Captain George Vancouver

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Captain George Vancouver


English Navigator and Explorer

Captain George Vancouver commanded the British Royal Navy ship Discovery in 1791 on a four-year journey that surveyed and mapped the American Northwest coast. Vancouver also searched for the Northwest Passage, a navigable waterway rumored to flow from the West coast of America leading to the continent's Eastern seaboard. Through meticulous exploring and charting, Vancouver proved the passage did not exist.

Born in the English port village of King's Lynn, Vancouver spent his childhood near the sea. In 1772, at the age of fourteen, Vancouver left home to sail with famed English seaman Captain James Cook (1728-1779) on his voyage around the world. Vancouver later served as midshipman during Cook's explorations along the West coast of North America. These voyages honed Vancouver's navigational and surveying skills, and acquainted him with the many inlets, bays, and coves of the west coastline of America.

Vancouver was given command of the ship Discovery in 1791, then sent on a three-fold mission to the American Northwest coast. His orders were to map the coast, accept surrender documents from the Spanish post at Nootka in present day British Columbia, and to seek the existence of the navigable waterway across the North American continent. Such a waterway would help insure British naval superiority and open a trade route to the Orient. The British Admiralty also anticipated that accurate surveys of the Pacific Northwest would encourage lucrative commerce in the area. More importantly, accurate charts and maps would bolster British territorial claims.

Vancouver set sail aboard the Discovery, accompanied by a smaller ship, the Chatham, with crews that were well trained and armed with the best navigational equipment available. Land was sighted in April 1792, just north of present-day San Francisco. In an example of Vancouver's meticulous quest for accuracy, the crew took more than seventy-five sets of lunar observations before making landfall to determine an accurate point from which to begin the survey. Heading north, the crew mapped the Pacific coastline until reaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca (off present-day Washington state). Here Vancouver and his crew spent another three years using smaller boats to accurately map the numerous small inlets, islands, and intricacies of the area. He often named geography he mapped after family or crew members—Puget Sound, for example, was named after a lieutenant aboard the Discovery. Sailing further north, Vancouver discovered that Vancouver Island had no connection to the continent as was assumed, but was indeed an island. Finally, Vancouver and his crew, often facing adverse weather (the crew complained of continual mist with nowhere to dry themselves), and with weather-beaten boats, managed to survey the Pacific coast from Puget Sound north to Alaska with such accuracy that the charts would be used by mariners for the next 150 years. He returned to England, and published his account of the journey entitled A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World in 1798.

Although Vancouver's survey correctly showed that a northwest passage did not exist, Vancouver did miss one important waterway farther south. In May 1792, American Captain Robert Gray named and claimed the Columbia River (bordering present-day Oregon and Washington) for the United States after telling Vancouver of its presence. Vancouver dismissed the river's inlet as unimportant and failed to investigate or find the Columbia. Vancouver returned later to map the river, and Gray's claim carried new significance fifty years later when Britain and the United States were embroiled in the Oregon Boundary Dispute.

Nevertheless, Vancouver's survey inspired further exploration of the American continent. At a time when little was known about North America from the colonial frontier to the west coast, Vancouver's charts were treasures to future explorers. American President Thomas Jefferson read them with interest and encouragement as he and others planned Lewis and Clark's westward crossing of the continent.