Who was “Fidalgo”? The History Behind our Island’s Namesake

Many Fidalgo Island residents may be aware that the city of Anacortes derives its name from a linguistic corruption of Annie Curtis, wife of Amos Bowman, the first postmaster. But where did the name Fidalgo come from? And why are there so many other Spanish-sounding names in the Pacific Northwest? The answers to these questions have their origins in the 1513 claim by the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa, on behalf of the Spanish Crown, to the entire west coast of North America. Talk about hubris!

Balboa was the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean. His claim of Spanish sovereignty was based on a 1493 papal bull, issued in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s discoveries of the previous year, and the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed between Spain and Portugal in 1494. The two edicts apportioned control of the Atlantic sea lanes between the two rival naval powers, and granted to Spain all lands 370 leagues (1110 miles) west of the Portuguese-held Cape Verde Islands. Hence Balboa’s claim.

Puget Sound & Fidalgo Island Map

image credit: University of Washington Libraries Special Collections

Spain sought to colonize the Pacific Northwest only in the late 18th century, after moving northwards from Mexico into California. By this time, British and Russian fur traders had discovered the region and were establishing settlements. A series of eleven Spanish expeditions were undertaken between 1774 and 1793 to explore and defend Spanish territorial claims. This is the period from which many of the Spanish place names in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska arise. Expedition commanders included Haro, Malaspina, Galiano, Valdes—and a Catalonian-born naval officer named Salvador Fidalgo.

Born in 1756 to a noble Navarrese family, Fidalgo graduated in 1775 from the Spanish naval college in Cadiz. He worked initially with a team of cartographers compiling an atlas of coastal Spain, then served in the Mediterranean, participating in engagements against the British off Gibraltar (which partially distracted the British from another ongoing fight on the other side of the Atlantic!).

In 1788, by now a Lieutenant, Fidalgo was assigned with several other capable young officers to the Spanish naval outpost at San Blas, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Their patron was the newly appointed Viceroy of New Spain, Don Juan Vicente de Guemes Pacheco Padilla y Horcajitas, Count of Revillagigedo. (You may find a few other local place names in that string!) The Viceroy’s interests during his five year appointment included the exploration of the Pacific Northwest, and determining the extent of Russian encroachment in the region.

In 1790, Fidalgo set forth as captain of the San Carlos for Vancouver Island, the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound, and Cook Inlet, in what is now Alaska. His mission was to look for Russian interlopers and re-assert Spanish territorial claims. After visiting the tenuous Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Fidalgo held sovereignty ceremonies and religious masses at the sites of present-day Cordova, Gravina Point, and Valdez. The expedition also came across several Russian settlements on the Kenai Peninsula, and on Kodiak Island. After hosting Russian dignitaries aboard his ship, in July 1790, Fidalgo conducted a further sovereignty ceremony, on the Kenai Peninsula, before returning to San Blas that October.

Meanwhile, another ship, the Princesa Real, under the command of Fidalgo’s compatriot Manuel Quimper, explored the waters inside the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A junior officer, Juan Carrasco, sighted Fidalgo Island from a longboat, but assumed it to be part of the mainland. He gave the adjacent waters (Rosario Strait) the name Boca de Fidalgo, in honor of his colleague. In a follow-up expedition in 1791, another Spaniard Jose Narvaez realized the Boca was not a bay, and changed the name to Canal de Fidalgo—though Fidalgo Island itself was still not recognized to be an island, and so remained unnamed (at least by Europeans!).

In 1792, Salvador Fidalgo was once again dispatched from San Blas to establish a Spanish outpost at what is now Neah Bay, near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This order was issued in the midst of diplomatic negotiations between Spain and Britain to resolve the so-called Nootka Crisis. This dispute had erupted in 1789 after the Spanish seized several British fur trading ships in the vicinity of Nootka Sound, and Britain threatened to send its superior naval forces against mainland Spain in retaliation.

Neah Bay was viewed by the Spanish as an alternative outpost should the one at Nootka Sound have to be relinquished to the British (hence the intensive surveys of the surrounding waters during the preceding two years). Fidalgo and his men built a stockade and planted a vegetable garden, but skirmishes occurred with the local Makah tribe. Fidalgo’s deputy, Antonio Serante, was killed, as were a number of Makah in a retaliatory attack. Fidalgo was reprimanded, and the post was abandoned thereafter, as Spain surrendered all its Pacific Northwest territorial and trading claims to Britain. Spain sold the rest of its North American territories, including Florida and California, to the United States under the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819.

Salvador Fidalgo spent the remainder of his naval career in the Pacific. He died in Mexico in 1803, aged 47.

Thirty-eight years later, in 1841, the land mass adjacent to the Canal de Fidalgo was determined by a US naval officer and explorer, Charles Wilkes, to be separated from the mainland by a narrow waterway, thus making it an island. Wilkes named his discovery after Oliver Perry, a hero of the 1812 battle against the British at Lake Erie. Six years later, a British naval surveyor, Henry Kellett, exerted his preference for the “original” Spanish honorific—and though Fidalgo himself never saw our lovely island, it has borne his name ever since.

Contributed post from Arlene Cook

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