The Arteaga Expedition to Alaska of 1779

You didn't know there were connections
between Spain and Alaska, now did you?
You may or may not have noticed an absence of posting here for nearly the last two weeks. This is due to the fact that Iʼve been hammering away at my senior thesis in history, and just last Sunday morning I turned in my second batch of writing to be read and critiqued by my peers. That being the case, I now have a little bit of time to turn to writing on the blog, but given that I can't think of anything else to write about, I'm going to post a story here from the content of my thesis. The following is some of the history from the Spanish expedition of Ignacio Arteaga, which came to Bucareli Bay on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island in May of 1779.

Please note that I've adjusted this from what's written in my thesis. I hope you enjoy the story.

From their position on the western coasts of the Americas, the Spanish government became alarmed to hear of Russian activities in the North Pacific. Ships were soon dispatched to travel north from San Blas, New Spain, with the intent to elongate and substantiate Spanish imperial claims. Tlingit experiences with these mariners took place over a brief period of time, but the encounters had some significant and devastating effects. Wallace M. Olson writes of Spanish-Tlingit relations as having transpired “without the tragedy that usually followed such meetings,” but while the apparent absence of fighting between Tlingit and Spanish merits note, this statement ignores the traumatic effects of disease that these voyages carried with them.

Google Earth screenshot of the west-
central POW archipelago with
placemark on likely Spanish camp
The Spanish likely brought smallpox to the Sheetʼká Ḵwáan (Tlingit on Baranof Island) in 1775, and they likely spread it among the people of the Hinya Ḵwáan on Prince of Wales Island as well, in 1779. The expedition of Ignacio Arteaga interacted extensively with Tlingit at Bucareli Bay from May to July of 1779. The subsequent population loss among these Tlingit likely allowed the Kaigani Haida to expand northward, gaining territory on Prince of Wales Island and the islands off its west coast. This would explain how another Spanish expedition returning to the same place in 1792 encountered Haida there, not Tlingit.

The Arteaga expedition seems quite illustrative of Tlingit and Spanish actions toward one another. In May, the Spanish raised a cross on a beach at Bucareli Bay and said mass in order to solemnly “take possession” of the territory. One month later, however, the Tlingit who had gathered around the Spanish encampment took the cross down for the iron nails it contained. (Having previously had access only to copper, Tlingit immediately saw iron as a highly attractive and useful new material.) A day later, two sailors deserted with the intent to stay with the Tlingit, but their officers believed them taken captive and seized a hostage in order to secure their return. When Tlingit approached the Spanish ship by canoe, the hostage begged them to trade for his return, but received only jeers in response. The Spanish then tried to take more hostages, and fired on some of the Tlingit as they climbed up one of their ships, believing that they were attacking. One or two men were killed, but the rest were taken on board, given gifts and treated well.

Mourelle (source)
The Spanish had purchased five slave children during their visit, and Francisco Antonio Mourelle, the pilot, wrote that during the incident one of the children on board took soldiers by the hand, led them to the muskets and weapons, and made signs that they should fire on some of the canoes. This story has no confirmation from the other sources on the voyage, but it seems intriguing to consider that this child may have been a Haida slave who, once aboard a foreign vessel with new owners, was eager to have them attack his previous masters. Eventually the hostage crisis ended with the exchange of the Spanish deserters and Tlingit captives, and the sailors were tied to a gun and given twenty lashes.

Olson ascribes the relative lack of violence between Spanish and Tlingit to the actions of “‘honorable’ men and women on both sides” and supports this by citing Spanish orders to act favorably toward the Natives, to ignore Tlingit commission of what they considered petty thefts, and to treat hostages and others as best as possible, giving food and gifts, beds in the officers’ quarters, and even musical entertainment. Indeed, had the Spanish come to Tlingit country with more belligerent, self-assured intentions, and had not Tlingit nobles and others conducted themselves with such patience in tense situations, bloody clashes probably would have occurred.

Ultimately, one must likely ascribe the benign nature of the Tlingit experience with the Spanish (aside from the dreadful effects of smallpox) most of all to New Spain’s lack of intent or capacity to conduct a veritable colonial project. The voyage of 1792 was the last Spanish expedition to reach the vicinity of Tlingit territory: Shut out by Russian and British claims and American commercial prowess, the Spanish abandoned their settlement at Santa Cruz de Nutka on Vancouver Island in 1795, thereafter occupying themselves with endeavors further south.


  • Gibson, James R. Otter Skins, Boston Ships, and China Goods: The Maritime Fur Trade of the Northwest Coast, 1785-1841. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991.
  • Gormly, Mary. "Tlingits of Bucareli Bay, Alaska (1774-1792)." Northwest Anthropological Research Notes 5, no. 2 (1971): 157-180.
  • Langdon, Steve. "Comparative Tlingit and Haida Adaptation to the West Coast of the Prince of Wales Archipelago." Ethnology 18, no. 2 (Apr., 1979): 101-119.
  • Olson, Wallace M. "'I Can Say Nothing but Great Good of These Natives': Encounters between Spaniards and Native Alaskans." Mains'l Haul: A Journal of Pacific Maritime History 41, no. 4 (Winter, 2005): 66-75.