On October 30, 1792, British Royal Navy Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821), who is exploring the Columbia River under orders from Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798), names Point Vancouver for his expedition commander. The point, on the north bank of the Columbia about four miles east of the present site of Washougal, Clark County, marks the end of Brougton’s exploration up the river.
Capt. Vancouver had denied the existence of the Columbia until American fur trader Robert Gray (1755-1806) became the first non-Indian to enter it, giving the name of his ship to the river called Wimahl (“Big River”) by the Chinookan-speaking peoples whose villages lined its banks. In October, 1792, having obtained a copy of Gray’s chart of the river from the Spanish commander at Nootka, Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, Vancouver attempted to enter and explore the big river.
The expedition’s smaller vessel, Chatham, commanded by Lieut. Broughton, successfully crossed the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia on October 19, 1792, but Vancouver’s larger ship Discovery was forced to turn back. After another unsuccessful attempt to get Discovery over the bar, Vancouver departed for San Francisco, leaving Broughton to explore the river.
The Terminating Point
Broughton sailed the Chatham 10 or 15 miles up the Columbia to near the present location of Megler, Pacific County, then abandoned the attempt to navigate it through the river’s confusing channels. He and his crew loaded the ship’s cutter and launch with a week’s provisions, and proceeded to row up the Columbia. After a week of hard rowing, frequently accompanied by canoes from the many large villages they passed, they had come over 100 miles upriver from the Chatham, and nearly exhausted their supplies.
On the afternoon of October 30, 1792, Broughton decided to turn back. He wrote:
“I landed for the purpose of taking our last bearings; a sandy point on the opposite [north] shore bore S. 80 E. distant about two miles; this point terminating our view of the river, I named it after Captain Vancouver” (Voyage of Discovery, Vol. 2, p. 759).
From his vantage point, Broughton could see that the shores upriver became very steep, marking the beginning of the Columbia Gorge. According to Vancouver’s account of the expedition, Broughton concluded that the river probably did not extend much farther, and certainly could not be navigated farther. Both conclusions were nearly as mistaken as Vancouver’s initial opinion that the river did not exist at all.
The British officers’ attempts to minimize the extent of the Columbia no doubt stemmed in part from the fact that Gray preceded them into the river. Besides concluding that the river did not extend very far, Broughton (incorrectly) claimed that what Gray entered was only a bay and not the river proper. Based on this assertion (and overlooking the people whose lodges lined both banks and who had accompanied him along the way), before heading back down river on October 30, 1792, Broughton “formally took possession of the river, and the country in its vicinity, in His Britannic Majesty’s name” (Voyage of Discovery, v. II, p. 760-61).
Although Broughton’s claim to possession did not last, the name he bestowed on Point Vancouver did. There has been uncertainty over the years as to exactly which point Broughton named for Vancouver, but the consensus appears to be that it is a point east of Washougal in southeastern Clark County, which has also been known locally as Cottonwood Point. In 1825, when the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company opened a trading post some miles downstream, they called it Fort Vancouver, and so the British captain’s name came to be applied to the city of Vancouver in Clark County, which subsequently grew up at the site of the fort.
Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Washington State Historical Society, 1985), 56-57; Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923), 224; Robert Michael Pyle, Wintergreen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 45; Rick Rubin, Naked Against the Rain (Portland, OR: Far Shore Press, 1999), 3-4, 39-40, 88-91; George Vancouver, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, ed. by W. Kaye Lamb (London: Hakluyt Society, 1984), Vol. 2, pp. 692-95, 751, 758-62.
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