Tag Archive | Cortes Island

The Nootka Crisis – A history talk

Spanish Fort San Miguel in Nootka Sound 1789

I have always been fascinated by British Columbia’s west coast history and I see that Canada’s 150 Anniversary has brought attention to first contact between Europeans and Indigenous people on this coast.  As far as is known, first contact took place at Nootka Sound in 1774 between the Spanish and the Mowachaht people, although it is believed that Sir Francis Drake visited these shores in the 1500s.

I presented a talk on the Nootka Crisis this spring at the Museum at Campbell River, then again at the Courtenay Museum on Wednesday, May 10. As this talk was sold out I will be returning again in October to repeat it.  On Saturday, May 13 at 7:00pm I will present the talk on Cortes Island at Mansons Hall. In September I will give the talk in Tahsis, and this summer on one or two occasions in Port Alice – times and dates not yet confirmed.

An excellent book I read about European visitors to Nootka Sound, First Invaders by Alan Twigg is an excellent resource about this history.  It answered some of my questions, but raised some as well. I didn’t fully understand why the Spanish didn’t stay in this part of the world once they had a foothold. Through my studies at the University of Victoria, where I am currently pursuing my Masters in History (got through the first year, yeah!) I had an opportunity to really delve into the research of who got to Nootka Sound first and what they were doing, and as it turned out, not doing there. I wrote a paper entitled Nootka Unsettled where I discuss the various writings about an event known as the Nootka Crisis or Controversy that took place in 1789. I was pleased to find William Manning’s book written in 1904, The Nootka Sound Controversy, that was likely the first scholarly investigation into the Crisis. The Crisis or Controversy was a standoff between the Spanish and British about who in fact, had the right to occupy Yuquot (Friendly Cove) on Nootka Island. This of course, was irrespective of the fact that the Mowachaht had been occupying the region for over 4,000 years!

Spanish exploration into the Pacific Northwest began in earnest in the 1770s, with the Spanish sending ships on surveying expeditions out of San Blas, Mexico their Pacific port.  The first known visitor to the Nootka region was the chief naval officer at San Blas, Captain Juan Pérez, sailing in the Santiago.  He didn’t set foot on Nootka Island, but did meet the native inhabitants. Captain James Cook was to discover that some of the people he encountered four years later in 1778 wore silver spoons, that would have come from the Spanish. The Crisis is a complicated story that arose several years later. It is a matter of claim and counter-claim, with the Spaniard Esteban Jose Martinez asserting that the Spanish were the first to occupy Yuquot with their fort San Miguel, and the British represented by trader James Colnett wondering what happened to the buildings erected by his partner, John Meares the year before. The two governments battled it out in a document known as the Nootka Convention, which drew of the history of exploration to the area.

Ultimately, Captain George Vancouver would be tasked with trying to bring resolution to the occupation in 1792, when he visited Nootka Sound to discuss the matter with Juan Fransisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Neither Captain felt they could resolve the issue and left it to their respective governments. The interesting thing is, that in the end, both countries decided not to stay there and the Mowachaht happily took back the property where the Spanish fort had been erected once the Spanish left.

My presentation is pictorial, and I discuss the ins and outs of European notions of occupation in detail. The Crisis was a drama played out at a location remote from any European government, that almost resulted in war. Perhaps because Quadra and Vancouver were excessively polite with each other and like each other, war was averted. Who knows what might have happened if either man became heavy-handed about the issue?

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Mysterious Mitlenatch Island

Visit my website www.catherinegilbert.ca

There’s a mystery that surrounds Mitlenatch Island – it sometimes seems to float above the surface of the water on Mitlviewcomprcertain days, just as in this photo of it I took from the east side of Quadra Island, and to appear both close and far at the same time. In fact the Kwakiutl name for it is: ‘looks close but seems to move away as you approach.’

Another strange thing about Mitlenatch is that it doesn’t look like any other of the Discovery Islands. Instead of being covered in forests of green, Mitlenatch is brown and gray, and virtually treeless. There is a reason for this – Mitlenatch sits in a rain shadow, and doesn’t get the benefit of the precipitation that falls about 30 kilometres west on Vancouver Island. In this unusual micro climate, flora not common to the area grow. Since the island doesn’t have a dock or place to tie up a boat, I didn’t think there was a way to step foot on Mitlenatch to see these rare plants, until I bumped into Mike Moore, who owns Misty Isles Adventures with his wife Samantha.

At the dock Cortes Bay

At the dock Cortes Bay

Moore offers day trips to Mitlenatch through the Cortes Island Museum, taking people there aboard his 42 foot sailboat, Misty Isles. I joined the tour on a beautiful June day, leaving from Cortes Bay on the south end of Cortes Island.

Yours truly and Lynne Jordan

Yours truly and Lynne Jordan

Lynne Jordan from the Cortes Museum brought the off island passengers from the Whaletown ferry down to Cortes Bay, so that they didn’t have to bring their own vehicles. Captain Mike met us at the dock, then ferried us over to Misty Isles on the zodiac. Once aboard, he gave his safety talk, including instructions on how to use the ‘head’ then asked for volunteers to help unfurl a sail, to take advantage of the pleasant breeze blowing DSC02107that morning. As we cruised along at a comfortable six knots, he then pulled out the charts, and we all gathered round to learn about where we were, and where we were going.

Looking back into Desolation Sound

Looking back into Desolation Sound

After about an hour at sea, it was already time for lunch – an excellent meal of Samantha’s homemade hot pizza and a cool salad, made with mostly local ingredients, served by DSC02118crew member Amy. By the time we had eaten, we were already drawing close to Mitlenatch. Because the requirement for tour operators is to have one guide for every six people, half the group went to shore with Amy for the land tour, and the rest of us circumnavigated Mitlenatch with Captain Mike.

DSC02133This was a treat as Moore is a profoundly knowledgeable guide and naturalist as well as being DSC02136very enthusiastic about his subject matter. I’d been around Mitlenatch before but the only birds I could identify were the gulls and cormorants.

Captain Mike pointed out all the seabirds in view that day and he can tell you just about anything you might want to know about the wildlife species that make Mitlenatch their home – why they are there, what they do and what they look like at different times of the year.

Captain Mike

Captain Mike

He also brought our attention to the different layers on the rock face that were covered with different vegetation, depending on what nourished them.

Cormorants on the cliff

Cormorants on the cliff

When we got back to the beach, it was our turn for the land portion of the tour. Amy took us along the designated pathways, identifying various plants along the way.

I was surprised to see so many berries – the natural BC blackberries, some of which were already ripe, as well as bushes of Saskatoon berries. We went up to the caretaker’s shelter and were fortunate that Peggy Sowden was on duty and happy to take us around. A veteran steward of Mitlenatch since her UBC Farm days in 1971, Peggy is a member of MIST (Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team), a nonprofit organization formed in 2010 to protect the delicate ecosystem of this special island, that in 1961 was designated a BC Provincial Nature Park.

With Peggy Sowden

With Peggy Sowden

On the way back to Cortes, we dropped off some passengers at the Twin Islands and had the opportunity to see the lodge that once housed European royalty and was visited by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. We also stopped at Captain Mike’s secret location to see the graceful Arctic Terns that he said were 3000 miles away from where  they currently should be.

The Cortes Museum will be running other trips with Misty Isles Adventures to other destinations this year – check them out on their website here.  Many thanks to fellow passenger and photographer extraordinaire Lynn Marttila for the excellent photos!