Maps and charts show distances and geographical features on land and water. Navigators use them to travel safely towards a known location. But charts are also historic documents, and hydrographic cartographers, the people who make charts, are a special kind of historian. The establishment of the British Admiralty Hydrographic Office in 1795 demonstrates the growing understanding of the importance of charts for an expanding empire. We often classify charts as a type of scientific geographical document, but cartography reveals events and decisions of the past just as other documents do.
We can learn a great deal from 18th century charts that show how far expeditions travelled, what features they noted, and where they focused their time on detailed surveys of the coast. One of the first messages we receive from these charts is the focus on the discovery of a Northwest Passage, which encouraged expeditions to test every strait, inlet, and pass for an entry point (though not necessarily to continue further on their course – for instance, Vancouver Island was thought to be part of the mainland until 1792.) Safe harbours and village sites that became dependable stops for the fur trade were also noted.
When expeditions returned home, the charts that were produced from their efforts showed what lands were believed to be under European flags – charting was often a symbolic act of possession. This is demonstrated by the example of the French expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1786 under Captain La Pérouse. When his ship, crew, and papers were later lost off the coast of Australia, France’s claims to territory could not be supported with documentary and cartographic evidence.
Many place names on the charts of the Pacific Northwest honour explorers and their crews, as well as members of the royal families of Europe. The islands of Haida Gwaii are often called the Queen Charlotte Islands after Charlotte, Portuguese wife of 18th century English King George III. The Bering Strait, which connects the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, was named for Captain Vitus Bering following his death. Vancouver Island is now known by the name of English Captain Vancouver although its title once included the name of Spanish Captain Bodega y Quadra as well. Cook Inlet in the northern Pacific was named after Captain Cook, and Captain Vancouver named Puget Sound in Washington State after his officer, Peter Puget. Hecate Strait, Port Alberni, Gonzales Hill, Tofiño, Cordova Bay, and Quadra, Gabriola, Galiano, and the San Juan Islands are just a few examples of locations now known by Spanish names. These labels on our charts that tell a story of the European past of the Pacific Northwest mingle with the names given by the indigenous peoples of the coast.