Captain George Vancouver
(June 22/1757- May 12/1798)
Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy made an extensive exploring survey of the British Columbia Coast during the years 1792 - 1793 - 1794. He left Britain in April 1791 and returned there in September 1795.
In the four years away, Vancouver took his two ships, the 78 foot sloop 'Discovery' and the 53 foot armed tender 'Chatham', via Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii to the Northwest Coast of North America. Captain Vancouver's expedition undertook the gargantuan task of meticulously surveying the continental shore from California North to Alaska. Vancouver was only in his mid thirties when he came to this coast, an area with severe weather conditions and uncharted rocks and reefs waiting to tear away at his ships. He set out to find and explore the mythical Strait of Anion and the Northwest Passage.
Their could have been no better choice for a leader than Captain Vancouver. He had sailed with Captain Cook and possessed great personal knowledge of the natives and the geography of the Pacific Ocean. His method of exploration was also very simple and very effectual, even though strenuous. Starting at the strait of Juan de Fuca, the mother ships anchored in strategic places and the boats, each with a crew under an officer, were sent to search the bays and channels. Frequently these boat trips were of many days duration in very bad weather. Occasionally the crews rowed day and night, and on more than one occasion, after a brush with the Indians, rowed for their lives.
The coast was inhabited by a relatively primitive group of people with an unknown culture. Vancouver would conduct his surveys with vessels subject to the winds and tides of the area. Each winter, Vancouver would return to Hawaii and it's warmer friendlier climate to recuperate.
Friday August 10, 1792. Having narrowly escaped double disaster at Cape Caution in Queen Charlotte Sound where both the H.M.S. Discovery and Chatham went on the rocks in the fog, Captain George Vancouver takes his ship Northward with the intent of continuing the coastal survey. By four p.m. the captain finds Safety Cove and heads for the anchorage. Vancouver recalls in his journal - "We anchored about six in the evening in 17 fathoms on the South side of the cove. Being tolerably well sheltered in this cove, I was willing to hope the Chatham might with security, and without much difficulty, be laid on shore to examine if she had sustained any damage whilst striking on the rocks."
Supplies of Salmon, firewood and freshwater are taken aboard by the sailors but damage to the Chatham remained unsurveyed since the tides were to small to ground her properly. Lying at anchor Vancouver expresses concern for the men he has out surveying but at the same time expresses confidence in them as well as his pleasure in their positive attitude towards their work.
The next day the survey boats returned from Smiths Inlet and Rivers Inlet. Vancouver mentions in his journal that about half way up Smiths Inlet, "..a village of the natives was discovered which our gentlemen supposed might contain two hundred and fifty native persons. It was built upon a detached rock, connected to the mainland by a platform, like those before mentioned, constructed for defense. A great number of it's inhabitants, in about thirty canoes, visited our party, and used every endeavor, they thought likely, to prevail on them to visit their habitations. They offered the skins of the sea-otter and other animals to barter; and besides promises of refreshments, made signs too unequivocal to be misunderstood, that the female part of their society would be very happy in the pleasure of their company. Having no leisure to comply with these repeated solicitations, the civil offers of the Indians were declined...."
Vancouver was accused of strict, even harsh treatment of his crew. He pursued a strict regime, largely to keep control and prevent mutiny, as the 'Mutiny on the Bounty' had taken place only two years earlier and Vancouver was, no doubt, not prepared to suffer the same fate as William Bligh. He appears to have generated a certain respect from his officers and much of his crew, even if he had few friends among them. The illness that affected Vancouver throughout the voyage obviously compounded the problems of four years living in close proximity in awful conditions. The Discovery had 100 men on board; with the crew crammed into her small hull for the expedition, it is not surprising that problems of discipline and morale sometimes arose. Vancouver's Journal; "On the 17th, James Englehart, sailmaker, is given 48 lashes for embezzling the King's stores and Henry Hankins, pursers steward, gets 12 lashes for the same offence. On the 18th, Isaac Wooden, seaman, gets 36 lashes for theft."
Burke Channel was named after an eminent British statesman. Burke Channel, with its elongated North Bentinck Arm, is the longest inland-reaching channel of the whole complex coast. Through the narrows just east of its junction with Fitzhugh Sound the two ships floated their way up on a flood tide to anchor the Discovery and the Chatham in Restoration Bay. From here Lieutenant Johnstone set out with a crew in one of the boats and explored Burke Channel, North and South Bentinck Arms, Labouchere Channel, and the head of the Dean Channel.
Cascade Inlet was examined by Vancouver in June 1793, and given by him the name of Cascade Channel on account of the numerous cascades along the precipitous sides of the Inlet. Vancouver remarks in his journal, "These cascades were extremely grand, and by much the largest and the most tremendous of any we had ever beheld. The impetuosity with which these waters descended produced a strong current of air that reached nearly to the opposite side of the channel, though it was perfectly calm in every other direction."
It was at the mouth of this Inlet on July 22nd /1793 that Alexander Mackenzie terminated his long and adventurous journey to these shores, having traveled overland from Canada of those days. On June 3 /1793 Vancouver visited the headwaters of North Bentinck Arm and the Indian Village of Bella Coola.
Sir Alexander Mackenzie had come overland from the East and arrived at Bella Coola in mid July 1793. Mackenzie was escorted to Elcho Harbour and Cascade Inlet by the Nuxalk on the third week of July and just missed meeting Captain Vancouver by a few weeks. From May 27 to June10 / 1793 Vancouver was laying at anchor with the Discovery and Chatham at Restoration Cove at the mouth of Burke Channel where maintenance work is done by crew on the ships.
The observatory is sent ashore, fish and crabs and clams are caught and according to botanist "A. Menzies"....we began to brew spruce beer from the tops of the Hemlock Spruce....there being no black spruce on this part of the Coast and this was found to make very palatable and equally salubrious beverage."
June 4/1793 A. Menzies, joins " a sporting party of some of the gentlemen"who go to Detention Rivulet ( Nootum River ) in an Indian canoe to do a little hunting. En route Menzies says, " We kept along the eastern shore and passed a number of rapid torrents tumbling down the sides of the hills from the melting of snow which covered the upper regions of the Mountains, these torrents presented here and there foaming cataracts of considerable height and beauty, enlivening the picturesque but gloomy and solitary scenes with which we were surrounded. "Arriving at the River, shooters are stationed on both sides of the stream while the canoe is taken up stream in the hopes that it will scare up some game and send it in the direction of the guns. Not much luck even though the canoe went some three miles upriver. What game they got was dressed out at the mouth of the stream before they returned to the ships. Regarding that day Menzies adds: " This being the anniversary of the Kings Birthday the Crews of both Vessels had the recreation of the shore and a double allowance of Grog to drink the health of their Sovereign, so that nothing but mirth and festivity prevailed. "
On June10 th, ships weigh anchor and move southward with an ebb tide. However, the flood tide sets in after they progress about six miles and with no wind and unable to reach bottom with the anchor the "Discovery "is forced to drift back and forth all night at the mercy of the tides. Their commanders and crews could not possibly have known that an extraordinary overland expedition was proceeding Westward to the head of North Bentinck Arm to discover the first land route from Canada to the Pacific; nor could they have known that this small troupe of erstwhile overlanders carried with them proof positive that there was no Strait of Anion, and that The Northwest Passage did not exist for ships of the Sea
Saturday, June 16, 1793. It was on this day that a sad little procession of explorers from the Vancouver expeditions landed in this bay to bury a member of their crew. They had just finished mapping Mussel Inlet where they had also taken time out to eat breakfast in one of the coves. Captain Vancouver recounts the events in his journal: "In one of these bays they stopped to breakfast, where finding some mussels a few of the people ate of them roasted; as had been their usual practice when any of these fish were met with; about 9'o'clock they proceeded in very rainy unpleasant weather down the South - Westerly channel ( Sheep Passage, named for the Mountain Goats on the vertical granite cliffs that Vancouver mistook for Sheep ), and about one landed for the purpose of dining.
Mr. Johnstone was now informed by Mr. Barrie, that soon after they had quitted the cove, where they had breakfasted, several of his crew who had eaten of the Mussels, were seized with a numbness about their faces and extremities; their whole bodies were very shortly affected in the same manner, attended with sickness and giddiness. Mr. Barrie had, when in England, experienced a similar disaster, from the same cause, and was himself indisposed on the present occasion recollecting that he had received great relief by violent perspiration, he took an oar, and earnestly advised those who were unwell, viz John Carter, John M' Alpin, and John Thomas, to use their utmost exertions in pulling in order to throw themselves into a profuse perspiration; this Mr. Barrie effected in himself, and found considerable relief; but the instant the boat landed, and their exertions at the oar ceased, the three seamen were obliged to be carried on shore.
One man only in the Chatham's boat was indisposed in a similar way. Mr. Johnstone entertained no doubt of the cause from which this evil had arisen, and having no medical assistance within his reach, ordered warm water to be immediately got ready, in the hope, that by copiously drinking, the offending matter might have been removed. Carter attracted nearly the whole of their attention, in devising every means to afford him relief, by rubbing his temples and body, and applying warm cloths to his stomach, but all their efforts at length proved ineffectual, and being unable to swallow the warm water the poor fellow expired about half an hour after he was landed. His death was so tranquil, that it was some little time before they could be perfectly certain of his dissolution. There was no doubt that this was occasioned by a poison contained in the mussels he had eaten about eight o'clock in the morning; at nine he had first found himself unwell, and died at half past one; he pulled his oar until the boat landed, but when he arose to go on shore he fell down, and never more got up, but by the assistance of his companions.
From his first being taken his pulse were regular, though it gradually grew fainter and weaker until he expired, when his lips turned black, and his hands, face, and neck were much swelled Such was the foolish obstinacy of the others who were affected, that it was not until this poor unfortunate fellow resigned his life, that they could be prevailed upon to drink the hot water; his fate however induced them to follow the advice of their officers, and the desired effect being produced, they all obtained great relief; and though they were not immediately restored to their former state of health, yet, in all probability, it preserved their lives. From Mr. Barries account it appeared, that the evil had arisen, not from the number of mussels eaten, but from the deleterious quality of some particular ones; and these he conceived were those gathered on the sand; and not those taken from the rocks. Mr. Barrie had eaten as many as any of the party, and was the least affected by them.
This very unexpected and unfortunate circumstance detained the boats about three hours and they continued their route down the South -West channel, until they stopped in a bay for the night, where they buried the dead body." To this bay I gave the name of Carter's Bay, after this poor unfortunate fellow; it is situated in latitude 52 degrees 48 minutes, longitude 231 degrees 42 minutes; and to distinguish the fatal spot where the mussels were eaten, I have called it Poison Cove, and the branch leading to it Mussel Canal."
Vancouver and his men continued their duties Northward, completing the season of 1793 and continuing in 1794 until at the end of August, not far from the present town of Petersburg, Alaska, Vancouver felt satisfied he had accomplished his mission. He had not found the Strait of Anion or the Northwest passage as they did not exist.
By the time his ships had returned to their home Port in England the Discovery had made a voyage of more than sixty-five thousand miles. The work boats in which much of the exploration had been done had covered ten thousand miles, mostly by oars. And in a four and a half year journey only six men had been lost. This was about one third the mortality rate in England at that time. The Northwest coast of America had been mapped and was no longer unknown.
Captain George Vancouver clearly led one of the most brilliant marine expeditions of all time, in some of the severest marine conditions. Vancouver died of a lengthy undetermined illness at just 40 years old.
Over a hundred years would pass after Vancouver's untimely death in England before there was adequate appreciation of his ability as a commander of men and a thoroughgoing explorer and chart-maker. It is certainly right that a famous city and a magnificent island should preserve his name in history for recognition of Captain George Vancouver and his crew's incredible nautical accomplishments.
On June 14, 2007 Canada Post saluted Captain George Vancouver with a $1.55 stamp.
The stamp, conceived by designer Niko Potton. shows Captain Vancouver at the railing of his ship, gazing toward the horizon. The stamp, which catches the stark grandeur of the Pacific Northwest Coast, also manages to catch the man, adventurer, and explorer fulfilling his duty.
As there are few recognized authentic portraits of Vancouver, Potton put the viewer behind the captain, so he too could gaze at the horizon towards a new land unfolding. "This solitary composition," Potton explains, "depicts the leadership Vancouver displayed during his missions. The unadorned graphic style recalls the solitude and isolation of the explorer's quest, while the overlaid map details and journal entry style penmanship reference his ship's orders and his mission's goals. Moreover, a reproduction of Captain Vancouver's authenticated signature runs vertically across the stamp, offering a piece of his legacy to all collectors."
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