European Influence on the Early Pacific Northwest

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Date Submitted: 10/21/2012 02:15 PM

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The historical encounters between the various groups of peoples exploring and living in the Pacific Northwest were greatly influenced by cultural expectations. Although the outcomes for each group may have been different, they were all motivated by the three C’s of empire: curiosity, commerce, and conquest.

First, curiosity was the driving force behind exploration. The New World still had an undiscovered area in the Northwest, the last frontier. The curious minds of expanding nations would send them on several endeavors to stake claim to this unknown portion of the world. According to Weber, the Spanish were the first to reach the Pacific Northwest, preceding all other European powers in exploring the coastlines of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia (Terra Northwest, pp.3). In 1493, through Papal donation, Spain staked claim to the west coast for the sole navigation rights to the Eastern Pacific. As Schwantes described, Spain was the preeminent power in the Pacific basin for nearly three centuries after 1493, but concentrated its attention on the Pacific coast south from Mexico and on equatorial trade routes linking its American empire and the Philippines (Schwantes, pp.42). The Spanish, a lot of them Mexican-born, were the first non-Indian settlers to the region—with short lived posts in the coastal areas of British Columbia, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. Initially, Spain believed there was a lack of valuable mineral resources in the area and therefore did not attempt to penetrate the interior regions of the Pacific Northwest. Schwantes explained that it wasn’t until Russian exploration in the mid-1700’s that aroused Spain from her imperial lethargy (Schwantes, pp.42).

Second, commerce created voracity, a cultural expectation that was shared by the various nations. Minimal Spanish efforts in the Pacific Northwest allowed other countries to explore the New World in search of the Northwest Passage—the elusive shortcut to the profitable trade markets in...