The crooked Captain and Cape Disappointment

April 12, 1788

On this day British maritime opportunist, John Meares, named Cape Disappointment along Washington’s Pacific Coast.  He changed course after a storm and missed the mouth of the Columbia River by two nautical miles.   But Meares himself was the story’s biggest disappointment. (Right, Meares, 1790 engraving)

Some sources date Meares’ disgruntled labeling of the cape as July 6.  He recorded it in his captain’s log after failing to find yet another important landmark, the river explored by Spain’s Bruno de Heceta.  Attempts to rename it never succeeded.

It was this seafaring scoundrel’s second voyage along the Pacific Northwest.  Flying a Portuguese flag and carrying false papers, he hoped to trade in furs without paying duty to the East India Company.  His first junket two years earlier would certainly qualify as disappointing.

With the ship Nootka he explored the coast of Alaska before spending the winter of  1786-87 in Prince William Sound.   Woefully short of provisions, however, he had lost fully two-thirds of his 30-man crew to scurvy.  

The Queen Charlotte (circa 1787)

George Dixon, captain of the British Queen Charlotte, a licensed and legal trader fresh from circumnavigating the globe, sailed to the rescue, saving Meares and the remaining sick and starving men.  Swearing to Dixon that he would never trade in the Northwest again, he left for China by way of the Sandwich Islands.

Once back in England, however, Meares showed his gratitude by suing Dixon.   Claiming he’d been overcharged for the  lifesaving supplies
provided by the Queen Charlotte before setting off to repeat his bad behavior.  Still flying a Portuguese flag on the Felice Adventurero, he added a second ship.  The Iphigenia Nubiana was captained by William Douglas, (left) the sole surviving officer from the ill-fated Nootka.

But the second voyage turned out to be an even bigger disaster, bringing England and Spain to the brink of naval warfare squabbling over territory neither nation ever really owned.

 Nearly two centuries earlier, Pope Alexander VI had magnanimously divided up most of the New World between Spain and Portugal.  Spanish captain, Esteban José Martinez, (left) fearing Russia might be encroaching,  sailed into Nootka Bay in 1789 and seized the Iphigenia.  Realizing it was not Russian but English, Martinez released the ship, but warned Captain Douglas to leave and never return.

 Meares, in the meantime had cobbled together a trading post with Chinese workers.   It was a hit with the British Crown, allowing England, they believed, to lay claim to British Columbia.  Meares swore he’d legally purchased the land with a handful of trade goods from the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth or Nootka.  

England and Spain finally ended hostilities with the Nootka Convention, agreeing to share the bay as long as neither country built a permanent settlement.  Terms of the convention lasted until Spain ceded portions of the Northwest with the 1819 treaty between Spain and a fledging America.  

Spain eventually agreed to pay reparations for seizing the Iphigeni but it is a matter of some dispute whether Meares  received any portion of the payments.  Several sources claim he may have been paid what amounted to $200,000, a fortune in 1790.

 Housing for the wealthy at Royal Circle, Bath, England

He apparently did manage to retire comfortably and eventually was rewarded with the rank of commander in the Royal Navy.  Meares died January 29, 1809 at the age of 56.  According to a notice at Bath, England,   his will stated his assets at £7,500, perhaps more than $1 million today.

The second British captain caught up in the Nootka crisis, William Douglas, didn’t fare nearly as well.  Taking over the helm of an American vessel, Grace, he and American Revolutionary War hero, John Kendrick, unsuccessfully attempted to open up fur trade with Japan.  He died on a return trip to the Northwest from China in 1791.

Cape Disappointment State Park, 244 Robert Gray Drive, Ilwaca, Washington, includes a 2,023-acre camping park on scenic Long Beach Peninsula.   The Columbia River meets the Pacific at Cape Disappointment and features the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.  The Fort Columbia Interpretive Center and the Fort Columbia Commanding Officer’s House Museum are near by. 

The Lewis and Clark Center located there is open daily  10 to 5, April 1 to Oct. 31 and Wednesdays through Sundays  Nov. 1 to March 31. Adult (over 18) admission, $5, ages 7 to 17, $2.50 and under 6, free. Day use  are from 6:30am to 10:pm during the summer, and 6:30am to 4:00pm in the winter  Hours for other attractions vary.  For more information go to write Cape Disappointment State Park, 244 Robert Gray Drive, Ilwaco, WA 98624, or call (360) 642-3078.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use. 

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.