Captain George Vancouver (1757 –1798) was an English officer of the British Royal Navy, best known for his 1791-95 explorations and charting the coastlines of contemporary Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. He also explored the Hawaiian Islands and the southwest coast of Australia.
George Vancouver entered the Royal Navy at 13 as a “young gentleman” In 1771. He served as a midshipman aboard HMS Resolution on James Cook’s second voyage (1772–1775) searching for Terra Australis. He accompanied Cook on his third voyage (1776–1778), aboard Resolution’s sister ship, HMS Discovery. He was present for the first European sighting and exploration of the Hawaiian Islands. Upon his return to Britain in 1779, Vancouver was commissioned as a lieutenant and posted aboard the sloop Martin surveying coastlines.
In the late 1780s the Spanish empire commissioned an expedition to the Pacific Northwest under the command of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. However, the 1789 Nootka Crisis intervened. Spain and Britain came close to war over ownership of the Nootka Sound on contemporary Vancouver Island, and rights to colonize and settle the Pacific Northwest coast. When the first Nootka Convention ended the crisis in 1790, Vancouver was given command of HMS Discovery to take possession of Nootka Sound and to survey the coasts.
Departing England with two ships in April 1791, Vancouver commanded an expedition charged with exploring the Pacific region. His orders included a survey of every inlet and outlet on the west coast of the mainland, all the way north to Alaska. Most of this work was performed in small craft propelled by both sail and oar as maneuvering larger sail-powered vessels in uncharted coastal waters was generally impractical and dangerous.
Proceeding to North America, Vancouver followed the coasts of present-day Oregon and Washington northward. In April 1792 he encountered American Captain Robert Gray off the coast of Oregon just prior to Gray’s sailing up the Columbia River. Vancouver entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between what was to become Vancouver Island and Washington State in April 1792.
In June 1792. Vancouver was the second European to enter Burrard Inlet, naming it after his friend Sir Harry Burrard. Vancouver surveyed Howe Sound and Jervis Inlet over the next nine days. Then, on his 35th birthday in June 1792, he returned to Point Grey, the present-day location of the University of British Columbia. Here he unexpectedly met a Spanish expedition led by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores who had been dispatched by Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. Vancouver was “mortified” (his word) to learn they already had a crude chart of the Strait of Georgia based on the 1791 exploratory voyage of José María Narváez the year before, under command of Francisco de Eliza. For three weeks they cooperatively explored the Georgia Strait and the Discovery Islands area before sailing separately towards Nootka Sound.
After the 1792 summer surveying season ended in November, Vancouver went to Nootka on contemporary Vancouver Island, then the region’s most important harbour. Here he was to receive any British buildings and lands returned by the Spanish from claims by Francisco de Eliza for the Spanish crown. The Spanish commander, Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, was very cordial and he and Vancouver exchanged the maps they had made, but no agreement was reached; they decided to await further instructions. At this time, they decided to name the large island on which Nootka was now proven to be located as Quadra and Vancouver Island. Years later, as Spanish influence declined, the name was shortened to simply Vancouver Island.
While at Nootka Sound, Vancouver acquired Robert Gray’s chart of the lower Columbia River. Gray had entered the river during the summer before sailing to Nootka Sound for repairs. Vancouver realized the importance of verifying Gray’s information and conducting a more thorough survey. In October 1792, he sent Lieutenant William Robert Broughton with several boats up the Columbia River. Broughton got as far as the Columbia River Gorge, sighting and naming Mount Hood.
The next year, 1793, Broughton then proceeded further north, missing the overland explorer Alexander Mackenzie by only 48 days.
In 1794, Vancouver first went to Cook Inlet, the northernmost point of his exploration, and from there followed the coast south finishing his charting of the coastline. He then set sail for Great Britain by way of Cape Horn, returning in September 1795, thus completing a circumnavigation of South America.
In his career, Vancouver determined that the Northwest Passage did not exist at the latitudes that had long been suggested. His charts of the North American northwest coast were so extremely accurate that they served as the key reference for coastal navigation for generations.
However, Vancouver failed to discover two of the largest and most important rivers on the Pacific coast – the Fraser River and the Columbia River. He also missed the Skeena River near Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia. Vancouver did eventually learn of the Columbia River from Robert Gray before he finished his survey.
Despite a long history of warfare between Britain and Spain, Vancouver maintained excellent relations with his Spanish counterparts and even fêted a Spanish sea-captain aboard his ship Discovery during his 1792 trip to the Vancouver region.
Vancouver, one of Britain’s greatest explorers and navigators, died in obscurity on 10 May 1798 at the age of 40, less than three years after completing his voyages and expeditions. His grave is in the churchyard of St Peter’s Church, Petersham, in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, England.