Setting sail in 1791, Vancouver made detailed maps of the hundreds of inlets, bays, coves, islands and sounds of the passage from northern Washington to Southeast Alaska.
Vancouver was the last of the eighteenth century explorers to chart the Pacific Northwest coast by sea. Juan Pérez and Bruno Heceta had explored the coastline for Spain in 1774 and 1775, and Captain James Cook sailed for England in 1776.
Vancouver had been on Cook’s Pacific Northwest voyage. Now, 10 years after returning, and a seasoned officer himself, he was named commander of a new expedition to explore yet uncharted waters north of what is today the Oregon-California border. He was also to either find the long-fabled Northwest Passage–a hoped-for waterway across North America from Atlantic to Pacific–or lay to rest any continued belief in its existence.
Seeking a Waterway to the Interior
Should no through route be found, London hoped for a water route that would lead into the interior of the continent.
Vancouver crossed the South Pacific toward Oregon with two ships, the HMS Discovery, which he commanded himself, and the Chatham, commanded by Lieutenant William Broughton.
Vancouver initially passed the mouth of the Columbia River, but on the return journey, Lieutenant Broughton sailed the Chatham up the Columbia a few miles beyond present-day Portland, Oregon. Along the way, he sighted and named Mt. Hood.
Broughton was the second European to claim entry to the Columbia. The American Fur trader Captain Robert Gray had previously entered the river, though sailing a shorter stretch.
Exploring the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Perhaps Vancouver’s greatest contribution to Pacific Northwest knowledge was his exploration of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, leading around Vancouver Island to the mainland of British Columbia and Puget Sound. Here he explored the hundreds of islands and inlets tucked into this inside passage. He dispatched his crewmen in small boats to row through each cove and bay, mapping them in intricate detail.
He met two Spanish ships in the straits and for a time, the four boats explored together.
Vancouver named many now-familiar locations in that region after crew members and friends: Puget Sound, Whidbey Island, Port Townsend, Mt. Rainier and Hood Canal in Washington still bear the names Vancouver gave them.
The name of Desolation Sound in British Columbia was prompted by what Vancouver found to be a gloomy coastline of dense fog and forests.
Vancouver not only charted the geography of the coasts he explored, but recorded information about the tides, the landscape and the life of the native tribes, including the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, Bella Coola, and Nootka that he met along the way.
Finally he rounded the north side of Vancouver Island and sailed to Nootka Sound, where traders of several nations had established a base.
Here Vancouver was charged with helping settle a dispute over rights to the American Pacific coast that had nearly brought Britain and Spain to war.
Vancouver Meets Spanish Negotiator
As the first to explore the waters of the Pacific Northwest coast, Spain claimed exclusive rights to the land. But times were changing, and Britain now claimed rights for its ships. British traders had complained that Spain had seized some of their ships at Nootka Sound. Vancouver was to oversee the return of British property.
The dispute would finally be resolved in Europe, but when Vancouver met with the Spanish representative in Nootka Sound, Lieutenant Juan Francisco de Bodega y Cuadra, the two became such good friends that Vancouver proposed naming the island where they met “Vancouver and Cuadra Island.” Today it is known simply as Vancouver Island.
Vancouver’s crews mapped all the way to the islands and inlets of the Alaska Panhandle, finally determining that no Northwest Passage could exist.
The maps they had so laboriously charted were to guide future sailors into the 19th and even 20th centuries.
- Before the Covered Wagon, by Phillip H. Parish, Metropolitan Press, Portland, OR, 1931.
- On the Path of the Explorers, by Steve Short and Rosemary Neering, Whitecap Books, Vancouver, B.C., 1992.
- Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR 97205.