It is widely known that Alaska was a Russian territory before its incorporation into the United States in the year 1867. However, did you know that almost a century before this happened the Spanish claimed sovereignty over the entire Pacific Northwest, based on rules of International Law and that this gave rise to a conflict for which they almost went to war against England and Russia? In this article, we’ll review Spain’s intends to colonize Alaska.
The legal basis of Spain’s sovereignty over Alaska
On May 4, 1493, shortly after Columbus’s returned to Spain of his discovery voyages to America, Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera Papal Bull, a decree in which he fixed a meridian between the north and south poles, pointing out that all lands discovered to the west of said meridian belonged to the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.
This was the legal instrument with which the Spaniards based the conquest of a large part of the American continent. The Portuguese joined them afterward by virtue of the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494 by the kinds of Spain and Portugal. Despite the existence of such legal instruments, in the sixteenth century the French, Dutch and Germans also went after the conquest of America, and so did the Swedes, Russians and British in the seventeenth century. Finally, in the eighteenth century, it was the Danes turn.
As far as Alaska is concerned, history tells that the first Europeans who set foot on their lands (and on the North-American west coast in general) were the Russians, after two official expeditions commanded by Vito Bering (after whom the Bering Strait was named). This took place in the year 1742 in the Alexander Archipelago.
The fur trade in the Pacific Northwest
Bering died during his last expedition, but his crew returned to Russia carrying otter skins, which were considered the finest in the world, so this country decided to trade said skins. With this purpose, they settled the first of many Russian settlements in Alaska. Over time, this led to the constitution of the Russian America (1733-1867), which included Alaska’s territory and some Californian settlements as well, and the creation of the Russian-American Company (1799-1867) which monopolized Alaska’s fur trade.
However, the French were already selling fur in North America two centuries before the Russians did. Their commerce took place in the territory of the Viceroyalty of New France (1534-1763), since the 1580s. It was not until 1604 when the Gauls were able to settle on American soil by virtue of the commercial monopoly that was granted to them by Henry IV of France to Pierre Dugua, and which later passed into the hands of this companies: Compagnie des Marchands (1613-1620), Compagnie de Montmorency (1621-1627) and the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France (1627- 1662).
During the exercise of the fur trade monopoly by the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers, who were New France nationals, requested permission from, Marquis D’Argenson, New France’s current Governor, to explore Lake Superior’s North and West, because natives informed them that there was a frozen lake where the finest skins could be obtained. This permission was denied considering that this exploration could put at risk the fur trade that took place in the San Lorenzo River.
Radisson and Groseilliers obviated such refusal and went to explore the Hudson Bay, where they verified the truth of the said rumors and returned to their homes with skins of the highest quality. However, they were fined and imprisoned, also their skins were confiscated for contravening D’Argenson’s orders. Not satisfied with this, they sought support from the British to finance their idea of establishing a fur trade in Hudson Bay. Finally, they got support by Charles II of England and the Hudson Bay Company was created by a royal charter which also granted this company a monopoly over the region drained by rivers and streams that flow into Hudson Bay in northern Canada.
Spanish expeditions, sovereignty acts and toponyms (place names) in Alaska
Given the rumors about Russians and English trading fur in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska’s coast, Spain ordered the completion of a series of expeditions in order to establish their sovereignty over these lands, being the first of them the expedition of Juan José Pérez Hernández (1774). Although this expedition’s final destination was Alaska at 60º North Latitude (where Cordova, Alaska is currently located), because of the lack of provisions and his crew’s poor health, Pérez only reached the Langara Island, located at about 49.6º North Latitude, where he did not disembark due to bad weather, but interacted with the Haida natives.
From there, he turned south and arrived at Nootka Sound on August 7, 1774, and engaged in commercial trade with the natives, although he did not leave there immediately. On this trip, the first Spanish toponym was created in the Pacific Northwest: the area that today is designated as Mount Olympus in Washington, United States, was then named by Pérez the «Cerro Nevado de Santa Rosalía».
Later, there was a second expedition, this time by Bruno de Hezeta, Juan Manuel de Ayala and Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1775). It’s said that during such expedition, European entered the Bay of San Francisco for the first time. Once there, the following Spanish toponyms were designated: Punta de los Mártires (now called Point Grenville), Puerto de Bucareli (Bucareli Bay), Puerto de los Remedios (Remedies Port) and Cerro San Jacinto (San Jacinto Mountain). The latter was three years later renamed as Mount Edgecumbe by the British explorer James Cook. Finally, on this trip expedition the Spaniards reached Sitka, Alaska.
Then a third expedition took place, also commanded by Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1779), this time accompanied by Ignacio Arteaga. The purpose of this expedition was to investigate the extent of the Russian occupation in Alaska, find the Northwest Passage (the sea route that joins the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific, bordering North America) and capture James Cook in case they encountered him in Spanish waters. In spite of the many diseases suffered by the crew of this expedition, it got to a latitude of 61º, being this the northernmost point that the Spaniards reached in Alaska. The expeditions to Alaska resumed five years after the Treaty of Paris (1783) was signed. This treaty ended the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), a conflict in which Spain was an ally of the Thirteen Colonies.
The next expedition took place at the expense of Esteban José Martínez and Gonzálo López de Haro (1788), who arrived in Prince William Sound in May of that year, again after the track of the Russian fur trade. On this expedition the Spaniards visited Unalaska, the westernmost point they reached in all their expeditions to Alaska A month later, Haro arrived in Kodiak Island, where its natives informed him on the existence of a Russian position in Three Saints Bay. Spaniards then got in touch with the Russians, specifically with a contingent from this country led by Evstrat Delarov, who gave them a map that illustrated the location of seven Russian posts in the area, occupied by about 500 men. Also, Delarov informed the Spaniards about the Russian pretensions of occupying Nootka Sound during the following year, setting the stage for the Nootka Crisis.
Indeed, given the threat of the Russian occupation in Nootka, the then Viceroy of New Spain, Manuel Antonio Flórez, ordered Martinez and Haro to build a settlement in that territory, with the aim of affirming Spain’s sovereignty over these lands. Once Martinez arrived in Nootka Sound on May 5, 1789, he took the “Iphigenia Nubiana”, a ship owned by British John Meares, and caught William Douglas, its captain, releasing him a few days later after warning that he should leave and not to return. During the summer, other ships, also belonging to Meares, arrived and were seized by violating Spanish maritime trade rules. Meares was in China when this occurred and upon learning of what happened he left for England, arriving in this country in 1790.
Once in England, he alleged that he had bought some land on the coast of Friendly Cove in Nootka Sound to Maquinna, chief of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe (although this was later denied by Maquinna himself), and that he built an establishment in these lands before Martinez built his. Finally, he denounced the economic losses suffered by his company. The British, also maintained that they had previous rights to the Pacific Northwest by virtue of the explorations made in the area by their emissaries Francis Drake (1577-1580) and James Cook (1776-1779).
In May 1790, the House of Commons of the English Parliament discussed the matter and delivered an ultimatum to Spain, which considered going to war if France allied with them. The reason for this is that these nations had already supported each other in previous armed conflicts, by virtue of the Pacte de Familie subscribed by their monarchs in 1733, 1743 and 1761, respectively, with the purpose of allying themselves against the Kingdom of Great Britain.
However, Nootka Crisis’ events occurred during the French Restoration. For this reason, although Louis XVI would have supported Spain in a war caused by the conflict in question, the French National Constituent Assembly established that although initiating the war was the king’s prerogative, such declaration had to be ratified by the aforementioned Assembly, which never happened.
Spain and England celebrated the Nootka Conventions (1790, 1793 and 1794), under which not only Spain had to compensate Meares for legal damages, but also opened the doors for British colonization from Oregon to Alaska, thus putting an end to 300 years of exclusive sovereignty of the Spanish over this territory by virtue of international legal instruments.
The last Spanish expeditions in Alaska
Alejandro Malaspina and José de Bustamante (1789-1794) made an expedition of scientific nature around the world, in which they visited the Northwest Passage looking for precious stones, as well as to investigate the presence of British and Russian settlements in the area. They skirted the coast of William Sound and later made contact with the Tlingit in Yakutat Bay, whose culture they studied. In honor of Malaspina, another Spanish toponym was designated in Alaska: the Malaspina glacier, located between Icy Bay and Yakutat Bay.
In the expedition of Salvador Fidalgo (1790), Cordova Bay and Port Valdez (currently, Valdez) were named. There, sovereignty acts were executed by them, in addition to asserting the Spanish claim over a Russian settlement in Alexandrovsk, now called Nanwalek, Alaska.
Finally, Jacinto Camaño (1792) explored the south of the Prince of Wales islands, designating Spanish place names, some of which still exist: Revillagigedo Channel, Cordova Bay, Caamano Point and Boca de Quadra. Finally, by virtue of the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), Spain withdrew from the Pacific Northwest and transferred its claims regarding the region to the United States.