Image of Juan de Fuca

Juan de Fuca

The story of Juan de Fuca is part fact, part legend. The 16th century explorer employed by the Spanish gave his name to the east-west strait between Washington State and Vancouver Island, but he called it by a different name. For almost 250 years, many disbelieved his story or thought the man never existed. And he could not have guessed the other places on the west coast that bear his name today.

Born on the Greek island of Cephalonia in 1536, Ioánnis Phokás was the descendant of Greek refugees from the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. His father settled in the village of Valeriáno, which accounts for de Fuca’s Greek name, Apostolos Valerianos. Little is known of his early life, but he entered the service of the King of Spain in 1555, eventually earning his stripes as a pilot in the Spanish Navy.

In 1592, he found himself in New Spain (now Mexico), and he was ordered to take two ships, a caravel and a pinnace, and search for the Strait of Anian, which geographers believed connected the Northwest Passage to the South Seas. When de Fuca returned, he announced the discover of a strait between 47 and 48 degrees north and that he had sailed past a pillar of rock, now called Fuca Pillar on Cape Flattery, into the strait. He eventually returned to Spain to claim rewards promised to him by the Spanish government, but he never collected a penny and returned home to Greece a disappointed man.

After his death in 1602, his story passed into legend. No Spanish records existed to verify de Fuca’s claims. (Spain was notorious for its secrecy, which later complicated its territorial claims to the west coast.) His own accounts were vague and confusing. If it weren’t for an Englishman, John Lok, who wrote about de Fuca’s voyages, historians might still doubt them. English mariners, due perhaps to de Fuca’s proposal to work for Elizabeth I, believed his claims, however. Captain James Cook, one of Britain’s greatest explorers, was on the threshold of the strait in 1778 when he sighted Cape Flattery. Nine years later, an English fur trader, Charles William Barclay, entered and named the strait after Juan de Fuca, which was later explored by a succession of Spanish and English mariners.

Though Juan de Fuca could not have known it, he sailed over two other natural features that bear his name today: Juan de Fuca Ridge and Juan de Fuca Plate, both located off the coasts of Washington State and British Columbia. The features are part of the vast system of tectonic plates that cover the earth, though the plate is slowly disappearing under its neighbor to the east. It will be millions of years, however, before this piece of history will pass into legend.

Wikipedia: Juan de Fuca
Wikipedia: Strait of Juan de Fuca
Greek Consulate, Vancouver, Canada, via Internet Archive Wayback Machine
Lighthouse Friends: Cape Flattery, Wash.
Kefalonia Appreciation Society