In 1792, Spanish colonists, led by Lt. Sálvador Fidalgo, constructed Fort Núñez Gaona on the shore of Neah Bay. Named after Admiral Manuel Núñez Gaona, for whom Spanish explorer Alferez Manuel Quimper also named the bay when he first reached it in 1790, it was the first European settlement North of San Francisco.

The colonists cleared the land and constructed their settlement across the stream from the Makah villages in May of 1792. The colony was meant to provide Spain with a base for protecting its political, commercial, and scientific interests in the region, but the settlement did not last long – only four months. The men had settled on land occupied by the Makah, and by the end of the summer, the colonists’ relations with the tribe turned unfriendly. The Spanish abandoned their settlement at the end of the summer of 1792, when Fidalgo received orders to abandon the fort and move to Nootka Bay, a more developed port facility on Vancouver Island. Spain relinquished its claim to this region in 1819 under the Adams Onis Treaty.

During its brief occupation, the Spaniards made a lasting imprint: The settlement consisted of an infirmary, storehouses, dwellings, a place of worship, a bakery, and a battery for mounting canons. There were also corrals for pigs, sheep, cows, and goats. The Spanish planted vegetables, grains, and fruits, introducing several New World crops, including the potato and tomato, brought directly from South America by the Spanish ships. The Ozette potato is a culinary relic from that era. While all other potato varieties grown in the United States are hybrids, derived from European imports, a 2004 genetic analysis conducted at Washington State University confirmed that the Ozette potato was imported directly from South America. It is assumed the potato came from Peru to the Makah by way of the Spanish settlers. The Makah named the potato the Ozette, after one of their five villages located around Neah Bay. In the 1860s, James Swan, then a schoolteacher living among the Makah, indicated the potato was a staple of the tribe’s diet alongside fish, seal, and whale oil, providing a much-needed source of carbohydrates. 

From this settlement the Spanish conducted the first international trading with the native people of Washington, conducted scientific studies of local flora and fauna, recorded and preserved the language, songs, religion, and customs of the Native people, and mapped and named key geographical points.

Modern Fort Núñez Gaona–Diah

Today, the Fort Núñez Gaona–Diah Veterans Park exists to mark the spot where Spanish explorers built their settlement. The park was constructed on property donated by Ed Claplanhoo, his wife Thelma, and two other Makah families, in a unique partnership between the Makahs, Washington State, and the Spanish government. Co-funded by the State, a grant by the Spanish government, and support from the Makah tribe, the park was built on waterfront property overlooking Neah Bay, the structure constructed of six large cedar columns to resemble a traditional Makah longhouse. The site bears the flags of the United States, Spain, the Makah Nation, Washington State, the Nuu-chah-nulth Native Peoples of Canada, and each branch of the United States military. A stone monument bears the names of Neah Bay area veterans who have served since World War I. The name “Diah” is the historic name of that section of the tribal village.

This essay will be included in the Jefferson County Historical Society update to the local history classic City of Dreams.

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