Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jan 17, 2010

Part Nine
By all accounts, Bodega y Quadra was an amiable commander who loved to socialize and was quick to recognize the necessity of cultivating the goodwill of the local chiefs, quite the opposite of the moody Vancouver. Yet the two men got on from the outset. They did not accomplish much in the way of diplomacy--they could not agree on the terms of land surrenders at Nootka and had to refer matters back to their governments--but in their off hours they entertained each other at lavish banquets, staged noisy displays of fireworks, and visited the local sights. During one of these excursions, to Maquinna’s village at Tahsis, Vancouver commemorated his friendly relations with the Spanish commander by naming the large island Quadra and Vancouver Island. Predictably, such an awkward name did not stick; a half century later maps were referring simply to Vancouver Island. Quadra’s name was later affixed to the much smaller Quadra Island, even though the Spanish commander had never set eyes on it.

Meanwhile, the Nuu-chah-nulth kept right on calling their territory what they had always called it. They, too, engaged in diplomacy, though it is doubtful that the Europeans understood the degree to which they were being manipulated. Maquinna used his close relationship with the outsiders, especially the Spanish, to solidify his position as the dominant chief in Nootka Sound. In fact, at one point during the summer an alliance of chiefs from Barkley Sound and farther south, aggrieved at their mistreatment at the hands of the Spanish, approached Maquinna to join them in attacking Quadra’s outpost. But the Mowachaht chief calculated that his interests were better served by remaining friendly with the Spanish. The crisis passed, without Quadra even realizing how close he and his men had come to probable annihilation.


Chatham and Discovery sailed away from Nootka Sound on October 12. After visiting the mouth of the Columbia River, San Francisco Bay and the Spanish settlement at Monterey, Vancouver headed back across the Pacific to pass the winter at Hawaii. He returned to the Northwest coast for two more summer seasons of exploration. During the first, in 1793, he completed the survey from 50ºN to 56º 30’N, covering another 560 km of coastline as the crow flies. Further exposure did not improve his impression of the country. He wrote: “The country we have passed through in general this summer appears incapable of being appropriated to any other use than the abode of the few uncouth inhabitants it at present contains.”


This summer included one of the great near-misses of British Columbia history. On July 20, the fur trade explorer Alexander Mackenzie arrived at tidewater at the mouth of the Bella Coola River, having trekked overland via the Peace River from the other side of the Rocky Mountains with a party of voyageurs and Aboriginal guides. The first European to cross North America by land, Mackenzie was seeking a practical trade route to the Pacific side of the continent. From Bella Coola he embarked in a canoe and continued his journey westward toward the open ocean down North Bentinck Arm and Dean Channel. A party of Heiltsuk (Bella Bella) people fell in with him and told Mackenzie that not long before--it turned out to have been early June--a boatload of white men had been in the channel. Mackenzie did not know it but this had been Vancouver himself, out on one of his boat excursions, and the two explorers had missed meeting each other by less than two months. Mackenzie proceeded as far as a small bay in Dean Channel, now called Elcho Harbour. On a rock at the entrance to the harbour he painted his famous message: “Alexander Mackenzie, from Canada, by land, 22nd July 1793.” Then, fearful of the Heiltsuks’ intentions, running low on food and having calculated his exact position, he turned back.


By this time, Vancouver had passed well to the north into the islands of the Alaska Panhandle. By September 21, with the weather turning foul, he called a halt to that season’s work and turned south once again, putting in at Nootka for just three days before heading off for California and Hawaii, where he passed the winter completing a survey of the islands. His third and final season on the Northwest Coast (1794) was spent entirely in the Gulf of Alaska where he proved that “Cook’s River”, thought to be a possible northwest passage since James Cook had visited in 1778, was in fact a closed inlet. Celebrating the completion of the massive survey with “a double allowance of grog” at Port Conclusion at the south end of Baranof Island, the ships set sail for Nootka where once again a Spanish negotiator was waiting.


This time it was Jose Manuel de Alava who had taken command of the Spanish base. But a new face made no difference to the negotiations, which stalled yet again for lack of instructions. After waiting in vain for six weeks for the necessary documents to arrive, Vancouver sailed away from Nootka for the last time. So it was Lieutenant Thomas Pearce, a newly-appointed British emissary, who officially took possession of Nootka from Alava on 28 March 1795. The Spanish took down their fortifications and abandoned the site to Maquinna and the Mowachaht who immediately re-established their village there. All evidence of a European presence disappeared. It would have been hard to imagine that this spot had ever been the focus of an international crisis.


Captain Vancouver arrived back in England in September 1795, after an absence of four and a half years. He had only three years left to live--he was 40 when he died--and he spent them writing an account of his expedition, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World. Vancouver’s voyage marked the end of the age of imperial exploration on the Northwest Coast. He laid to rest any possibility that an entrance to a northwest passage existed along the coast and added the last portions of the Pacific basin to the map of the world. He also made good on Britain’s claim to this part of the world. By putting it down in such meticulous detail on a chart, he lent credence to the notion that Europeans had “discovered” this region and had every right to colonize it. There was still much left for outsiders to discover, but from here on exploration was incidental to trade and, eventually, settlement. One of his greatest achievements was that he accomplished so much with so little loss of life. Out of 145 men who began the voyage, all but six returned to England, an unusual survival rate for the time.


Other expeditions would follow as the intricate details of the shoreline were worked out, but it is Vancouver who is remembered as the great surveyor of the coast. For better or for worse, he put British Columbia on the map.


Next time: the sea otter trade