Neah Bay, Washington

 Makah village with canoes, Neah Bay, Washington in 1905 (Edward S. Meany, University of Washington Special Collections- Meany Album v.5, p.50) and in 2014 (CW- 2014-04-26-1659).

Neah Bay lies just to the east of Cape Flattery on the south edge of the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The point of land is point is one of the earliest European-named features in Washington state. On March 22, 1778 James Cook recorded: “… there appeared to be a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding an harbour … On this account I called the point of land to the north of it Cape Flattery.” In poor weather conditions, Cook did not enter the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the major waterway that today brings ships from around the world to Seattle and Vancouver. He eventually made his landfall further north at Nootka Sound. 1 For many millennia Cape Flattery would have been a landmark for First Nations that routinely used large canoes to cross from villages such as those in Clayaquot Sound on Vancouver Island.  Similar to their northern neighbors, the Nuu-chah-nulth, the Makah people of Neah Bay speak a form of the Wakishan language, and have a strong tradition as whalers. Today, the Neah Bay remains the central community for the Makah Nation. 2.

1792: George Vancouver Enters Straits of Juan de Fuca

From the Columbia River north to Alaska, a premier year for European naval mappers in the  Pacific Northwest was 1792. In April of that year, the British naval ships Discovery and Chatham, under Captain George Vancouver approached the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The expedition had left England in April, 1791 and reached the northwest coast via Cape Good Hope, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. Rumours were reaching England that the Spanish, following up on the legend of Juan de Fuca, might have found a seaway into the interior of North America. Vancouver’s orders were to follow up on Cook’s expedition of the 1770s, and for once and for all, establish whether a navigatable waterway existed across the North American continent. On April 29, 1792 Vancouver’s expedition sailed along the west coast near the supposed coordinates to the famed inlet. It was beautiful day with fair seas, and Captain Vancouver marvelled on the sight of Mount Olympus, “its Summit, covered with eternal snow, was divided into a very elegant double fork.” 3. And here, as the opening to the straits became evident, they had the remarkable coincidence to see the first sailing vessel they had seen for over 8 months. It was the American ship Columbia, captained by Robert Gray, the Boston fur-trader who had wintered on Clayoquot Sound. In exchanging information, Gray informed Vancouver about the potential location of a large river entering the Pacific further south. Gray had traded regularly along the southern edge of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, and knew from the local inhabitants the the waterway extended northwards a long distance. However, he had not personally ventured here. 4

Informed on conditions along the south shore of waterway, Vancouver sailed confidently between Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery. He describes a small village on Tatoosh Island, and “as we proceeded along the shore, we passed the village of Classet (Neah Bay), which is situated about two miles within the Cape, and has the appearance of being extensive and populous.” They exchanged presents with Makah paddlers from Neah Bay, but due to poor anchorage continued sailing southeast 5. In 1790, Manuel Quimper had claimed the bay for Spain, naming it “Bahía de Núñez Gaona” and a few days after Vancouver passed by, Spaniarc Salvador Fidalgo would build a small Spanish fort and colony here.  This venture would fail after four months. 6 

From May 2nd to May 18, Vancouver based their expedition at Discovery Bay, just west of Port Townsend, and then moved southwards until June 5. For an idyllic month, they used the Chatham and small cutters to chart the complex inlets and islands of Puget Sound. Although Vancouver saw many villages and hundreds of people in the sound, he also recognized that a major depopulation may have occurred not too many years before his visit. In Discovery Bay, his journal recounts:

We landed not far from the large rivulet, where we found a deserted village capable of containing an hundred inhabitants.  The houses were built after the Nootka fashion, but did not seem to have been lately the residence of the Indians. The habitations had now fallen into decay; their inside, as well as a small surrounding space that appeared to have been formerly occupied, were over-run with weeds; amongst which were found several human  skulls, and other bones, promiscuously scattered about. 7

Although Vancouver could not be certain on magnitude of potential population decline, or the cause, he commented on the people that “their skins were mostly unblemished by scars, excepting such as the small pox seemed to have occasioned ; a disease which there is  great reason to believe is very fatal amongst them.” 8.

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Map and Footnotes:



  1. Beaglehole, J. C., ed. The Journals of Captain Cook on His Voyages of Discovery: The Voyage of the ‘Resolution’ and ‘Discovery,’ 1776-1780. Vol. 3, Cambridge: Hakluyt Society. 1967; Gough, B. M., The Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812. Vancouver, UBC Press. 1992
  2. Arima, E. and A. Hoover. The Whaling People of the West Coast and Cape Flattery. Victoria: Royal BC Museum. 2011
  3. Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 1798. London: Robinson and Edwards. Vol.1, 214
  4. Vancouver, Voyage of Discovery, Vol 1: 214-215. Although Gray had not personally sailed northwards into the Gulf of Georgia (Salish Sea), it is possible that his business partner, John Meares could have taken the Columbia up the interior channel behind Vancouver Island in 1791
  5. Vancouver, Voyage of Discovery,Vol 1: 217-219
  6. Cutter, D. C. Malaspina and Galiano: Spanish Voyages to the Northwest Coast 1791 and 1792. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1991. 117-118
  7. Vancouver, Voyage of Discovery: 229-230
  8. Vancouver, Voyage of Discovery: p. 256