Bruno de Heceta y Dudagoitia (1743–1807) was a Spanish naval officer born in Bilbao to an old Basque family.
Under the Spanish Crown’s claim to the entire Pacific Northwest dating back to a 1493 papal bull and the rights contained in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, the frigate Santiago was dispatched by the Viceroy of New Spain to explore the coastline north of Spanish Alta California. This was in response to information regarding a Russian colonial settlement on the northern coast. The Santiago did not reach as far north as required. So in 1775, after a small group of officers from Spain arrived in the Pacific port of San Blas in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present-day Mexico), the viceroy placed one of them, Bruno de Heceta, in charge of a second expedition.
Heceta was given command of the Santiago. Accompanying Santiago was the schooner Sonora also known as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. She was a 36-foot (11 m) sloop of shallow draft capable of charting waters the deeper Santiago had been unable to approach on its previous voyage. This coastal reconnaissance and mapping was executed so Spain could officially lay claim to all the lands in the Pacific Northwest the expedition visited.
The two ships sailed in tandem to Punta de los Martires (“Point of the Martyrs”), named by Heceta to commemorate an attack by the local Quinault Native Americans. The location’s present day name is Point Grenville, Washington. There, on the evening of July 30, 1775, the two vessels parted company. The Santiago continued north to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The Señora, under command of second officer Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, sailed further north, ultimately entering Sitka Sound near present-day Sitka, Alaska on August 15, 1775. While there, Quadra performed numerous “acts of sovereignty,” thus claiming the territory for Spain though there were Russian settlements on nearby Kodiak Island.
Throughout the voyage, the crews of both vessels endured many hardships, including food shortages and scurvy. On his return journey south aboard Santiago, Heceta discovered a large bay penetrating far inland. This was the first European sighting of the mouth of the Columbia River. He tried to sail in but the river’s strong currents prevented it, even under a full press of Santiago’s sails.
On September 8, 1775, the ships rejoined and sailed south to San Blas having claimed, in their minds, the entire Pacific Northwest coast of the Pacific Ocean for Spain.