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Captain George Vancouver RN (June 22, 1757 – May 10, 1798) was an officer in the British Royal Navy, best known for his exploration of the North-West Coast of North America, including the shores of the modern day Alaskamarker, British Columbiamarker, Washingtonmarker and Oregonmarker. He also explored the southwest coast of Australia.

Vancouver Islandmarker, Canadamarker and the cities of Vancouvermarker, British Columbiamarker, Canadamarker, and Vancouver, Washingtonmarker, USAmarker are named after him.

Early career

Vancouver's first naval service was as a midshipman aboard HMS Resolution, on James Cook's second voyage (1772-1775). He also accompanied Cook on his third voyage (1776-1778), this time aboard Resolution's sister ship, HMS Discovery Upon his return to Britain in 1779; Vancouver was commissioned as a lieutenant and posted aboard the sloop HMS Martin surveying coastlines.

In 1790 the Spanish commissioned an expedition to the Pacific Northwest. However, the Nootka Crisis intervened, as Spain and Britain came close to war over ownership of Nootka Soundmarker and, of greater importance, the right to settle the Northwest American Coast. Roberts and Vancouver joined Britain's more warlike vessels (Vancouver going, with Whidbey, to HMS Courageux). When the first Nootka Convention ended the crisis, Vancouver was given command of Discovery to take possession of Nootka Soundmarker and survey the coast.

Vancouver's 1791-1795 explorations

Departing England with two ships in April, 1791, Vancouver commanded an expedition charged with exploring the Pacific region. In its first year the expedition travelled to Cape Town, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and China, collecting botanical samples and surveying coastlines along the way. Proceeding to North America, Vancouver followed the coasts of what is now Washington and Oregon northward. In April 1792 he encountered American Captain Robert Gray off the coast of modern Oregonmarker just prior to Gray's sailing up the Columbia River.

Vancouver entered the Strait of Juan de Fucamarker, between Vancouver Islandmarker and the Washingtonmarker state mainland on April 29, 1792. His orders included a survey of every inlet and outlet on the west coast of the mainland, all the way north to Alaskamarker. Most of this work was done from small boats powered by both oars and sail because maneuvering larger sail-powered vessels in uncharted waters was generally impractical and dangerous.

Vancouver was the first European to enter Burrard Inletmarker (beyond Stanley Park), the main harbour area of the present day City of Vancouver. This was on June 13, 1792. He named it after his friend Sir Harry Burrard. He surveyed Howe Soundmarker and Jervis Inletmarker over the next nine days, before returning to Point Grey (now the site of the University of British Columbiamarker) on June 22, 1792 (Vancouver's 35th birthday). Here he unexpectedly met a Spanish expedition led by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores and was mortified (his word) to learn they already had a crude chart of the Strait of Georgia based on the exploration voyage of José María Narváez, under command of Francisco de Eliza, the year before. For three weeks they cooperatively explored Georgia Straitmarker and the Discovery Islands area before going their separate ways.

After the summer surveying season ended in November, Vancouver went to Nootka on Vancouver Islandmarker, then the region's most important harbour, where he was to receive any British buildings or lands returned by the Spanish. The Spanish commander, 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 Islandmarker.

In October 1792, he sent Lieutenant William Robert Broughton with several boats up the Columbia River. Broughton got as far as the Columbia River Gorgemarker, sighting and naming Mount Hoodmarker.

After a visit to Spanish Californiamarker, Vancouver spent the winter in further exploration of the Sandwich Islandsmarker (Hawaii).

The next year, he returned to British Columbiamarker and proceeded further north, unknowingly missing the overland explorer Alexander Mackenzie by only 48 days. He got to 56°N, but because the more northern parts had already been explored by Cook, he sailed south to California, hoping to find Bodega y Quadra and fulfill his mission, but the Spaniard was not there. He again spent the winter in the Sandwich Islands.

In 1794, he first went to Cook Inletmarker, the northernmost point of his exploration, and from there followed the coast south to Baranov Islandmarker, which he had visited the year before. He then set sail for Great Britainmarker by way of Cape Hornmarker, returning in September 1795, thus completing a circumnavigation.

Return to England and death

Vancouver faced difficulties when he returned home. The politically well-connected naturalist Archibald Menzies complained that his servant had been pressed into service during a shipboard emergency; sailing master Joseph Whidbey had a competing claim for pay as expedition astronomer; and Thomas Pitt, 2nd Baron Camelford, whom Vancouver had disciplined for numerous infractions and eventually sent home in disgrace, challenged him to a duel. Vancouver was attacked in the newspapers and assaulted on the street by Pitt; his career was effectively at an end.

One of Britain's greatest navigators, Vancouver died in obscurity in 1798 at the age of 40, less than three years after completing his voyage. His modest grave lies in St. Petersmarker churchyard, Petershammarker, Surreymarker, in southern England.



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. Robin Fisher, the academic Vice President of Mount Royal Collegemarker in Calgary and author of two books on Vancouver, states:

Vancouver, however, 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.) Although Vancouver did eventually learn of the Columbia before he finished his survey—from Robert Gray , captain of the American merchant ship which was the first to sail into the river on May 11, 1792 (Gray had first spotted the river on an earlier voyage in 1788)--the Fraser never made it onto his charts.Stephen R. Bown, noted in Mercator's World magazine (November/December 1999) that:

While it is difficult to comprehend how Vancouver missed the Fraser River, much of this river's delta was subject to flooding and summer freshet which prevented the captain from spotting any of its great channels as he sailed the entire shoreline from Point Roberts to Point Grey in 1792. The Spanish, who preceded Vancouver in 1791, had also missed the Fraser River although they knew from its muddy plume that there was a major river located nearby.

Aboriginal relations

Vancouver generally established a good rapport with both natives and European foreigners. Despite a long history of warfare between Britain and Spain, Vancouver maintained excellent relations with his Spanish counterparts and even feted a Spanish sea captain aboard the tall ship HMS Discovery during his 1792 trip to the Vancouver region.While Captain Vancouver played an undeniable role in the eventual series of upheavals in native life on the North American Pacific Coast since his explorations opened up the Northwest coast to European exploration and the long term negative impact on first nations peoples and their cultures, historical records show Vancouver himself enjoyed good relations with native leaders both in Hawaii - where native leaders ceded Hawaii to Vancouver in 1794 - as well as the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver's journals exhibit a high degree of sensitivity to natives: he once wrote of his exploration of a small island on the Alaskan coast on which an important burial site was marked by a sepulchre of "peculiar character" lined with boards and fragments of military instruments lying near a square box covered with mats. Vancouver states:

Vancouver also displayed contempt in his journals towards unscrupulous western traders who provided guns to natives by writing:

Robin Fisher notes that Vancouver's "relationships with aboriginal groups were generally peaceful; indeed, his detailed survey would not have been possible if they had been hostile." While there were hostile incidents at the end of Vancouver's last season - the most serious of which involved a clash with Tlingits at Behm Canalmarker in southeast Alaska in 1794 - these were the exceptions to Vancouver's exploration of the US and Canadian Northwest coast.


Statue of George Vancouver in King's Lynn.

  • Statues of Vancouver are located in front of Vancouver City Hall, in King's Lynnmarker and on top of the dome of the British Columbia Parliament Buildingsmarker.
  • In his home town of King's Lynnmarker the Vancouver Quarter Shopping Centre bears his name.
  • April 26, 1978 - Canada Post issued a pair of 14-cent stamps to mark the 200th anniversary of Captain Cook's arrival at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. George Vancouver was a crewman on this voyage.
  • March 1980- A commemorative statue "Gate to the Northwest Passage" by Vancouver artist Alan Chung Hung was commissioned by Parks Canada and erected near the Vancouver Maritime Museummarker in Vanier Parkmarker at the opening to False Creekmarker.
  • March 17, 1988 - Canada Post issued a 37-cent stamp inscribed Vancouver Explores the Coast. It was one of a set of four stamps issued to honour Exploration of Canada - Recognizers.
  • June 22, 2007 - Canada Post issued a $1.55 stamp to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Vancouver's birth. The stamp has an embossed image of Vancouver seen from behind as he gazes forward towards a mountainous coastline. This may be the first Canadian stamp not to show the subject's face.

1980 Commemorative Statue to Capt.
George Vancouver by Vancouver artist Alan Chung Hung

Many collections were made on the voyage: one was donated by Archibald Menzies to the British Museum 1796; another made by G G Hewett was donated by A W Franks to the British Museum in 1891.An account of these has been published see J C H King 1994. 'Vancouver's Ethnography' Journal of the History of Collections. 6(1):35-58.

250th anniversary commemoration

On Friday June 22, 2007, the City of Vancouver in Canada organized a celebration at the Vancouver Maritime Museummarker to remember the 250th anniversary of Vancouver's birth. The one-hour festivities included the presentation of a massive 63 by 114 centimetre carrot cake, the firing of a gun salute by the Royal Canadian Artillery's 15th Field Regiment and a performance by the Vancouver Firefighter's Band.

Vancouver's mayor, Sam Sullivan, officially declared June 22, 2007 to be "George Day". The Musqueam native elder Larry Grant who also attended the festivities acknowledged that some of his people might disapprove of his presence here but noted:

Origins of the family name

There has been some debate about the origins of the Vancouver name. It is now commonly accepted that the name Vancouver derives from the word van Coevorden, meaning "from Coevordenmarker", a city in the northeast of the Netherlandsmarker. This city is apparently named after the "Coeverden" family of the 13 - 15th Century.An alternative theory claims that Vancouver is a misspelling or anglicized version of van Couwen, a Dutch family name.In the 16th century, a number of businessmen from the Coevorden area (and the Netherlands in general) did move to England.Some of them were known as van Coeverden. Others adopted the surname Oxfordmarker, as in oxen crossing, which is approximately the English translation of Coevorden.. However this is not the exact name of the noble family mentioned in the history books that claim Vancouver's noble lineage: that name was Coeverden not Coevorden.

In the 1970s, Adrien Mansvelt, a former Consul General of the Netherlands based in Vancouver, published a collation of information in both historical and genealogical journals and in the Vancouver Sun newspaper. Mansvelt's theory was later presented by the city during the Expo 86 World's Fair, as historical fact.Mr. Mansvelt's theories, however, are based on many assumptions and possibilities that may be flawed. Genealogy is the study or investigation of ancestry and family history, with undeniable proof of traceability through family lineage of birth, marriage and death records. Mansveld bases his research on no such proof and uses the words "assumed", "possible" and "may" time and again throughout his essay. (see Mansvelts essay) This problematic information was then used as rock solid proof for Mr. W. Kaye Lamb to write his book A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, 1791-1795.

W. Kaye Lamb, in summarizing Mansvelt's unsubstantiated 1973 research, suggests evidence of close family ties between the Vancouver family of Britain and the van Coeverden family of Holland as well as George Vancouver's own words from his diaries in referring to his Dutch ancestry:

George Vancouver also identified a body of land off the Alaskan coast as 'Couverden Islandmarker' during his exploration of the North American Pacific coast presumably to honour his family's Dutch hometown of Coevorden. It is located at the western point of entry to Lynn Canalmarker in southeastern Alaska.

Others present on Vancouver's voyage

See Muster Table of His Majesties Sloop The Discovery

Works by George Vancouver

  • Voyage Of Discovery To The North Pacific Ocean, And Round The World In The Years 1791-95, by George Vancouver ISBN 0-7812-5100-1. Original written by Vancouver and completed by his brother John and published in 1798. Edited in 1984 by W. Kaye Lamb and re-named The Voyage of George Vancouver 1791 - 1795. W. Kaye Lamb's later analysis of Vancouver's exploration was published by the Hakluyt Society of London, England.


Further reading

  • Madness, Betrayal and the Lash: The Epic Voyage of Captain George Vancouver by Stephen R. Bown. Published by Douglas & McIntyre 2008.
  • Vancouver A Life: 1757-1798 by George Godwin. Published by D. Appleton and Company, 1931.
  • Adventures in Two Hemispheres Including Captain Vancouver's Voyage by James Stirrat Marshall and Carrie Marshall. Published by Telex Printing Service, 1955.
  • The Life and Voyages of Captain George Vancouver by Bern Anderson. Published by University of Washington Press, 1966.
  • Captain Vancouver: A Portrait of His Life by Alison Gifford. Published by St. James Press, 1986.
  • Journal of the Voyages of the H.M.S. Discovery and Chatham by Thomas Manby. Published by Ye Galleon Press, 1988.
  • Vancouver's Voyage: Charting the Northwest Coast, 1791-1795 by Robin Fisher and Gary Fiegehen. Published by Douglas & McIntyre, 1992.
  • On Stormy Seas, The Triumphs and Torments of Captain George Vancouver by B. Guild Gillespie. Published by Horsdal & Schubart, 1992.
  • Captain Vancouver: North-West Navigator by E.C. Coleman. Published by Tempus, 2007.
  • Sailing with Vancouver: A Modern Sea Dog, Antique Charts and a Voyage Through Time by Sam McKinney. Published by Touchwood Editions, 2004.
  • The Early Exploration of Inland Washington Waters: Journals and Logs from Six Expeditions, 1786-1792 edited by Richard W. Blumenthal. Published by McFarland & Company, 2004.
  • A Discovery Journal: George Vancouver's First Survey Season - 1792 by John E. Roberts. Published by Trafford Publishing, 2005.
  • With Vancouver in Inland Washington Waters: Journals of 12 Crewmen April-June 1792 edited by Richard W. Blumenthal. Published by McFarland & Company, 2007.

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