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Home > Cultural > History > Prehistory-1858 > Some Came by Sea

Oregon History: Some Came by Sea

Cape Sebastian marked the northernmost point of the exploration of Sebastian Vizcaino for Spain in 1603. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. curD0049)

Cape Sebastian marked the northernmost point of the exploration of Sebastian Vizcaino for Spain in 1603. (Oregon State Archives Photo No. curD0049)

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The first moment of contact was not recorded. Possibly it occurred when a Manila Galleon made a landfall somewhere along the Oregon Coast. How the viewers must have wondered when, looking out to sea, they saw a great ship, propelled by billowing sails, not paddles, scudding to the wind and laboring through the waves. The prospect for such an encounter unfolded in 1565 when the Spanish, after several years of probing for a route, finally found a means to send a vessel northeast from the Philippines to catch the great Japanese Current for a sweeping circular transit of the North Pacific. While normally the galleons--one per year for 250 years--did not make a landfall until south of Cape Mendocino in northern California, some did so farther north.

 

The San Francisco Xavier, one of 30 vessels that failed to arrive in Acapulco or any of the other destination ports along the west coast of New Spain (Mexico), likely wrecked in 1707 on the Nehalem sand spit near the base of Neahkahnie Mountain. Tillamook Indian tales of strangers in their midst, discoveries of large chunks of beeswax and a lidded silver vase, and legends of buried treasure hint that a wayward galleon may have crashed into the shore. A thousand-ton vessel, it was probably laden with silk, porcelain, altar pieces reworked in Asia from gold and silver shipped from Central America, pepper, cloves, and other luxury items--each stored in cargo space allotted to the merchants who controlled the monopoly of the galleon trade.

 

Spanish voyages in the North Pacific were part of the nation's efforts to seek colonies, mission fields, and wealth. As early as 1543 Bartolome Ferrelo, a surviving captain of the ill-fated expedition under Juan Cabrillo, may have sailed as far north as the Oregon-California border. He and his shipmates sought the fabled Straits of Anian--a passage through the continent. Cape Ferrelo on the south coast bears his name. Some also believe that Francis Drake sojourned on the Golden Hind in 1579 in coastal Oregon. Having raided Spanish ports and stolen immense wealth in his voyage northward from Cape Horn, Drake was hiding out before crossing the Pacific and rounding the world to return to England. Although his anchorage is claimed at sites in California, heralded in a marker at Cape Arago, and said to have been at Whale Cove, no one has produced conclusive evidence of his visit to Oregon. Sebastian Vizcaino, sailing for Spain in 1603, possibly sighted and named Cape Sebastian north of the California border. The promontory marked his northernmost exploration along the Pacific shoreline.

 

Then came silence. As had been the case for thousands of years, Oregon was wholly an Indian land. The mid-1700s, however, unleashed forces that would forever change native dominion in the American West. The forces were in part intellectual. Europe had engaged in a renaissance, a rekindling of energies and rediscovery of classical learning. Emerging nation-states took pride in commerce, art, and education. The turning point, however, was the Enlightenment. By the early 18th century, several nations had philosophical societies whose members hungered for knowledge and who sought natural laws or evidence for what governed the universe. They became eager students of the world. Carl Linne, a Swede, developed systems to classify all living things as plants or animals, seeking to order the descriptions and terminologies. Luke Howard, an Englishman, developed a nomenclature for clouds. Isaac Newton provided mathematical evidence on the working of gravity and descriptions of optics. The quest for knowledge, developing collections of "curiosities," and, in time, exploring unknown lands took on national significance.

 

British Captain James Cook made landfall at Cape Foulweather on the central Oregon coast in 1778. Shown above is the "Lookout at Cape Foulweather." (Oregon State Archives Photo No. lincD0015)

British Captain James Cook made landfall at Cape Foulweather on the central Oregon coast in 1778. Shown above is the "Lookout at Cape Foulweather." (Oregon State Archives Photo No. lincD0015)

The reaching out of Russians to the Aleutians and into Alaska between 1728 and 1769 shocked the Spanish. Following the discoveries of Vitus Bering, Russian fur seekers swept into the region, destroying Aleut villages, enslaving the natives, and securing riches by shipping furs to the Asian and European markets. A cardinal principle of Spain, exercised since the 1520s, was to create protective borderlands to insulate her wealthiest colonies from foreign predators. By the 1760s, officials in New Spain were gravely worried that the Russians, somewhere to the north, might fall upon their outlying colonies in Baja California, Pimeria Alta (Arizona), or New Mexico. Viceroy Antonio de Bucareli in 1769 thus dispatched Gaspar de Portola by sea and Juan Batista de Anza by land with priests, soldiers, and families of workers to establish a new borderland--Alta California. Within two decades these Spanish colonists had a chain of missions, presidios, and pueblos extending from San Diego to San Francisco Bay.

 

When the Russians did not appear, the Spanish reached out again. In 1775 the viceroy ordered the first of a series of maritime expeditions to explore the coastline northward. The voyages of Juan Perez, Bruno Hezeta, and Bodega y Quadra gave more form to the European understanding of the coast. Working under wretched conditions, sailing against the current and suffering from ill health and spoiled water, the mariners nevertheless began an important era in exploration.

 

The British came next. In 1778 Captain James Cook, aboard H.M.S. Resolution, made a landfall on the central Oregon coast. He commemorated the day by naming the headland Cape Foulweather. A famed mariner who had twice before explored the Pacific, Cook was sent to find the Northwest Passage, a mythical sea route through the continent. He could not find what did not exist, but Cook sailed north to the Arctic Ocean and charted much of the outer coast. The Spanish responded immediately and dispatched Ignacio de Arteaga and Bodega y Quadra in 1779 to explore parts of coastal Alaska. In the 1780s the French expedition under Comte de Laperouse and the Spanish expedition under Alessandro Malaspina sailed the shore to chart, collect specimens of natural history and native culture, and assess the prospects of new colonies.

 

Significant in discerning the features of coastal Oregon were the labors of independent mariners, dispatched not by their governments but by investors who sought wealth through the fur trade. Cook's men discovered when they reached China in 1779 that a sea otter pelt purchased for a broken file or a few brass buttons brought a thousand-fold return when bartered to the merchants of the Pearl River delta. Captain John Meares of England and Captain Robert Gray of Boston both sailed the coast of Oregon in 1788-89 and traded with natives who paddled out to sea in their canoes or who, in Gray's trade at Tillamook Bay, dared to barter with the foreigners who sailed across the bar and dropped anchor near their villages.

 

Captain Robert Gray traded with Native Americans at Tillamook Bay in the late 1780s.

Captain Robert Gray traded with Native Americans at Tillamook Bay in the late 1780s. Learn more about Gray.

On a second voyage to the coast in 1792, Gray decided to risk a perilous crossing, the unknown bar of the Columbia River. Although the river had been discerned by Hezeta and tentatively designated Rio San Roque, no mariner had entered it. Gray did. He and his men sailed through the breakers and over the shoals, passing the base of Cape Disappointment, named in frustration by Meares on a previous voyage, and dropped anchor in the broad estuary of the great river. Gray named it Columbia in honor of his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. A few weeks later Gray encountered the exploring party headed by Captain George Vancouver, another British expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Gray told Vancouver of his "discovery" of the Columbia, a watershed known and occupied by thousands of people for at least 10,000 years. Vancouver could not resist. He dispatched Lieutenant William Broughton aboard the Chatham into the Columbia to chart its course. Broughton used two whaleboats to conduct reconnaissance as far east as the entrance to the Columbia Gorge, noting depths of the channel and Indian villages along the shore, persuaded, at last, that the river did not pass through the continent.

 

By the end of the 18th century an estimated 300 vessels from a dozen different countries had sailed to the Northwest Coast. Some of these had passed along the shores of Oregon. The logs of James Cook, John Meares, Robert Gray, John Boit, and Robert Haswell, as well as eight diaries of George Vancouver's shipmates recorded first impressions of the land and its people. "They were of a middling size with mild pleasing features & nowise sullen or distrustful in their behaviour," wrote Dr. Archibald Menzies in 1792 when describing the Quah-to-mah Indians near Cape Blanco.

 

The mariners named headlands, charted offshore rocks, explored some of the estuaries, notably the Columbia and Puget Sound, and obtained useful knowledge. The narratives of Cook and Vancouver were published shortly after their journeys. They whetted the appetite of others who wanted to know more about these lands. The collections of bows, arrows, baskets, and plants secured by Vancouver's expedition went into the holdings of the British Museum. What had been unknown was now better understood. The currents of the Enlightenment had swept halfway round the world and touched the Oregon Country.

 

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