George Vancouver (1758-1798) was born in England and entered the Royal Navy in 1771 upon receiving an appointment from Captain James Cook. He accompanied Cook on his voyage around the world in 1772-74 and served as a midshipman on Cook’s explorations along the West coast of North America. Vancouver was promoted to commander of the ship Discovery in 1790. The next year he was sent on a mission to receive the surrender of the Spanish post at Nootka Sound in present-day British Columbia, to survey the coast of the American Northwest, and to search for a water connection to the eastern part of the continent. Equipped with the best navigational instruments of his day and well-trained personnel, Vancouver spent three years surveying the coast. He produced superb charts of the Northwest coast of America and wrote a lengthy account of his voyage entitled A Voyage of discovery to the North Pacific ocean, and Round the World (1798). The map on display is from the atlas that accompanies this publication.
Vancouver, like Cook before him, initially missed the Columbia River on his voyages along the coast. The commander of the Discovery refused to believe an American sea captain in the vicinity who told Vancouver that he had tried to enter the mouth of a great river. A few weeks after this meeting, the American captain, Robert Gray, returned to the scene of his previous efforts and on May 12, 1792, became the first explorer to enter the Columbia River by crossing over the sandbar that blocked its mouth. Gray sailed about 20 miles up the estuary of the river, traded with the Indians for a few days, and then left after drawing a chart of the mouth of the river. He named the river the Columbia after his ship, and claimed it for the United States.
George Vancouver obtained a copy of Gray’s chart from the Spanish governor at Nootka Sound and sailed to the mouth of the Columbia River in October 1792. He was unable to get his flagship Discovery over the sandbar, but Lt. William Robert Broughton succeeded with his smaller ship, the Chatham. Broughton advanced nearly 100 miles to a site opposite present-day Portland, Oregon, which he named Point Vancouver. To the east he saw a majestic mountain peak which he named Mount Hood. Broughton erroneously believed that a single range of mountains to the east functioned as a continental divide; this belief was consistent with Alexander Mackenzie’s contemporary account.
The reports of Vancouver and Broughton of a navigable Columbia River and a continental divide encouraged Thomas Jefferson and others who planned Lewis and Clark’s westward crossing of the continent. Since Vancouver’s publication was both too expensive and too bulky to carry on the expedition, Meriwether Lewis traced Vancouver’s charts so that he could have them on the voyage. In addition, Nicholas King relied on Vancouver’s charts when preparing his map for the expedition. The accurate chart of the lower Columbia that Broughton produced for Vancouver proved especially useful to Lewis and Clark as they approached the Pacific coast.