Nootka Sound Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After a prolonged dispute over competing Spanish and British claims to the Canadian Northwest, Spain abandoned all settlements there, ceding the region to the British Empire.

Summary of Event

Nootka Sound is an inlet on the western coast of Vancouver Island, approximately 170 miles northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia. Indigenous peoples have inhabited the island for several thousand years. The first European expedition known to have entered the sound was under the command of Juan Pérez, a Russian-Spanish relations[Russian Spanish relations] Spanish explorer who had made his way north from California in 1774. Pérez’s mission was to challenge Russian exploration;of Alaska[Alaska] Russian claims in the northwest. The Russians, who had staked claims in Alaska, had begun exploring down the northwest coast, and the Spanish feared they would encroach on Spanish territories. Pérez traded with Native Americans who came out to meet his ship, but he did not land. [kw]Nootka Sound Convention (Oct., 1790) [kw]Convention, Nootka Sound (Oct., 1790) [kw]Sound Convention, Nootka (Oct., 1790) Canadian Northwest, control over Nootka Sound Convention (1790) [g]Canada;Oct., 1790: Nootka Sound Convention[2920] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Oct., 1790: Nootka Sound Convention[2920] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct., 1790: Nootka Sound Convention[2920] Vancouver, George Bodega y Quadra, Juan Meares, John Martinez, Esteban José Maquinna Cook, James Pérez, Juan

Captain James Cook of England was sent to the Pacific northwest coast in 1778 to try to find the elusive Northwest Passage Northwest Passage, a hypothetical all-water route through North America. Cook gave the excellent natural harbor on Vancouver Island the name King George’s Sound but later changed it to Nootka, which he believed was the natives’ name for the place. Cook landed and spent almost a month trading for Trade;fur furs with the local people. He did not take formal possession of the area for his king. Captain Cook was killed in 1779 while his expedition was in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), but his crew transported the sea-otter furs they had obtained at Nootka to China, where they traded them for enormous prices. For the next several years, traders from many countries sailed the northwest coast and traded with the natives for beaver and sea-otter pelts.

As trade expanded, British businessmen desired a trading base on the northwest coast. In 1788, Captain John Meares, a British trader, obtained permission from a local tribal chief to erect a small building to be used as a house and trading post. Joining him that year at Nootka were several U.S. ships, as well as other English ships. Meares took his furs to China and returned to Nootka in 1789.

Meanwhile, French traders had informed the Spanish-British relations[Spanish British relations] Spanish government in Mexico of the English presence at Nootka Sound. Esteban José Martinez was sent to assert the Spanish claim to the region. He entered Nootka Sound in May of 1789 and took possession of the region in the name of the king of Spain, with “visible demonstrations of joy” from the local people. He negotiated with them and purchased land on which to build his fort.

The U.S. and Portuguese ships at Nootka quickly agreed they would acknowledge Spanish sovereignty as long as they were allowed to leave with their furs. However, the English ships that Meares had left at Nootka refused to accept the Spanish claims. Martinez promptly seized two of them and sailed them, with their crews, to Mexico.

When Meares learned, early in 1790, of the seizure of his ships by the Spanish, he called immediately for his government to protest the action and asked for $500,000 in compensation for his losses. Spain was prepared to pay restitution, but the British government chose to demand more and to challenge exclusive Spanish claims to territory in the northwest. The British government prepared for war. Spain sought help from France, but the French were embroiled in a revolution and refused to come to Spain’s aid. This potential conflict between Britain and Spain was the occasion for the first foreign policy debate of the government of the United States under its new constitution. President George Washington and his cabinet decided not to interfere. Because they were in no position to fight a war with the British, the Spanish soon pressed for a diplomatic settlement. The document resulting from their negotiations, the Nootka Sound Convention, was signed in October, 1790.

The Nootka Sound Convention favored British interests. The British government agreed to forbid British subjects to trade with Spanish settlements or to fish in Spanish waters. Spain agreed to give the British rights to trade freely at Nootka and to restore Meares’s property. It also recognized Britain’s right to explore, trade, and settle “in the Pacific Ocean or in the South Seas.” Both sides agreed to send commissioners to meet at Nootka Sound and work out details for the conduct of trade at Nootka.

Early in 1790, the Spanish sent ships with supplies, soldiers, and artillery to set up a trading settlement and fort at Nootka. By 1792, Cala de los Amigos (Friendly Cove) had about fifty houses and two hundred Spanish inhabitants. During the summer of 1792, Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, and U.S. ships all stopped to trade at Nootka. In August, Juan Bodega y Quadra, the Spanish representative, and George Vancouver, the British representative, met in the Spanish village on the sound and conducted diplomatic negotiations. Bodega y Quadra entertained the many captains of the various trading vessels lavishly. On one occasion, fifty-four people sat down to a dinner served on solid silver plates. Vancouver got along well with the Spanish representative; together they charted the island, which they agreed to call Quadra and Vancouver Island.

In spite of the fact that the two men got along well personally, they could not agree on terms for the formal settlement of the rival claims. Vancouver understood that Spain was to give up all its claim to Nootka Sound, while Bodega y Quadra understood that Spain was to cede only the plot of land on which Meares’s building had stood. Bodega y Quadra continually stressed the fact that the Spanish had been given complete title to the land by the local chief.

The two commissioners made some effort to make the great chief of the Nootka, Maquinna, feel that he was a part of the negotiations. They received him on board their ships, invited him to dinner, and made an elaborate state visit to his home. Maquinna’s people entertained the Europeans with demonstrations of dancing. The mysterious death of a young Spanish sailor caused a rift between the Europeans and Maquinna’s people. The Nootkas withdrew and took no further part in the negotiations. Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra completed their talks and parted as friends, but the real issues between their two governments remained unresolved.

Negotiations between Spain and Britain continued in Europe. In February, 1793, another document, the Nootka Claims Convention, was signed. This gave Meares $210,000 in compensation, and both Spain and Britain agreed to give up exclusive claim to trade in the northwest. In January of 1794, the third Nootka Convention tied up loose ends and both sides agreed not to establish any permanent settlements at Nootka.


In 1795, commissioners from both countries once again arrived at Nootka Sound to oversee the withdrawal of the settlements. By that time, the Spanish had already decided to abandon all claim to the northwest and concentrate their efforts in California and Mexico. Both countries had abandoned their settlements by March of 1795. While they continued to trade with the natives of Nootka, neither country again attempted settlement there. This withdrawal marked the end of Spanish dominance in the Pacific and the beginning of the end of their great empire.

The British government eventually gave exclusive trading rights in the northwest to the Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company] Hudson’s Bay Company, which competed with various U.S. commercial enterprises for the furs of the northwest. By 1840, the furbearing animals were virtually gone from coastal waters and interior areas. In 1846, after thirty years of joint occupation of the northwest by U.S. and British interests, the Oregon Treaty (1846) Oregon Treaty formally gave possession of Vancouver Island to the British, and it has remained part of the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clayton, Daniel W. Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press, 2000. Describes the encounters between the island’s natives and Europeans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Includes information on the Nootka Sound controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gough, Barry M. Northwest Coast: British Navigation, Trade, and Discoveries to 1812. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press, 1992. Describes how Cook’s arrival at Vancouver Island in 1778 initiated a fierce maritime fur trade, setting off a heated competition among several nations, including a rivalry between Britain and Spain for control of the Nootka Sound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, H. R. Children of the Raven: The Seven Indian Nations of the Northwest Coast. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. Gives history, culture, stories, and legends of the natives of the northwest coast, including the Nootka. Many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johansen, Dorothy O. Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Presents a detailed account of the Nootka controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meany, Edmond S. Vancouver’s Discovery of Puget Sound. 1935. Reprint. Portland, Oreg.: Binfords & Mort, 1957. An annotated transcription of a portion of Vancouver’s journals from 1792. Provides an account of his time at Nootka.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moziño, José Mariano.“Noticias de Nutka”: An Account of Nootka Sound in 1792. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991. An extensively annotated translation of the account of a member of Bodega y Quadra’s expedition. Contains a wealth of information about the Nootka people, including a brief dictionary of the Nootka language. Illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pethick, Derek. The Nootka Connection: Europe and the Northwest Coast, 1790-1795. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 1980. Gives a detailed account of the events and controversies of the time. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and a detailed chronology.

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