Toward the end of the Columbia’s winter stay the Americans had witnessed the incidents that produced the “Nootka Sound Controversy.” Vancouver Island, which was not yet so named, was Spanish and all ships that touched there did so by favor of His Catholic Majesty. (This was quite clear and the East India Company acted in accordance with it, sending its first ventures there under the flag of Portgual, which had treaty privileges.) In 1788 Meares built some earthworks and a shack on a site which he claimed to have bought from the local chief for two pistols, and announced that he was setting up in business. In the spring of 1789 the Spanish commandant seized the shack, searched, seized, and released several British ships, and ended by again seizing several – one of which belonged to Meares – and keeping them.
Since the great value of the Northwest trade was now understood, the British government demanded restitution, reparation, and recognition of the right to trade. Spain answered with a demand that her sovereignty be acknowledged. It was an explosive situation in a jittery world and would have led to war – but the beginning of the French Revolution had cut off the possibility of French help and Spain had no choice but to accede to the British demands. . . .
Thus Spain abandoned her claim to exclusive sovereignty over Nootka Sound. In effect she relinquished the rights she had asserted ever since Pope Alexander VI drew his demarcation line in 1493, and the breakup of the Spanish Empire had begun. The Spanish concession had the utmost importance for the United States. California remained entirely Spanish but how far north did California extend? The Republic began to engross the Northwest trade and, as the wars of the French Revolution developed, went on to appropriate a steadily increasing part of the world’s carrying business. Though it was so weak a political and military power that the crises of the I790’s seemed likely to break it up, it was becoming a great maritime nation. The biggest business it was engaged in was the triangular trade with China. This was based on the Northwest coast, and the Northwest coast was the width of the continent away from the seaboard cities. From now on no American statesman and no continental thinker could forget for a moment that Spanish Louisiana lay between the western boundary of the United States and Captain Gray’s river.