Of all the early European explorers of the west coast, few have had the long-term impact of Capt. George Vancouver. His expedition of 1791-95 in the ships HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham left an indelible mark on the maritime history of the region. For example, many of the place names associated with the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, such as Puget Sound, Whidbey Island, and Vancouver Island, come down from his explorations.
Born in 1757 as the youngest of five children in a well-to-do family, George Vancouver entered the Royal Navy at age 13. Unique among British institutions, the Royal Navy rewarded competence with advancement, and after accompanying the explorer Capt. James Cook on his voyages to the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver was commissioned a lieutenant in 1779. After years of practice charting coastlines, he was given command of a new British expedition to the Pacific and the west coast of North America.
Vancouver’s expedition of 1791-95 included Australia and the South Pacific, the Hawaiian Islands, and the coastline of North America from the northern border of California to Alaska. Accompanying him were several officers who would later distinguish themselves, including Peter Puget, Joseph Baker, Joseph Whidbey, William Broughton, Zachary Mudge, Thomas Manby, and Robert Barrie. Vancouver named Puget Sound, Mount Baker, Whidbey Island, and other landmarks after his officers. He named Admiralty Inlet, the main entrance to Puget Sound, after the British navy’s governing body, and Mount Rainier, Washington State’s tallest mountain, after Rear Admiral Peter Rainier. In this process, much of the early Spanish accomplishments in exploration were lost or forgotten as Vancouver’s names gained favor by English and American cartographers.
Vancouver also encountered Capt. Robert Gray, an American who had left Boston for the Northwest Coast in 1787. During his voyage in Columbia Rediviva, Gray had entered the Columbia River, which other explorers had missed. Vancouver didn’t believe Gray at first, but changed his mind after receiving confirmation. Vancouver later explored the river using two small boats, naming Oregon’s Mount Hood after another prominent British officer.
Like most exploratory expeditions at the time, Vancouver’s mission was partly scientific, partly political. A botanist accompanied the voyage to collect and catalog plant species for later study. On the political front, Vancouver formally claimed the lands around Puget Sound for Great Britain, naming the area New Georgia. (Great Britain would later cede these claims to the United States.) Vancouver also played a role in keeping the Nootka Crisis from becoming a full-scale war between Great Britain and Spain. He maintained cordial relations with Spanish explorer and diplomat Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra until later negotiations settled the territorial dispute.
The strain of command and the years away at sea took their toll on Vancouver. Attacked in the press and physically on a London street by a former midshipman aboard Discovery, the explorer died in 1798 at age 40. Though few monuments exist to his memory in England, apart from his grave, he earned a permanent place in west coast maritime history every time a sailor refers to a place he explored.