George Vancouver Charts the Pacific Coast of North America from California to Alaska

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George Vancouver Charts the Pacific Coast of North America from California to Alaska


George Vancouver (1757-1798) was an English sea captain and member of several expeditions to the South Pacific and the coast of North America in the late eighteenth century. He was instrumental in the gathering and dissemination of knowledge about the Pacific Coast of the continent of North America. On several visits to the area, he explored it, met with natives and the Spanish, and surveyed and mapped its features from Alaska to Monterey in California. His work helped to establish the claim of Great Britain to ownership of western Canada. He also studied and charted many Pacific Ocean islands, including Hawaii, and made allies of natives for England everywhere. He proved that a practical and usable Northwest Passage through North America did not exist.


George Vancouver sailed on Captain James Cook's (1728-1779) second and third voyages of discovery to the Pacific Ocean from 1776 to 1780. He served on Royal Navy ships in the North Sea and the Caribbean Sea, learning the technical aspects of surveying, mapping, and charting these areas. By the time he became the leader of a new expedition in 1790, he had a great deal of experience and had visited many lands and seas.

In 1790 Vancouver obtained command of an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. His flagship was called Discovery, a newly built namesake of the ship Captain Cook had sailed to Hawaii a decade earlier. Vancouver's expedition was instructed to survey the western coast of North America, meet with Spanish representatives in Canada in order to formally receive property Spain had taken from the British, try again to locate a Northwest Passage, and attempt to complete Cook's survey of the Hawaiian Islands. Discovery, accompanied by a smaller ship called Chatham, sailed on April 11, 1791.

They arrived in Hawaii in the fall and spent the winter there. Then, in March 1792 Discovery and Chatham sailed north. After 2,000 miles (3,219 km), they reached Cape Mendocino on the northwest coast of North America, about 300 miles (483 km) north of San Francisco Bay. It was a good place to replenish the ship's fresh water, wood, and fresh stores. When these tasks were complete, they began to survey the rugged coastline moving northward toward Alaska. Their pattern of work was to move toward the land each morning, sailing close to shore, slowly and safely, making charts and drawings of the coast as they went. At night they would stand off shore a few miles to avoid contact with the rocks and reefs that are prevalent on this rugged coast.

About 100 miles (161 km) north of Cape Mendocino, Vancouver's ships entered a large waterway between two expanses of land called the Straits of Juan de Fuca. They found an anchorage, and Vancouver recorded their position and a description of the land around them. After careening and cleaning the hulls of both ships, replenishing their water, wood and whatever game they could find, the ships moved west into the strait and discovered a complex of bays and rivers that Vancouver named for one of his officers, Peter Puget. The company spent the next month surveying Puget Sound, which was difficult and time consuming because of its complex arrangements of bays, inlets, rivers, and islands. When the task was finished, they sailed back to the Straits of Juan de Fuca and turned north up another inland waterway east of a landmass, uncertain of where it would lead. When they reached its northern end, it was clear that the land to the west was a large island and not part of the continent. It was later named Vancouver Island in Vancouver's honor. On this voyage, Vancouver sighted the summit of a tall mountain and named it Mount Rainier after Peter Rainier, a fellow navigator. He also reiterated Great Britain's claim to the whole area.

In August 1792 Vancouver reached Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island and met with the Spanish, who still disputed the ownership of the area with Great Britain. Vancouver was fully aware that England and Spain were at odds over who had the right to control and exploit this land. England had long ago declared that any country wishing to maintain a valid claim on any land in the world had to establish a colony there and to physically control the land before their ownership rights were recognized by the rest of Europe. Spain had claimed so much land on this coast that they had never been able to control, exploit, or even explore all of it. They did not agree with the informal rules the British had proclaimed, but were willing to negotiate, especially since they had lost their right to this northern part of the land in a struggle with England. Vancouver represented the British government in the negotiations. While there, he sent one of his ships to search for a group of islands that the Spanish called Los Majos, or Islas de Mesas. They were not where the Spanish said they were. It was clear that the Spanish had seen some islands, perhaps the Hawaiian Islands, but had the location wrong.

Negotiations with the Spanish came to a standstill until the arrival of further instructions from London and Madrid, so Vancouver sailed for California. On the way, he sent Chatham into the river, now called the Columbia River, to survey, as Discovery was too large. Both ships arrived in San Francisco Bay in November 1792. They spent ten days in this area, which had been settled and claimed by the Spanish for 20 years. They received help, food, and friendship from Spanish authorities, missionaries, and citizens. Vancouver also sailed the 100 miles (161 km) south to Monterey Bay, surveying as he went. The rest of that winter of 1792-93 was spent in Hawaiian waters. The following summer, Discovery and Chatham sailed back to the west coast of America and completed the survey. They took a trip as far north as Cook Inlet in Alaska, searching for the west end of the fabled Northwest Passage. Vancouver came to the conclusion that this fabled passage did not exist.


Vancouver detailed his voyages in five books and was halfway through the sixth when he died in 1798. The importance of this work was clear, and his friends made sure that his Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World in the years 1790-1795 was published. It appeared in 1798 complete with narrative, charts, maps, and drawings. It had a tremendous impact on the expansion of British control of land and sea, though at first it did not receive much attention because England and other countries in Europe were involved in a war with France and its leader Napoleon. After the war was over in the early nineteenth century, Vancouver's work was reprinted in three volumes and was circulated widely.

The accurate soundings and coastal information in Vancouver's book were invaluable. They included the location of dangerous rocks and offshore islands, sandbars, entrances to bays, and the location of viable, usable harbors. This ground-breaking work gave the English a significant claim to the northwest coast, at least enough to satisfy the king and his countrymen. With its meticulous detail, the book enabled many other would-be explorers to sail to that far away coast to see how it could be exploited. Possibilities for expansion of the fur trade were clear for any who could make the enterprise work. British and American ship owners and traders turned their attention to it, as did the Russians, who established a settlement in Alaska in the 1790s. The Spanish were affected in that they could now see the extent and complexity of the land they had claimed for 200 years but had never been able to explore, much less control. At the time, the Americans could support little effort to obtain the area as they were still establishing their new country. They were in no position to fight the British or the Spanish for control of the western coast of the continent, but they had always claimed it, and many had their eyes on it. Little American exploration was undertaken until the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the area in 1805. Puget Sound was also shown to have a tremendous potential for fishing and fur-trading. While Vancouver was not the first to explore the Columbia River, another English sailor, Captain Robert Gray on the ship Columbia, did the initial exploration of it. Vancouver later sent Chatham up the river to make a cursory survey of it, and the ship's findings were included in his book. This river, about 100 miles (161 km) south of Puget Sound is today an important waterway and is the dividing line between the states of Oregon and Washington.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vancouver's work was often overshadowed by the dramatic events that surrounded the voyages of Captain Cook, but modern historians have given him his proper place in the company of explorers. Vancouver's survey of the Pacific Coast was the most arduous undertaken to that time, the accuracy of his notations was remarkable, and his descriptions of the terrain were realistic and precise. One hundred years later, his charts were still the best and most trusted by those who sailed the west coast of North America, Canada and Alaska.

George Vancouver's contributions to the world cover several fields: exploration, political history, diplomacy, and geography. He explored some of the most inaccessible places in the Pacific Ocean. He settled problems with Spain and came close to obtaining control of the Hawaiian Islands for England. He made the shape of the west coast of the North American continent known, and his surveys were the only accurate information on the region for many years. Fifty years later, they were used in a dispute between the United States and Great Britain over claims to Oregon, Washington, and Western Canada.


Further Reading

Anderson, Bern. The Life and Voyages of Captain George W. Vancouver, Surveyor of the Sea. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.

Batman, Richard. The Outer Coast. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

Godwin, George. Vancouver, A Life. New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1931.

Vancouver, George. Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World in the years 1790 to 1795. 3 vols. London: G.G. & J. Robinson, 1798.

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George Vancouver Charts the Pacific Coast of North America from California to Alaska

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