At the western edge of the Makah Nation village of Neah Bay sits a tidy new park. It marks the spot where 216 years ago Spanish explorers built the first European settlement in the continental United States west of the Rockies and north of San Francisco.

Fort Núñez Gaona–Diah Veterans Park, dedicated in May, was built on property donated by Ed Claplanhoo ’56, his wife Thelma, and two other Makah families in a unique partnership amongst the Makahs, the state, and the Spanish government.

A new memorial in Neah Bay, built on land donated by Ed Claplanhoo '56, his wife Thelma, and two other Makah families, commemorates area veterans and the presence of Spain on the Northwest coast as early as 1774. Photo Zach Mazur
A new memorial in Neah Bay, built on land donated by Ed Claplanhoo ’56, his wife Thelma, and two other Makah families, commemorates area veterans and the presence of Spain on the Northwest coast as early as 1774. (Photo Zach Mazur)

Claplanhoo, a former Makah Tribal chair, had known of the historic significance of his property for many years, even marking it with his own sign. After a chance conversation about six years ago with Washington’s lieutenant governor, Brad Owen, the idea of an official marker of some kind began to take root.

Owen had shared a similar conversation with his friend Luis Fernando Esteban, Spain’s honorary consul in Seattle. Esteban suggested to Owen that he’d like to work with the Makah people to erect some kind of monument in Neah Bay to mark not only where the Spanish fort had stood for six months in 1792, but to acknowledge Spain’s presence on the Northwest coast as early as 1774.

In 2004, when the Spanish government brought a prominent collection of Spanish royal art celebrating Spanish exploration from 1492 to 1819 to the Seattle Art Museum, Owen made sure the Claplanhoos received an invitation to the opening reception. The guest list included King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain.

The exhibit included drawings of the Makah people in canoes along with the Spanish ships of the day, something that impressed Claplanhoo. “I was overwhelmed by its significance,” he said.

Many introductions, conversations, and negotiations later, Fort Núñez Gaona–Diah Veterans Park became a reality. It was co-funded by a state appropriation that had to first make its way through the Legislature (at Owen’s request), a grant by the Spanish government, and support from the Makah tribe. Heading the construction was Bill Sperry, a businessman who for years has hosted fireside drum sessions with local Native Americans at his lodge in nearby Forks. Sperry volunteered his time and even joined Esteban in lending the project money while more than $100,000 in formal funding was being secured.

Claplanhoo, who enrolled at WSU in 1947, but was drafted into the Army in his junior year, suggested the project also be a tribute to Neah Bay area veterans. The name “Diah” is the historic name of that section of the tribal village. Fort Núñez Gaona was named after Admiral Manuel Núñez Gaona, for whom Spanish explorer Alferez Manuel Quimper also named the bay when he first reached it in 1790.

Built on waterfront property overlooking Neah Bay, the structure is constructed of six large cedar columns to resemble a traditional Makah longhouse. The columns are from a tree felled on the property. Along its western side is a tall fort-like fence of logs. 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 fact that all returned home alive is a source of Makah pride.

The dedication of the park began with a veterans’ parade and a flyover by a U.S. Coast Guard rescue chopper under bright sunny skies. Just as the speeches were about to begin, a large flock of eagles suddenly circled overhead for a minute or two, then disbanded.

“The tribal people would say that is a blessing,” Sperry whispered.

Fort Núñez Gaona–Diah Veterans Park “is a huge testament to our participation in international trade prior to becoming citizens of the United States,” said tribal chair Micah McCarty. “It’s a very interesting aspect of our history. It’s important to know how some of the dynamics of history shaped the course of how we became Americans.”

In fact, Makah artifacts from the 1700s brought back by the Spaniards remain on display at the Museo de las Américas in Madrid. The park dedication included the signing of a “Welcome Treaty” between Spain and the Makah Nation, which McCarty said he believes will lead to even stronger ties between the Spanish and the Makah people.

Brian Dirks ’82 is communications director for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Washington.