A+ A A-

Mike Vouri: Mapping the San Juans: It’s all in a name

  • Written by Mike Vouri

You never know what the Strait of Juan de Fuca will bring, even in late July.

So discovered a survey party of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.), caught midway across the strait en route from Discovery Bay to the Haro Strait in 1841. The expedition leader, Lieutenant Commanding Charles Wilkes, had set out on a blustery late afternoon with seven longboats when: “...the tide was found to be running strong ebb against the wind, producing a very high sea, which made the passage at times perilous.”

This photo of Charles Wilkes, taken in later life, reveals the dyspeptic disposition that ensnarled his achievements in court martial proceedings on his return from the U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1842.

The robust waves made “...a clean breach across the boat” and one craft lost a mast before the throughly soaked crews managed to pull into a “small bight” at dusk along the Southwest coast of San Juan Island, according to Lieutenant August Case. The men built a fire, dried out their cloths and made camp at the foot of rocky bluffs, possibly Grandma’s or Eagle coves, before setting out on a reconnaissance of the islands the next morning.

This marked the first time the archipelago had been surveyed and charted since Lieutenant William Broughton guided H.M.S. Chatham through Cattle Pass in 1792. By the time Wilkes and his successors finished over the next two decades, the nameless puzzle of rocks and islands became the San Juan Archipelago we know today. No longer would chart makers focus on shortcuts across North America. That would be left to those daring the Arctic. Here the emphasis would be on arable land, natural resources and secure borders for British subjects and American citizens. The map makers would show the way.

As the first American venture of its kind, the Ex. Ex.—consisting of six ships, 350 officers and crew and a scientific corps—emulated its European predecessors. It was to make accurate charts of “all doubtful islands and shoals” on commercial shipping routes throughout the Pacific Basin, as well as observe and record plant and animal life and natural phenomena. By the time the expedition arrived in the Strait of Juan de Fuca that April, they had been at sea for three years, mapped a score of Pacific Island groups, climbed Mauna Loa on Hawaii and verified that the Antarctic was a continent.

The expedition first traced George Vancouver’s steps to Discovery Bay and thence up Puget Sound. In the process Wilkes named whatever Vancouver missed and renamed a few features already on the map. By then, the United States and Great Britain were haggling in earnest over possession of the Oregon Country and Wilkes was not only taking the lay of the land, but changing it as well. To his mind the San Juans provided one of those blank canvases. Remember, the Spanish thought the archipelago was a single island, and the British had not bothered to name anything except the Strait of Georgia.

Following a night huddled around the fire, the boats headed up Haro Strait and scattered to establish multiple astronomical stations, some of which had already been scouted by the expedition brig Porpoise. If you’re looking for detailed accountings of flora and fauna you won’t find them, save for a brief description by Lieutenant Case who reported “...many channels in different directions cutting up the land into numerous small rocky islands...covered with a thick pine & oak trees the latter generally small.”

Case’s boats camped at sunset on a beach giving on to a broad vista to the north. The next morning “...a few Indians of the Clalam (sic) tribe” approached Case and expressed the “utmost alarm” at five large canoes heading straight for them from the north. They urged the lieutenant to arm himself at once. Recalling what had happened to Midshipman Wilkes Henry (Wilkes’ nephew) when he had been clubbed and drowned on beach in Fiji the year before, Case did as the Clallam suggested. Fortunately for all, the new arrivals were Samish who, although “armed,” were happy to exchange “...two or three carcasses of deer... for 5 charges of powder & ball each.”

The sloops of war, U.S.S. Vincennes, served as the flagship of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. Her longboats plied the waters of the San Juan Islands in July 1841. The painting captures the ship during the Antarctic portion of the expedition.


The survey was cut short the next day when a midshipman from the flagship, U.S.S. Vincennes, reported that one of the expedition’s ships had wrecked on the Columbia River Bar. The boats completed the day’s activities and rejoined the Porpoise and Vincennes to head for the Columbia where they would rescue their shipmates and continue on back to the Pacific. As a consequence, the attenuated survey resulted in a chart only slightly less crude than the Spanish or British editions. For example, as U.S. Coast Survey chart maker George Davidson pointed out, “Lopez Island is as unlike itself as anything can be.”

On top of this scattering of lumps, Wilkes created his War of 1812 Fantasyland.

The crude outlines of the islands on Wilkes “Navy Archipelago“ map reflect only about two and half days of surveying by boat crews of the expedition. The British did not see this map until November 1848. (Map courtesy of Steve Buck)


Although aware of the Spanish charts, Wilkes still believed the islands were a blank slate to which he was entitled to name as he pleased. Therefore he recast the Isla y Archipelago de San Juan into the Navy Archipelago, wherein the battles and heroes of the War of 1812 with Britain would be commemorated. Of the larger islands, Orcas was named for Isaac Hull, San Juan for John Rodgers, and Lopez for Isaac Chauncey, with additional homages to Stephen Decatur, Johnston Blakely and John D. Shaw. To further irritate the lords, Wilkes dubbed interior waterways such as Little Belt (Cattle Pass), Macedonian Crescent (Lopez Sound), Frolic (Upright Channel) and Guerriere (East Sound) after captured or destroyed British warships. He left “Canal de Arro” alone but did name Rosario Strait for Cadwalader Ringgold, captain of the Porpoise. Finally, to salvage morale, several islands were named for expedition crew such as Richard and/or Thomas Waldron, John G. Brown, William Spieden, Frederick Stuart and Wilkes Henry, among others.

These last overtures underscore the bitterness and resentment over Wilkes’ megalomanic behavior throughout the voyage. He had been so toxic that his officers called him the “stormy petrel” in reference to a seabird known to peck out the eyes of lifeboat survivors. He was so despised by the expeditions’ end in 1842 that all his considerable achievements were obscured by charges brought by his subordinates.

By then the British Department of Hydrography in London, run since 1830 by Francis Beaufort (the same guy who invented the wind scale), was planning its own survey of the West Coast from Ecuador to Vancouver Island. The commander was to be Captain Henry Kellett, commander of H.M.S. Herald. He arrived in Victoria harbor in the spring of 1846 assisted by H.M.S. Pandora under Commander James Wood.

Royal Navy Captain Henry Kellett named Orcas, San Juan and Lopez islands while surveying here in 1846. He also participated in two rescue missions in search of the Franklin expedition in the Arctic. One of his junior officers here and on both rescue missions was Richard Roche.

An able surveyor and proven expedition leader, Kellett has been credited with sweeping in and righting taxonomic wrongs by erasing Wilkes’ charts and restoring Spanish names to the island group. The trouble with this tale is that Kellett never saw Charles Wilkes’map before he left England in 1845. And no such chart was evident during the Treaty of Oregon negotiations that same year. In fact, the British government did not learn of the “Navy Archipelago” until presented with a chart in November 1848. It was backdated to 1841 in the title block.

What Kellett did accomplish in 1846 was to take names from the Spanish charts and assign variants of them to individual islands and channels. Orcas was drawn from Boca de Horcasites, San Juan Island from Isla y Archipelago de San Juan and Lopez from the pilot Gonzalo Lopez de Haro. Vancouver’s Gulf of Georgia remained intact and the poetic Canal del Neustra Signora del Rosario was boiled down into Rosario Strait, running east of the archipelago. Rounding out those first efforts, Canal de Haro (or Arro) became the Haro Strait and Fidalgo, Guemes and Camano islands were charted on periphery.

All of this was by design, for geographic nomenclature to Francis Beaufort was a matter of policy not righteous indignation, and that policy had been reviewed by Kellett long before he left England. In a nutshell he was to: “Execute surveys in all parts of the world visited by British ships and publish charts.” And on those charts, “...the name stamped upon a place by the first discoverer should be held sacred by the common consent of all nations and better described by the character of the place or native names.”

H.M.S. Herald (left) was Henry Kellett’s ship while surveying the Northern Straits region and on his first trip to the Arctic.

Kellett did not return here for the 1847 survey season, to which he is again largely given credit. However, while Pandora was carrying out that work around Vancouver Island and the Strait of Georgia, Kellett was surveying on the equator. It was probably during this summer that Wood named Kellett Bluff on Henry Island after his commander. The following year, Kellett was ordered to the Arctic via the Bering Sea to participate in the search for Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition, missing since 1845. He was accompanied by Richard Roche, a Herald sub-lieutenant, who would also continue the search with Kellett in 1852 aboard the famed H.M.S. Resolute. On this last voyage the Resolute would freeze fast, prompting Roche to pioneer the European use of dog sledges for exploration and rescue. This was cut short when he accidentally shot himself in the leg.

H.M.S. Plumper was an auxiliary steam-sloop, barque rigged with a 60-horse power so worn out that she could not steam into an ebb tide. She was eventually replaced by the more powerful side-wheeler H.M.S. Hecate.

HMS Hecate, a 4-gun Hydra-class paddle sloop, replaced Plumper as the Royal Navy’s primary survey vessel here.

Hecate Strait between British Columbia and Haida Gwaii Is named for her.

But Roche made an impression on one man, Commander George H. Richards of H.M.S. Assistance, so much so that he named for him the harbor on the north end of San Juan. Richards himself held the distinction of logging more than 2,000 miles in sledges pulled by both men and dogs, and was promoted to captain soon after returning to England. He was eventually assigned to command the steam survey ship H.M.S. Plumper. His mission was to assist Captain James Prevost of H.M.S. Satellite in determining the water boundary between Vancouver Island and the U.S. mainland. Roche, now nicely healed, was on board Satellite as third lieutenant and an enthusiastic amateur photographer. Contrary to some sources, he was not a lieutenant in the Royal Marines, nor did he develop lime mining at Roche Harbor. He retired as a commander in 1871.

Captain George H. Richards (standing second from right) poses with the officers of his ship, H.M.S. Plumper. Richards would conduct surveys here through 1863. Mary Richards, seated front and center, accompanied her husband from England.

Richards was an industrious man, and his photographs show him to be inordinately cheerful for an officer of his era, especially as compared to images of Charles Wilkes, who looks as if he never recovered from his court martial. Richards may be beaming because his wife, Mary, accompanied him from England. In one photo, she is seated dead center amid Richards and his officers. We’re uncertain if Mrs. Richards accompanied her husband on his surveying missions, but the captain went about his work with zeal and a sense of fair play, consolidating Kellett’s and Wood’s nomenclature with Wilkes and the U.S. Coast Survey.

H.M.S. Satellite and the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Active in Bellingham Bay, c. 1858. The Active, under the command of Commander James Alden, took up the American survey of the Northern Straits region in 1853.

That organization, embodied by the U.S. Coast Survey Steamer Active and her captain, Commander James Alden, had been operating in the region since 1853 as part of the West Coast Survey. The 47 year-old Mainer had been a lieutenant on the Ex. Ex. when he had cruised the islands aboard the Porpoise. He was no friend of Wilkes, having been blamed in part for the death of Wilkes Henry on Fiji, and endured arrest and confinement to quarters for trifles. However, like Richards he gave fair judgement to names.

Commander James Alden, skipper of the Active had been a lieutenant on the Wilkes expedition and returned to finish the job as head of the hydrographic portion of the American survey.

In a letter to Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander D. Bache, Alden wrote: "I have thought it proper to restore on our charts all the original names, so far as they could be obtained."

Among the principle issues: What had been on the charts pre-Wilkes? And what had Wilkes named cleanly, honoring first discoverers? Spanish or British? In terms of answers, Alden and Richards found themselves in accord on island names, but some channels required negotiation and were not settled until 1866 when both men were enjoying flag rank elsewhere. Richards had insisted on renaming a few of those waterways that Wilkes designated to celebrate captured or sunk British vessels, but oddly enough acceded to Harney Channel, which lies between Orcas and Shaw. The bellicose and intemperate U.S. Army Brigadier General William S. Harney had insulted the British at every opportunity during the Pig War crisis of 1859.

Naming entered another dimension as the survey unfolded. After Vancouver’s heavy tributes to the ruling class, British surveyors had been admonished not to name features for “important personages.” But Richards assumed it was OK to name them for important local white folks such as Governor James Douglas, whose name he assigned the channel between Waldron and Orcas. While the name appears on maps as late as 1859, the governor eventually lost out to the generic “President’s” suggested by Alden. Other subjects included First Nations groups (in confirmed British possessions), British warships (not captured or sunk by us) and serving naval officers. This last category includes Roche Harbor and Westcott Bay, the latter for George Blagdon Westcott, the paymaster of H.M.S. Bacchante (and a future admiral). In view of common heritage, some duplication was unavoidable, such as: Is Stuart Island named for Fred Stuart of the Ex. Ex., or Charles Edward Stuart, manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company coal mine at Nanaimo?

Captain George Richards seems like a pretty regular guy in this photo. He did not think much of Americans: “ I think California is far dirtier and more meddlesome under the Americans than it would be under the Spaniards or Mexicans. The birds & dogs are the only scavengers...some hundreds of very plain vulgar women & rowdy men.”

And what of Brown Island’s John G. Brown, the instrument maker/repairman for the Ex. Ex.? This was a name respected and left in place by surveyor Richards who had himself named the harbor for a Hawaiian shepherd named Friday. Brown’s name was not held in esteem by some in the real estate industry who campaigned in the 1960s to change it to “Friday on Brown Island” as a sales gimmick along the lines of “Thank God It’s Friday” and all that? It didn’t take.


This map, published by Petermann’s in 1859, reflects the British interpretation of the waterways, namely “Douglas” in place of “President’s” channel and “Middle Channel” for “Cattle Pass“ among other names. Middle Channel reflected the British desire to include this passage, linked with San Juan Channel, as another choice for the international boundary. The United States rejected the proposal.


Another peculiarity that surfaces is the name “Washington Sound.” In 1856 Alden had added it to his charts at the urging if his superiors, the type running vertically over the island group. But you will not find it on any of Richards’ maps. Believe it or not, the name “Washington Sound and Approaches” persisted on American charts until the 1930s when it was formally replaced by “San Juan Archipelago,” though no one actually navigating the islands had called them anything but the San Juans.

And finally, with all this naming going on, what about the last sentence of Francis Beaufort’s policy concerning names—the one about using native names whenever possible? This did not happen in the San Juan Islands. Kellett, Wood and Alden were silent about their choices and we know all about Wilkes. Richards, the dominant namer and arbiter of names in the region, did opine that indigenous people did not really name anything beyond cursory descriptions of similar places— such as “far away” for a mountain. We now know that this is patently ridiculous, but Richards and his fellows could not differentiate between multiple dialects, let alone understand and pronounce the words. And those languages were decades from being written. As you would expect, Richards offered no apologies.

Bryce Wood, author of San Juan Island Coastal Place Names (1980), suggests that the reason Richards did not apply Indian names here as he did on Vancouver Island is because there were no “permanent residents” in the islands at that time. “The Indians had names for places,” he writes, “But no effort was made to seek them out.”

Surveying by all parties was disrupted in 1859 when Harney ordered George Pickett to San Juan Island with a company of infantry. Having broken bread with the British on many an occasion since 1853, Alden met with Richards, Prevost and Governor Douglas in an attempt to calm the situation. But his first loyalty was to his country and Captain Pickett on San Juan, which may have cost him some credibility. After leaving for San Francisco that fall he never returned and American surveying was put on hold until after the Civil War.

That left Richards to his own devices, and he had a field day before moving on 1863. He appreciated the little things, and his names were lyrical and physically descriptive. More than 100 are are still with us, among them Deer Harbor, Cattle, Flat, and Neck points, Goose, Dinner and North and South Peapod islands, Eagle Cove and Eagle Point, Dot, Half-tide and Harbor rocks and Mosquito Pass. With Richards’ departure, further surveying (and naming) landed in the capable hands of Daniel Pender, who would not complete the task until 1871. By then the San Juan Islands were firmly on the map. However, as time unfolds and our perceptions of the past change, the issues associated with naming in the Salish Sea will probably never be laid to rest.

Next time: English or British Camp? And what about Morse? When does a local name hold sway?

For further reading: For further reading: Charles Wilkes and the Exploration of Inland Washington Waters: Journals from the Explorations of 1841 by Richard W. Blumenthal; Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest: Maps of Exploration and Discovery by Derek Hayes; San Juan Islands Coastal Place Names and Cartographic Nomenclature by Bryce Wood; Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1841 by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and “The Coast Survey in Washington Territory,” Historylink.com (https://www.historylink.org/File/11230) by Mike Vouri; and Images of America: Friday Harbor by Mike and Julia Vouri.

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest. 












Last modified onSaturday, 05 September 2020 16:51

Related items