juan perez painting

Juan Perez

In the last quarter of the 18th century, Spain, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States struggled for predominance on the west coast of North America. A common method for claiming territory was the exploratory expedition. In 1774-1775, the Spanish sent a naval officer, Juan Perez, to explore the coasts and claim the land for the Spanish crown, in part to protect Spain’s interests further south in California and Mexico.

Juan José Pérez Hernández was born around 1725 in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and served as a pilot aboard Manila galleons, which were trading ships that sailed a route between Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico) and Manila in the Spanish-colonized Philippines. In 1768, Perez’s superiors assigned him to the naval base at the Pacific Coast port of San Blas. The encroachment of British and Russian traders into the lands of what the Spaniards called “Nueva Galicia” north of California forced officials to mount an expedition to formally claim the coasts for the crown.

In early 1774, the government ordered Perez to take a new frigate, Santiago, north to the 60th parallel (slightly south of present-day Anchorage, Alaska), explore the coastline, trade with the natives, and establish Spanish claims by landing and conducting a brief ceremony. Though Santiago was built for a crew of 64, the manifest lists 88 official members of the expedition and 24 passengers, including Father Junipero Serra. The missionary left the ship along with several passengers at Monterey, Calif.

In June and early July, 1774, Perez reached 52 degrees north latitude and named the islands he found “Santa Margarita,” later called the Queen Charlotte Islands. Intense fog and rain forced the Santiago south, but not before the crew encountered the Haida people, who had lived in the area for generations. At Nootka Sound, Perez made a failed attempt at landing to conduct the ceremony claiming the area for Spain. However, Haida visitors to the Santiago took two silver spoons ashore, an act which formed the basis of Spain’s claim over the area. Historians also credit Perez as the first European explorer to describe the region and make contact with the indigenous people.

Perez returned to San Blas in late 1774. The next year, he sailed aboard Santiago on a second expedition to the Pacific Northwest under the command of Bruno de Heceta. During the voyage, Heceta described a large bay between two headlands, which was later identified as the mouth of the Columbia River. However, Heceta did not enter the river, instead returning south. Worn out by the dangerous voyage, Perez died at Monterey on November 3, 1775.

Seventeen years later, Capt. Robert Gray, a former commander of the original Lady Washington, would become the first Anglo-European to sail into the Columbia River.

HistoryLink: Juan Perez Expedition of 1774
HistoryLink: Hezeta (Heceta) and Bodega y Quadra Expedition of 1775
Spanish Explorers: Juan Pérez, José Navaéz, and Tomás de Suría
Wikipedia: Juan José Pérez Hernández
Wikiwand: Juan José Pérez Hernández