What’s in a Name? How a Sixteenth-Century Greek Still Holds Sway Over the Pacific Northwest

In the summer of 1787, Captain Charles William Barkley of the British trading vessel Imperial Eagle sailed into a previously uncharted strait along the northwestern Pacific coast of North America. Barkley had entered the waters of the northern Pacific to hunt sea otter pelts, with the intention to trade them in China “for a great profit.” Correctly locating his ship’s position along the 47th Parallel, and noting the channel which appeared to cut deep into the rocky interior of the coast, the British trader named his find the Strait of Juan de Fuca, after a Greek mariner he inferred had already discovered it nearly two hundred years earlier. From 1787 through today, the stretch of water lying between the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and Vancouver Island, Canada, has borne the name of this wayward Greek from the foggy past of European exploration, demonstrating the enduring links between name, myth, and memory.

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Captain Cook and other Eighteenth Century explorers doubted the de Fuca claims.

Barkley’s wife, along on the voyage of the Imperial Eagle, explained in her journal that “the entrance appeared to be about four leagues in width, and remained about that width as far as the eye can see. Capt. Barkley at once recognized it as the long lost strait of Juan de Fuca, which Captain Cook had so emphatically stated did not exist.”  The famous Captain James Cook had not been the only one to refute the legend of Juan de Fuca and his strait. By the mid-eighteenth century, the story and the man were thought of more as myth than as fact, and the channel, supposed to be the entrance to the Northwest Passage and the fabled Strait of Anián, was considered a fairy tale of early exploration.

This fable had first manifested itself in print in 1625 and told the story of a Greek mariner, sometimes called Apostolos Valerianos and other times Ioannis Phokás, who had enlisted in service of the Spanish Crown in the sixteenth century. John Douglas, a ship’s pilot, and Michael Lok, an Elizabethan diplomat to Ottoman Aleppo, came across the aged Greek in Venice in 1596 where he told his tale to the two Englishmen. According to Lok’s account, Phokás was from the Greek island of Cephalonia and had taken the moniker Juan de Fuca upon enlisting in Spain’s service as a mariner and pilot. The Greek had navigated Spanish ships into the Far East and Pacific, eventually coming ashore in Acapulco, Mexico and fell under the command of the viceroy there, Luis de Velaseo. Under Velaseo, he had piloted several expeditions north along the American coastline as navigator, reaching the shores of what would become Northern California and Oregon in the years between 1587 and 1592.map-pacific-jansson-1650

The objective for these expeditions in history is unknown, and no colonial Spanish documents have survived to corroborate de Fuca’s story. According to the Greek, these expeditions were sent “to discover the Strait of Anián, along the coast of the South-Sea [Pacific Ocean], and to fortify in that Strait, to resist the passage and proceedings of the English Nation, which were feared to pass through those Straits into the South Sea.” The Strait of Anián was believed to exist somewhere in the Northern Pacific, leading to navigable Northwest Passage into the Atlantic. Rumors of such a maritime passageway can be traced as far back as Marco Polo, and in the late sixteenth century, with European powers and their explorers vying for trade routes to the Far East, discovering and controlling such a strait was of utmost importance.

Finally, on a third expedition in 1592, de Fuca, with his two ships, found an inlet running far into the hinterland with a rocky spire at its entrance. According to the Greek adventurer, he and his men plied their vessels through the strait for twenty days until “being entred thus farre into the said Strait, and being come into the North Sea already, and finding the Sea wide enough everywhere” he assumed he had found the opening to the Atlantic. At this point, fearing Indian attack, de Fuca turned his ships back toward Mexico. He returned to the viceroy to report his discovery of the Strait of Anián, “a broad Inlet of Sea, between 47 and 48 degrees of Latitude.” Hoping to be well rewarded for his colossal finding, de Fuca became impatient with things in Mexico and returned to Spain to share his discovery and plead his reward with the Spanish court directly.  Disappointed by their disbelief, he left Spain a broken man, finding his way to Venice and his eager audience of Englishmen by 1596.

From its very advent, the story of Juan de Fuca’s strait was viewed with skepticism. It is clear that neither the authorities of New Spain nor the Spanish royal court saw his story as a tale worth investing in with a subsequent expedition to the supposed passage. After hearing de Fuca’s story in Venice, Lok wrote to England in support of the Greek and on his behalf, offered his services to Queen Elizabeth to lead a “voyage for the discovery of the Northwest Passage into the South Sea” if she would only grant him one ship of forty tons. Lok also wrote letters to famous Elizabethans like Sir Walter Rawleigh and Richard Hakluyt, imploring them to endorse an expedition in search of de Fuca’s passageway. All such supplications went unheeded by the English court, as they had with the Spanish counterpart, and de Fuca died in obscurity back on Cephalonia.

By the eighteenth century, well respected explorers from Russia, Spain, and Great Britain had all picked their way along the northern Pacific coast of America in search of the Strait of Anián with no luck, leading Captain Cook to make the emphatic declaration, after his own voyages to the region in the 1770s that the supposed strait simply did not exist. The Greek’s account was deemed fantastical with its descriptions of a “Land… very fruitfull, and rich of gold, silver, pearle, and other things” and many conjectured he had simply invented his discovery with the hope of being paid for knowledge by the Spanish or English authorities.

When the Imperial Eagle cruised around the headlands of the Olympic Peninsula to find that open inlet leading north by northeast, just as de Fuca’s account had described, however, Captain Barkley remembered the old story and began to connect the description of the channel with what he was seeing before him. In de Fuca’s account, he describes a rock spire coming out on the northern cape of the inlet. Captain Barkley spotted a rocky pinnacle rising up from the southern edge of the strait, made the jump to de Fuca’s northerly rock in his mind, and verified that this must be de Fuca’s strait of old. The presence of the strait before him, the latitudinal positioning, and an old legend of Northwest passages, were enough to bolster the confidence of an obscure British tradesman to the point of disagreeing with the greatest explorers of his day, such as Bering and Cook, in his naming of the strait after the long dead Greek.

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The Fuca Pillar rises out of the Northern Pacific mists as a constant reminder of the fabled Greek and his Northwest Passage.

The name stuck. Even today, it is called the Strait of Juan de Fuca from both the Canadian and U.S. sides. The rocky outcropping on Cape Flattery’s extremity is known as the Fuca pillar, named so by another British trader, John Meares, a year after Captain Barley first made the connection between the Pacific strait and the sixteenth century navigator. Meares perpetuated the presence of de Fuca even more by naming the mountains south of the strait the Olympic range and its highest peak, Mount Olympus, after the native land of the far reaching Greek mariner.

Whether or not Juan de Fuca, Apostolos Valerianos, or Ioannis Phokás ever actually made it as far north as the 47th Parallel and the strait leading into what today is Puget Sound and the Salish Sea is unclear. Regardless of the veracity of the old Greek’s story, his presence in the annals of European exploration and the geography of the Pacific Northwest is indisputable. The power of myth and memory is demonstrated through his namesakes, the strait and the pillar, Mount Olympus and the neighboring mountain range. That a story, born in the streets of an Italian city in the late sixteenth century, could transcend time and space, and influence both the explorers of the eighteenth century and the names into the 21st century is a testament to the strength and importance of compelling myth over the scraps of historical fact and documentation.

Sources:

“Indians and Europeans on the Northwest Coast: Historical Context” Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington

Samuel Purchas, Hakluyt Posthums, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, vol. 14 (New York: Macmillan, 1906), p. 415-18.

James King, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, London, 1784, Vol. III, p.437; quoted in The General Evening Post, 1 September, 1785.

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