Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra (1744 –1794) was born in Lima, Peru and served as a career naval officer in the Spanish navy. In 1775 he became the first documented European to land on Vancouver Island*, three years before Captain James Cook arrived at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast. Quadra and Cook’s reports of the region so intrigued Spanish and English explorers that colonization of the island subsequently began in earnest. Quadra explored and charted the northwest coast of North America as far north as present day Alaska.
In 1775 the Spanish began their exploration of the Pacific Northwest. After a failed first expedition, a second was launched consisting of two ships, Santiago commanded by Lieutenant Bruno de Heceta and the schooner Sonora under Hecata’s second in command, Lieutenant Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Quadra possessed the qualifications necessary to be the senior officer, but as a non-Spaniard he was subject to prejudices of the era and had been passed over for promotion.
Santiago and Senora embarked from San Blas, capital of New Spain (Mexico), in March 1775. Scurvy, storms, and Sonora’s poor sailing qualities slowed their progress. In July 1775, they reached the vicinity of Point Grenville and Destruction Island in present day Washington State. While searching for safe anchorage, a duty of Sonora with her shallow draught, Quadra sailed over what is now known as Sonora Reef. Santiago anchored a few miles south, in Grenville Bay. Sonora attracted the attention of nearby Quinault villagers who visited the schooner, trading and giving gifts of food. Early the next day an armed party from Santiago went ashore and conducted a possession ceremony that was observed by Quinault. Later that morning, Quadra sent six sailors ashore to collect water and wood. The Quinault attacked, killing the shore party. Quadra was unable to help as the party had taken the schooner’s only boat ashore. At noon he weighed anchor, leaving the shoal at high tide. Progress was slow as the wind was light and the crew now significantly reduced. Nine large canoes carrying some 30 Quinault armed with bows and protected by shields came alongside Sonora. They made signs of friendship that Quadra rejected. The Quinault approached in an attempt to board but when the canoes ware in range Sonora fired her two swivel guns and three muskets, killing “the greater number of them,” according to Quadra’s journal.
Quadra’s desire to avenge his lost sailors was overruled by Heceta, who pointed out the expedition had orders to use force only in self-defense. One theory for the sudden attack is that the Quinault interpreted the erection of a tall pole with its crossbar on the beach during an obviously religious ritual as a threatening act.
Shaken, and with many of his crew suffering from scurvy, Heceta decided to return to San Blas. Quadra refused to follow without having completed the essential mission, the location of rumoured Russian settlements along the northern coast. He continued northward aboard Sonora reaching 59 degrees north latitude on August 1775, near today’s Sitka, Alaska. Failing to find Russian settlements, he returned to San Blas after extending Spain’s claim north along the coast. During the voyage Quadra drew the first reasonably accurate map of the west coast of North America.
The 1779 expedition
In February 1779 the corvettes Princesa and Favorita, under Lieutenant Arteaga and his second in command, Lieutenant Quadra, left San Blas to further explore the northwest coast and reinforce Spain’s claim to the Pacific Northwest. The voyage was also a search for the Northwest Passage, and their charting of every bay and inlet helped refine Quadra’s earlier map. This was all done under instructions not to intervene with English navigators assumed to be in the area.
in July 1779 the expedition anchored in Port Etches, near Prince William Sound. They named the harbour Puerto de Santiago. Title to Puerto de Santiago was to become significant in years to come, forming the basis of Spain’s claim to sovereignty of the North Pacific up to 61°17′N. In recognition of his achievements during the 1779 voyage, Bodega y Quadra was promoted to capitán de fragata (Frigate Captain) In 1780.
After distinguished service in Peru, Quadra returned to Spain in 1785 where, in November 1786, he was promoted to capitán de navío (Ship Captain), the highest naval rank below flag officer. In April 1788 he was knighted into the Order of Santiago – the most prestigious of Spain’s four orders of chivalry.
Commandant of San Blas
Following his stay in Spain, Quadra was appointed commandant of the Naval Department of San Blas. Instructed to select six junior officers to serve under him, Quadra chose Manuel Quimper, Ramón Saavedra Guiráldez y Ordóñez, Francisco de Eliza, Salvador Fidalgo, Jacinto Caamaño, and Salvador Menéndez Valdés. They sailed along with the new viceroy of New Spain, Conde de Revillagigedo. The viceroy and Quadra arrived in the aftermath of the Nootka Crisis and were confronted with two pressing issues. First, they had to arrange for the release of the British ships, officers, and sailors taken prisoner by Martínez at Nootka in 1789. Second, a Royal Order of April 14, 1789 required the maintenance of Spain’s Nootka Sound establishment. The Royal Order meant an expedition had to be immediately organized.
The expedition required cannons and munitions, warm clothes, equipment for the soldiers under Alberni, construction materials for Fort San Miguel, thousands of sheets of copper for trading with indigenous peoples, and a wide range of other goods. That Quadra was able to arrange these complicated supplies within months, given San Blas was chronically undersupplied and underfunded, was a remarkable achievement.
During his command at San Blas he dispatched several expeditions of exploration.
Nootka Sound Commandant
Quadra was called as an expert witness in the resolution of the Nootka Crisis. In 1791 he was appointed commandant of the Spanish establishment at Nootka to negotiate and administer the implementation of the Second Nootka Convention.
Quadra made a point of feasting the officers of every ship arriving at Nootka Sound, both indigenous and European. The journals of many who visited the sound during the summer of 1792 record their amazement over the grandeur of Quadra’s dinners in such a remote part of the world. On occasion over 50 people were served multiple courses on Quadra’s personal collection of about 300 pieces of sterling dinnerware. Quadra also provided ship repair services to any vessel requiring them including Vancouver’s Chatham.
Quadra and Vancouver
Quadra welcomed English Captain George Vancouver to Nootka Sound in 1792. The two commanders swiftly established friendly relations, mounted joint explorations, and shared supplies and information. Vancouver provided the services of his surgeon, Archibald Menzies to help Quadra with his increasingly severe headaches. During one meeting Quadra asked Vancouver to name “some port or Island after us both.” Vancouver had determined Nootka Sound was a feature of a great island, and proposed they name it Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island. So It was thus entered upon both the explorer’s charts, but the name was later shortened to Vancouver Island.
The two commanders were however unable to reconcile conflicting instructions from their respective governments. At issue was whether the Spanish were to hand over to the British only the small plot of land actually built upon by the adventurer John Meares, the entire West Coast, or something in between. Quadra was also handicapped by uncertainties as to how far his superiors wished him to go to maintain Spanish sovereignty in a part of the world that seemed, at the time, of limited strategic value. He improvised and by chance pressed for exactly the conditions that the king and viceroy would later communicate to him. Vancouver was likewise handicapped by a lack of instruction and stuck to a literal interpretation of Article I of the Nootka Convention. Having reached an impasse, the two agreed to refer the points at issue back to their respective governments in Madrid and London. Quadra arranged passage for Vancouver’s envoy, William Robert Broughton, through Mexico. Viceroy Revillagigedo subsequently chastised Quadra for allowing Broughton passage through Mexico. In January 1794 Spain and Great Britain signed the Third Nootka Convention in which they both agreed to abandon the region.
In April 1793, having suffered chronic headaches for several years, Bodega y Quadra requested leave from his duties so as to restore his health. He left San Blas for Mexico City. En route he suffered a hemorrhage in Guadalajara then a seizure in Mexico City. Quadra died there on March 26, 1794 at the age of 49. The internist Dr. John Naish has conjectured that Quadra’s death was the result of either a brain tumor or the severest form of hypertension.
While there is a theory and some evidence that Sir Francis Drake may have explored the British Columbia Coast in 1579, it is conventionally claimed that it was Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who completed the first documented voyage, in 1775.