The recorded history of the Pacific Northwest begins four-and-a-quarter centuries ago, when two grizzled, gray-haired sailors met up in Renaissance Venice and struck up a conversation about the unexplored lands on opposite side of the globe.
History doesn’t report precisely where they met. But given their salty resumes, let’s assume a smoky waterfront tavern, an atmosphere given to sea stories, and a conversation lubricated by a jug(s) of chianti.
Whatever the venue, that conversation in 1596 eventually fueled the long quest for an ocean passage that, 200 years later, put the Pacific Northwest on the world map.
The ancient mariners were Englishman Michael Lok, a vagabond merchant from a successful London family, and Apostolos Valerianos, a Greek pilot who had sailed some 40 years for the Spanish, and was better known by his Spanish name, Juan de Fuca.
By that time, most of the world’s coastlines — Europe, Africa and Asia, South America and most of North America – had been mapped. The major unknowns were the polar areas, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest coast from Northern California to the Bering Sea.
There were good reasons this coast remained unexplored. To get here from there required a daunting, year-long voyage around the horn of South America or Africa, across the massive Pacific to the uncharted North Pacific. Europeans, especially the English, desperately yearned for a shortcut.
Lok had heard tales about a Greek ship pilot who claimed to have found the long-sought “Strait of Anian,” the northern channel which would dramatically shorten that voyage. So they arranged to meet.
According to Lok’s account, Juan de Fuca had sailed for the Spanish out of Mexico in 1592 in search of the fabled strait. And, Lok reported, the Greek had found it – “a broad inlet of Sea between 47 and 48 degrees latitude.” They had entered that inlet and explored for more than 20 days, following shorelines trending to the northwest and northeast – all of which suggested the strait as we know it, leading to Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia.
The two mariners stayed in touch, and Juan de Fuca’s story was passed along. But they were both dead by the time Lok’s account finally found its way into print – a chapter in the 1625 volume assembled by the Englishman Samuel Purchas, “Purchas His Pilgrimes.”
English sailors from George Weymouth to Henry Hudson seized on the fable and set out to find it from the Atlantic side of the continent, finding icy islands, bays and waterways which looked promising – until each voyage was blocked by polar ice. Those lucky enough to return attached their names to places like Hudson’s Bay, but never found that mysterious channel.
Meanwhile, Spanish sailors explored from the Pacific side, beating up the coast, but had no better luck retracing Juan de Fuca’s alleged voyage.
Mapmakers, however, were undeterred. Maps from the 17th and 18th centuries invented complex passages, weaving across the continent, linking two great oceans.
The Pacific Northwest remained a figment of various imaginations until 1778. While the War of Independence was being fought along the East Coast, Capt. James Cook was off on his third great voyage into the Pacific, this time with instructions to find that elusive passage. As his ship worked north up the Pacific coast, handicapped by weather and poor visibility, they caught a glimpse of a prominent, rocky point near 48 degrees latitude.
“It is in the very latitude we were now,” Cook wrote, “in where geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca. But we saw nothing like it, nor is there the least probability that iver such thing ever existed.”
He did see “a small opening” beyond that point, but darkness and weather forced him to change course and sail out to sea. When he sailed back the next day, he was some 50 miles north of the entrance.
Cook’s name for that point, Cape Flattery, mocked Juan de Fuca’s story. Britain’s most accomplished explorer and mapmaker, missed the fabled strait. His map of that voyage is an amazing document, tracing the coastline from California to the Bering Sea. But no inland sea and n Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Encouraged by his map, Cook was followed shortly by other sailors – English, Spanish and others. Some were motivated by their will for discovery, others by the prospect of getting rich from otter furs or whatever else might be found here. Either way, sailors made their mark by updating Cook’s map, and by attaching names to landmarks and waterways.
It was Englishman Charles Barkley who in 1787 finally sailed into the mysterious strait and named it for Juan de Fuca.
Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper showed up in 1790, and named landmarks for his fellow mariners – notably the deep harbor that he called Puerto de Bodega Y Quadra. Other Spaniards explored and named the San Juan Islands and associated waterways.
But the premier mapmaker was Englishman George Vancouver who in 1792 dropped anchor in Puerto Bodega y Quadra, renamed it Port Discovery, then spent the summer of 1792 mapping the straits, Puget Sound and points north. Major landmarks from Mount Rainier to Port Townsend and beyond took the names of his old Navy pals, most of whom never set eyes on the Pacific Ocean, let alone the Pacific Northwest.
But what about Apostolos Valerianos, aka Juan de Fuca? Did he ever sail into the fabled waterway that bears his name?
Historians differ. According to Michael Lok’s account, the entrance was at about 48 degrees – remarkable given the preposterous guesswork that showed up on maps of his day. His description of the natives “clad in animal furs,” living along a broad waterway with “diverse islands” and a rock pillar at the entrance, roughly fit with reality.
But Lok also recounted fanciful details, including a land “rich of gold, Silver, Pearle and other things.”
Stories evolve. Years elapsed between Juan de Fuca’s supposed voyage and his meeting with Lok, and more years before Lok’s account was published. Both sailors could be excused for aspirational memories. They were in marketing mode, hoping to profit mightily from their tale.
Perhaps some future researcher will stumble onto a crumbling document stored in a vault in Venice or Madrid, settling the question. But probably not.
The lesson is not about Juan de Fuca’s credibility, but rather about the extraordinary power of his story, real or imagined. From Moses and Dante to Shakespeare and Mark Twain, stories have fired the human imagination. And this was certainly true of the tale that emerged from that boozy conversation in Venice 427 years ago. Juan de Fuca’s story, passed along mostly by word of mouth, embellished and distorted with each retelling, nevertheless inspired 200 years of exploration that finally put this far corner on the map.
That story is our gold and silver, making it perfectly appropriate to know our Northwest strait by the name of a salty old Greek who may or may not have ever navigated it.