Claiming land was done in a ceremonial manner, usually on general instructions from the King of England, the Viceroy of the Spanish, or the orders of the companies that commissioned the mission, but at the discretion of the captain leading the expedition. It was expected that the ceremony legitimized a nation’s rights to the land and was, therefore, regarded as a serious act that required symbols to represent the nations making the claims. Records and documents were created as “proof” of these claims and the “discoveries” they represented. Although many indigenous peoples were living in the Pacific Northwest in the 18th century, expeditions of exploration took it upon themselves to claim land on behalf of their European leaders.
The Spanish adhered to a religious rite that displayed their ties to the Catholic Church and the Papacy in Rome. They supported a policy of “prior discovery” and viewed their claiming ceremonies as a step that simply emphasized their rights as outlined in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Spanish expeditions claimed territory by rowing ashore, fashioning and planting a cross in the ground, and performing a religious ceremony that included prayer and the reading of a Papal bull or decree. In some instances, the local indigenous communities were charged with maintaining the cross that demonstrated Spanish rights.
English expeditions claimed territory by selecting an on-shore location to bury coins and a glass bottle of English origin. Although the ritual might include a religious element such as prayer, claiming territory was predominantly a secular event undertaken in the name of the King. The purpose of burying coins was in fact to leave a marker with a date and the image of the English regent, and the bottle could be used to hold a note or document.
The Canadians and Americans claimed land by establishing trade and erecting forts. The trading outposts of the Northwest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company moved closer and closer to the Pacific following 18th century overland expeditions by their traders. In the United States, archaeologists are still combing the Lewis and Clark route for physical signs of their presence as recorded in their early 19th century expedition journals.