As an officer of the Royal Navy and an explorer, George Vancouver is best known for his exploration of North America, including the Pacific coast along what would become Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. He also explored the southwest coast of Australia.
George Vancouver was born in Kings Lynn, England, on June 22, 1757. His parents were John Jasper Vancouver, an assistant collector of customs at King's Lynn, and Bridget Berners.
In 1772, at the age of 15, George entered the Royal Navy and was appointed to a position under James Cook, serving as a midshipman during Cooks second and third voyages. He was with Captain Cook on the latter's famous voyage around the world from 1772 through 1774.
After 1780, Vancouver served under Admiral George Rodney in the West Indies, taking part in the great victory over Admiral de Grasse, in 1782.
Master and commander
As commander of his own ship, HMS Discovery, and accompanied by another, Vancouver sailed from Falmouth, England, and headed toward the northwest coast of America in April 1791. He had two goals in mind: to assume control over the territory at Nootka Sound that had been assigned to England by the Nootka Convention between Britain and Spain, and to explore and survey the North Pacific coast.
One of Vancouver's main objectives was to keep a careful lookout for any river or passage that might connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The route Vancouver took was the one previously followed by Cook; the Cape of Good Hope, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and on to Hawaii where they would winter.
In March 1792, the ships departed from their winter harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. A month later they arrived off the coast of California. As the expedition sailed north from Cape Mendocino to Cape Flattery, Vancouver noted previously unrecorded features of the coastline. However, Vancouver, like James Cook before him, initially missed the mouth of the Columbia River.
Meeting Robert Gray
Robert Gray, an American sea captain, had earlier come across what he believed to be the mouth of a large river. Vancouvers ships encountered Grays vessel, the Columbia, and Gray informed Vancouver about the great river he had found.
Shortly thereafter, Gray returned to the area and, managing to get his ship over the sandbar that lay at the mouth of the river, explored about 20 miles upriver. He claimed the river for the United States, naming it after his ship.
Vancouver then pushed northward, where he discovered and explored Puget Sound, naming it after one of his lieutenants, Peter Puget. He sighted and named Mount Baker, in honor of another of his lieutenants who first spotted its beautiful snow-capped top.
He explored the mainland of the future province of British Columbia, and circumnavigated the island that now bears his name. Many of the landmarks he named are familiar today, such as Port Discovery, Mount Rainier, Port Orchard, Whidbey Island, Vashon Island, and Hood Canal, to name a few.
In order to make his discoveries official and thus bolster Englands claim to the area, Vancouver formally took possession of the entire region on June 4, 1792, near the present site of Everett, Washington. He named the region New Georgia, after George III, King of England.
In October 1792, Vancouver himself approached the Columbia's mouth. Vancouvers ship was too large to cross the sandbar, so he sent Lieutenant William Robert Broughton with several boats from Broughtons own ship to explore the river. Broughton navigated as far as the Columbia River Gorge, sighting and naming Mount Hood.
The records made by Vancouver and Gray regarding the Columbia River were of great interest to President Thomas Jefferson. It did, in fact, encourage him in his plans for a westward crossing expedition. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out a few years later, Jefferson made sure that they had copies of the charts made by both men.
Vancouver also entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. He intended to explore every bay and outlet of the region, and many times had to use boats to do so, because the inlets were often too narrow for his ships. Vancouver then went on to Nootka, located on Vancouver Island, and at that time the region's most important harbor.
While there, he was to secure any British buildings or lands remanded by the Spanish. The Spanish commander, Bodega y Quadra, was cordial; he and Vancouver exchanged the maps they had made, but no agreement was reached. They decided to await further instructions. Following a visit to Spanish California, Vancouver used the winter to further explore the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands.
The following year, Vancouver returned to British Columbia and explored the coast farther north. He covered areas not explored by Cook, and then sailed south to California, hoping to complete his task at Nootka. However, Bodega y Quadra was not there. Vancouver spent the winter again in the Sandwich Islands.
North, to Alaska
In 1794, Vancouver sailed to Cook Inlet (Alaska), the northernmost limit of his exploration, and from there followed the coast southward to Baranov Island, which he had also reached the year before. At the end of his exploration, Vancouver determined that the Northwest Passage did not exist at the latitudes long suggested. He then set sail for England, choosing the route around Cape Horn thus completing a circumnavigation of the globe.
Vancouver returned to England in 1795. In the years he had been away, Vancouver mapped more than 1,700 miles of shoreline and circumnavigated an island that was named in his honor. In the process, Vancouver had pushed his men to the limit. They had sailed about 65,000 miles and rowed another 10,000 miles.
An account of the voyages
On his return to England, Vancouver began to prepare an account of his voyage for publication, a task not quite completed at his death on May 12, 1798 at the age of 40. His remains were buried in the churchyard of St. Peter's, Petersham, England.
With the aid of Peter Puget, his brother finished the book. It was published as A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, and contained his collections of maps and notes.
Various locations around the world were named after George Vancouver, including Vancouver Island and the cities of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Vancouver, Washington.