The Northwest Coast was the name given by 18th-century navigators and traders to the great arc of Pacific coast and offshore islands stretching from present-day northern California to an ill-defined point along the Alaska coast - at Prince William Sound or even Cook Inlet. Modern anthropologists identify the native culture of the NW Coast as that, within rough limits, between Yakutat Bay, southeastern Alaska, and Trinidad Bay or Cape Mendocino, Calif. Along this narrow coastal belt the Indians developed high levels of civilization based upon the sea's plentiful resources. Warmed by the North Pacific Current and deluged along most of its length by heavy annual precipitation, the NW Coast produces dense coniferous forests and abundant vegetation.
The NW Coast was one of the last temperate ocean frontiers to be explored and settled by Europeans. Despite the attractions of the North Pacific as the western end of a possible NORTHWEST PASSAGE, the region remained isolated. Distance, the limitations of shipbuilding technology and Spain's jealous control over most of the North and South American littoral prevented intrusion by all but the most hardy. Apocryphal voyages by Lorenzo Ferrer Maldonado (1588), Juan de FUCA (1592) and Bartholomew de Fonte (1640) confused cartographers, who prepared charts bearing no resemblance to reality.
In 1579 Francis DRAKE may have reached 48° N lat before returning southward to the approximate latitude of present-day San Francisco and then crossing the Pacific, but his exact northernmost location remains a matter of conjecture. In 1602 Sebastian Vizcaíno discovered Monterey Bay for Spain and sailed to about 43° N lat. Until the 18th century, however, Spain was occupied with its earlier conquests and remained content to claim rather than to explore the coastline. Although one Spanish transpacific galleon crashed at present-day Nehalem Bay, Ore, in the latter 17th century, none of its crew survived to carry word back to Mexico.
During the 18th century interest grew in the unexplored North Pacific. Russian expansion into Siberia resulted in expeditions by Vitus BERING to Bering Strait (1728) and in 1741 by Bering and Aleksei Chirikov to the Northwest Coast around 55° N latitude. Rumours of this activity impelled the Spanish Crown to order voyages northwards from Mexico. In 1774 Juan PÉREZ HERNÀNDEZ reached about 55° N. He touched at Haida Gwaii and at Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) but did not land to take possession for Spain. In 1775 a new expedition under Bruno de Hezeta and Juan Francisco de la BODEGA Y QUADRA sailed northwards to investigate the Russian presence. Bodega y Quadra reached about 58°30´ N lat and discovered Bucareli Bay, Prince of Wales Island. Spain dispatched another major expedition in 1779, but government secrecy prevented information on the NW Coast from reaching the public.
The challenge to Spain came from Britain rather than Russia. In 1777-78, James COOK crossed the Pacific via the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] to the NW Coast. Cook was to search for a Northwest Passage and to explore the unknown coastline. He spent nearly a month at Nootka Sound before continuing northward to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Later in Macau and Canton, Cook's men discovered a potentially lucrative trade in the sea-otter pelts they had obtained on the NW Coast. The publication of Cook's voyage abruptly ended the coast's isolation.
After 1785 commercial expeditions from London, Bombay, Calcutta, Macau and American ports such as Boston opened the maritime FUR TRADE. By 1792 there were at least 21 trading vessels on the coast. Trading captains included George Dixon, John MEARES and Charles William Barkley. The trade in sea-otter pelts had begun in 1786; it reached its apogee in the 1790s before declining after 1812.
The Spaniards were ignorant about the burgeoning maritime fur trade until 1788, when they renewed their own voyages to check Russian encroachments southward from Alaska. Esteban José MARTíNEZ discovered 6 Russian posts in Alaska and, after hearing from the traders that Russian ships would soon occupy Nootka Sound, he persuaded the Mexican viceroy to authorize a voyage to occupy the sound for Spain. In 1789 Martínez arrived there and found British and American vessels. His seizure of the British vessels sparked the NOOTKA SOUND CONTROVERSY, a clash of imperial interests which almost precipitated a European conflict. However, 3 Nootka Conventions provided for a peaceful sharing of the northern ports and resources. Spain withdrew in 1795, abandoning the fur trade to the British and Americans.
Meanwhile, scientific expeditions of the Comte de Lapérouse (1786, France), George VANCOUVER (1792-94, Britain), Alejandro MALASPINA (1791, Spain) and the SUTIL AND MEXICANA (1792, Spain) explored the resources and indigenous inhabitants of the NW Coast.
The major impact of the maritime fur trade was to introduce the coastal Indians to firearms, metal tools and manufactured items. The European traders employed some violence and also introduced alcohol and diseases, but the nature of the fur harvest meant that they did not create permanent shore bases. Even before the beginning of the 19th century, however, some observers noted a decline in the number of sea otters and predicted the demise of the trade. This fact, combined with resistance from the Chinese (the major market), reduced the coast's appeal.
The coast's isolation was not to return. In July 1793, Alexander MACKENZIE of the NORTH WEST COMPANY arrived overland down the Bella Coola River to Pacific tidewater. In 1808 Simon FRASER descended the river that was to carry his name, and in 1811 David THOMPSON reached the mouth of the Columbia River. There he discovered that American traders from John Jacob Astor's PACIFIC FUR COMPANY had arrived by sea to construct Astoria.
With the amalgamation in 1821 of the NWC and the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY, the European presence ceased to be transitory. In 1821 Russia claimed the coast southwards to 51° N lat as its territory, but British and American protests led to the 1825 settlement of the ALASKA BOUNDARY at 54°40´. To compete with the maritime fur traders, the HBC built a string of permanent forts. After negotiation of the OREGON TREATY in 1846, the HBC's far western interests centered on Vancouver Island, which became a colony in 1849. Although there was subsequent competition between the fur traders and settlers, the latter won out. With the emergence of colonies and boundary agreements separating the Russian, British, American and Spanish (later Mexican) spheres, the Northwest Coast as a concept ceased to exist except as a historical memory.
See alsoSPANISH EXPLORATION.