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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve


Yakutat Bay and Mt. St. Elias

Yakutat Bay and Mt. St. Elias
Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service

Spanish claims to the Pacific Northwest date to the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” of 1493 and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. These decrees gave Spain the right to colonize the west coast of North America. Spain began to colonize this claimed territory in the 18th century, when it created permanent settlements in Alta California. By the late 18th century, Spain launched its first official explorations to the Pacific Northwest, in part because of the encroachment of Russian and British fur traders and explorers to the region. Beginning in 1774 and ending in 1793, Spain sent explorers to Alaska to defend its claim to the land, to document Russian and British activities, and to search for a Northwest Passage. One of the areas that the Spanish explored is today the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

King Charles III of Spain and his successors sent Spanish explorers to the coasts of present-day Washington State, Alaska, and Canada between 1774 and 1793 to investigate Russian and British activities in the region and to strengthen Spain’s claim to the land. Juan Josef Pérez Hernández sailed on the Santiago during the first official Spanish voyage from Mexico as far north as Southeast Alaska before turning back in 1774. The next year, Spanish explorer Francisco Bodego y Quadra sailed a bit further to Kruzof and Prince of Wales Island. By 1779, Ignacio de Arteaga y Brazan and Bodega y Quardra made it to Prince William Sound and Elizabeth Island before returning to Mexico.

Alessandro Malaspina

Alessandro Malaspina
Courtesy of the Naval Museum of Madrid

Nearly ten years later, Esteban Jose Martinez and Gonzalo Lopez de Haro reached the Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island, and the Trinity Islands where they were alarmed by evidence of Russian, British, and American trading in the area. On this expedition, the explorers made contact with a large group of Russian traders and learned that the Russians intended to occupy Nootka Sound on the west coast of what is now Vancouver Island. Martinez recommended that the Spanish occupy this area immediately before the Russians or British could do so themselves.

In 1789, Martinez led an expedition to Nootka Sound and seized the English fur-trading ships he found there; these events led to the Nootka Crisis of 1789. While the contest for Nootka was intense and both nations prepared for war, ultimately it was resolved peacefully through a set of three agreements known collectively as the Nootka Conventions. Under the Nootka Conventions (1790, 1793, and 1794), Spain and Britain agreed that they would not establish any permanent settlements at Nootka Sound, but both would allow citizens and ships from either nation to visit and continue to trade there.

Around the time of the Nootka Crisis and Conventions, Alessandro Malaspina and Jose de Bustamente y Guerra became the last explorers under the Spanish flag to visit Alaska. The King of Spain had sent the explorers on a five-year scientific voyage to observe and document botanical and mineralogy findings and to create updated, precise world maps. The King also ordered the explorers to search for any American, British, or Russian settlements along the Pacific Northwest coast and to investigate a possible Northwest Passage, a waterway that would connect the North Pacific with the Atlantic Ocean.

In late June of 1791, Malaspina and Bustamente anchored their ships, Atrevida and Descubi’erta, in Yakutat Bay, Alaska. From Yakutat Bay, the explorers glimpsed with awe the snow-capped mountains, dense pine forests, and the large ice fields that filled the dramatic coastline. Today, the southern border of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is at Yakutat Bay. The Spanish ships spent about a month in Yakutat Bay. During this time, the Spanish investigated the area for the illusive Northwest Passage. They made notes on the ethnographic, geographic, and plant species of the area, measured the height of Mt. St. Elias, and explored one of the largest glaciers in the world – later named Malaspina Glacier. Mt. St. Elias and Malaspina Glacier are within the national park today.

Tlingit warrior wearing helmet, neck and body armor, and dagger. Port Mulgrave (Yakutat Bay), 1791.

Tlingit warrior wearing helmet, neck and body armor, and dagger. Port Mulgrave (Yakutat Bay), 1791.
Redrawn from sketch by Tomás de Suria: courtesy the Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks, A0414 Rare Books.

Disenchantment Bay at the park’s southern boundary also received its name because of this expedition. Malaspina and his crew paddled through a channel thought to lead to the Northwest Passage and instead found that the channel ended at a massive wall of ice covered rock. Hence, they named the waterway, Disenchantment Bay.

In addition to their scientific findings, the explorers made contact with the local Tlingit Alaskan Natives. Spanish scholars on the expedition studied the Tlingit and recorded notes on the Tlingit’s social organization, burial practices, language, and methods of warfare. The artists on the expedition, Tomas de Suria and Jose Cardero, drew portraits of Tlingit tribal leaders and scenes from daily life. The Spanish traded their European clothing and metal objects with the Tlingits for fresh fish, furs, and crafted objects. While the Malaspina Expedition’s contact with the Tlingit was not of major significance, for it was only for a short period, it is a reminder that during this time the world’s cultures were entering a phase of rapid change as a direct result of exploration, trade, and colonization. The cultural middle ground that emerged due to exploration and colonization would forever change the world’s cultures.

While the Spanish eventually lost all claim to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, the Spanish legacy is still evident in the places that take their names from the early Spanish presence in Alaska. In addition to Malaspina Glacier and Lake, Disenchantment Bay, and Icy Bay, two towns near the park - Cordova and Valdez - also received their names from these early explorations. Visitors will find many ways to experience Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and, like the early Spanish explorers, find themselves in awe of its wonders.

Plan your visit

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, a unit of the National Park Service and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located in Copper Center, AK which is 10 miles south of Glennallen along Alaska Highway 4 (also called the Richardson Highway). The park headquarters is approximately 200 miles east of Anchorage, AK and 250 miles south of Fairbanks, AK.  Click here for National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The primary season for visiting Wrangell-St. Elias is early June through mid-September. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve has no entrance stations or gates, and never actually closes. However, winter arrives early to interior Alaska and by mid-September, available services and facilities are few.  The main park visitor center is open daily from 9:00am to 4:00pm in the spring and fall, and from 9:00am to 6:00pm in the summer.  The visitor center is closed during the winter months, from the beginning of November until the end March, and on federal holidays.  For more information visit the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve website or call 907-822-5234.

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