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Dennis Oomen, curator the City of Penticton Museum, holds a Spanish sword that was discovered on the grounds of the O'Keefe Ranch in B.C.'s North Okanagan.

Dennis Oomen, curator the City of Penticton Museum, holds a Spanish sword that was discovered on the grounds of the O’Keefe Ranch in B.C.’s North Okanagan.

Jeff Bassett/For the Globe and Mail

Spain has no record of any lost expeditions in Canada, but an old sword and shipwrecks suggest an early presence in the Okanagan, writes Mark Hume

Long before Captain James Cook sailed along the West Coast in 1778, laying the foundation for England's claim to what is now British Columbia, Spanish explorers were attacked and killed by natives in the Okanagan Valley.

That is the legend, at least. The story has circulated like an urban myth in British Columbia's interior for over a century, making its way into local tourism brochures and regional history books despite a lack of scientific proof.

A growing body of evidence, however, including a Spanish sword that has been dated to the 16th century, now suggests that it is more than just a folk tale. If true, it would re-write the history of North America, placing Spanish explorers thousands of kilometres farther north than they are currently known to have penetrated in inland expeditions.

"Oh yeah … it's entirely plausible," says Dr. Stan Copp, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Langara College.

Dr. Copp has had a lifelong interest in the legend. He became fascinated with archeology when, as a boy, he first saw ancient rock paintings in the Okanagan, including one that appears to show a line of slaves, tied together at the neck, guarded by dogs and mounted men, which was the Spanish method.

The story in the Okanagan is that an armed Spanish expedition captured slaves in the Okanagan Valley after trekking into British Columbia by following the Columbia River from the Oregon coast. The legend is that warriors attacked and killed the Spaniards in retribution, as the group headed south after wintering near what is now Kelowna.

The dead soldiers are supposed to be buried in a long-lost burial mound somewhere in the Okanagan.

The historical record shows Spanish explorers sailed along the west coast of North America, reaching as far north as Alaska in the 1700s. Overland expeditions crisscrossed what is now the southern United States in a quest for gold that took conquistadors from Florida to California. But, on land, they never penetrated the interior north of Colorado and Arkansas.

Spanish records of exploration, kept in detail to underpin claims of sovereignty, make no mention of a lost patrol in Canada.

Royal BC Museum

Dr. Copp, however, says the pictograph suggests slaves were taken. But by whom?

"When I first saw it, I was told by an elder, this is evidence of the Spanish. These are the first people enslaved and those are the vicious Spanish dogs," he said. "Which all makes sense, except I don't see any evidence of Spanish armour [in the painting]."

Intrigued, Dr. Copp did an archeological dig near the pictograph, a sacred site that has been in use for at least 4,000 years, but didn't find any evidence of Spanish contact.

Then he stumbled on an old weapon while digging in the archives of the Penticton Museum and Archives.

"I was down in their vaults and I saw this damn sword. I thought, what the heck is this thing? They had it listed as the Sword of the Turtle People. It was supposed to be Spanish," he said. "The problem was, the curator at the time didn't really know where the sword had come from. The only record was that it had 'probably' been turned in by a First Nations person with a story that it had originated locally."

("Turtle People" is said to be a native name used because of the armour early conquistadors wore, but Dr. Copp said by the time the Spanish were exploring North America they'd largely given up the cumbersome armour. He thinks the name is a New Age invention.)

In a recent paper, Dr. Copp says the sword has been identified as a kastane, a Sinhalese sword made in Sri Lanka possibly as early as the 16th century.

At least three other ancient "edged weapons" have been found in the Okanagan, including a sword dug up on a homestead in 1939, which is now held by the Vernon Museum and Archives.

Dr. Copp said more research is needed before any conclusions are made about the swords, but it appears they date to the 18th, 19th and possibly the 16th century.

In addition, Karen Aird, a First Nations researcher, has brought to his attention the head of a half-pike, a type of weapon used in the mid-17th century. The weapon is in the Kamloops Museum and Archives and Ms. Aird said it reportedly was unearthed on native land by a rancher in the 1950s.

Dennis Oomen, curator the City of Penticton Museum, holds a Spanish sword that was discovered on the grounds of the O'Keefe Ranch in the North Okanagan near Vernon, B.C.

Dennis Oomen, curator the City of Penticton Museum, holds a Spanish sword that was discovered on the grounds of the O’Keefe Ranch in the North Okanagan near Vernon, B.C.

Jeff Bassett/for The Globe and Mail

Dennis Oomen, curator at the Penticton Museum and past curator at the Kamloops Museum, said that based on photos he sent to the Canadian War Museum, it was determined the Kamloops blade is of Spanish origin.

"In their opinion, it is a spontoon, not made in the big Spanish armament works in Toledo, but probably in a Spanish colony," Mr. Oomen said.

One serious problem the researchers face is that when the weapons were brought to the museums years ago, few records were kept and it isn't known exactly where the items were found.

Both Dr. Copp and Mr. Ooman say the weapons could have been brought into the area by early fur traders, who first arrived in 1811, or even before that, by native traders.

There is also the problem, said Mr. Ooman, that the Spanish historical record contains no reference to a lost patrol in the Pacific Northwest.

Early Spanish explorers kept detailed records of where they went as a base for claims of sovereignty. But it is also known that, driven by a desire to find gold or capture slaves, Spanish conquistadors did range widely across the U.S. southwest.

Dr. Copp says it is possible that a group travelled into southern British Columbia from Spain's early colonies in California.

There is also a possibility that they came ashore near the mouth of the Columbia River.

As early as 1542, Spanish ships had sailed as far north as San Diego Bay and by the 1700s they had reached Alaska. Coastal features in British Columbia – Juan de Fuca Strait, Cortes Island – reflect an early Spanish presence.

Scott Williams, who is leading a team looking for an old Spanish shipwreck just south of the Columbia River, said galleons were often blown off course as they crossed the Pacific from Asia, headed for the coast of California.

"There are two pretty well-supported native accounts of two different wrecks," he said. One ship was lost in 1694 and another in 1725. There are also several Spanish ships that vanished while on exploratory trips up the West Coast.

"The wreck [of 1725] is known about because the son of one of the survivors was still living when the fur traders got there. He told the traders he was the son of a Spanish sailor who was wrecked at the mouth of the Columbia River and his father and three others had survived and lived with the Indians for a while … and then had decided to try their chances following the Columbia River. And they were never seen again," he said.

The earlier wreck is known about because parts of its cargo, huge blocks of beeswax destined to be turned into candles for Spanish mission churches, have been dug out of the sand near where the wreck is thought to lie.

"There are oral histories of anywhere from nobody to 30 survivors [from that wreck]," Mr. Williams says.

According to native oral history, the Spaniards who survived that wreck were later killed in a battle on the coast.

Dr. Copp and Mr. Williams weren't aware of each other's research until recently. Now they are in contact and wondering if there might be a connection between the old Spanish weapons in the Okanagan, and the shipwrecks on the coast.

Dr. Copp is also talking with Ms. Aird about collaborative research involving First Nations oral history and he has identified an unusual mound in the Okanagan that might be an ancient burial site.

A Spanish mystery

1. Between 1694 and 1725, two Spanish galleons are wrecked on the Oregon Coast, near the mouth of the Columbia River; a third ship is lost on the coast, location unknown.
2. Native reports along the Columbia River say survivors of at least one of those wrecks travelled inland.
3. An old Spanish sword, said to have been found locally, is held by the Penticton Museum. A spearhead, tentatively identified as a 17th- or 18th-century Spanish spontoon, unearthed on native land by a farmer, is held in the Kamloops Museum.
4. Legend in B.C.'s south Okanagan Valley tells of a fight between Spanish soldiers and natives in the Similkameen Valley. A column of Spaniards is said to have been attacked as they headed south, after wintering in the Okanagan Valley, perhaps as far north as Kelowna