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One of the First Detailed Maps of the Alaskan Coast from Vancouver’s Pivotal Voyage

Fine regional map of Alaska from the French edition of Vancouver’s important voyage account. This is the first detailed printed map of this coastline; Vancouver’s voyage completed pivotal surveying in much of the Pacific Northwest.

The map features the region from Mount St. Elias in the northwest, and Mount Fairweather, to Cape Decision in the southeast, Sitka, Juneau, and Prince Frederick Sound. It includes a track tracing Vancouver’s journey south along the Alaskan coast, marked with the date. Elevation and mountainous regions are well-defined by relief shading and hachures.

The map includes three inset plans in the upper-right corner of the sheet, of Port Conclusion, Port Protection, and the entry to Cross Sound. These detailed plans include scale bars and sounding depths. Port Conclusion was where Vancouver finished his survey, while Port Protection was recently featured on a National Geographic reality TV show. Both are north of Ketchikan in southern Alaska. Cross Sound was originally named by Captain James Cook on his third expedition.

From 1791 to 1795, English naval officer and explorer George Vancouver led an expedition circumnavigating the globe. He spent significant time along the Pacific Coast of North America, from Baja, California, to the Gulf of Alaska and Vancouver Island. The voyage resulted in extensive, detailed charting of that area.

Vancouver’s subsequent account of the expedition and its related maps, including this one, were first published in London in 1798 and distributed widely among European commercial publishers. They established many English place-names in the Pacific Northwest and, thus, projected English power onto the region. They also constituted the first published maps of Puget Sound, Vancouver Island, and the Columbia River. 

A skilled navigator and explorer, Vancouver definitively eliminated the possibility of a Northwest Passage that terminated in the Canadian Pacific Northwest. Vancouver's voyage was the last, and longest, of the great Pacific voyages of the late eighteenth century. The present chart depicts the area explored in the summer of 1794, during the expedition’s last season of surveying on the Northwest Coast. 

Captain George Vancouver and the mapping of the Pacific Coast of North America

George Vancouver (1757–1798) was one of the most important explorers of the eighteenth century. He notably served on Cook's third expedition, where he gained valuable experience exploring and mapping the Pacific Northwest. In 1791, he was chosen to captain the Discovery and charged with a mission to discover and chart the vast areas of the Pacific that were still unknown, in part to locate a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He was also instructed to enact a 1790 treaty between Spain and Great Britain that aimed to settle a land dispute in Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The Discovery and its companion ship, the Chatham, left England in April 1791 and traveled to the Cape of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa. The expedition then continued to Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti. Sailing across the Pacific to North America, Vancouver followed the coasts of Oregon and Washington northward.

Vancouver entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca, between Vancouver Island and Washington's Olympic Peninsula, in April 1792. Vancouver proceeded to survey every inlet and outlet on the west coast of the mainland, all the way north to Alaska. 

In June 1792, around Vancouver, British Columbia, the expedition met with the Spanish expedition led by Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores. In spite of the tensions that existed between Britain and Spain, the two parties exchanged maps and information. In late June and early July of that year, the Spanish and British parties cooperatively explored the Georgia Strait and the Discovery Islands.

Vancouver next sailed to Nootka Sound, which was already a major fur-trading center, and was disputed between Britain and Spain. There Vancouver met the great Spanish explorer, Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, but diplomatic efforts over the control of Nootka were inconclusive. 

Vancouver then sailed south toward Oregon, and sent Lieutenant William Robert Broughton to explore the Columbia River. Vancouver continued south along the coast of Spanish Alta California and spent the winter in Hawaii.

In the spring of 1793, Vancouver returned to British Columbia and sailed northward, making detailed charts of the continental bays, inlets, and harbors north of Vancouver Island. He arrived at Alaska's Alexander Archipelago, charting and circumnavigating Prince of Wales Island and other islands and coastline in the area. He then sailed south to California, before, once again, wintering in Hawaii.

In 1794, Vancouver sailed far north to Cook Inlet, the northernmost point of his exploration, surveying Prince William Sound and encountering Russian settlements. From there he followed the shore southward, charting the islands and coastline along his path. The expedition headed to Mexico and Chile before navigating around Cape Horn to return to England in September 1795, thus completing a global circumnavigation.

The publication of Vancouver’s account of the expedition, with its first detailed printed maps of the Pacific Northwest, including this sheet, greatly furthered understanding of navigational as well as diplomatic concerns in the area.

The Vancouver Expedition (1791-1795)

George Vancouver (1757-1798) was born in Norfolk and joined the Royal Navy in 1771. Only a year later, he sailed with Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific. Vancouver would also sail on Cook’s third, and last, voyage, the expedition during which Cook was killed in Hawai’i. Although he most likely made rough sketches while with Cook, Vancouver completed his first independent surveys while serving in the West Indies in the mid-1780s. Thanks to this work, his previous Pacific service, and the influence of a powerful patron, Vancouver was selected to lead a new expedition into the South Seas, one of the last large-scale exploratory voyages to the region.

Vancouver was ordered to sail under dual purposes. On the one hand, he was to represent the British at negotiations with the Spanish at Nootka Sound in the Pacific Northwest. The Sound was the subject of a territorial dispute between the empires that threatened to erupt into a larger conflict. Vancouver’s other, and main, purpose was to survey the southwest corner of Australia, Pacific islands, and the Northwest Coast of America. If possible, he was also to find a Northwest Passage.

Vancouver sailed in the Discovery, with the Chatham as escort, in April 1791. First, he made the Australian coast near Cape Leeuwin and surveyed a considerable extent of the southern coast. Next, he sailed to Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands. Then, Vancouver and his crew charted the coast from near San Francisco all the way to Alaska. En route, at Nootka, Vancouver met with his Spanish counterpart, Bodega y Quadra; the island where they negotiated was initially named Quadra and Vancouver Island, for both men. They decided they could not interpret the instructions they had been given and referred the matter back to diplomats in Europe for further study. He then completed three surveying seasons on the Pacific Northwest Coast, with winters in Hawai'i. 

Vancouver returned to England via Cape Horn in September 1795, over four years after he had led one of the longest surveying voyages in history. He was promoted to the rank of post captain but the voyage ruined his health and he retired upon return to shore.

He turned his energies instead to producing an authoritative account of his voyage, complete with detailed charts, as the Admiralty had ordered. Vancouver died in May of 1798. He had completed nearly all of the account, half a million words in length, but it still lacked roughly 100 pages. After George’s death, his brother, John, along with Lieutenant Peter Puget, for whom Puget Sound is named, and Lieutenant Baker finished the work. It was published in 1798 in three quarto volumes and accompanied by a folio atlas. A French edition followed in 1799-1800, with another English edition in 1801.

Christon I. Archer, “Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra,” last edited March 4, 2015,; Henry R. Wagner, The Cartography of the Northwest Coast of America to the Year 1800, Volume 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1937); W. Kaye Lamb, “VANCOUVER, GEORGE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–),; William L. Lang, “George Vancouver (1757-1798),” last updated March 7, 2019,; William L. Lang and James V. Walker, Explorers of the Maritime Pacific Northwest: Mapping the World through Primary Documents (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2016). AH
George Vancouver Biography

George Vancouver (1757­–1798), a naval officer and explorer, grew up in King’s Lynn, England, the youngest of six children. After entering the Royal Navy in 1771, he served in both the second and third great exploratory voyages of James Cook. During Cook’s second voyage, a three-year quest to find a legendary southern continent, Vancouver received instruction from the astronomer William Wales. During Cook’s third voyage, to the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver was part of the first known group of Europeans to land on the coast of present-day British Columbia.

Vancouver gained valuable navigational, surveying, and mapping experience in the Pacific Northwest during his time with Cook. After returning from Cook’s third voyage in 1780, Vancouver was promoted to lieutenant and spent the following nine years serving on fighting ships, primarily in the Caribbean.  

In 1790, Vancouver was chosen to captain the Discovery and charged with a mission to discover and chart the vast areas of the Pacific that were still unknown, in part to locate a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This four-year voyage of discovery circumnavigated the globe and eliminated the possibility of an inland Northwest Passage. During many months of surveying, Vancouver produced detailed regional maps of the Northwest Coast, as far north as Alaska. He also established several hundred place-names for physical features in the areas surveyed.

Upon returning to England in 1795, Vancouver’s voyage received little recognition, and he faced personal and political attacks from colleagues and crew members alleging abuse of power. With his health failing, Vancouver spent his remaining years in retirement, revising his journal for publication. His Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World was first published in 1798, which was also the year of his death. It contained a multi-volume account of his voyage as well as an atlas of his maps. His exploration and mapmaking activities greatly increased knowledge of the North American coast.