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Cordova in Alaska

by Dr. Arsenio Rey-Tejerina
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The Spaniards arrive and name it Córdova.

    Five years after these events, Don Juan Vicente de Güemes Pacheco Padilla y Horcajitas, the Count of Revillagigedo, received his appointment as the Viceroy of New Spain, and he selected seven naval officers recently graduated from the Academy to accompany him on the voyage to his new domains. Three of these future explorers, Salvador Fidalgo, Jacinto Caamaño, and Manuel Quimper, felt a special admiration for the old Córdova and would express it by leaving his name as a landmark in three different areas of the Pacific Northwest.

    One of the priorities or, I would say, preoccupations of the new viceroy in his 5 years of service (1789 - 1794) was to pursue the exploration of the Pacific Northwest and find out the real extent of the Russian encroachment in America.

    Salvador Fidalgo had just become a Battleship Lieutenant and from San Blas in northwestern México, near today's trendy Puerto Vallarta, was sent to New Spain's northern settlement, San Lorenzo de Nootka, on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. The 33 year old captain, a scion of a Navarrese family, had been born at La Seo d'Urgell in the province of Lérida and entered the Navy as a guardiamarina in Cádiz. He died, still a young man, in 1803 near México City.

    The Spaniards had spotted in western Alaska the first Russian promyslhennik (fur hunters) two years earlier and Salvador Fidalgo had the commitment to find out the full extent of their penetration. On May 5th of 1790 he sailed in the San Carlos out of Nootka Bay for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. He arrived there twenty days later to explore the gulf, which he called Príncipe Carlos.

    He first anchored in a small bay or Ensenada as he called it on the northwest coast of Hinchinbrook Island. This island, as well as the smaller one to its north, known today as Hawkings, had respectively received the names of Isla de Santa María Magdalena and the Isla de las Culpas (Island of Guilts) during the 1779 exploration led by Don Ignacio Fernando de Arteaga.

    From there Fidalgo moved to the mainland at a spot near the coast where old Cordova was previously located. After nine days anchored right here in this bay, having carefully explored the surroundings in search of Russians and having found none nor any track of them, Captain Fidalgo and his men prepared for the ceremony of claiming possession of the territory.

    They did meet instead a number of Natives, with whom they exchanged gifts and kept on friendly terms. The Indians would come with furs and fish extending their arms in the form of the Cross and crying lalí, lalí as a sign of peace. To the crew's amazement they rejected the copper plates they were offered, preferring ordinary pieces of iron and turquoise crystal beads. On the last day of May a chief came on board bringing a sick girl with a quinsy infection which had to be bled right away by the surgeon, Don José Morelos.

    On the 3rd of June, 1790, they disembarked at some point bordering today's Orca Inlet. Except for the essential crew to safeguard the ship, the whole troop came ashore with their musketry and musical instruments to enhance the occasion. While the crowd was singing a thunderous Te Deum and an emotive Vexilla Regis, the chaplain, Fr. José Alejandro López de Nava, celebrated an elaborate solemn Mass in the presence of a numerous swarm of Indians who followed the ceremony spell bound.

    The final act was the erection of a big cross that the carpenters had cut from the largest tree they could find as the symbol of possession in the name of Carlos IV, the king of Spain. At the bottom of the cross they marked the inscription: Carolus IV Hispan. Rex A.N. 1790. Pr. Don Salvador Fidalgo. After a long speech, the leader of the expedition officially proclaimed the territory a colony of Spain and declared that the land on which they were standing thenceforward should be known as Puerto Córdova in honor of the great Don Luis de Córdova y Córdova, Captain General of his Catholic Majesty, Carlos IV.

    The grandiloquent harangue delivered by an enthusiastic captain is several pages long and typical of the occasion. They had traveled many nautical miles and overcome innumerous ordeals to get there, and finally they had made it!

    A bottle with the proclamation was deeply buried under a pile of rocks holding the cross. Unfortunately, the plan detailing the placement of Puerto Córdova is believed lost or at least no one has yet been able to find it. This is the first European history referring to this city.

    You are probably familiar with other Córdova names, which were given subsequently in the surrounding area such as Cordova Glacier, 20 miles north of here and Cordova Peak not much further north. Rude River, the stream flowing into Nelson Bay, has also been known as Cordova Creek.

    Using a longboat, the cartographers of the expedition sailed through Hinchinbrook and Hawkings Islands toward the east studying the coast and taking note of the numerous sand banks in the area. The name of Cañizares (José de), an old friend pilot of Fidalgo, was given to what today is known as Whitshed Point. The opposite end of Orca Inlet was named Ensenada de Menéndez in honor of Salvador Menéndez, the pilot who was guiding the San Carlos during the expedition.

    From there they proceeded to the north, traversing the bay which they named Orca for the killer whales they saw during their crossing, and came ashore at a spot corresponding to 60° 40' and 36° 53" W. of San Blas which was given the name of Puerto Gravina. Here again they repeated the act of possession, following the same customs.

    The southern land point, which is known today as Gravina Point, was named San Federico, probably after Gravina's saint's name Saint Federico. Federico Carlos Gravina was a famous Sicilian navy man who distinguished himself in the service of Spain. Probably a classmate of Fidalgo, he had a meteoric career. At 31 he was assistant to Admiral Juan de Lángara y Huarte and eventually he would take his place.

    At the time his name was being honored in Alaska, Gravina was only 34 years old. Later on he fought against Horatio Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. Gravina is remembered today by Gravina River at the top of Port Gravina, and by Gravina Rocks together with the very small Gravina Island off the coast. This great Spanish admiral has a much bigger place named after him across the channel from Ketchikan - Gravina Island, which serves as its International Airport.

Page 1 - Who was Luis de Córdova y Córdova?
Page 3 - The naming of Valdez
Page 4 - Other places named Cordova