Discovering the Region: Commentary

4. George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean

In 1790 Captain George Vancouver was sent to the Northwest Coast of North America by Great Britain in order to help resolve the Nootka Sound controversy, a diplomatic dispute between the British and the Spanish over rights to the territory. He and a Spanish captain, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, were supposed to meet on Vancouver Island and implement the terms of the Nootka Sound Convention of 1790. (After meeting the two men could not agree on how to interpret the agreement, so they politely referred it back to diplomats in Europe.) Vancouver was also instructed to explore the Northwest Coast, and indeed he mapped the coastline between Baja California in the south to Alaska’s Cook Inlet in the north in the years 1792–94.

Vancouver was not the first discoverer to chart the west coast of North America, but he was the first to explore certain parts of it. He determined, for example, that Vancouver Island was in fact an island and not an extension of the mainland, and he was also the first European to sail into Puget Sound. The excerpt here describes that part of Vancouver’s voyage when he is beginning to enter the Sound, in April and May of 1792, and the conclusion of his touring the Sound in early June of 1792, when he took possession of the region for Great Britain.

It is important to keep in mind that Vancouver’s 1790s voyage was not his first to the North Pacific. Born in 1757, Vancouver grew up close to the sea in King’s Lynn, England, and at age fourteen was sent to train under the premier English navigator of the time, James Cook. Vancouver accompanied Cook on the latter’s second and third voyages to the Pacific. Cook’s second voyage, from 1772 to 1775, toured the South Pacific. The third voyage, from 1776 to 1780, went to the North Pacific. Vancouver and Cook’s crew spent a month at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island in March and April of 1778, and it was there that he first encountered the peoples and lands of the Northwest Coast. When touring Puget Sound in 1792, Vancouver constantly compared and contrasted the Indians he found there to “the Nootkas” he had met in 1778.

Vancouver’s expedition to the North Pacific broke his already fragile health, and he spent his few remaining years preparing an account of the voyage for publication. It was not quite finished when he died on May 12, 1798. Note, then, that this account was written after Vancouver had returned from his voyage, rather than during the expedition itself. In other words, Vancouver had some time to sift through different diaries and journals, and construct a narrative in order to create a certain type of impression on his expected audience. Much of that impression revolved around contrasts that Vancouver drew between himself and his competitors, Spanish explorers in particular. He had little patience for what he called “theoretical geographers,” and categorized his own work as “the noble science of discovery” (Vancouver 1798, II: 224). He took pride in describing what he had observed with his own eyes, in leaving a record for others to follow, and in naming and mapping as many features of the landscape as he could. (For all his attention to detail, Vancouver’s account was inaccurate in one key regard:  his longitudinal readings were consistently wrong.) Indeed, as you read his accounts you may well become impatient with the level of detail with which he described waters and lands. Try to keep in mind that he was leaving information for sailors who needed to know how deep a harbor was and where to find fresh water and new spars for their ships. Also, such close description was incontrovertible proof that Vancouver, unlike the “theoretical geographers” who imagined America from their libraries and salons back in Europe, had actually been there. Vancouver realized that this kind of description might strike readers as dull, but he saw his duty as providing detailed information “in a way calculated to instruct, even though it should fail to
entertain.” (A good and attractively illustrated introduction to the man and his expedition is Fisher 1992; a more academic treatment of Vancouver’s work is Fisher and Johnston 1993.)

One thing that separated Vancouver from later explorers was his maritime orientation. As you read his writing, think about what it meant to travel by sea, as opposed to traveling by land, as Lewis and Clark would.

See also: Indians and Europeans on the Northwest Coast, 1774–1812.

Reading the Region Home Discovering the Region Main Discovering the Region: Commentary Discovering the Region: Texts
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest