in the flat-calm water, where they charted Isla de Sucia (“Dirty Water” for the rocky anchorage) and Matia, which Narvaez dubbed Mal Abrigo (Bad Shelter Island). It was later changed by Eliza to Isla del Mata (Island of Bushes). By naming with descriptions of flora, fauna or geographic features, the Spanish were in step here with the natives. The Samish people called Patos Tl’x’óy7te, or “Place of Harvesting Oysters,” Sucia Lhéwqemeng, or “Place of Harvesting Mussels,” and Penáxweng, “Place of Harvesting Camas.”

Running low on provisions, the pilots turned southwest for the San Carlos when they were hit by a squall and drenched by an “abundant rain.” (June-uary was alive and well in 1791.) As they skirted the North Coast of what we know today as Orcas Island, Pantoja reported, “... another great archipelago of great and small islands” It was here that they spotted the mouth of San Juan Channel, which would have taken them to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Electing not to chance a maze leading nowhere with a hungry crew, Narvaez gave it a pass, but named the opening Archipelago de San Juan y Boca de Horcasitas—either in honor of the viceroy or the schooner, which was nicknamed La Horcasitas. Circling Waldron, they named it as well: Islas de Lemus for Francisco Gil y Lemos, the viceroy of Peru. As I said, no one was immune from influence peddling.

(Left) The Count of Revillagigedo;  (Right) Francisco Eliza

The archipelago was officially named by Eliza when the pilots returned with their data on June 24-25. Though no one explained the derivation of Isla y Archipelago de San Juan, it has been postulated for years that it also was in honor of Revillagigedo, whose first name was Juan. The problem is that while the count was possibly the greatest viceroy New Spain ever had, he was by no means a saint. True, San or Santa can merely mean “sacred.” But was he “most holy?” The historian Richard Blumenthal and other experts in the field suggest that Eliza may have named the archipelago San Juan because June 24 celebrates Saint John the Baptist. This was a little more elevated than naming a place for rocks or ducks, but the Samish called San Juan Island Lháqemesh for “Appear or Come Down,” a Garden of Eden in the Samish and Lummi origin story. We all know it’s a special place.

Excited by the prospect of a vast inland sea, Eliza moved on to a fresh anchorage at Puerto de Quadra or Discovery Bay. From there Narvaez, Carrasco and Verdia rowed directly toward Cattle Pass between San Juan and Lopez, but chose not to enter there, as a broader channel beckoned to the east. Perhaps sensing a connection with the northern mouth, they also named this pass Boca de Horcasites. After anchoring for the night in Shoal Bight off Lopez Island, they entered the Boca de Fidalgo and soon realized they were in an extensive channel, which required renaming to Canal de Fidalgo, today’s Rosario Strait. Along the way, they anchored in Ship Harbor (our ferry port) and named it Isla de Fidalgo. The vessels also may have rowed through Deception Pass, which they called Boca de Flon.

Before navigating Hale Passage into the Georgia Strait , they circled a broad bay on the eastern shore that gave onto mud flats. Envisioning a future safe harbor, Narvaez pronounced it Seno de Gaston, which was less-poetically renamed Bellingham Bay the next year by George Vancouver. Presumably this was done over a plate of wormy biscuit as Sir William Bellingham was head of stores for the Royal Navy. Seno means gulf or bay on sixth reference, bosom is the the first.

In a remarkable feat of navigation, the explorers then ventured up the Strait, past Point Roberts (called Zepeda) and into Burrard Inlet and the mouth of the Fraser River, which they mapped but did not name. With open water again giving way to island- and rock-strewn passages north of Texada Island, the pilots banked oars and turned to south, charting the west shore of the Strait as they went. Approaching the San Juans again, Narvaez and Carrasco told Eliza that “...they found in the great canal a large number of whales of great size, which I think must come in by some other way, since during the two months which I have passed in (Strait of Juan de) Fuca the crew has scarcely seen three or four. There is also an abundance of tunny fish.” (Chances are the Spanish witnessed a sockeye salmon run and mistook the hordes for bluefin tuna.)

After three long weeks of rowing, the weary crews returned to the San Carlos on July 22, whereupon they made immediate preparations to return to Nootka. Narvaez had hoped to push through the Ensenada de Caamano, which he believed opened into a large inland sea. That would be accomplished the next summer by George Vancouver, who was pleased to borrow and make copies of Narvaez’s remarkable charts.

If you seek the names and shapes of the individual islands on these charts you won’t find them. That’s because the Santa Saturnina never entered those bocas. Instead you’ll find a single mass that looks like a pork chop:The Archipelago y Islas de San Juan.

Next time: The British arrive and Charles Wilkes tries to erase history.

For further reading:

The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters: Journals and Logs from Six Expeditions, 1786-1792 by Richard W. Blumenthal;

Uncharted Waters: The Explorations of Jose Narvaez (1768-1840) by Jim McDowell; and

Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest: Maps of Exploration and Discovery by Derek Hayes.


Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest. 

Last modified onSaturday, 05 September 2020 16:51

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