In 1775, pressure by British and Russian explorers put greater strain on Spain’s historic claims on the west coast going back to the late 15th century. To strengthen its claims, Spain mounted a series of expeditions from its bases in Mexico to “Nueva Galicia,” its name for the modern Pacific Northwest. The second of these expeditions was lead by Bruno de Hezeta y Dudagoitia, a Spanish naval officer.
Hezeta, more commonly called “Heceta,” was an ethnic Basque born in 1743 in Bilbao, Spain. In 1774, an expedition led by Juan Perez failed to make landfall, a requirement for establishing sovereignty. The following year, Hezeta, with Perez among his crew, sailed two ships, the three-masted Santiago, and a schooner, Sonora, which could get close to shore. Leaving Santiago behind, the Sonora, under the command of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, reached present day Sitka Bay and lay claim to the land for the Spanish crown.
Heceta’s expedition also suffered one of the largest losses of life of these European voyages. A short time after Heceta conducted a ceremony at a place now called Grenville Bay, near the modern town of Taholah on the Washington Coast, Bodega y Quadra aboard Sonora sent a party of sailors ashore to forage for food and water. The party was attacked by warriors from the Quinault Indian Nation. Seven sailors were killed. Warriors attempted to board the Sonora, but many were killed by small arms. The expedition decided not to retaliate, though Bodega y Quadra named the headland now known at Point Grenville “Punta de los Martires” or “Point of the Martyrs.”
Heceta’s expedition continued south until he found a large bay with strong currents which prevented his ships from entering. The explorer wrote in his journal, “These currents and the seething waters [lead me] to believe that [the bay] may be the mouth of some great river or some passage to another sea.” The feature was later confirmed as the mouth of the Columbia River, named almost 20 years later after the first ship to enter the river, the Columbia Rediviva under the command of American Robert Gray, who also commanded the original Lady Washington.
Heceta continued exploring the coast, giving Spanish names to several familiar features, most of which were changed to British names after Great Britain gained control over the region. However, Heceta’s name stuck to two Oregon features: Heceta Head and Heceta Banks. The lighthouse at Heceta Head is one of the most photographed tourist attractions on the Oregon Coast.