At daybreak on Saturday, 7 March, 1778, Captain James Cook finally entered the discovery zone for his Third Voyage, four months shy of two years after its commencement. Having steered north from Hawai`i to catch the westerlies that would carry him to the Pacific shore of North America, “the long looked for Coast of new Albion was seen extending from NE to SE distant 10 or 12 leagues”.1 The latitude was recorded as being 44° 33ʹ North.
Contrary to Oregon legend, the first distinctive land form that Cook sighted was not “Cape Foul Weather”. Initially he gave a general description of the landscape as being “of a moderate height, diversifed with hill and Vally and almost every where covered with wood”.2 The only “remarkable” aspect of the scene was a flat-topped hill—Cook was always partial to this particular type of landform. Beaglehole, in his edition of Cook’s Journal, surmised it was Marys Peak, which is two dozen miles inland, southwest of modern Corvallis, Oregon, in the heart of the Willamette Valley. However, Marys Peak is not particularly flat at top. Modern maps also show a “Table Mountain” on virtually the same parallel only ten miles from the coast, southeast of Newport, Oregon. This one seems more likely to be the flat-topped hill that first caught Cook’s attention.
Cook did not choose New Albion as the name for his landfall cavalierly. In his instructions from the Admiralty (which he had a strong hand in writing), Cook was told that, after dropping off Mai (Omai) and making presents to Polynesian royalty, he was to “proceed in as direct a Course as you can to the Coast of New Albion, endeavouring to fall in with it in the Latitude of 45° 0ʹ North; and taking care, in your way thither, not to lose any time in search of new Lands, or to stop at any you may fall in with, unless you find it necessary to recruit your wood and water”.3 These instructions explain why Cook spent such little time at the Hawaiian Islands, which he serendipitously ran right into whilst northbound. Instead, he moored the idea of returning there later if circumstances permitted, which they did—fatally for him as it turned out.
Ever faithful to the prescribed mission, Cook’s sighting of America at 44° 33ʹ N was within half a degree of what the Admiralty had required of him—45° 0ʹ N.
Nova Albion was Francis Drake’s name for the land he claimed for Queen Elizabeth I of England in mid-June 1579. The name he chose draws on an archaic reference for the British Isles. He did so, it has been suggested, “because the white sea cliffs he found there bore a resemblance to the white cliffs of Dover”.4 It is interesting to note, therefore, that some forty plus years before the Mayflower pilgrims founded their “Nova Albion” in the place that is still named New England, Britain had established her first claim to territory on the opposite side of the continent of America. This claim was not extinguished until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, when Britain and the United States of America settled the American/Canadian border in the west at 49º N.
Cook was the first English navigator to approach New Albion after Drake, just one year shy of being two centuries later. The lack of success that English navigators had experienced for 200 years in attempting to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, via Hudson Bay and inlets farther north opposite Greenland, betokened a national obsession with that route, and a conviction that “personal and national fortunes could be won in the distant reaches of the South Sea”.5 As early as 1527, a Bristol merchant named Robert Thorne, living in Seville, Spain, raised with Henry VIII the prospect of sailing across the top of America into the South Sea “on the back side of New Found Land”, which would not only bring ships to Cathay but also “toward the lands and Islands situated between the Tropikes, and under the Equinoctiall, without doubte they shall find there the richest landes and Islandes of the world of golde precious stones, balmes, spices and other things that we here esteeme most”.6 In other words, commerce with Asia was not the only possible prize. Locating and establishing an English presence in the spice regions of the Pacific was also firmly in the discussion.
The actual objectives of Drake’s voyage are still debated. Was he merely extending his Caribbean plundering at Spain’s expense into the Pacific? Was there a larger purpose, perhaps, to establish a foothold in southern South America, or on adjacent islands not yet under Spanish control? And what about that Northwest Passage as a way home? Cryptically, Drake himself wrote during the voyage that he came “for a greater purpose than that of seizing vessels”.7 Likely, it included consolidating a challenge to Spanish (and French) designs in the Pacific for commercial advantage, and confirming the existence of a Northwest Passage that would cut the distance of a voyage to China by over twenty percent.
Cook brought with him in 1778 not only knowledge of Drake’s voyage and its claim to a part of Pacific North America, but also a healthy respect for Spanish interests in the Americas. He also knew well his government’s desire not to alienate this European power and, at that very moment unbeknownst to Cook, Spain was actually activating its alliance with France in support of the American War of Independence. In addition, Cook brought exposure to the then widely-held view that there was a water passage though the middle of the North American continent, linked to the stories of Juan de Fuca and Admiral de Fonte. Only the first of these stories is of concern in this essay.
After his landfall off Oregon, Cook soon had an opportunity to comment on the Fuca legend, a story first published in 1625 by Samuel Purchas in a collection of voyage histories, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his pilgrims.8 The account explained how, in 1596, an English merchant, Michael Lok, encountered in Venice an old Greek pilot, Juan de Fuca, long in Spanish service in the Caribbean and Pacific. As related, Fuca had been sent by the Viceroy of Mexico on two expeditions north to search for the Strait of Anian, said to separate Asia from America, and to lead to the Northwest Passage. As the story goes, on the second voyage in 1592, Fuca discovered a “broad Inlet of Sea” between 47º N and 48º N. He entered past “an exceeding high Pinacle, or spired Rocke” to a land where people were “clad in Beasts skins”, and which was “very fruitfull and rich of gold, Silver, Pearle, and other things like Nova Spania”. After having “done the thing which he was sent to doe” he returned to New Spain, hoping to be rewarded greatly by the Viceroy. Disappointed both in New Spain, and later in Spain itself, that no reward was forthcoming, he came to Italy “to goe home againe and live among his owne Kindred and Countrimen, he being very old”.9
Despite some obvious falsehoods in Fuca’s story, he was a real person who had sailed along the west coasts of South and Central America.
As it should happen, in 1577, Drake seized a small ship at Valparaiso in Chile, whose pilot was Greek and named “Juan”. Drake relieved the vessel of its gold valued at no less than 24,000 pesos, took “Juan” on board, and later transferred him to another ship he had captured north of Callao (the port of Lima) in Peru. In April 1587, Thomas Cavendish, who had followed Drake’s pioneering voyage into the Pacific on another expedition to harass Spanish shipping, captured a small bark with a Greek pilot named “George” who, like Drake, he also took on board. With their knowledge of local waters, pilots were always extremely useful.
It is not clear, however, if this pilot was with Cavendish when, in November, he captured the Manila galleon Santa Ana off Cabo San Lucas. In his story as told by Michael Lok, Fuca says that he was on board the galleon “whereby he lost 60,000 Duckets of his owne goods”, a sum so incredible that it strains credulity (equivalent to US$4 million today). Henry Wagner, an historian of early California who studied Fuca, believed that in the unlikely event that Fuca actually lost any personal money to either Drake or Cavendish, it was nevertheless a nice embellishment that set up Fuca as a victim, desperate to recoup his losses by voyaging back to his recently discovered Strait of Anian with all its gold, silver and pearls. Wagner puts Fuca in Mexico between 1588 and 1593 (a decade after Drake was in those waters), at a time when voyages into the Gulf of California to set up pearl fisheries off Baja California were in the news, and when it was still believed that California was an island, whose “gulf” somehow opened up into the Strait of Anian, and thus into the legendary passage.10 Fuca may well have sailed on a pearl-fishing voyage in 1592.
For our purposes here, all we need to know is that Michael Lok was a well-born, ambitious, energetic and well-connected London merchant.11 He was a noted schemer of commercial voyages aimed at connecting different parts of the world. Above all he was a tireless believer in the existence of the Northwest Passage, and of the promise of a shorter route to the Far East, despite being bankrupted and then serving time in a debtor’s prison following losses from a significant investment in the failed voyages of the English explorer Martin Frobisher. Meeting Juan de Fuca in Venice in April 1596, where he was pursuing a lawsuit against the Company of Merchants of Turkey, Lok must have immediately seen in Fuca’s experiences in South America and New Spain, the chance to promote a voyage that, like Cook’s some 180 years later, would be aimed at Anian’s cartographic successors at the Pacific end of the Northwest Passage.
How much of Fuca’s published tale was concocted by Lok, or was spun into fantasy by Fuca, we will never know. However, as a vehicle for promoting a voyage for both parties it has a certain charm and persuasion that still tantalizes us today. It is hard to believe that an aged pilot would be entrusted with not only one but two voyages to the far north Pacific—the first an expedition of three ships, the second a solo vessel. It is also true that no records of such voyages are known to exist in the Spanish or Mexican archives. The maritime historian Barry Gough may be right in saying that this absence does not negate the view that voyages might have occurred.12 However, the Spanish system of record-keeping that produced multiple copies of documents would surely have allowed scholars to turn up something.
It is undeniable that there is a significant strait entering the coast at 48ºN, and that there is a pillar or “spired” rock at its entrance, albeit on the southern, not the northern, side where Fuca had it. Was it a pure, odds-defying coincidence, or had someone been in the location? If not Fuca, might that someone have been Drake?
As with Cook’s voyages there are issues and aspects of Drake’s voyage that scholars and enthusiasts revisit endlessly. The principal controversy here involves the location of Drake’s anchorage, his “faire and good bay” on America’s Pacific slope. Was it indeed “Drakes Bay” just north of San Francisco, which has become the orthodox contention, or on the central Oregon coast, as archaeologist Melissa Darby recently posits in her compelling revisionist account.13 Citing Drake’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, and his nephew John Drake, she argues that Drake sailed well beyond the California/Oregon border, to at least 48°N.14 If Darby is correct, it raises a question that is at the heart of our essay: Could Drake have had a role in seeding the Fuca legend? Given Drake’s propensity for taking captive local pilots of Iberian ancestry to facilitate his own navigation, as they were more familiar with their own waters, was Fuca, or someone Fuca had become familiar with in Spanish service, in Drake’s ship, Golden Hind, when she ventured into the North Pacific?
Upon seeing the coast of New Albion on 7 March, 1778, Cook did not dwell on the history of Drake’s voyage, but Lieutenant James King did. In his journal, King wrote, “This part of the Continent of America has not so far as we know, ever before been seen; for there is no certain accounts [emphasis added] of any Navigators being so high as 44° of Latitude excepting Sr Francis Drake & Vizcaino”.15 Sebastian Vizcaino was a Spaniard who had explored the Californian coast in 1602-3. Both sailors, King added, were reported to have first landed closer to the 38th parallel near San Francisco Bay, and both “were stopt from proceeding farther to the North than 44, from the rigour of the Climate”, Drake “expressly so, although in June”. Here King touches on one of the intriguing aspects of the Drake accounts—the unseasonably cold weather, despite it being mid-summer. King added the qualifying “although” because, as he wrote at the time, he found it “Extraordinary, as we in a much earlier season, have it milder than it is on the Eastern Coast of the Continent, not having as yet experienced any bad or Cold Weather, nay not even a rough or blowing day since we left the Islands” of Hawai`i.
The “uncommon mildness of the Weather” as King described it,16 changed in a day’s time at Cape Foulweather, north of Cook’s initial Oregon landfall. However, the larger point is that King anticipated the controversy that has raged among modern Drake scholars in North America for the last century and a half. Darby maintains that Drake, after his piratical exploits farther south, sailed at least as far as 48°N intending to find the Pacific Gateway to the legendary Northwest Passage. She argues, cogently, that Queen Elizabeth, her ministers, and perhaps Drake himself, conspired to hide this aspect of Drake’s voyage, and not merely to suppress Spanish suspicions about English ambitions relative to the Northwest Passage. According to Darby, they ended up falsifying the extent of Drake’s northern reach because in the short-term there was a more important goal for English statecraft—circumscribing the Spanish claim to the Pacific shore. Navigators sailing on behalf of the Spanish King were, in Drake’s time, known to have reached only 38°N. Darby argues that because Drake actually conducted his sovereignty rite at or near 44°N, on the way south from his more northerly reach, it was realized upon his homecoming that he had left a 6° latitudinal gap between the southern limit of England’s claim and Spain’s at San Francisco. This gap was a problem because it opened up the possibility of allowing Spain’s title to be extended northward.
After Drake returned home in 1580, his journal and chart were put under lock and key, and even a generalized discussion of his voyage was actively suppressed by the Privy Council in 1587. The principal motivation was to shield Drake’s depredations from public view. But no less a figure than the 16th century cartographer Gerhard Mercator complained about this concealment, wondering why so little was known about the course of Drake’s voyage. It was only after the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588) that Richard Hakluyt’s book, Principall Navigations (1589), included an account of Drake’s voyage, drawing on the manuscript written by Francis Fletcher. In his original document, Fletcher discussed a “good and fair bay” at 44°N where Drake careened Golden Hind and conducted his sovereignty rite, but Hakluyt’s published version placed the careenage at 38°N, so as to “mind the gap”, as Darby puts it.17
In the moment this cartographic ruse solved England’s sovereignty issue, but it also sheds some light on one arcane aspect of Cook’s instructions, written two centuries later. By Cook’s time, Spanish explorers were known, as James King reported, to have reached 44°N—indeed they were suspected to have gone much farther. So, to where should Cook’s North American landfall be directed in pursuit of his Northwest Passage discovery agenda? Cook’s instructions to make for “the Latitude of 45° 0ʹ North” made sense, since it would be half way between the equator and the North Pole. However, one has to wonder if a “deep” Admiralty memory of Drake’s “faire and good bay” (at 44°N, not the 38°N subterfuge) was also at play. After all, such a place would provide the wood and water that Cook would need before continuing northwards.
There is another geographic correlation between Drake’s voyage and Cook’s subsequent survey of the Northwest Coast. If, in fact, Drake reached the upper forties of northern latitude, or perhaps farther north, he would have found himself in a notably less temperate climate than the parallels bordering northern California, addressing the issue that puzzled James King. In addition, Drake would have discerned, as Cook later did, that the coast trended NW, as the SW part of Vancouver Island clearly does. In this scenario, with the coast heading in the “wrong” direction, Drake gave up the search for the passage, and opted to cross the Pacific on the route used by the Spaniards, about which he had become familiar through captured pilots and their charts.
Cook sighted “Cape Flatery” at 48°15ʹ N on 22 March, 1778. Cape Flattery is recognized today as the southern gate for Fuca’s strait. However when Cook sighted this headland he wrote that it was “where geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Juan de Fuca, but we saw nothing like it, nor is there the least probability that iver such a thing exhisted”.18 Beaglehole papered over this apparent embarrassment by suggesting that if Cook had sailed by the opening in daylight, and in better weather, he “would undoubtedly have discovered the actual strait”, but added that Cook was perhaps a “little too contemptuous of the possibility of ‘any’ such thing”.19 It was common for Beaglehole to pose his hesitations about Cook’s execution of the Third Voyage with rhetorical questions. However, regional historians in the Pacific Northwest have had no reservations in charging that it was a major failure of Cook’s, folding it into the larger thesis, seeded by Beaglehole, about Cook’s fading Third Voyage competency.20
Oddly, these same historians let pass a similar disparagement of speculative geography by Cook that transpired the following month. After leaving Nootka Sound, intending to trace the North American coast until he turned toward Baffin Bay at or near 65°N, Cook reached the fiftieth parallel on 28 April, 1778. The weather “now began to clear up, so that we could see several leagues round us”,21 which were better circumstances than those that had stymied Drake’s northern progress two centuries earlier. Unfortunately for Cook, “at 9 PM it began again to blow hard, and in squals with rain”. Two days later, Cook, far from shore, bemoaned the loss of visibility because he was then “passing the place where Geographers have placed the pretended Strait of Admiral de Fonte. For my own part, I give no credet to such vague and improbable stories that carry their own confutation along with them”.
The Fonte legend was, on its face, even more fantastical than the Fuca story, which had a least some grounding in historical reality. No less a figure than Johann Reinhold Forster ridiculed the Fonte theory in his history of northern exploration,22 published after Cook’s third voyage popularized the boreal hemisphere among readers of the increasingly popular non-fiction sub-genre of travel literature. Indeed, Forster later paraphrased Cook’s expression discounting the Fonte prospect. Sensibly, historians quickly pass over Cook’s demolition of the “pretended” Fonte strait, but they linger over how he “missed” the “pretended” Fuca Strait.
Before closing, it is important to point out that Cook’s instructions specifically directed that once he arrived “on the Coast of New Albion” he was “then to proceed Northward along the Coast as far as the Latitude of 65°... taking care not to lose any time in exploring Rivers or Inlets, or upon any other account, until you get to the before-mentioned Latitude of 65°”.23 Thus, even if circumstances had allowed Cook to discern Fuca’s opening at the 48th parallel, that is all that would have resulted. Following the 1770-71 overland exploration of Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Samuel Hearne, who trekked diagonally from that bay to the Arctic Ocean at a reported 72°N, the Admiralty and Cook knew that no opening on the Pacific shore of North America in the mid-latitudes was going to lead to a saltwater passage to the Atlantic.
Still, the question remains: since there is in fact a strait at 48°N, how did Juan de Fuca, or someone embodying his persona, come into that knowledge? Did Fuca somehow sail there directly, glean some actual geographic information, but then simply embellish his story damaging its credibility? Did it come indirectly from Drake’s northern run, via a captive Spanish pilot? Drake had passengers from Central America aboard Golden Hind for his Pacific crossing. All we know for sure is that Michael Lok picked up inklings of the strait and its pillar from Fuca or some other contacts in London in the early 1590s. Thanks to Purchas, these geographic notions were subsequently communicated to succeeding mariners, notably Cook. The great navigator was obviously right about the falsity of Fuca’s passage to the Atlantic, but wrong in that the strait was “pretended”. In 1787, it was officially “discovered” by the fur trader Charles William Barkley, who, like so many of his ilk, followed Cook’s track to the Northwest Coast of America.
David Nicandri and Robin Inglis
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 19, volume 44, number 1 (2021).
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