George Vancouver was to have sailed to the northwest coast in April 1790, as second officer to Captain Henry Roberts, who, like Vancouver, had accompanied James Cook on his second and third voyages (see maps on page 47). The expedition was postponed by the British government when John Meares returned from Nootka with the news that Martinez had seized British ships and property there. After the signing of the Nootka Convention (see page 68), the expedition was made ready to sail again, but Roberts had now been sent to the Caribbean, and so Vancouver was chosen to lead it instead.
Although only thirty-four, he was a seasoned sailor and an established surveyor and navigator, having sailed with Cook on his third voyage, also to the northwest coast, and had in fact already produced a map of the region.
Vancouver’s instructions, contained in a letter from William Grenville, the British Secretary of State to the Lords of the Admiralty,85 were twofold: Firstly, he was to formally “receive from the Spanish officers such lands or buildings as are to be restored to His Majesty’s subjects”; precisely what was to be received being uncertain. Secondly, Vancouver was to “proceed in such course as he may judge expedient for the examination of the coast of North West America, comprized between Lat, 60° North, and lat. 30° North.” [from Baja California to Cook Inlet, the latter still thought to be Cook’s River.] One of the principal objects which Vancouver was to bear in mind was
the acquiring accurate information with respect to the nature and extent of any water communication which may tend in any considerable degree to facilitate an intercourse for the purpose of commerce between the North West coast and the countries upon the opposite side of the Continent, which are inhabited or occupied by His Majesty’s subjects.
Vancouver was specifically directed “not to pursue any inlet or river further than it shall appear to be navigable by vessels of such burthen as might safely navigate the Pacific Ocean.” He was also directed to co-operate and treat in a friendly manner anyone they might meet from “any other Power or State”. In addition, should he meet any Spanish subjects, he was
to offer to him that they should make to each other reciprocally a free and unreserved communication of all Plans and Charts of Discoveries made by them in their respective voyages.
This was perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that any Spanish maps might well have more information on them than the British ones. Vancouver did precisely what he was instructed to do when he met with Galiano in the Strait of Georgia the next year.
George Vancouver arrived on the northwest coast expecting to secure Britain’s rights to the entire coast almost from San Francisco to the Russian settlements in Alaska, despite the fact that he knew that the Spanish had been active in the region. Francis Drake’s claim to New Albion was the basis for this expectation.
The Discovery, commanded by George Vancouver, and the Chatham, commanded by Lieutenant William Broughton, made their first landfall about 175 km (110 miles) north of San Francisco, on 18 April 1792, on the coast of Drake’s New Albion.
Sailing north, surveying all the way, Vancouver somehow missed the mouth of the Columbia, even though he did recognize Cape Disappointment, the headland on the north side of the river, named by John Meares when he too could not find the river. Vancouver even noted the change in the color of the water, but thought it the probable consequence of some streams flowing into the bay. “Not considering this opening worthy of more attention”, he wrote, “I continued our pursuit to the N.W....” Thus he missed the first of the three major rivers of the northwest coast, and in so doing diminished British claims to the region.
Further up the coast, Vancouver met the Columbia, commanded by Robert Gray, who informed them that the Columbia River did indeed exist where Vancouver had just decided it did not. In fact, Gray entered the Columbia some thirteen days later, and named it after his ship. Gray was also able to inform Vancouver that he had not previously sailed in the Lady Washington to the east of what is now Vancouver Island, as was claimed by John Meares and shown in two of his maps, both of which Vancouver had with him.
Soon after meeting with Gray, Vancouver passed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, observing as he went some of the pillar-like rocks shown in the sketch under Charles Duncan’s 1787 map of the strait, which he also had with him. A rock off Tatoosh Island was named Rock Duncan (now Duncan Rock) by Vancouver.
In May and June 1792, Vancouver explored and surveyed Puget Sound, which was named after Peter Puget, one of his officers who did the surveying. On 4 June 1792, he went ashore in the vicinity of Tulalip, near today’s Everett, Washington, and claimed for George III the coast south to 39° 20’ N, which was his first landfall. Vancouver was convinced of the historical justification for his claim and his maps all show British territory from about 39° N northward. This performance of a formal ceremony of possession for Britain was not in Vancouver’s instructions. He named the waters between the south end of Whidbey Island and the mainland Possession Sound, and it is still called that today.
Vancouver named the strait to the north of Puget Sound the Gulf of Georgia, after the British king, and also named the entire country south to 45° N New Georgia, a name which appeared on maps for some time, but did not persist.
While Vancouver was exploring Puget Sound, Lieutenant William Broughton in the Chatham explored and mapped the San Juan Islands. For the first time the principal islands were distinguished, whereas on the Nárvaez map of the year before they had been shown as one large island.
On 11 June Vancouver sailed north into the Strait of Georgia, and anchored in Birch Bay. Joseph Whidbey, master of the Discovery, took two smaller boats south and found Bellingham Bay, named after Sir William Bellingham, controller of storekeeper’s accounts of the British navy.
Vancouver then set out in longboats northward, round Point Roberts, which he named after Captain Henry Roberts, under whom he had almost sailed from England. Vancouver then inexplicably again missed a major river mouth, this time that of the Fraser. This seems to be partly explained by the presence of shoals off the coast at this point, necessitating keeping well out from the land, even in the smaller ship’s boats. The Fraser was probably in flood, too; however, this did not prevent the Spanish ships under Galiano and Valdes from finding and anchoring in the north arm of the Fraser the day after Vancouver could not find it. Vancouver described the Fraser delta area as a “very low land, apparently a swampy flat, that retires several miles, before the country rises...”
Rounding Point Grey the boats then went up Burrard Inlet (which Vancouver named Burrard’s Canal), and penetrated almost as far inland as today’s city of Port Moody. Next was Howe Sound, where Vancouver named Point Atkinson and Point Gower (Gower Point) at its entrance, and Passage Island and Anvil Island within the sound. They then went north as far as Jervis Inlet before returning to the ships. On their way back they encountered Galiano and Valdes, from whom Vancouver was disappointed and alarmed to learn that the Spanish had already explored beyond where he had been, and had done so the year before, too. Galiano showed Vancouver Nárvaez’s map from the Eliza expedition. Vancouver wrote,
"I cannot avoid acknowledging that on this occasion I experienced no small degree of mortification in finding the external shores of the gulf had been visited, and already examined a few miles beyond where my researches during the excursion, had extended..."
Much has been made of the symbolism of this historic meeting, as a meeting of two destinies, the British star of empire ascending, and the Spanish one falling. Vancouver learned from Galiano that Bodega y Quadra was waiting at Nootka for him, as his counterpart for the resolution of the 1790 Nootka Convention.
Later, the British and the Spanish ships sailed together northwards, into the channels north of the Strait of Georgia, examining the many channels and islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Usually Vancouver wanted to ensure that his men surveyed the inlets to ensure that they were closed at their ends and only rarely accepted the Spanish surveys. One of Vancouver’s officers, James Johnstone, master of the Chatham, led many mapping parties to map the various inlets and ensure that they were not passages to the interior. One such map he produced was that of Loughborough Inlet.
Finally, on one such expedition, Johnstone discovered a channel, now called Johnstone Strait, which led to the open sea, at last proving the insularity of Vancouver Island. “Johnson’s Passage” is marked on the preliminary map produced showing the north end of Vancouver Island and the adjacent coastline.
Here Vancouver’s ships parted from Galiano and Valdes, and continued their northward surveying, almost to the latitude of Bella Bella, where they stopped the survey and made for Nootka. On Vancouver’s arrival in Nootka, he found that the storeship Daedalus had arrived carrying, amongst other things, a copy of a Spanish map made in 1790 by López de Haro. This confirmed to him the extensive exploration work that the Spanish had carried out earlier on the northwest coast.
Here at Nootka Vancouver met with his Spanish counterpart, Juan Francisco de Bodega y Quadra, and began, as he thought, to carry out the second part of his instructions, that is, to receive back “British” lands under the 1790 Nootka Convention. However, Bodega y Quadra was willing to give only a small area in Friendly Cove, and Vancouver was unwilling to accept such a small area. So, as gentlemen, they agreed to disagree, agreeing only to refer the matter once again to their respective governments for resolution. In fact, it would take two more Nootka Conventions and three more years for the dispute to be resolved, as it was in 1795 when both nations agreed to abandon Nootka.
At the end of September, Vancouver sent his first lieutenant, Zachary Mudge, to London, initially on a trading ship leaving Nootka for China. Mudge took with him reports, a request for further instructions, and copies of many of the initial surveys, including the maps shown on this and the preceding page. Mudge arrived in London in June 1793.
In October 1792, Vancouver sailed south from Nootka with the Discovery, Chatham, and the Daedalus. Unable to enter the Columbia in the larger Discovery, Vancouver left William Broughton in the Chatham to enter and examine the Columbia River.
Broughton proceeded upstream in two smaller boats to a point 160 km (100 miles) inland, as far as a place he named Point Vancouver, near which, at Possession Point, he took formal possession for Britain. The clerk of the Chatham, Edward Bell, noted in his journal that the river “might communicate with some of the Lakes on the opposite side of the continent,” 88 and be of interest to the Hudson’s Bay Company, an interesting remark given that the Columbia was the nearest thing to a continental waterway and would shortly become a major route for fur traders.
Broughton drew a map of the Columbia which was eventually copied on an engraved map by the British mapmaker Aaron Arrowsmith. The Daedalus, now commanded by James Hanson, previously second lieutenant on the Chatham, with Joseph Whidbey, master of the Discovery, surveyed Gray’s Harbor. The map was copied by the Spanish.