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Originally published Friday, November 23, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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Finding the Strait of Juan de Fuca

Canadian maritime historian Barry Gough's "Juan de Fuca's Strait" tells the story of the various explorers — from several countries — who first encountered the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Gough will discuss his book Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Barry Gough

The author of "Juan de Fuca's Strait" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or
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In July 1787, when America's Founding Fathers were in Philadelphia writing the Constitution, an American mariner was sailing down the west coast of Vancouver Island, which he didn't know was an island. His name was Charles Barkley, and he was looking to buy otter pelts from the Indians. He came across a channel 14 miles wide leading deep into the continent.

Nine years before, the English explorer James Cook had named Cape Flattery at the southern entrance but missed the channel itself because of the fog. For Barkley the weather was clear. His wife, Frances, who had accompanied him, wrote in her journal that he "immediately recognized [it] as the long lost strait of Juan de Fuca ... ."

Maritime historian Barry Gough's "Juan de Fuca's Strait: Voyages in the Waterway of Forgotten Dreams" (Harbour Publishing, 287 pp., $32.95) is the story of the discovery of the strait and the mapping of its interior waters. Gough is Canadian, and the book has little in it about Puget Sound. It focuses on the waters around Vancouver Island, the Makahs and other tribes, and explorers of the Western powers.

The first such explorations of the Pacific Coast were in the 1500s. In 1579 Francis Drake ventured up the coast, though it is not clear how far north. B.C. writer Sam Bawlf has argued [" 'Secret Voyage' adds scraps to mystery of Drake," The Seattle Times, July 6, 2003] that the English privateer discovered the strait and circumnavigated Vancouver Island.

"It did not happen," declares Gough. Based on the weight of the ship and the time elapsed, he writes, Bawlf's scenario "could not have happened without independent motive power (such as a 250-horsepower outboard motor strapped to the transom of the Golden Hind)."

Juan de Fuca claimed to have found the strait in 1592 on a mission from Spanish Mexico. Spain didn't care. De Fuca asked the English to prove his claim, but then he died, and the English weren't convinced. Spain was mining silver and gold in Mexico and Peru and buying things in China.

For more than a century, Spanish ships laden with Chinese porcelain and silk followed the North Pacific Current to northern California, then south. Spain did not look north.

That changed in 1778, when Cook and his crew opened the sea-otter trade between the Pacific Northwest and China. A year later, Spain set up a fort at Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island and sent out explorers. It was Spain's effort to make the Pacific Northwest part of New Spain.

The Spanish did not stay, but they left their names. The San Juan Islands: No Englishman would have named them that. Haro Strait is named after explorer Gonzalo López de Haro, and Orcas Island after Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, the viceroy of New Spain.

British explorers named Georgia Strait after a certain king Americans didn't like, and they named Vancouver Island, Whidbey Island and Puget Sound after themselves.

All these names came from voyages described in Gough's book. It is a straightforward account, illustrated with contemporary line drawings and maps. The maps are all interesting, but to follow Gough's story, the reader needs a set of modern maps or, better yet, marine charts.

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