Brits ruled the waves and named the mountains in Washington

Time Before Now, May 1792 – President George Washington used the power of the veto for the first time, the U.S. Postal Service was created and French army officer, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, (left) wrote “La Marseillaise,” which later became the French national anthem. 

May 8, 1792

On this day, legendary British sea captain, George Vancouver, first glimpsed Mount Rainier towering over the Cascades.  His five-year mission aboard the HMS Discovery, resulted in an honor role of British sailors finding their way on to Pacific landmarks.

Mount Rainier

Hard to miss, Mount Rainier at a bit over 14,000 feet, was called by a number of names by indigenous people.  Linguists say they variously translated as “mother of waters,” “snow-covered mountain” and the practical “larger than its neighbor.”  Vancouver (left) chose to name the majestic mountain for fellow sea captain Peter Rainier. (Below)  He was destined to be promoted to Rear Admiral four years later and was a towering figure in British navigation. 

Vancouver’s expedition was prompted by a squabble between England and Spain.  Both claimed territory in coastal waters that neither actually owned. Known as the Nootka Crisis, it brought the two major navel powers to the brink of war in 1789.  The conflict was finally resolved in 1790 with an agreement of joint tenancy of the coastal waters.   With a huge chuck of southwest Canada plus present day Washington, Oregon and California in question, it had sent Vancouver scurrying to map the real estate . 

The 35-year-old captain was singularly well-suited for the task.  He’d already spent 18 years before the mast, having signed on with the Royal Navy at 13 as a “young gentleman.”  A world traveler before the age of 20, he’d served as a midshipman on Captain Cook’s second and third Pacific voyages, making him one of the first Europeans to have seen Hawaii.

Today’s scientists, geologists and cartographers agree Vancouver did a superb job recording the countless islands and inlets of the complex sea coast.  He was the first to correctly chart the Northwest Passage and his map of the Northwest coast is still used in  modern navigation.

But an American merchant seaman, Captain Robert Gray, (right) won the grand prize.  He is credited with discovering the Columbia River.  After observing a stream of muddy water coming off the shoreline he was waiting for favorable weather when he spotted the Discovery.  The two captains met and discussed the geography of the coast.   Gray revealed his attempt to enter what he suspected was a large river four years earlier but the Englishman doubted a river of any size existed at that latitude.  Luckily Gray didn’t listen, headed south and sailed into the history books three days later. 

Despite his success, Vancouver got less than a hero’s welcome back home in England, having to fend off a flurry of labor disputes following the voyage.    Renowned naturalist Archibald Menzes,(right) assigned to Vancouver’s expedition, reportedly fussed that  his “man-servant” had been pressed into service during some navigational emergency aboard the Discovery. Menzes had already made a name for himself  as the first European to reach the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. In addition, sailing master Joseph Whidbey entered a claim that he should rightly be compensated as the voyage’s astronomer.

Vancouver may also have been one of the first celebrity victims of stalking.  He was initially savaged in the press by Second Baron of Camelford, Thomas Pitt, (right) cousin of the Prime Minister.  Vancouver had disciplined Pitt for misconduct while at sea and sent him packing back to England.  

 Vancouver sensibly declined Pitt’s challenge to a duel, instead suggesting an official examination of flag officers.   Unsatisfied, the Baron repeatedly stalked his former captain, eventually assaulting him on a London street.  A legal agreement, in effect a restraining order, called for both parties to “keep the peace.”  Vancouver’s civilian brother, Charles, ignored the order and took revenge on Pitt, subjecting him to vicious public drubbing.

In the midst of the prolonged legal wrangling that followed, the captain fell ill.   His long years with  bad water and tainted food at sea may have contributed to what physicians labeled kidney failure.  In a more recent diagnosis, scientists speculated at hyperthyroidism possibly brought on by Graves Disease.  Whatever the cause, he died in relative obscurity in Petersham, England on May 10, 1798, one month and 12 days short of his 41st birthday, three years after his historic journey. 

Nearly half a century later, in 1841, The Hudson’s Bay Company placed a memorial plaque in St. Peter’s Church.  It took even longer, 162 years, for the British Crown to express any gratitude, finally placing the explorer’s grave on the list of Historic Sites, Grade II. 

His legacy fared much better in North America.  Two major cities, two mountains, a cape, a peninsula, a bay, a fort, a maritime museum and the Pacific’s largest island this side of New Zealand all bear Vancouver’s name.

In addition,  names from the Royal Navy still linger on three mountains, two ports, one island and a sound; Mount Rainier, Mount Baker for his 3rd Lieutenant Joseph Baker, Mount Hood for Admiral 1st Viscount Samuel Hood,  Port Gardner and Port Susan for Vice Admiral Sir Alan Gardner and his wife, Puget Sound for his 2nd lieutenant, Peter Puget, and Whidbey Island for naval engineer Joseph Whidbey, who complained about his pay. 

Mount St. Helens, a well connected friend and British diplomat sneaked in as the only landlubber.  Alleyne Fitzherbert, 1st Baron St. Helens (right) was known to have a close personal relationship with King George’s third daughter, Princess Elizabeth.  The good ship Discovery found it way onto the charts numerous time; Discovery Passage, Discovery Island, Discovery Bay and Port Discovery.

 At the direction of the British Admiralty Vancouver was in the midst of writing a narrative of his travels at the time of his death.  His brother, John, completed the manuscripts from the ship’s logs, all published posthumously in eight volumes.  Volumes one, two and three are available on the internet under the title  “A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean: And Round the World.” Like his charts, his lucid descriptions have proven to stand the test of time. 

Artist’s rendering of the last day of  the Discovery.

The HMS Discovery ended its days at sea as ingloriously as did Vancouver. Refit in 1798 as a bomb vessel, it then served as a hospital ship for eight years before being put aground as a convict ship from 1818 until 1831.  It was dismantled at Deptford Harbor in 1834.

Mt. Rainier National Park, Pierce and Lewis and Clark Counties in Washington, contains more than 369 square miles of pristine wilderness, dozens of road-side points of interest, recreational opportunities and a close-up view the premier attraction, Mount Rainier. Created as a national park in 1899, it is the country’s fifth oldest.  

Longmire Museum, (above) The Wilderness Information Center and the rustic National Park Inn are all located in  the Longmire Historic District.  Hours and days of operation vary with the season and weather conditions. For more information on fees, camping and climbing permits, pet regulations and visitor accommodations go to Mount Rainier National Park, call (360) 569-2211 or write 55210 238th Ave. E, Ashford, WA 98304.

In accordance with CDC guidelines and state and local public health authorities, access and services vary.  Before visiting, please check the park website or

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.