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Document Number: AJ-134
Author: Vancouver, George, 1757-1798
Title: A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World [excerpt]
Source: Vancouver, George. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World; in Which the Coast of North-West America Has Been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed. Undertaken by His Majesty's Command, Principally with a View to Ascertain the Existence of Any Navigable Communication between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans; and Performed in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794 and 1795, in the Discovery Sloop of War, and Armed Tender Chatham, under the Command of George Vancouver.... (London: Printed for John Stockdale, 1801). Volume 4, pages 293-370.
Pages/Illustrations: 81 / 4 (3 of tables)
Citable URL:

Author Note

George Vancouver (1757-1798), the youngest child of a middle-class English family, was sent into the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen. The following year he shipped with Captain James Cook on the latters second voyage; on its return he signed up for Cooks fatal third voyage (see AJ-130), spending several months on the northwest coast of North America in 1778. When they reached Hawaii, Vancouver was beaten and held captive by the islanders just twenty-four hours before Cook himself died at their hands.

When he returned to England in 1780 Vancouver was promoted to lieutenant and spent most of the next decade fighting French ships in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, England and Spain arranged a fragile detente in the Pacific under which the British, recently stripped of their East Coast colonies by revolutionaries, gained access to the Pacific Northwest. Needing a military presence to guard their interests and lacking accurate maps of the region, the English Admiralty ordered Vancouver to return with two warships to the shores of Alaska and Hawaii that he had explored with Cook fifteen years earlier.

Expedition of 1791-1795

Vancouver left England on April 1, 1791, taking his two ships along the Atlantic coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean, south of Australia, and then north up the Pacific to Hawaii, where they arrived on March 7, 1792. After a brief stay Vancouver headed for the American coast, reaching California on April 16, 1792 and the Columbia River a week later. Throughout the summer he painstakingly mapped the coasts of present-day Washington and southern British Columbia before heading for Spanish headquarters on Nootka Island at the end of August. To read a journal kept by one Vancouver's crew during that first summer of surveying, see AJ-110. After six weeks of talks with Spanish officials, he headed south, paused to chart the Columbia River as far upstream as modern Portland, Oregon, and visited Monterey and San Francisco before sailing back to Hawaii to wait out the winter.

On April 1, 1793, the expedition returned to the mainland and spent that summer charting the coast further north than the previous year. After a season of meticulous surveying, Vancouver left Nootka on October 8, 1793, to cruise south along California. Because that portion of the Pacific coast had been under Spanish domination for two hundred years, the British had no maps of California; the Spanish naturally resented their intrusion and were reluctant to share their knowledge. Between October and November 1793, Vancouver charted the coast as thoroughly as circumstances allowed, touching at San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Buena Ventura, and San Diego before sailing southwest to winter again in Hawaii. His account of the three-month voyage down the California coast is presented here.

In the summer of 1794 the expedition returned to America to chart the remaining length of coastline, north to Alaska, before heading for home. After wintering in Chile, Vancouvers ships rounded Cape Horn into the Atlantic on May 29, 1795, and reached England that October.

Document Note

Although he returned to London in poor health, Vancouver gathered up the logs, charts, diaries, notes, and other documents created during the voyage and early in 1796 began drafting his account of the expedition. He relied mostly on his own journal, supplemented as needed by the diaries of his officers. Late in 1796 political intrigues, illness, and financial difficulties began to slow his progress, and in the spring of 1797 Vancouvers brother moved in with him to help. The explorer died a year later, in May 1798, and his brother completed the work. Vancouvers Voyage of Discovery... was published in the autumn of 1798 in three volumes with an atlas. A six-volume edition appeared in 1801 (a portion of which appears here) and translations into French, German, Danish, Swedish, and Russian soon followed. The standard scholarly edition, edited by W. Kaye Lamb, appeared in four volumes in London in 1984.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

All six volumes of Vancouver’s book are online at Early Canadiana:

A detailed biography of Vancouver by John Robson is available online at

The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest provides information on European rivalry for the Pacific Northwest coast, including timelines, biographies and maps at hstaa432_3.html#vancouver

Graphic materials, including paintings of Captain Vancouver's ship and charts showing his journeys, can be seen at

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