Ioánnis Phokás (Greek: Ιωάννης Φωκάς), better known by the Spanish transcription of his name, Juan de Fuca (born 1536 on the Ionian island of Cefalonia; died there 1602), was a Greek-born maritime pilot in the service of the King of Spain, Philip II. He is best known for his claim to have explored the Strait of Anián, now known as the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Vancouver Island (now part of British Columbia, Canada) and the Olympic Peninsula (northwestern Washington State, United States).
The name of the man known to history as Juan de Fuca is the source of some confusion. While Juan de Fuca is clearly a Spanish rendering of Ioánnis Phokás (Gr: Ιωάννης Φωκάς), some sources cite Apóstolos Valeriános (Gr: Απόστολος Βαλεριάνος) as his “real” name. It is possible that Phokás was baptized Apóstolos and later adopted the name Ioánnis/Juan (i.e., John) because Apóstol is not much used as a name in Spanish. Given that Fokás/Fuca was the family name borne by the seafarer’s father and grandfather, Valeriános is likely to be a nickname used on the island which would have been quite meaningless in the Spanish Empire.
Voyages to the north
According to de Fuca’s account, he undertook two voyages of exploration on the orders of the Viceroy of New Spain, Luis de Velasco, marqués de Salinas, both intended to find the fabled Strait of Anián, believed to be a Northwest Passage, a sea route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The first voyage saw 200 soldiers and three small ships under the overall command of a Spanish captain (with de Fuca as pilot and master) assigned the task of finding the Strait of Anián and fortifying it against the English.
In 1592, on his second voyage, de Fuca enjoyed success. Having sailed north with a caravel and a pinnace and a few armed marines, he returned to Acapulco and claimed to have found the strait, with a large island at its mouth, at around 47° north latitude. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is in fact at around 48° N, although Fuca’s account of sailing into it departs from reality, describing a region far different from what actually existed there. During the voyage, de Fuca also noted a “high pinnacle or spired rock”, which may have been Fuca Pillar, a tall, almost rectangular, rock on the western shore of Cape Flattery on the northwestern tip of Washington beside the Strait of Juan de Fuca – although de Fuca noted it being on the other side of the strait.
Despite Velasco’s repeated promises, however, de Fuca never received the great rewards he claimed as his due. After two years, and on the viceroy’s urging, de Fuca travelled to Spain to make his case to the court in person. Disappointed again and disgusted with the Spanish, the aging Greek determined to retire to his home in Kefallonia but was in 1596 convinced by an Englishman, Michael Lok (also spelled as Locke in English and French documents from the period), to offer his services to Spain’s archenemy, Queen Elizabeth. Nothing came of Lok and Fokás’ proposals, but it is through Lok’s account that the story of Juan de Fuca entered English letters.