Spanish names in the Pacific Northwest

The era of Spanish exploration in the Pacific Northwest, circa 1774 to 1794, is largely forgotten. Some of it was basically forgotten before the era was over. The results of Alessandro Malaspina’s voyages were locked up in Spain after his return. Much has been lost. Some information has survived only via second hand English sources, such as the logs and reports of George Vancouver. One thing that has survived is Spanish place names—albeit in bits and pieces, in odd clusters.

I tried to make a map showing places in the Pacific Northwest whose names were given by Spanish explorers, but a number of problems came up. First, many Spanish names were given long after the era of Spanish exploration in honor of the earlier Spanish explorers, or in association with another Spanish placenames. Galiano Island, for example, was named by a British officer for Dionisio Galiano. Lopez Island in the San Juans was named for Gonzalo López de Haro. In both cases the names were given decades after the explorers came and went. And in both cases the Spanish explorers saw the islands in question but did not know they were islands, and did not give them names. As far as the Spanish knew the San Juans were a single island, which they named San Juan (although to cover their bases they actually named it Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan). The name “San Juan” honors the Viceroy of New Spain at the time, whose long name, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas [Orcas] y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, gave rise to a great many seemingly unrelated place names in the Pacific Northwest. Second, in many cases the origin of a place name is unknown or “presumed”. Third, many names have been Anglicized to one degree or another. Some have been respelled a little, like Camano instead of Caamaño. Some have been subjected to typographical errors, like Toba instead of Tabla (as in Toba Inlet). Some have been fully translated into English. Still others have been moved around the map. Rosario Strait, which today lies just east of the San Juan Islands, takes its name from the Spanish-given name for the Strait of Georgia—La Gran Canal de Nuestra Señora del Rosario la Marinera. When the British overhauled their nautical charts around 1850 they moved and shortened the old Spanish name. Finally, some names appear to be Spanish or in honor of Spaniards, like Hecate Strait, which I assumed honored Bruno de Heceta. But no, it was named after the surveying ship HMS Hecate. Whether the ship was named after old Bruno I couldn’t say.

So it quickly became clear that no map of Spanish place names in the Pacific Northwest can be cleanly broken down into classes such as “Spanish-given name”, “English-given name in honor of a Spanish explorer”, and so on. It also became clear that a truly thorough study of  this topic would require a book. So the best I can do is a rough-and-ready presentation. Here is my basic map of Spanish place names in the Pacific Northwest. It is a screenshot of Google Earth. I tried to include all the names still in use that were given by Spanish explorers, as well as Spanish names given during the early and mid-1800s in honor of Spanish explorers. A number of additional names are also included. I have a KMZ file of all the Google Earth placemarks, most of which have additional information. But I don’t think I can upload it with this freebie blog software. I’ll try to figure out how to improve these maps. And someday, if I keep posting to this blog, I’ll move to better software.

Map showing places in the Pacific Northwest with Spanish names

Click this map to see it on my Flickr photostream, where you can view it full-size. My apologies for the lack of text. But hey, everyone can read a textless map, right? You all know where Anchorage, Alaska, is, right? Up there near the top-left corner, on Cook Inlet, yes? And there’s the Queen Charlotte Islands offshore (um, I mean Haida Gwaii, as they are about to be officially renamed), and Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and so on, right? So y’all know the names of the places the dots correspond to, right?

Anyway, even if you can’t name everything on this map, you can see several obvious clusters of the yellow dots I used to mark Spanish placenames. The westernmost dot is Santa Flavia Bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. It was given in 1943 by the United States Coast Survey in honor of the 18th century Spanish explorers. Yes, the Spanish reached Kodiak Island and areas west to Unalaska Island, but none of their place names survived. The area had already been colonized by the Russians anyway. Looking east and south, there are clusters at Prince William Sound and Yakutat Bay. The most famous Spanish name in Prince William Sound is, of course, Valdez. The Spanish gave the name to an inlet of Prince William Sound, after an officer of the Spanish Navy. The present city of Valdez, Alaska, takes its name from the inlet. The infamous oil tanker took its name from the city. Another Spanish-given name in Prince William Sound is Cordova. Yakutat Bay was explored in 1791 by Alessandro Malaspina. The gigantic glacier just north of the bay is now called Malaspina Glacier. There’s a very dense cluster of Spanish names near Prince of Wales Island, especially the western side near Bucareli Bay. The Bucareli Bay area contains hundreds of Spanish names, nearly all given by the Spanish in the late 1700s. South along the British Columbia coast is another, smaller cluster, around Caamaño Passage. This area was among the last explored by any nation—in this case by Jacinto Caamaño in 1792. Some of his names survived thanks to Vancouver learning of them and incorporating them into his charts.

Vancouver Island is surrounded by Spanish names. The island itself was once called Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, giving the Spanish and British equal place name honors. But go figure, the Spanish name was dropped in time (“Quadra” being part of the name of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, one of the most important Spanish explorers of the region; and yes, the same person for whom Bodega Bay, California, is named for). Spanish names around Vancouver Island are particularly thick in the areas of Nootka Sound (where Spain established a fort in 1790 and conflicts nearly led to war with Britain), Discovery Islands, Gulf Islands, and San Juan Islands. The five names south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, along the ocean coasts of Washington and Oregon are Cape Alava, Sonora Reef, Three Arch Rock (named Las Tres Marías in 1775 by Quadra and Mourelle), Heceta Head, and Cape Blanco.

I made some close-up screenshots of some of these clusters.

Southeasternmost Alaska. You can see the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia as a yellow line. That dense cluster around Bucareli Bay needs a closer look:

Finally, here’s the Nootka Sound area, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, rotated a bit:

I feel like I should say a lot more needs to be said about all this. But it would take a book to say it all, so I’ll leave it here for now. I will, however, try to make or find some better maps, perhaps even with text! At the least I can give this ACME Mapper topo maps link of the Bucareli Bay area. Scroll around (and perhaps zoom out!) and take a look.

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