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Cordova in Alaska

by Dr. Arsenio Rey-Tejerina

A lecture given at the Cordova Museum in summer of 1990, the bicentennial of the naming of the community.

Who was Luis de Córdova y Córdova?

    Cordova Cordova, repeated as a poetic anaphora, like Walla Walla, Pago Pago or other cities flaunting a double label, could be the name of this Alaskan place if we would want to adhere to its namesake: Córdova y Córdova. He was a Captain General of the Spanish Royal Navy, the highest military rank to which a Spanish soldier could aspire.

    Luis de Córdova y Córdova, born in Seville in 1706, survived many life dangers, living to be a nonagenarian. His father was a navy captain and, before he reached thirteen, took his son along on two of his voyages to America. As a lad of 15 he entered the Naval Academy of San Fernando for guardiamarinas, something similar to a midshipman cadet in our Naval Academy of Annapolis. He was initiating a long career in the Royal Navy that would take him to fight against Algerian, Austrian and English navies for almost 70 years throughout Europe and the Caribbean. He was frequently involved in keeping at bay corsair ships and in the protection of convoys.

    As a gallant young mariner he was chosen to escort Prince Carlos of Bourbon into Italy in 1730 and two years later was at the re-conquest of Orán, a nest of pirates in the Africa coast. Two more years passed and he is at the re-conquest of the kingdom of Naples and Sicily for the same Don Carlos.

    He went through all the lower echelons with distinction and by 1740 was Capitán de Fragata. He defended Cartagena in Colombia from the pestering attacks of English pirates, and later, while fighting against Algerian pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, was elevated to the rank of Capitán de Navío. Eleven years later he sank an Algerian battleship -the Danzik- armed with 62 cannons in the Bay of Cádiz, a feat that earned him the prestigious Cross of Calatrava.

    In 1760 he became the chief-commander of a fleet going to North America, which did not return to Cádiz until 14 years later, at which time Luis became a Lieutenant General. Having been in charge of several assignments in Europe and crisscrossed the Atlantic nine times, Luis de Córdova was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant General in 1775, being then worthy of a well-deserved retirement. But he continued on active duty and, in 1779, when Spain declared war to England, he was made the co-commander of a joint Spanish-French squadron counting as many as 70 battleships to attack the English coasts. The combined forces reigned over the English Channel. They created a certain panic in Plymouth and Portsmouth but were unsuccessful in achieving any landing due to bad weather and a pandemic of typhus that had decimated 5000 of their sailors. His French partner, Count of Orvilliers, abandoned the scene and took refuge in Brest, a fact for which he was bitterly criticized. He quit the Navy and disappeared.

    This was the time of the American War of Independence and the British Navy was at low ebb, not being able to replace and upkeep their battered ships with the abundant Vermont timber as in the past. Don Luis captured a convoy of 55 British ships and their three accompanying frigates north of the Azores and brought them all to Cádiz in the summer of 1780.

    This defeat of the English Navy, a long-awaited compulsion for many European nations, made Don Luis the hero of the day. The future explorers of Alaska, young mariners at the time, must have been enthralled by his feats. And during the following decades, when they came to the Pacific Northwest, it was not surprising that his name was at the top of their choices to distinguish the various geographical spots they were discovering.

    The following summer Córdova y Córdova was back again in the English Channel or La Manche, as most Europeans call it, causing terror among the English who were having nightmares of another Invincible Armada ready to take over their country. And again he captured 24 more ships from England but circumstances prevented him from setting foot on the island.

    After these victories in the English Channel, Don Luis went back to his own country to set siege to Gibraltar, where he was not so successful. In the next three years the French and the Spanish navies were keeping a tighter and tighter siege around the Rock of Gibraltar, but our General was not able to impede its break by British navy men like George Rodney (December, 1780), George Darby (March '81) and Richard Howe (Oct. '82). Neither was he able to avoid the sinking of their smart "floating batteries" attacking the Rock.

    The great Howe, who had distinguished himself along his brother, Sir William Howe, in the American Revolution, and would later become First Lord of the Admiralty for his valor during his encounter with Córdova's fleet, outwitted the Spaniards and finally broke the siege of the Gibraltarians. Howe gained the admiration of Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, and the French and the Spaniards acknowledged they had been outmaneuvered by a much smaller fleet.

    In spite of these failures, Luis de Córdova was given the title of Captain General, the highest-ranking file in the Spanish Navy and entrusted with the direction of the Armada. Treaties of Peace were signed in Paris (1783) stopping the fighting and conceding independence to America. It is worth noticing that these fights were distracting the British lion from the American shores, thus helping the 13 colonies gain their independence. The lion would let go from its paws the vast territories across the Atlantic, but would not give up the small Rock where it is still entrenched.

    Brimming with great deeds and covered with glory, the venerable Don Luis, already an octogenarian, retired from the Navy after more than 65 years of uninterrupted service. He had rightfully captured the admiration of all the budding Spanish mariners, who were being trained at the Naval Academy of San Fernando, near the city of Cádiz.

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.

The naming of Valdez

    Moving northward, the expedition came into another entrance, which they called Puerto Mazarredo in honor of Don José de Mazarredo, a well known Spanish admiral who fought many battles against the French and the British. George Vancouver, who a few years later relied heavily on the explorations of Fidalgo for his maps, presents Port Fidalgo as the name of this entrance and it is still known by this name today.

    At 61° 48' the exploring party discovered a volcano, which was given the name of the leader of the expedition: Volcán Fidalgo.

    On June 15th the longboat made another excursion toward the north and discovered a port, which they named Puerto Valdéz. Don Antonio Valdés, a prominent figure in the exploration of Alaska, was the Minister of the Spanish Navy at the time. As with Córdova, the name Valdéz has now been applied to several other geographical features: the marine access to that port is known as Valdez Arm, which gives into Valdez Narrows. There is an Old Valdez, which predates the year of the big earthquake that shook South Central Alaska in 1964 and a Valdez name applied to the town terminus of the Pipeline. Valdez Glacier is located inland on the neighboring mountains.

    Fidalgo continued his exploration of the area and Columbia Bay, where the glacier breaks into the water, was named Puerto Revillagigedo and the nearby island Isla del Conde, in honor of the Count of Revillagigedo, the Viceroy who had ordered the expedition.

    Captain Fidalgo, unable to sight any Russians, fills his journal with detailed descriptions of the character and the genius of the Prince William Sound Natives. He depicts their customs, physiognomy, foods and eating habits against the background of their bays and inlets with the imposing view of the surrounding mountains.

    After Captain Fidalgo and his crew of 74 men stayed in the vicinity of Cordova for more than a month, it was time to move on, and the San Carlos pushed its way westward. On the fourth of July they finally made their first contact with the Russians. The Spaniards visited a small Russian outpost near today's Port Graham at the southwestern coast of the Kenai Peninsula, which they named again Puerto Revillagigedo.

    The second pilot, Esteban Mondofía, who spoke Russian, visited another outpost in the Kasilof area and after sighting the Volcán Miranda (nowadays Iliamna ) returned to the frigate with a Russian who lived at the establishment. Mondofía seems to have gone up Cook Inlet, probably as far as the Turnagain Arm.

    Kachemak Bay received the name of Quadra, after Francisco de Bodega y Quadra, another Spanish explorer who led several expeditions to Alaska and at this time was the Commander of the San Blas headquarters.

    The explorers also visited the main Russian settlement of the time, which was located in Three Saints Bay, on the south of Kodiak Island. Mission accomplished, must have been the recurrent thought in Fidalgo's mind. He writes a very interesting account of the night of July 5th, when he had the whole hierarchy of the Russian commanders in his ship and had dined and wined them, he had them at his mercy.

    Another interesting moment is when just under the Russians' noses he conducts the ceremony of possession at their outpost of Alexandrovsk, near today's English Bay.

    After more than two months exploring the area, on September 1st they set sail for Bucareli Bay in South-East Alaska but the winds took them off course so that on September 15 they arrived instead at Monterrey in California, finally reaching their San Blas headquarters by November 15.

    There are four manuscripts re-telling Fidalgo's experiences in our area, and one seems to have been published in Spanish (see Note below). We have several reports from all the other expeditions to Alaska, usually written by the commander, the pilots, the chaplains or other officials but for this expedition we only have what Fidalgo wrote.

    Two of the manuscripts from Fidalgo's expedition are in Madrid at the archives of the Navy in the Museo Naval and two are in México City at the National Archives. They are titled:

  • " Noticias y apuntes sobre el viaje…. News and Notes on the voyage to explore northern California and the Russian settlements in América" (Ms 575 bis, doc.4)
  • "Extracto del diario… Excerpt from the Journal of Salvador Fidalgo commissioned to proceed to Nootka and continue the reexamination of Prince William and Cook Inlet to find out if there is any Russian settlement in the area". (Ms. 271, fol. 104; Ms 331, fol. 169).
  • "Diario de la Navegación… Voyage Journal, 1790". (AGN, Histor, vol. 68, fols. 206-410).
  • The fourth document, in México, is of a summary nature. It is titled "Compendio histórico de las…. Historical compendium of the voyages carried out by the officers and pilots in vessels of the Royal Navy on the Northern Coasts of California with the intention of determining and discovering the extent and location of the territories and adjacent islands, written by an officer of the Spanish Royal Navy. México: year 1799". Judging by the title and date, this compendium seems to have been written by Fidalgo in his later years. It is a general review of his and other officers' experiences.
*See my study: "The Spanish Exploration of Alaska, 1774-1796: Manuscript Sources". Alaska History Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 45-62.
You may also consult my book: Tomás de Suria a l'expedició Malaspina -Alaska 1791-. Valencia: Generalitat, 1995.

Other places named Cordova

    Along with Fidalgo and the new Viceroy was another young officer named Jacinto Caamaño Moraleja, who would also honor the great Admiral Córdova by giving his name to another Alaskan spot: Cordova Bay. It is a water passage between Long Island and the southern part of Prince of Wales Island.

    Caamaño was born in 1759 in Madrid and joined the Navy as an adventurer when he was 18; two years later he was already an Ensign (Alférez de Navío). After a quick trip to Cuba in which he distinguished himself as an excellent leader, he was also selected by the viceroy for the Pacific Northwest explorations.

    On February 3, 1790 Caamaño became an experienced sailor, entering the forbidding northern latitudes as commander of the Princesa, a 189-ton frigate recently built in San Blas. He accompanied Salvador Fidalgo, but only as far as the Nootka settlement on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island, returning to the base before the winter.

    After a temporary sojourn in México, Don Jacinto Caamaño came again to the north in 1792 with the commitment to carefully map the coast from Alaska's Klawock down to Vancouver's Nootka.

    He left the Department of San Blas aboard the frigate Nuestra Señora de Aránzazu on March 20, making a brief stop in Nootka. By July 11, he was ready to begin his task of mapping the whole coast from Bucareli Bay to Nootka.

    When, on July 18th, 1792, he arrived at the spacious strait between the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island and Long Island, he was so impressed by the beauty and serenity of the surroundings, that he named it under the false conviction of being in a bay: Puerto de Córdova y Córdova. He affirms in his Journal about the spot: Nothing inferior to Bucareli and worth a 15-20 day exploration tour, a good mooring place. The terrain is very similar to that around Bucareli. He also noticed the numerous Indian people moving around the area.

    From there he continued his work, leaving Alaska and sailing south into Queen Charlotte. Caamaño became temporarily governor of Alaska in replacement of Francisco Eliza who had taken off on an exploration of his own. Caamaño also passed most of his findings to George Vancouver who, after incorporating them with his own, passed to Alaska most of the Spanish names that stand on our maps today. It was him who corrected the false impression changing the name to the current Cordova Bay.

    Manuel Quimper del Pino, whose father was French, was the third explorer to accompany the Viceroy to New Spain. He would also imprint the name of Córdova in the Northwest, but not in Alaska. He also gave the names of his friends, Fidalgo and Caamaño, to other geographical discoveries he achieved.

    On July 19, 1791 he arrived at Quadra-Vancouver Island (which today has lost its first hyphen) to what is now known as Esquimalt Harbor, just south of the present day capital of British Columbia. The next day a boat party spent the day studying the bay, which Quimper named Puerto de Cordova. This name is still there, just north of the capital city, Victoria, changed to Cordova Bay.