This Week in History


Captain Vancouver Maps Canada's West Coast!

For the week of Monday, March 29, 2016.

On April 1, 1791, Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy left England with HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham to survey the northwest coast of North America. Vancouver’s highly accurate chart of one of the world's most complex coastlines was the standard for navigation for decades after publication. Vancouver Island in British Columbia is named after this explorer.

Portrait of Captain George Vancouver by an unknown artist
©National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG503

Vancouver’s journey followed, both literally and figuratively, in the wake of his former captain and mentor, James Cook. Cook had made three voyages to the Pacific, in 1769, 1772, and 1776. A young George Vancouver was present on the second and third voyages and learned a great deal about sailing, cartography, and astronomy. The 1772 voyage mapped much of the South Pacific and the 1776 voyage searched for an Arctic passage from the west side of North America. While unsuccessful, the 1776 voyage led to the charting of coastal Alaska and of Yuquot (Nootka Sound).

Vancouver’s chance to command came in December 1790. After serving on various warships in the Caribbean for nine years, he was commissioned to survey the coast of North America between San Francisco in California, and Cook’s Inlet in Alaska. He was also sent to find a channel connecting the Pacific Ocean to Hudson Bay.

Vancouver’s map of Vancouver Island and the Gulf of Georgia
© Library and Archives Canada, acc. no. R11630-2824-1-E

After leaving England in 1791, Vancouver rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to Australia where he surveyed its southwest coast before sailing on to Tahiti. He then spent the winter in Hawaii and completed a chart of the archipelago. Vancouver sighted North America on April 17, 1792, and began to survey the complex coastline and island archipelagoes north of San Francisco. Vancouver used his ships to establish the general shape of the coast and his smaller boats to explore its more nuanced features. After three years of surveying, Vancouver sailed home by way of Cape Horn, reaching England on October 20, 1795. The voyage took him and his crew around the world. A strict disciplinarian and less humanitarian towards First Nations than was his mentor Cook, Vancouver nevertheless achieved one of the most difficult and accurate surveys of the 18th century. Vancouver’s journals were published in 1798, shortly after his death at age 40.

It’s International Map Year! Captain George Vancouver is a National Historic Person. For more information on European exploration of Canada’s West Coast read “No habla español! The Spanish Lake Retreat.” To learn more about the search for the Northwest Passage read “In Search of the Northwest Passage,” and “Lost in the Arctic.”

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Also, click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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