Sculpture of a Saint inside the San Xavier del Bac Mission; The historic San Bernardino Ranch complex.
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Olympic National Park


Mt. Olympus in Olympic National Park

Mt. Olympus in Olympic National Park
Courtesy of the National Park Service, Bryan Bell

In the late 18th century, the world’s expanding empires were eager to colonize the lush, green forests and valleys of the Pacific Northwest and trade with the people who lived there. The Spanish were the first Europeans to make the venture. During this era, Spanish, Russian, and English expeditions sailed to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where they made landfall on and around Olympic National Park in the far northwestern corner of Washington State. Close to the U.S.-Canada border, this region today contains some of the largest tracts of temperate rainforest and old-growth forestland in North America. Ninety-five percent of the park is undeveloped, and visitors here can experience the same breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains and rich, natural beauty of the forests as did the early European explorers.

Spain settled the Pacific coast of North American after the empire secured its colonies in Mexico and the American Southwest. In the 1760s and 1770s, Spanish and Mexican colonists moved into California and established a mission system there similar to the missions throughout the American Southwest. After securing California, Spanish navigators pushed northward from Mexico’s western coast to explore the Pacific Northwest and survey the coast of a territory known to Europeans as Oregon Country.

The first European to record an official expedition along the entire western coast of North America, from Mexico to Vancouver Island, and record and name various landmarks in the Pacific Northwest was a Spanish sailor, Ensign Juan José Pérez Hernández. In 1774, Pérez set out from Mexico in the Santiago with a mixed Spanish and Mexican crew of 88 men. He carried passengers too, including Father Junípero Serra, the founder of California’s 21-mission chain, who was returning to Alta (northern) California with civilian reinforcements. During the journey, Pérez stopped at Monterey, California to set Junípero Serra’s party ashore. After replenishing supplies, the Santiago continued north. The crew encountered Vancouver Island, where Pérez and his men laid anchor at Nootka Sound, which they named Rada de San Lorenzo de Nootka. While no one knows if Pérez’s men went ashore at Vancouver, Pérez invited a party of Native Americans aboard the ship to trade gifts while the ship sat in Nootka Sound.

European map of the Washington coast, drawn by a Spanish explorer in 1775

European map of the Washington coast,
drawn by a Spanish explorer in 1775
Courtesy of Historical Atlas of the North Pacific Ocean by Derek Hayes

Journeying farther south, the Santiago passed the Strait of Juan de Fuca and its crew saw the Olympic Mountains. Pérez gave Mount Olympus its first European name: Cerro Nevada de Santa Rosalia. They returned to Mexico without formally claiming the land for Spain, but this initial voyage to the Pacific Northwest produced the first survey of the land and its people that opened the region to future Spanish expeditions.

Pérez revisited the region a year later as the Santiago’s navigator under Bruno de Hezeta. On this expedition, the Spanish explorers landed for the first time on ground that is in the United States today. They went ashore in Grenville Bay, located southwest of Olympic National Park in the present-day Quinault Indian Reservation. The Spanish conquistadors named the land Rada de Bucareli in their ceremony of possession, when they formally claimed the territory for Spain and the Roman Catholic Church.

Spain returned to the Pacific Northwest to build permanent settlements in 1789. That year, Spanish colonists constructed a fort on the west coast of Vancouver Island inside the Nootka Sound. Governor Estevan Martinez ordered his men to build a fort, and he claimed the land for Spain. They named this settlement “Santa Cruz de Nootka,” after the Nuu-chah-nulth people who lived on the island. In addition to being a base of operation for Spanish exploration, Santa Cruz de Nootka became an important international port of trade in the Pacific Northwest during the 1790s. Indigenous and European trappers brought valuable animal furs from the interior that were loaded onto ships at Nootka and transported across the Pacific to eastern Asia.

Makah Indian Reservation seen from the Pacific Ocean. Neah Bay is on the far shore.

Makah Indian Reservation seen from the Pacific Ocean.
Neah Bay is on the far shore.
Photo courtesy of Sam Beebe

The Europeans also traded an unwelcome gift to the indigenous people: smallpox. Historians estimate that up to 30 percent of native people in the Pacific Northwest died from this disease after they made contact with Europeans in the 1770s. In 1792, English explorer George Vancouver recorded seeing pockmarked natives, which was the first documented evidence of the epidemic. Smallpox and other European diseases ravaged the coastal population for a century after the first decade of contact.

England began to send ships to survey the region shortly after Spain’s expeditions. The nations’ agents competed to control trade and the land in the territory in the 1780s and ‘90s. Hostilities between Spain and England began when the Spanish governor at Santa Cruz de Nootka, Estevan Martinez, ordered his men to capture four English merchant ships in 1789. Tensions rose between the Spanish and English in the Pacific Northwest and in Europe, and this contest -- called the Nootka Crisis -- nearly led to a declaration of war between the empires. Spain and England settled the conflict with diplomacy, in a series of treaties called the Nootka Conventions. In the Nootka Conventions, Spain and England agreed to suspend official colonization in the Pacific Northwest, but to allow their citizens’ settlement and trade to continue.

During the Nootka Crisis, the Spanish continued to explore and settle the region. Officer Francisco de Eliza y Reventa replaced Estevan Martinez at the Nootka settlement. From there, he sent men to engage the American Indians in diplomacy and to chart the region. Between 1790 and 1793, the Spanish increased their surveying expeditions in the region. From Nootka Sound, Spanish ships spread out to explore the islands and coasts of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and chart the waterway’s islands and coastal landmarks. During this period, Eliza named the site of Puerto de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, which is called Port Angeles today.

Fort Núñez Gaona – Diah Veterans Park and monument in Neah Bay

Fort Núñez Gaona – Diah Veterans Park and Monument in Neah Bay
Image courtesy of the Office of Lieutenant Governor of Washington

In the spring of 1792, Salvador Fidalgo led a small company of Mexican, Peruvian, and Spanish colonists to settle the Washington coast. By the shores of Bahía de Núñez Gaona, now called Neah Bay, Fidalgo’s men built a fort with six mounted guns, blacksmith’s shop, barracks, bakery, and corrals. They cleared trees around the settlement and planted a small vegetable garden. The Núñez Gaona settlement introduced foreign vegetables (tomatoes, garlic, and corn) and livestock (pigs, goats, cattle) to Washington State. This all-male colony of 70 sailors and 13 soldiers was the first European settlement on American land in the Pacific Northwest. It did not last long – only four months. The men settled on land occupied by the Makah, and by the end of the summer, the colonists' relations with the tribe turned unfriendly and the settlers abandoned their colony.

In 1819, when the power of the Spanish Empire began to fade in North America, Spain ceded Oregon Country to the United States. In the 19th century, the fur trade boomed and American settlers filtered into the region from the east, becoming the first white residents since the Spanish colonists a century earlier. The undeveloped region west of Seattle, Washington became famous for its recreational and environmental value, and in 1938 Congress created Olympic National Park. The Park today offers over 900,000 acres of land and three pristine environments for visitors to explore by car or on foot.

Spain and the Makah Nation formally reconciled in 2008. In an act of goodwill, the nations erected a shared monument to the Núñez Gaona colony and to Makah war veterans. This monument is located in the Fort Núñez Gaona - Diah Veterans Park in the town of Neah Bay, at the western end of State Route 112 (Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway), inside the Makah Indian Reservation.

Plan your visit
Olympic National Park is a unit of the National Park System located south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and west of Seattle, in the far northwest corner of Washington State. The visitor center for Olympic National Park is at 3002 Mount Angeles Rd., in Port Angeles, WA. Olympic National Park is open all day, year-round. Some remote portions of the park are only open seasonally. For more information, visit the National Park Service Olympic National Park website or call 360-565-3130.
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