The catalyst for European interest in the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century was Russian exploration. The Sv. Petr, under the command of Vitus Bering (1681-1741) arrived in the Aleutian Islands in 1741 as part of an exploratory expedition. The ship was wrecked, Bering died, and just enough of his crew survived to get home in a makeshift boat cobbled together from what was left of the Sv. Petr. They went back with sufficient sea otter pelts to win a small fortune. Russian entrepreneurs and shipowners were soon following in Bering’s path. Enslaving much of the indigenous Aleut (a.k.a. Unangan) population and terrorizing much of the rest, the Russian traders established a presence that eventually stretched south to California. These events occurred against a backdrop of growing Russian expansionism. Under Elizabeth of Russia and her successor, Catherine the Great, Russia’s imperial ambitions and aggressive posture grew. All this alarmed the Spanish (see below), who first heard of the move into Alaska in the imperial Russian court.
Bering and his successors may have had the blessings of the empresses, but they also faced great challenges, the first of which was supply lines. The huge cost of running their operation out of Okhotsk limited the Russians, which is one reason why they were largely uninterested in settlement until the 1780s and 1790s. The agricultural potential of Alaska, with its short growing season, was another impediment to self-sufficiency. The Russians faced further disadvantages in the marketplace. They were denied access to Guangzhou and had to carry their pelts across Siberia to Kyakhta, south of Lake Baikal, where they could cross the border into China. This added further costs.
Some of the competitive elements of the Russian trade began to consolidate by the 1780s. In 1799 Czar Paul I decreed a Russian-American border at 55°N (near the southern limit of the Alaskan panhandle) and chartered a joint stock company to take monopolistic control of the fur trade: the Russian American Company (RAC). Almost immediately the company’s chief manager, Alexander Andreyevich Baranov (1746-1819), adopted a policy of contracting out to American ships in the region. In 1803 two Russians and some 40 Aleuts and Alutiiq otter hunters sailed to Baja California on board an American ship. Over the next decade, it is believed that tens of thousands of otters were captured along the California coast by Alaskan Aboriginals in the employ of — or, more typically, enslaved by — the RAC and working from American ships.
The first permanent Russian (and thus the first European) settlement in Alaska was established at Novo-Arkhangelsk (New Archangel, or Sitka) in 1804, which hardened Russian claims to the territory. As well, in 1812 the Russians were able to leapfrog their British and American competition and establish Fort Ross (a.k.a. Fortress Ross) in what is now northern California. All of these events coloured the Russians as something of a wildcard on the coast: the vulnerabilities to RAC’s supply line sustained independent and sometimes reckless traders; Russian relations with the Lingít (Tlingit) were terrible and poisoned Aboriginal-newcomer relations south of the panhandle; and the Russians never entirely lost sight of the possibility of a Californian colony — Fort Ross remained in Russian hands until 1841.
In 1774 a Spanish naval expedition under Juan Pérez (ca. 1725-1775) worked its way north from California in an effort to assess the threat posed by the Russian presence in Alaska. According to the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), the whole of the West Coast was Spain’s to lose. The Portuguese honoured the treaty but the rest of Europe did not. Nor did the Aboriginal people of the northwest coast. And why should they? Spain had not ventured north of California, apart from the disputed 1592 voyage of Juan de Fuca in search of the legendary Strait of Anian.
Word of the Russian intrusion worried the Spanish sufficiently that in 1767 they established a naval station at San Blas and posts at San Diego and San Francisco two years later. Five years after that, the Spanish mustered Perez’s small expedition to chart and claim the North Pacific. Although the Spanish made their way as far north as Alaska and erected a cross there, they made no other landfall north of what is now Washington State. The Spanish were satisfied that there was no Russian presence between Mexico and 57°N.
A second expedition set out in 1779 under the Peruvian-born Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra (1744-1794), sailing north again to Alaska. On this occasion the Spanish were looking for the outlet of a “northwest passage” that would lead to the Arctic Ocean or perhaps to the Saskatchewan or the Missouri Rivers. They sailed to 61°N and went ashore to ritually claim the territory, then returned home, assuming the job was done and that they could now relax or at least focus on the freshly announced war with Britain.
Having run up the flag on the northwest coast in 1774 and 1779, the Spanish were surprised to find they needed to monitor and perhaps defend their position, though not, as they might have expected, against Russia. Britain’s appearance in 1778 in the form of James Cook’s third expedition alerted the Spanish to the need to establish a fixed position on the north coast. In 1788 a pair of Spanish ships made another voyage to Alaska, this time finding the Russians and discovering that they had plans to establish a post on Nootka Sound in the territory of the Mowachaht. Returning to Mexico, the Spanish launched yet another expedition, intent on claiming Nootka Sound for their own. When they arrived they found two American ships and one British; the Spanish banished the latter and then seized the North West America, a vessel owned by the British independent trader, John Meares, and built on Nootka Sound by a crew of Chinese workers brought to Yuquot by Meares — the first Chinese arrivals in British Columbia. The Spanish put the Chinese to work building Fort San Miguel, thereby creating a physical statement of sovereignty. These aggressive efforts to assert Spanish sovereignty provoked what became known as the Nootka Crisis, which began in 1789 and lasted five years.
In terms of developing Aboriginal-European interaction, the Spanish had one advantage over their contemporaries: they alone of the European and North American visitors to the North Pacific had an interest in territory first and commercial ventures second. Once the British were disabused of the existence of a northwest passage their only concern was furs. The same was true, only more so, of the Russians and Americans. In contrast, Bodega y Quadra was looking at the long term, and therefore thinking about building lasting relationships with the Aboriginal people. This was what he hoped to do at Fort Miguel in 1791-93.
Bodega y Quadra was, by all accounts — and certainly by George Vancouver’s account — charming, curious, and smart. The leading figure among the Mowachat, Maquinna (ca. 1795), was particularly impressed with Bodega y Quadra’s ability to assimilate local customs and to show respect to the local leaders. And Bodega y Quadra’s reports on matters in Nootka Sound from 1790 to 1793 were insightful. These include his belief that Euro-American traders cynically stirred up trouble in order to improve the market for guns and ammunition; that syphilis was spreading unchecked from British and American ships to the indigenous population; that traders from abroad were never above plundering the Nuu-chah-nulth villages if they didn’t get what they wanted under terms that they wanted; and that the European responses to minor thefts or single murders by the Aboriginal population was typically a violent overreaction. Bodega y Quadra spent two years repairing relations after Callicum, one of the Nuu-chah-nulth leaders and a close relation of Maquinna, was shot dead by the Spanish (under circumstances that remain unclear).
Like the Russians, the Spanish operated under several important disadvantages. While they could trade into Chinese seaports (unlike the Russians) their objective was to obtain Asian mercury to support their gold and silver processing operations in Mexico. The sea otter trade was, for the British, Americans, and Russians, about selling cheaply acquired pelts and obtaining highly desirable Chinese products — tea, silk, porcelain — for sale at a further profit in Europe. For the Spanish, it was about enhancing gold production in Mexico. The “Mercury Fleet,” as it was known, from Europe, however, could deliver materials more cheaply than the Spanish could in the Pacific.
As well, the Spanish could hardly muster sufficient resources to blast British, American, and Russian competition off the coast. For that reason, and because they sensed that Mexico’s security might be compromised by Britain and/or America, they retreated. As one historian has put it,