VANCOUVER EXPLORATIONS. In 1791, the British dispatched Captain George Vancouver on a multifaceted naval mission to the Pacific Northwest. He was to resolve a fur-trading dispute centering on the island that would become the British Columbia city that bears his name. He was also ordered to explore the river systems of Puget Sound, particularly the Columbia River, to determine how far into the continent they were navigable. Finally, he was to map the entire Pacific Northwest, an area that encompasses Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. A naval captain with training as a scientist, he was eminently suited to the task. Evidence of this mission is made clear in his 1798 three-volume publication, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World.
Unfortunately for Britain's deepening interest in the area, the London publication made common knowledge of the economic and strategic potential of the Pacific Northwest in general, and the Columbia River area in particular. It was the first authoritative study of the area; during the ensuing generation, key Americans were made aware of the volumes and absorbed its contents for various reasons.
Among them, President Thomas Jefferson was made familiar with Vancouver's work. It was a motivating force
in Jefferson's decision to authorize the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803 to explore an overland route to the Pacific Northwest. The book defined American interest in the area at the highest level. Lewis and Clark's mapping and exploration, reported in 1807, in turn moved John Jacob Astor to secure an economic as well as territorial foothold by establishing his fur-trading outpost in Astoria, in what later became Oregon. The War Hawks in Congress in 1812 stirred the expansionist dreams that would become the notion of Manifest Destiny a generation later.
But in the interim, John Quincy Adams—first as a student in London, later as a diplomat in Europe, and finally as a Secretary of State (1817–1825) and President (1825–1829)—understood clearly the inexorability of the westward movement. He knew intimately from its first publication the detailed and significant work George Vancouver had undertaken for the British government. As Secretary of State, Adams picked up on Jefferson's interest in establishing a territory west of the Cascade Mountains and touching the Pacific Ocean. Secretary Adams, in 1818, fixed the Canadian-U.S. border at the forty-ninth parallel in the West beyond the Rockies, leaving open the door to America's successful 1846 claim to the territory that would become the states of Oregon and Washington.
Behind all of this complex American interest lay the hard-won knowledge that George Vancouver's exploration uncovered. That his discovery was so facilely transmitted early on to the rest of the world is strange. Why was he allowed to publish his findings in such detail? Although he was a scientist in his own right, he was also a naval captain whose expedition was wholly publicly financed. One can only conclude that, for whatever reason, Whitehall was "asleep at the switch."
Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and His Time. 6 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.