Wednesday, May 15, 2013

San Blas, Mexico and Washington State

Going through old photo slides I came across an unexpected  historic link to Washington State. We once visited San Blas the jumping off port for the very first European visitors that set foot in Washington State.

Raven and me getting ready to head out for the swamps and fresh water springs

I knew almost nothing about San Blas, Mexico when we arrived there. For us it was a place to rest after some hard travels. We did know that the swamps nearby could be explored and that nearby there were some surf beaches. We did head into the jungle with the added benefit of filling our water supply jugs with 15 gallons of fresh water from the springs that poured out of the base of the mountains. A nice treat after weeks of boiling or iodine treatment. And I body surfed some big 10-foot waves that fortunately did not kill me. 

But I was ignorant of the small fishing town's history and its link to Washington State. We stayed in a very old colonial era building. It was a bit of step back in time as the building dated back to the 1700s. It had great air  movement in the rooms which was good because it was hot and humid and it helped with good sleeping. On the hill above the small town were substantial ruins, but at the time not much information.

Remnants of the old fort

The view from inside the church

San Blas was the primary Spanish coastal harbor on the North American coast during the period when Spain tried to solidify its claim on what is now Washington State and the entire coast of North America. That claim was a bit tenuous for the Pacific Northwest as it was based on pronouncements by a pope over 200 years before trying to prevent war and was followed by explorations that laid claim to lands by simply charting the shoreline and occasionally stepping ashore making proclamations of ownership.

There were several problems with the Spanish claims. One was of course the land was already occupied. In 1775 a Spanish party originating out of San Blas came on shore on what is now Washington State and claimed the land for Spain. Quinault warriors had little regard for the Spanish claim and promptly killed a 7-man shore party. It would be 17 years later before the Spanish attempted to establish a land based settlement in Washington. That settlement at Neah Bay originated from San Blas. It was a short lived settlement and was given up in less than a year.

The Spanish Pacific Northwest claim was being undermined by the sea otter fur trade. English merchants learned that it was a lucrative business after Captain Cook's 1778 expedition made large sums selling sea otter pelts obtained in Nootka Sound to the Chinese. Others followed Cook frequently calling in at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Russians were actively working in Alaska and had established trade centers on the Alaska coast including Sitka. The Americans were in the mix as well with merchants plying the North Pacific.

The ability to simply claim a land by sailing its coast was being undermined by commerce and the English attitude of occupation being a stronger claim. The local coastal populations were not particular about who claimed the Pacific Northwest as they were already firmly occupying the land and had been for centuries and they were enjoying all sorts of new and exotic goods which they could also trade with inland tribes. The Spanish solution to this trouble was to send ships north from San Blas to better chart the coast to bolster their claims and enforce their claims by expelling or arresting European and American merchants that were present.

On the exploration front, the Spanish had a head start on all others. This is reflected in many Spanish names that survive in Washington State: San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca being the most obvious on maps. All named by ships that sailed out of San Blas. Part of this exploration story led to one of the more famous Washington State History lessons: Cook and all those Spanish expeditions were never able to locate the Columbia River despite assuming there was a big river somewhere on the Pacific Northwest coast. Instead it was an American merchant ship, the Columbia under Robert Gray, that found the river giving the United States a huge boost on claiming the Pacific Northwest.

The Spanish explorations and enforcement of their claims in the Pacific Northwest were based primarily out of San Blas. The Spanish claims began to fade and were ultimately harmed by actions that took place on Nootka Sound in 1789. English merchant ships were captured and English prisoners were hauled off to San Blass leading to the Nootka Crisis and nearly to war between England and Spain.

War was avoided as England and Spain agreed to a sort of joint claim without resolving anything. The idea was to defer the claims resolution to a future undetermined date. This deferment was aided by the fact that both Spain and England had joint interests elsewhere; both were interested in containing the ambitions of France. The peaceful resolution opened the opportunity for the United States to continue to insert itself into the region as well. And established a trend of deferring claim resolutions in the region in order to avoid war that lasted nearly 100 years.

As for San Blas its early glory days faded. Its usefulness as a port for controlling the Pacific declined as Spain was far too extended and then Mexico became independent. The fort at San Blas and the Mexican Navy were no match for the United States during the Mexican-American War. The US invaded and plugged all the cannons.

Whenever I come across a reference to San Blass and its history, I think of the quiet fishing town and diving off the front of the jungle boat into the fresh cool spring water. It is hard to picture the first European visitors to Washington State having set sail from what is now a backwater of swamp, jungle, small fishing boats and few hard core surfers.



Geoffrey Middaugh said...

Great personal story about the Legacy of Conquest, which is the name of an outstanding book by Patty Limerick. Check it out. On the personal side, I spent a couple nights on the beach at Topolobampo, just north of here in 1969. Long story behind that one, but not as interesting.

Dan McShane said...

Thanks. Though I have a hard time picturing San Blas as a critical port, it was a great rest spot.