PNW History! Pt1

If you ever have a chance to take a history at SFCC with Vance Youmans, do it. His lectures are like somethin you’d probably pay to watch. Here’s a midterm paper I did for his Pacific Northwest History class.

By Itznu Improbablealias

Formation of the Pacific Northwest

International involvement in Pacific Northwest history before 1867

From the early 1400’s to the mid 1800’s, the Pacific Northwest was the subject of international focus. Business driven by China and Coastal Natives firmly grabbed the attention of Spain, Britain, Russians, French, entreprenuers, and the United States.

The oversimplifications of history are meant to clarify but have caused misunderstandings. Modern historians have characterized Europe’s expansion across the Americas as an inevitable result of financial, cultural, and political events in Europe. U.S. expansion to the Pacific is also regarded as natural and predictable. The true story of how global political and financial forces all came together to form the modern Pacific Northwest is complex and powerful. The focus on the Pacific Northwest was truly global. Events as distant as the Midieval Silk Road acted to shape the modern Pacific Northwest in ways unique from the rest of the continental United States.

This region that we now think of as a natural and inevitable part of modern U.S. could have easily become part of the British Empire, a Russian State, a culturally French region like Quebec, a largely Catholic, Spanish speaking region, or a world power apart from the U.S. The Pacific Northwest we see today was not pre-destined or inevitable.

First Nations, through Tenth Nations

The prehistoric Northwest Coast was not heavily populated. Sea mammals, salmon, clean water, and lumber were abundant. Prehistoric intercontinental immigration waves into the region took place when people with genealogical ties to Siberia settled along the rich coasts to become various Salish speaking Coastal tribes. The relationships they formed with the less technicologically advanced peoples they displaced involved war, territorial compromises, intermarriage, and vital trade. Before European contact, the Pacific Northwest was populated by diverse groups without a single national identity or language. Wars were less common among the Pacific Northwesterners than in Europe, and it was smaller in scale. The abundant rescources shaped a culture with time for art. The fantastic lumber went into whaling boats and fortified, small towns. There was trade within and far beyond the region, suggesting some overall measure of peace and infrastructure. The methods of how the Coastal Tribes related to newly discovered peoples would later inform the way in which various tribes reacted to European presence.

Ming China

China’s role in North America is easy to miss because they did not explore or claim territories here. They seem removed from the political and military forces shaping European involvement in the New World, but their commercial influence was central. China was a main factor in European financial changes that led directly to a focus on the Pacific Northwest. With the rise of Muslim science and culture, Ottomans and Arabs came to control a lot of the trade in places where China was once the only international power. The silk road had been interrupted by instability in newly Muslim lands. The Ming Dynasty’s attitude was isolationist, so in the early 1400’s, their shipping and imperialism did not extend beyond Japan to the East, or the Ottoman Empire to the west. This led Chinese businessmen to seek trade from less developed nations like Russia and Northwest Europe.

In the 1400’s, Chinese trade was central to changes in Northwest Europe. The emergence of fractional reserve banking in Europe was funding wars and expansion. These European countries had a new middle class, a new world veiw, and a desire for exotic things like silk, tea, spices, precious gems, and opium. All of these things could be bought in China and sold in Europe at large markup, but only if you had something Chinese merchants wanted. This economic influence on Europe was central in the age of exploration. One of the goals of European explorations abroad was to find goods that China desired.

Chinese merchants during the era of European Expansion wanted precious metals and furs. Precious metals were the closest thing anyone had to a globally recognised currency. The Chinese upper class considered pelts of animals unknown in China as exotic and precious. Spain had come to controll neirly all the silver in the world by enslaving American Natives and making them dig. England and France couldn’t have traded effectively with China without a better source of silver, gold, or pelts.

Spainish Dominance

The first documented European claim to this specific region was made by Spain. Vasco Núñez de Balboa had successfully sailed up and down the West coast of the North American Continent. In the early 1500’s, this was a great achievement. Balboa’s explorations would be seen as legal verification of Spain’s earlier territorial claim. In the early days of Europe’s New World involvement, claims were easy to make. Since getting here was difficult for any European, and few wanted to challenge the rich and powerful Spanish Empire of the 1500’s, claims on land did not need to be defended militarily. They didn’t need to be occupied, or even known to exist. Spain’s claim to the Pacific Northwest made in the Papal Bull of 1493 was typical of how these early land claims worked. Spain, having sailed to some part of the continent, asked the Pope to sign their assertion that everything west of longitude 100 degrees was Spanish. The Pope’s permission granted Vatican approval for Spain to occupy or explore the undefined area as a gift from God to the Pope, then to Spain. Later in this story, the Pope’s political power in Europe would wane, and so would Spain’s. But in the early 1500’s, European crowned heads still feared excommunication. The Vatican was like a political head of power over much of Europe.

At that time, Spanish explorers had no way of knowing what they were claiming and had no clue as to it’s value. They had no way of defending it militarily, as they would need to do for a similar claim in any other continent. No Native American political body would ever ask the Vatican to reconsider. It could be years before any other Europeans could even see the area Spain wanted. For these reasons, vague and ridiculous land deals stood as law. The nebulous legal language was not questioned at the time. Spain’s claim on this distant, unknown region stood unchallenged for almost 300 years.

Famed English explorer, Sir Francis Drake came by in 1579 and claimed somewhere around the San Fransisco Bay as English, but it is uncertain how far north he went. Spain was able to take their time exploring the region. By the late 1700’s they started sending more explorers to see if there were fortunes like they had found elsewhere in The Americas. Spain dominated commerce from The Caribbean to Cape Horn. The early Portuguese explorers didn’t have enough military power to challenge Spain there. The entire Pacific was mainly Spains. Holland, France, England and others had a large industry in robbing Spanish treasure ships, but wouldn’t send any large naval fleets into the Pacific or the Caribbean

Spain was a major player in the Pacific Nortwest up until the War of Spanish Succession in 1702. Decline of Spanish power after the Nootka Controversy, and Pirate’s stories about the incredible profits Spain had gained in the New World fueled European interest in the Pacific Northwest for hundreds of years. It fueled interest in the entire west coast of the continent, but Spain’s early dominance stretched as far north as modern California. Russia was exploring and trading on the coast from the Bering Sea to Haida lands. This made the Pacific Northwest the last part of the American West Coast where anyone could find new plunder.

Russia Wanders Over

Peter the Great was Tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725. Unlike previous leaders, Peter was determined to make Russia a major world power like France, England, and Spain. He was obsessed with expanding and modernising. He pushed hard for the economic and political growth of Russia up until his death in 1725.

Talk of the New World was big among the crowned heads of Northwest Europe, and Peter was friends with some of them. The geology and position of the American West Coast was speculated on. The reported longitude of the Pacific North West and Eastern Siberia seemed very close. Russia was not in a position to compete militarily with Spain or England back then but they didn’t want to be left out of New World exploration; especially if this New World was a part of Siberia. In 1725, Vitus Bering, a Danish born seaman who had worked for Russia his entire career, recieved a strange letter from Peter the Great. The letter contained explicit orders for Bering to build two ships in Kamchatka, to sail down the coast of Siberia, and into this New World that Europe was so excited about. He was ordered see what the other countries were doing in the Pacific Northwest, and report back directly to the Tsar. England feared that Russia could find quicker, easier access to the Pacific Northwest than England could. Bering came to discover that the two continents were seperate, but just barely.

The Gap

Russian expansion into Alaska and down the coast was quiet and non-combative. They were peaceful toward Spain, and this distant truce would have far reaching effects. Russia was careful not to step on Spain’s toes, and the Pacific Northwest became a buffer zone between Spain’s Pacific dominion and Russian Coastal exploration. Russia would only venture so far south, and Spain was too busy from Peru to San Francisco to venture farther north. This is why the Pacific Northwest became so attractive to other nations. Russia was near, but not as dangerous or aggressive as Spain. Russia’s early presence influenced England to get there quickly. No one wanted to be the last to hear about an untapped resource.

British Sea Power

By the late 1700’s, diminishing resources, new banking practices, and expensive wars were pushing England to expand their Empire. Relations with Spain alternated between tense watchfullness and war. The enormous fortunes that Spain had gained in the New World might also exist in the Pacific Northwest. Britain was becoming the world’s foremost naval superpower and they could go places Russia couldn’t. Britain and other European nations all needed and hoped for a new source of easy plunder.

Specifically, England hoped that they could send a good explorer to this distant, barely claimed, unknown region and that said explorer would find some great economic resource that could easily be shipped to Asian market. For the plan to work, they needed a big river stretching far inland and a nice place for a port. There had long been rumors of a east to west waterway bisecting the whole continent. Such a waterway would have been a ready-made commercial infrastructure, making rescource plunder incredibly cheap and easy. Later, the geographic barrier of the continental divide and the Rockies would clarify these misunderstandings. In 1769, no one had mapped the interior, so the optimistic hope for this passage was not ignorant. England had one of the greatest sea explorers in history on their payroll, and sent him to the Pacific Northwest in 1776 to see what Spain was barely guarding.

Captain James Cook explored the region and gave hints to the abundant rescources here, but couldn’t verify the rumors of the east-west passage. He came from his familiar spots in Hawaii, to the Californian coast, and followed the coast north. An obvious cantidate for a inland waterway, from a modern perspective, would be the Columbia River. Historians wonder how Cook missed it. Cook was a good sailor but his ships were designed for long, straight courses across deep, open water. The tallship’s top speed was in a broad reach. Winds on that coast generally move south, and a long-keeled tallship like Cook’s Resolution or Discovery can take a long time to tack, even with a crack crew. European sails in the 1700’s were not as advanced as Chinese sails and could only point so high into the wind. They would have had to tack up the coast in a very wide zig-zag course. For these reasons it is not so surprising that a skilled explorer, sailing northward along the coast, could miss the huge mouth of the Columbia River. From far out at sea, the harsh seas of the Columbia Delta would have looked like more trees and waves, which they had been staring at for weeks. He was on the lookout for suitable inlets, and eventually entered the Salish Sea through the Straight of Juan DeFuca. (The name Juan DeFuca comes from a legend of a Greek explorer who started rumors of a huge inland waterway from the Pacific.) The entire inlet was full of dense fog, as usual. Cook was able to navigate his tallships well enough to land and resupply, but could not explore in detail.

The Nuu-chah-nulth people (Nootka) found them repairing their ships but made no aggressive moves. In the 1700’s, these tribes depended on fishing and whaling, but without the use of metals. They were eager to trade for metals and the English gained a large supply of furs. Furs worth a fish hook to the Nootka were worth gems to the Chinese. England suddenly had cause to challenge Spain’s tenuous claim. England also had reason to fear more expense and revenue loss, as their colonies in the Atlantic Americas had started talking about independence. Spain and England both stepped up the pace of exploration around modern day B.C.

Nootka Controversy

Nootka sound became an early flashpoint in the history of European involvement. In the larger picture, The Nootka Controversy may seem like a small incident but the story is revelatory of far-reaching events. It is worth discussing here in detail. It shows just how complicated, colorful, and strange the political and business climate was in the early Pacific Northwest.

Cook had missed the oppurtunity to start a trade port by Astoria. For this reason, Nootka sound was one of the first discovered areas that might make a good trade port. There were valuable rescources in the Pacific Northwest and the secret was getting out fast. The Native people there had been happily trading with whites since before Cook’s voyage. In 1789 Spain had discovered Russians and Britains in the area of Nootka Sound and feared that their ancient, loosely worded land claim might be contested. A Russian named Cusmich had blabbed that he would be setting up a fort there as soon as his ships came in, and that Russia had densely colonised much of the coast. It turned out that his fort was a small trading post, and his ships were stuck in Siberian ice, but Spain was nervous. Spain immediately sent a man called “His Most Catholic Majesty” (sic) Don Estevan Jose Martinez to the Pacific Northwest with orders to politely remind any English or Russian ships that they were on Spanish territory. Martinez was told he could sink anyone who wouldn’t listen to polite diplomacy. He had two fully armed warships.

Spain and England were not quite at war then and Spain was fairly friendly with Russia. Spain couldn’t afford more enemies, but also could not risk losing Pacific Northwest plunder-rights. Martinez was no Captain Cook, and had a hard voyage. When he finally arrived at Nootka, from the north, he was probably not ready to threaten the several ships he found there. Captn. Douglas’s ship, Iphigenia was one of the better British ships anchored in the Sound. She was flying Porteguese colors in hopes of avoiding a fight with Martinez. Martinez was extremely hospitable and generous with his alchohol but let it slip that the Iphigenia might make a good prize of war.

Far from the desolate bay the Spanish may have expected, Nootka Sound was already a busy trading port with American and Russian trade vessels, Native boats, and the occasional British Navy ship. Merchant vessels were showing up all over the area now called British Columbia. Big native canoes would come out in droves, some carried over 100 people, and they were all loaded down with pelts. The traders got them dirt cheap and went to China with them, via Hawaii. Ships establishing regular trade routes had been raking in huge amounts of cash. Chinese, Portuguese, Hawaiian, English, Dutch, French, and Russian seamen (and at least one Coastal Native) made regular treks across the Pacific to China and Nootka Sound.

In this busy trade environment, a businessman named John Meares purchased some big ships and came on the scene, eager to move some otter pelts. He captained one of the ships, and the other was the previously mentioned Iphigenia, still under Captn. Douglas. Captain Douglas was well aquainted with the area, and apparently a good sea captain. Meares didn’t hire as many white or Hawaiian seamen as most contemporary traders because he was very fond of the Chinese junkmen he had hired in China. Meares had written that “They have,” […] “been generally esteemed an hardy and industrious, as well as an ingenious race of people; they live on fish and rice, and, requiring but low wages, it is a matter also of economical consideration to employ them; and during the whole of the voyage there was every reason to be satisfied with their services. If hereafter trading posts should be established on the American coast a colony of this kind would be a very important acquisition.” (as reprinted in Mannings,Nootka Sound Controversy). He lamented that he could only hire 50 Chinese when hundreds wanted to work for him. Meares and Dougls set out to set up trade on a large scale. He planned to take the Chinese who wanted to work for him to start a settlement in Nootka Sound. He wanted to use all this cheap, skilled labor to build another trading vessel and expand operations. Prime ship building lumber that had become scarce and expensive elsewhere was free in the Pacific Northwest. With more large ships, each Pacific crossing would earn Meares a fortune. There was a side benefit of employing all his Chinese friends, maximising the return of the cheap labor. Meares came back to Nootka with the Chinese,a Native named Comecktlah, and considerable proceeds from Ming China. They started building a huge longhouse for the Chinese, with a ground floor like a factory row. They also built the first real European tallship made on the North American continent. Local Chiefs promised to safeguard the Chinese from opression when Meares was away, and were given gifts without reference to the awful irony. Meares traveled up and down the coast as the Adventure (called Northwest America at the time) was being built. During this time, more than one explorer showed up at the bay expecting to be the only ship there, but found a populated thriving trading harbor. In 1788 their ship was completed and launched with ceremony. An ethnically diverse crowd cheered on the Hawaiian who rode the ship into the bay from it’s dryslip like a surfboard. The Chinese carpenter realized he had forgotten the anchor and they had to run after the new ship in smaller boats to save it. A good time was had by all.

Meares was able to run another voyage to China and back, but when two of his ships returned to Nootkah sound, the Spanish were waiting. Martinez and his men came out to meet them in landing boats. One of Meares’ Captains nervously asked if they were armed but Martinez apparently just wanted to make friends and drink with Meares’ men. Meares was on another ship, still out in the Pacific. Martinez was again generous and asked about the huge fort-like building full of Chinese and Natives. While Martinez was making friends and sharing booze, the local traders were getting nervous. Don Martinez heard about a Meares plan to get Hawaiian wives for his Chinese junkmen, thereby breeding a master race of perfect seamen who would work for Meare’s fleet. This was a settlement plan for non-Spanish, non-Europeans, on Spanish territory, planned by a man with lots of plunder and several good ships. Martinez had finished making friends. He took Meares’ docked ship with a full hold and impressed the entire crew. Just then, Meares’ first ship arrived, Captained by a man named Hudson. Hudson saw Meare’s other ship flying Spanish colors and wouldn’t come into the bay. He new something had gone horribly wrong. The Spanish warships prepared to come out and attack this more sparsely armed old trading ship and Hudson surrendered. Martinez took that ship too, with her inventory and crew. Martinez set out for a Spanish port in Mexico with his new war prizes and a lot of Meare’s business. Many of Meare’s men were treated as prisoners by the Spanish. Eventually, Martinez turned them loose somewhere in California.

In 1790 the Nootka Controversy almost started a first world war. The British Admiralty was hearing strange stories about a Spanish ship in Mexico that had been seized from England in a colonization attempt. Since they couldn’t remember trying to colonize Nootka sound, and really didn’t like the Spanish at all, they looked into it further. Martinez had reclaimed the entire port and named it San Lorenzo. The Spanish then sent a strongly worded letter to The Duke of Leeds in England, asking him to “strongly punish” the English traders who had attempted to “colonise Spanish territory.” [Manning’s Nootka Sound Controversy, pp. 367, 368.] The Duke was not amused. Spain opened the return letter hoping for an apology that would further legitimize their shaky claim to Pacific Northwest ownership. The letter was, instead, a short eloquently written instruction on where they should stick it. The diplomatically worded insults flew back and forth and quickly escalated to threats of full war. Meanwhile, Meares was still well connected and had heard of the controversy. He came to the Duke of Leeds with lawyers, asking for a huge monetary compensation. Meares was egging on world powers towards a dangerous conflict. Since he was not working for England, an expensive war would have helped him do more business. He wanted his lucrative business back and secretly wanted to weaken military powers who hurt his trade. It took very little pushing from Meares. Spain started rounding up able-bodied soldiers and seamen and English spies reported it. King George started talking to his parliment about declaring war with Spain. The English who hated Spain pretended to care about Meares’ ships and asked for Martinez’s head. The Spanish who hated England said England was using the Nootka Controversy as an excuse to attack Spain and illegally seize their territories. Parliment pledged a million pounds toward the war. England started rounding up allies in Holland and Prussia and even the U.S. Colonies. These allies of Britain were payed with Spanish silver. Spain had less luck finding anyone willing to attack England, Prussia, U.S. Colonies and Holland. British ambassadors started calling the attack on Meares an insult to the British flag. Russia’s war with Sweden was starting to cool off and that meant more naval powers may have come into the fight on both sides. In previous times, the Vatican could have convinced more countries to back Spain, but European religion was ungergoing huge changes. Recent Protestant growth had weakened the Vatican’s influence. Spain sent ambassadors in an attempt to avoid the seemingly inevitable war. The negotiations to avoid the war eventually lead to a treaty giving Meares everything back (Including use of the port) and declaring the Pacific Northwest a no man’s land that no European nation could rightfully claim. Spain’s power was officially in decline after that treaty. These events opened the region to private fortunehunters from all over the globe.

Flying the Flag of Money

There is a big difference between Europe in the Pacific Northwest and a European in the Pacific Northwest. Even as Spanish power was in decline, Europeans were still jealous of the silver that Spain had pulled out of what is now Mexico and Peru. There was potential for big business in the Pacific Northwest, but no verified discovery of precious metals. French Government was preoccupied with their own colonies north of the Great Lakes, The bloody War of 1812 was about to begin. Anxious to fill Spain’s void in the Pacific, over a hundred private French merchant ships arrived to trade. The Nootka Controversy had made the port famous, and new, non-Spanish trading ports were opening further south. The French and English colonists in the east had already become culturally ,if not politically, seperate from England and France. Russian colonists from all over Alaska were now free to move farther south and trade with bigger international ports on the Pacific. French, English, and Russian people who came to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800’s were not acting on behalf of any political power. Like Meares, they were out to make money for themselves.

The exploits of these early businessmen are often overlooked in history but their stories have more to do with the cultural identity of America than the actions of English, Spanish, or French crowned heads. These early businessmen had more in common with early American colonists than they did with the great naval explorers and navy commanders. They were tough, resourceful, and skilled outdoorsmen. The first came in hopes of precious metals, but the easiest money to be made was in pelts. Chinese demand was still driving an economic revolution in Europe. This demand was supplied from the Pacific Northwest. The ports and ships needed for export business were long established by 1800, so they didn’t have to buy ocean ships to do business. All that was needed was the ability to survive in the wild, the ability to tan hides, the ability to trade with natives, and knowledge of inland waterways. Entrepreneurs could start trading posts without fighting over who owned the land. Whites who trapped and tanned were producers; not middlemen between Natives and Asia like the early businessmen were. There were skirmishes, intermarriages, territorial compromises, and fear between Whites and Native tribes. Native peoples mostly respected trade as the most preferable choice of possible foreign relations.

Exit Europe, Enter United States

Eventually, the national identity of these traders began to exist apart from Europe. The English colonies on the Atlantic side were becoming a real country. They weren’t a superpower like England, France, or Spain, but they had enough power to convince the English to relinquish sovereignty over the colonies. The U.S. was a latecomer to the scene because their military might didn’t match Europe’s. French political power on the continent had declined after the War of 1812. Spain had backed off of the Pacific Northwest after Nootka. When Napoleon came to power, Europe learned about a new kind of horror that would later be called “Total War”. Events in Europe were expensive and distracting. For part of the 1800’s, United States was left mostly alone on the northern continent. The U.S. didn’t know how long their isolation or independence would last, and worked hard to strengthen their position as fast as they could.

They had some very bad relations with Native Americans, but the kind of expansion the U.S. practised at that time was very different from European Imperialism. The tiny United States were mostly interested in economic expansion. They wanted to pacify natives enough to do business. They wanted the French trading port of New Orleans for international trade. They wanted to take furs and lumber out of the Northwest before a more powerful nation did. These U.S. aims, along with Napoleon’s decline, and truly bizarre events in Haiti would later help make the Pacific Northwest a U.S. territory.

Results of Global Influence

The emergence of the Pacific Northwest of 1867 was the result of global forces. Native Americans, China, Spain, Russia, Britain, entreprenuers, and the U.S. all exerted heavy influences. From the first European discovery to U.S. involvement, this region was shaped by the interests of countries all over the world. Without these long acting, international influences the history would have been completely different. At any point in the history events could have taken a radically different course. This series of unlikely events stretches back a long time. For example, if Chinas Silk Road trade had not been compromised in 1368, the Pacific Northwest would not be what it is today. The region had changed culturally, ethnicly, and politically but the diverse geography and abundant resources would continue to characterize the region.

In thelate 1800’s, culturally American fur trappers became the biggest influence in the Pacific Northwest. The traders had ethnic and cultural ties to Britain, Scandanavia, Native Tribes, France, Russia, Spain, Austria, and Prussia; but they had a newer national identity. They were Americans that came to the Pacific Northwest before U.S. borders did.


[The Nootka Sound Controversy. William Ray Manning, 1905]

[The Pacific Northwest. Carlos Arnoldo Schwantes, second ed. 1996,]


2 comments on “PNW History! Pt1”

  1. Thanks for helping out, great info .

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