Spanish Exploration: Hezeta (Heceta) and Bodega y Quadra Expedition of 1775 to Formally Claim the Pacific Northwest for Spain

  • By Antonio Sanchez
  • Posted 4/14/2004
  • Essay 5688

In March 1775, the second Spanish expedition, commanded by Bruno de Hezeta (sometimes spelled Heceta), sailed north from Mexico to Nueva Galicia (the Pacific Northwest). This expedition set forth shortly after Juan Perez returned from his historic first European journey to explore and map Spain’s farthest frontier on the west coast of the American continent. The mission of the second Spanish expedition was to successfully take formal possession of the land and to further exert Spain’s claim to Nueva Galicia. Having learned from the difficulties of sailing only one vessel during the first voyage, this expedition was carried out with three Mexican-built ships. Naval officers recently transferred to San Blas, Mexico, from the best naval academies in Spain were expressly recruited for the purpose of helping complete this important expedition. This time, Juan Perez was second in command.

The Vessels and Their Commanders

Bruno de Hezeta was given command of 90 men on the Santiago for this second voyage. Joining Hezeta as the second officer on the Santiago was the proven, yet cautious, sea-worn veteran of the first Pacific Northwest expedition, Juan Perez.

Juan Manual de Ayala was initially appointed the commanding officer of the 37-foot schooner Sonora, officially named the Nuestra Sonora de Guadalupe. This much smaller and more nimble two-masted supply ship served as the escort for the Santiago. It was needed to conduct costal mapping and reconnaissance in places where Juan Perez had been unable to navigate during the previous mission. Most importantly, the Sonora was to be used on this expedition for getting close enough to the coast to allow a crew to take formal possession of territory. To adapt it for the churning waves, unforgiving winds, rocky shoals, and strong currents of the northern Pacific sea, it was thoroughly refitted and careened in San Blas prior to the expedition under the watchful eyes of its commanders, Juan de Ayala and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1743-1794). Despite the skillful modifications it was noted that the ship was still much too cramped to comfortably accommodate the 16 crewmen packed on board for the long and arduous sojourn.

Lieutenant Bodega y Quadra, the only non-Spanish commander on this trip, was originally given the lesser position of second officer on the Sonora despite the fact that he outranked the others. Bodega y Quadra had all the qualifications and training necessary to be considered for a senior officer position. However, as a non-native Spaniard born in Lima, Peru, he was subject to the class prejudice common to Spain and the colonial Americas during that time. As such, he was passed over for promotions usually afforded native Spanish officers of equal training and skills.

The packetboat San Carlos carried provisions for the fledgling mission outpost at Monterey. It was also instructed to investigate and map the Bay of San Francisco, which a previous Spanish naval expedition had discovered in 1769. The San Carlos was initially under the command of Miguel Manrique. Jose de Canizarez was the steersman.

Beef, Beans, and Lard

With the exception of the San Carlos, the ships were outfitted and provisioned for one year with the same assortment of goods and supplies that were taken for the Perez expedition the previous year, with the exception that livestock was not taken. The supplies included several tons of jerked beef, more than a ton of dried fish, hardtack (a hard biscuit made of flour and water), a half-ton of lard, quantities of beans, rice, wheat, lentils, onions, cheese, chili peppers, salt, vinegar, sugar, pork, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, pepper, chocolate, barrels of brandy, barrels of wine, and an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

In total, 160 officers and men would take part in this expedition aboard the three ships. Added to the inherent difficulties of the fierce winds and waves that were common to this extent of the Pacific Northwest was the crew’s lack of maritime readiness. The majority of the crew was made up of Mexican Indian ranch hands who, though capable and strong, were completely untrained and unseasoned in naval duties and ill suited and unprepared to be sequestered for months aboard a cramped damp ship in open seas.

The Mission, and a Change in Command

Again under the shroud of secrecy, the Spanish northbound flotilla set sail on its expedition on March 16, 1775. The orders for the Sonora and Santiago, the two ships going beyond Monterey to the Pacific Northwest, were similar to the instructions the Viceroy had given to Juan Perez in 1774. The commanders were instructed to reach Latitude 65° North, make landfall, search for evidence of Russian intrusion, and conduct the formal act of possession.

However, just three days out of harbor, the San Carlos fired its canons twice and hoisted its red signal flag atop its mast. This was an emergency distress signal to the other two ships. When its companion ships arrived in response to the distress signal, they found Lieutenant Manrique in a state of total psychological breakdown and unable to function as commander. After a brief meeting, Hezeta ordered that the ill pilot be returned to San Blas immediately. This unexpected turn of events resulted in a three-day delay in the mission and a fortuitous change in the command. Juan de Ayala was now given command of the San Carlos and Bodega y Quadra assumed command of the Sonora. Bodega's pilot was Francisco Maurelle.

Once they were again at sea the schooner Sonora, now piloted by Bodega y Quadra, proved to be even less able to sail in the difficult open waters than originally expected. The Santiago had to resort to towing its escort ship for a period of time in an attempt to make headway. Despite a difficult and meandering journey, the ships finally sighted land off the coast of California on June 9, 1775. They anchored in the bay for two days, traded with the Indians, and formally claimed what is now Trinidad Bay, California, before they again sailed off.

A Jagged Green Coastline

It was not until July 11, 1775, that land was again sighted. What caught their eyes was the jagged green coastline of what is now Washington state. After cautiously maneuvering through dangerous shoals for another two days at Latitude 48° North, the ships found a favorable bay to land. This anchoring spot has been now identified as Point Grenville, several miles from the mouth of the Quinault River (Cook, p. 72). Due to unfavorable conditions, the Santiago kept its distance from the rocky shores while the smaller Sonora maneuvered closer towards land. As the Sonora advanced closer to the shore, nine canoes greeted the ship and quickly encircled it.

We now know that the Indians they encountered there were the Quinault (Scott, p. 40). Hezeta described them in his journal as having “beautiful faces … some fare color and others dark” (Beals, 1985, p. 76). The Indians motioned the crew of the Sonora to land and go ashore. They then approached the ship, boarded, initiated trade, and became friendly with the Hispanic crew. By the time the Indians departed at sunset it had been determined by Bodega that the Indians were apparently friendly. However, later that same evening the Quinault returned bearing more gifts, obliged by the presents that commander Bodega had given them previously. Again Bodega offered them additional trade items, but after receiving the gifts the Quinault men began a chorus of ominous chants, giving Bodega cause for concern.

The Historic Spanish Landing

At the cusp of sunrise on the morning of the next day (July 12), a single canoe bearing nine Quinault approached Hezeta’s ship and initiated another friendly round of trading. When the Quinault departed, a select group of men from the Santiago (including the commander, Father Benito de la Sierra, Don Cristobal Revilla, the surgeon Don Juan Gonzales, and Juan Perez) boarded the ship’s launch to conduct the formal act of possession. They successfully reached the shore and became the first non-Indians to set foot on what is now Washington state and formally take possession of this land.

It could now be officially considered part of Mexico and part of the Kingdom of Spain. As part of the ceremony, Hezeta named the landing spot Rada de Bucareli in honor of the Viceroy of Spain at that time. As would be the unfortunate trend to erase much of the original European (that is, Spanish) nomenclature of this area, it has since been renamed Grenville Bay. Approximately one hour after taking possession, the small launch quickly returned to the safety of the larger ship. The act was a monumental and historic event, but later that day the joys of that accomplishment would be swept away by the repercussions of having undertaken it.

While the Santiago was completing this task, low tides exposed rocky shoals that now trapped Bodega’s ship. The resulting conditions made it impossible to maneuver out of this rocky trap until the tide waters returned. When the ship was finally able to sail out of the shoal with the rising waters, it went to deeper water just a short distance from where it had been trapped.

A Tragic Encounter

The Quinault men who had visited the previous night showed up again the next morning and boarded the ship. This time, in a bold act of confidence, they brought with them three women, presumably their wives. In this friendly atmosphere, the Quinault traded salmon and other types of dried fish for glass beads.

After the Indians left, Bodega formed a landing party of seven of the most able crewmen to search for fresh water, cut some replacement masts, and gather firewood. Although the men were armed, all those aboard were under strict orders by the Viceroy to “not offend the Indians and only make use of the weapons in self defense” (Cook, p. 72).

With whitecap waves almost swamping the small landing boat, the men struggled to reach the shore some 30 yards from the mother ship. When the struggling boat finally reached the shore, several hundred Quinault Indians who were waiting in ambush suddenly appeared en masse from the dense shoreline thicket and pounced upon the unprotected landing party. In the ensuing fierce but quick battle, the Quinault succeeded in massacring all seven of the Spanish crew and then hacked the small landing boat to pieces in search of scraps of metal.

Bodega watched through his spyglass in horror, unable to save his men from the unexpected and unprovoked attack. In the ensuing chaos, the landing party was not able to, or chose not to, fire a single shot at their assailants. In commemoration of the unfortunate events that took place on that day, Bodega named the Point that we know as Point Grenville, “Punta de los Martires” (Point of the Martyrs).

With the aid of the few remaining able crew, Bodega struggled to maneuver the ship toward deeper and safer waters. Armed and determined Quinault men in their canoes paddled menacingly in close pursuit. Several of the warriors in the lead canoe were able to clamber aboard the retreating ship. Bodega reacted by ordering a volley of shots. The unfortunate assault killed several of the Quinault Indians yet thwarted the complete annihilation of Bodega and the remaining half dozen ill and injured crewmen.

Exhausted and remorseful, Bodega rendezvoused with Francisco Mourelle and the Santiago who were over a mile away and unaware of the horrors that had befallen their companions. The two commanders reunited and held a brief meeting to discuss what had occurred and their options. Upon taking a vote, they agreed to continue on the mission without seeking retribution for the massacre. Six crewmen from the Santiago were quickly transferred to the Sonora and the two ships quickly sailed away from the now unfriendly shores.

On the dark cold night of July 29, 1775, the sister ships separated, as planned by the two commanders. The Santiago, with Bruno de Hezeta at the helm meandered north until August 11 to about the border between what is now Washington and Canada. It was at this point that the ever cautious, and now quite frail, Juan Perez encouraged the commander to return back to San Blas, Mexico, with its sick and scurvy ridden crew. The much smaller ship, with Bodega y Quadra commanding, remained on its original course, steadfast and determined to reach its instructed destination of 60 degrees North.

The Spanish Sighting of the Columbia

In its return trip to San Blas, the Santiago shadowed the coast line mapping its new prize for the many Spanish ships that would soon follow. In the afternoon of August 17, 1775, Hezeta sighted a large bay between two capes, penetrating so far inland that it reached the horizon (Cook, p. 78). He named the high cliff on the north side of the entrance San Roque after a saint of that given name. It is now know as Cape Disappointment. The south side of the entrance to the river he called Leafy Cape. He gave the river mouth the name, “Bay of the Assumption of Our Lady” (Bahia de la Asuncion de Nuestra Senora) in honor of the Virgin Mary and the corresponding religious holiday celebrated in her honor every year during that week. This waterway is now known as the Columbia River. Hezeta became the first non-native to discover this magnificent body of water.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the poor health of his crew prevented him from navigating it. We know today that his unquestionable, detailed description of the currents and his maps are evidence of his accomplishment of being the first non-native to discover and name this river. Hezeta’s documented discovery was later credited to the American mariner Robert Gray, who sailed up the river and named it the Columbia River 17 years after Hezeta’s discovery.

The Sonora's Journey North

Now sailing alone and short of fresh water and food, Bodega and the crew of the Sonora unanimously agreed continue braving the uncharted course before them and keep the original mission alive. They pushed on and reached as far as what is now close to Sitka, Alaska, reaching 59Ëš North Latitude on August 15, 1775. There Hezeta and his crew completed successful acts of sovereignty, naming and claiming Puerto de los Remedios and Puerto de Bucareli and the Mount Jacinto, now called Edgecumbe. They continued north until September 8, when they turned south and headed for San Blas due to the illness of the commander and his crew.

With only two able seamen aboard, the Sonora finally dropped anchor at Monterey Bay on October 7, 1775.. This was five weeks after Hezeta had arrived with the Santiago. Bodega and Mourelle had to be carried off their ship. Over the next weeks the two commanders and the Sonora’s crew were nurtured back to health by the missionaries and their fellow expedition members from the Santiago. On the first of November the two boats again lifted their tired sails and together headed south to San Blas, Mexico, to report their adventures and accomplishments to the Viceroy and Carlos III, King of Spain.

The Death of Juan Perez

On November 3, 1775, aching from scurvy and poor health acquired on two heroic expeditions, Juan Perez died and was buried at sea with a solemn Mass in his honor, a round of musket fire, and a final fitting cannonade. Sailing for honor and his country, Perez’ accomplishments deserve to be more than a footnote in the annals of Pacific Northwest Coast maritime history. He was a true hero, having led expeditions where no European had gone before and providing the inspiration for others to follow.

This second voyage, although costly in terms of the deaths of crewmen and the strained relationship with the Indians, was historically very significant. The commanders produced accurate charts and maps that would later serve as proof of Spain’s claim to the costal territory from what is now Monterey, California, to the Gulf of Alaska. They dispelled the myths of the presence of Russian traders and settlements, and took formal possession according to international law. Bodega y Quadra, Francisco Mourelle (his second pilot), and an inexperienced native Mexican crew survived numerous close calls on their small ship.

They endured the ravages of scurvy, hunger, burning thrust, and biting cold to become the first European-led expedition to take possession and officially claim the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska. The brave crew members who undertook this harrowing ordeal with Juan Perez, voyaging into the unknown, also deserve to be recognized for their exceptional bravery and skill. Despite the secrecy of this expedition, it served to open the door to the Pacific Northwest and proved the talent and tenacity of the Hispanic Mariners.


For Honor and Country: The Diary of Bruno de Hezeta translated by Herbert K. Beals (Oregon Historical Society Press, 1985); Juan Perez on the Northwest Coast Six Documents of His Expeditions in 1774 translated by Herbert K. Beals (Oregon Historical Society Press, 1989); Herbert K. Beals, "Spanish Explorers in the Oregon Coast," in Nosotros: The Hispanic People of Oregon, Essays and Recollections ed. by Erasmo Gamboa and Carolyn Baun (Portland, Oregon: Oregon Council for the Humanities, 1995), 23-31; Warren L. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific Northwest; 1543-1819 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973); Nutka: Captain Cook and the Spanish Explorers on the Coast ed. by Barbara S. Efrat and W. J. Langlois (Victoria, B.C.: Sound Heritage, Aural History Provincial Archives of British Columbia, 1978); Erasmo Gamboa, "Washington’s Mexican Heritage: A View into the Spanish Explorations, 1774-1792,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History (Fall 1989), pp. 40-46; Erna Gunter, Indian Life on the Northwest Coast of North America As Seen by the Early Explorers and Fur Traders during the Last Decades of the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972); Robin Inglis, Spain and the North Pacific Coast: Essays in Recognition of the Bicentennial of the Malaspina Expedition, 1791-1792 (Vancouver: Vancouver Maritime Museum, 1992); Don Marshall, Who Discovered the Straits of Juan de Fuca? The Strange Tale of Apostolos Valerianos (Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1991); Lucile McDonald, Search for the Northwest Passage (Portland Oregon: Binfords and Mort Publishers, 1958); Santiago Saavedra To the Totem Shore: The Spanish Presence on the Northwest Coast (Madrid, Spain: Ediciones El Viso, 1986); James W. Scott Pacific Northwest Themes: Historical Essays in Honor of Keith A. Murray (Bellingham: Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Washington University, 1978); Gordon Speck, Northwest Explorations (Portland, Oregon: Binfords and Mort Publishers, 1954); Freeman Tovell, Bodega y Quadra Returns to the Americas (Burnaby, British Columbia: The Vancouver Conference on Exploration and Discovery, Department of History, Simon Fraser University, 1990); David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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