It was on March 7, 1778, that British explorer Captain James Cook arrived just off the coast of what’s now Oregon.
Cook and his expedition crew aboard the ships Resolution and Discovery — including a young George Vancouver — worked their way up the coast in preparation to search for the Northwest Passage north of 65 degrees latitude.
Later in March, to prepare for their search — making repairs to the ship, getting fresh water, and collecting firewood — Cook and members of his crew went ashore at a place now called Nootka Island, within Nootka Sound on the north coast of Vancouver Island.
Catherine Gilbert, a British Columbia historian, says this was a momentous occasion.
“Nootka Sound is the first place we’re aware of on the West Coast of the continent that there was an interaction between Europeans and First Nations people,” Gilbert said. “It’s considered to be the birthplace of West Coast history, particularly for British Columbia.”
Gilbert makes it clear that the term “birthplace” of history applies specifically to the political history of British Columbia, not to the indigenous people who have been here for millennia. Further complicating the story a bit, Gilbert says, is that the Spanish were at Nootka in 1774, but did not go ashore.
Nootka Island today
While there were likely hundreds of natives living there in the 1770s, today, there are just four members of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation still living in Yuquot, not far from where Captain Cook first landed on Nootka Island.
One of them is 76-year-old Ray Williams. He was born on Nootka Island and has lived there all of his life.
Williams says that he remembers hearing stories from his father and grandfather about what happened in March 1778 — 240 years ago this month — when Captain Cook first approached the island and was close to shore, looking for a good place to land.
“When he arrived here, our people, our Mowachaht people, said ‘itchme nutka.’ It means ‘circle the island.’ [Cook and his crew] couldn’t pronounce ‘itchme nutka’ so they started calling it ‘Nootka’ because they couldn’t pronounce the [indigenous] word.”
David Nicandri, the former director of the Washington State Historical Society, recently authored a book about Captain Cook.
Nicandri says that apart from misinterpreting the name of the island and sound as “Nootka,” Captain Cook also contributed to the start of the fur trade from the Northwest Coast to Asia.
When an account of Cook’s voyage was published in 1784, Nicandri says, it included what was essentially a “business plan” that inspired British and Americans to head here for furs – which led to British and American efforts to claim the territory that weren’t sorted out until 1846.
And, Nicandri says, Captain Cook’s landing also had a significant geopolitical impact that we still experience pretty much all the time — even by simply speaking the dominant language here – by introducing Great Britain and the United States to an area of the world where previously only Spain and Russia had imperial plans.
“That completely transforms what I would call the imperial trajectory,” Nicandri said. “What was moving otherwise to some kind of a division point between the Spanish zone of influence and Russian zone of influence, was interposed by the Anglo-American zone, which of course became known historically as the Oregon Country.”
In other words, without Cook landing at Nootka 240 years ago, the Pacific Northwest might today be either in Russian or Spanish hands.
Reminders of the past
And the Spanish presence in the old Northwest is an intriguing and nowadays almost invisible part of the history here. There are plenty of Spanish place names still in use — Fidalgo Island, Lopez Island, Rosario Strait and so on — but there isn’t much in the way of tangible evidence of Spanish activity on shore.
Not far from where Ray Williams lives in Yuquot, Tim Cyr and his family have operated Nootka Island Lodge for more than 30 years. Cyr says that when he first visited the island in the late 1970s, there were still remains and artifacts from Spanish sailors visible in burial caves. The caves still exist, but the Spanish artifacts disappeared years ago, Cyr says.
However, Ray Williams says, there is at least one reminder of the Spanish still remaining on Nootka Island.
“When the Spanish were here, they built a well out of bricks dug into the earth and lined the hole with bricks, and made it into a well,” Williams said. “And it’s still here.”
And so are the stories.