The exploits of Columbus inspired the Old World maritime powers to feverish activity during the sixteenth century. When it had become apparent that two continents lay between Europe and the Orient, a race began for discovery and control of the shortest water route through or around them. Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and Magellan led the way through the strait that bears his name. Meanwhile, incomplete and inaccurate information obtained by other explorers suggested the existence of a navigable waterway across the upper half of North America. For almost three centuries, European naval powers sought this Northwest Passage, or Strait of Anian.
Imperial Spain was foremost in the quest. In 1542, Bartolome Ferrelo, commanding a Spanish expedition sent northward along the coast of what is now California to look for the passage's western opening, sighted the coast of what is now southern Oregon.
In 1578 Francis Drake sailed to the Northwest coast and named the land New Albion. Apostolos Valerianos allegedly a Greek pilot. under the name of Juan de Fuca, claimed that in 1592 he entered a broad inlet between the 47th and 48th degrees of north latitude. His story was published in an English book ( Purchas, his Pilgrimes, 1625). but no facts concerning his Northwest voyage have been verified. Nevertheless, his Spanish name -- Juan de Fuca -- was later given to the strait between the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island.
During the seventeenth century, no noteworthy additions to geographical knowledge of the Northwest resulted from attempts to find the passage. In 1670, Charles II of England granted a charter to "The Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay," with instructions to work for "the discovery of a new passage into the South Seas, and for the finding of some trade in furs and other considerable commodities." The company was given a monopoly on trade in regions not ruled by "Christian Princes."
Early in the eighteenth century, Peter the Great of Russia announced his intention of taking over all territory in North America not actually occupied by other powers. Catherine, his successor, sent the Dane, Vitus Bering, on two expeditions in North Pacific waters. Bering discovered the inter-continental strait that now bears his name, explored and charted the Aleutian Archipelago, and coasted along the Alaskan mainland; but, when he died in 1741 on Bering Island, he still believed Alaska to be an island separated from the mainland by the Northwest Passage. Russia's first permanent settlement in Alaska was made in 1784, and important trading interests and other colonies were established between that year and 1863.
France, at no time a serious contender for territory in the Northwest, was definitely eliminated by England in the Treaty of Paris, 1763. For 30 years thereafter the struggle was between Spain and England, with Russia holding the region now known as Alaska. Spain strengthened her claims by expeditions first along the coast and later into Juan de Fuca Strait. In 1774, Juan Perez sighted a mountain ( Mount Olympus), which he called Santa Rosalia. Bruno Heceta and Juan de la Bodega landed near Point Grenville in 1775, and claimed the land for Spain. It is believed that Heceta saw what is now called the Columbia River, without recognizing it as the "River of the West" so long sought.
Captain James Cook, commanding an English expedition with instructions to search for the Northwest Passage and lay claim for England to any unoccupied lands he might discover, sighted land off the Umpqua on March 7, 1778, and proceeded to Nootka Sound, where he spent a month. He was quite painstaking in charting the coast lines north of Juan de Fuca, but the Strait itself escaped his notice.
The North Pacific voyage of the great French navigator, La Perouse, in 1785, was recorded in his journal, but, by the time the record was published in 1787, his discoveries were common knowledge among seamen. Now came the captains of the great fur-trade era, like the later gold rush to California. In 1787, Captain Charles William Barkley, an Englishman, found and named the passage now known as Juan de Fuca Strait. Barkley gave directions for finding the Strait to John Meares, once a lieutenant in the British Navy, who was preparing for a trading voyage along the Northwest coast. Early in the following year, Meares and another English trader, William Douglas, flying both the Union Jack and the Portuguese flag, joined in the rush for furs that replaced the search for the Northwest Passage.