Vancouver's Escape

February 15, 2021

The Endeavour not far from the scene of Vancouver’s escape. (Photo: Ray Troll)

It’s a cold grey February afternoon off Revillagigedo Island, Alaska. We have just passed the spot we have been looking for. I turn the Endeavour around, shut down the engine, and we coast to a stop 50 yards from a small cliff of light-colored rock with a dense green hemlock forest behind it. There are 21 Steller sea lions on the rocks with two in the water, all of them honking at us. But it’s not the sea lions we’re interested in now; it is the rocks. By now all four of us – me and Patsy and our friends Ray and Michelle Troll, plus Bella the dog – are in the pilothouse and the windows are starting to fog up. I open a door to let cold air in to clear the windows. Then I lean out to take a photo.

We’ve been following George Vancouver’s 1793 logbook for three days, starting at the south end of Revillagigedo Island at Ketchikan, going around the east side up Misty Fjords, across the top, and now down the western arm of Behm Canal. By the time we get back to Ketchikan we will have travelled 130 miles in three days.

George Vancouver was the British naval officer who was ordered to the west coast of North America to look for the Northwest Passage (which didn’t exist) and to chart the coast wherever he went. His excellent charts were later published by the British Admiralty and widely circulated. The hundreds of British names he applied to landforms and waterways are still with us.

This side trip of Vancouver’s around Revillagigedo in August was risky. With his lieutenant, Peter Puget, and 16 men, he circled the island in two small boats, a yawl and a launch, both rowed. His two ships, the Chatham and the Discovery, couldn’t tack up the narrow channels and were left anchored 140 miles away.

Ray and I had a copy of Vancouver’s logbook on board, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean and Round the World, Volume 2. We were like two kids on a treasure hunt, matching the log to landmarks.

On Monday, August 12, 1793, Vancouver had stopped at these rocks to use his pelorus (something like a protractor) to “take angles” for his charts when several canoes full of Tlingit men arrived, eager to trade. But it soon turned tense. The natives would only trade for guns and powder, and they resented Vancouver for not dealing.

Ray started reading aloud from the journal, doing his best English accent:

I immediately ordered the boat from off the shore, hoping by that means to get quit of them … the number of their canoes was by this time four or five, and these they laid fast hold by the boats quarters ... we had however put off from the rocks, and had partly got the use of our oars, without being obliged to resort to any hostile measures, when the largest of the canoes, under the steerage of an old woman, with a remarkably large lip ornament, laid us on board across the bow; this vixen instantly snatched up the lead line that was lying there, and lashed her canoe with it the boat, whilst a young man, appearing to be the chief of the party, seated himself in the bow of the yawl, and put on a mask, resuming a wolf’s face, compounded with the human countenance.

The Tlingits were armed, most with spears, some with muskets. Vancouver, who had the yawl, was far ahead of Puget in the launch. Vancouver needed to stall until Puget could get close enough to help.

With these ideas, I went forward with a musket in my hand in order to speak to the chief; on which the surrounding Indians, about fifty in number, seized their daggers, brandished their spears, and pointed them towards us in all directions.

The tension eased, then rose again, several times. Most of the Tlingits seemed reluctant to fight, but time and again were “…instigated by the vociferous efforts of the female conductress.”

In one of the scuffles, the Tlingits grabbed some number of loaded and primed muskets from the English boat, leaving Vancouver’s men with only “a blunderbuss, a musket, a fowling piece loaded with small shot, and a brace of pocket pistols.”

These are all single-shot guns loaded with loose black powder set off by a piece of flint scraping against a metal frizzen, and the powder had already been exposed to years of marine weather, much of it in rainy Alaska.

Ray reads on:

By this time the launch had arrived within pistol shot … I gave direction to fire, this instantly taking effect from both boats, was, to my great astonishment, attending with the desired effect …. [One Indian], just as I gave orders to fire, snapped his piece at me, but it missed fire, and he immediately laid it down, and took up his spear with all imaginable composure.

The Tlingit retreated to the shore and continued to pelt the English with stones until they were out of range. Two of Vancouver’s men were wounded but survived. Of the Tlingit casualties, he says, “Some natives were seen to fall, as if killed, or severely wounded; and great lamentations were heard after they had gained their retreat…”

All this happened right at the Endeavour’s bow.

I think Vancouver’s account begs a closer look. Was his order to fire justified? We know he generally wanted to avoid trouble: this was his only skirmish with natives during his entire three-year voyage, and more than once he instructed his men not to disturb native graves. I have no doubt he thought he was in peril.

The Tlingit matriarch’s aggression was reasonable, given that a third English ship, the Butterworth, not under Vancouver’s command, had recently attacked the Tlingit elsewhere. Or maybe she was the chief, not the man in the mask, and the fact that Vancouver couldn’t see that pissed her off.

Then again, maybe the Tlingit just wanted the whites to make good on an earlier trade: Vancouver writes that white traders had bartered guns for otter skins but gave the Tlingits muskets that blew up in their faces. He also describes evidence (chopped trees) that suggests white traders were in the neighborhood very recently. I can understand the Tlingit wanting to get what they traded for, if not revenge.

We don’t know. The fact is, aside from a handful of trading phrases, neither side could talk to the other. How would this contact have ended if there had been a common language or an interpreter?

As we’re floating there, engine off, looking at the rocks, about six miles behind us to the south are two dark gray monoliths – huge tombstones – sticking up out of the open water about three-quarters of a mile northeast of Bretton Island. The water is about 1,300 feet deep there. I had seen them a week before, from the other side, as we crossed from Clarence Strait into Tongass Narrows. I’d never seen anything like them, and they’re not marked on the charts.

“That’s where the Navy tests their nuclear submarines,” Ray says, “They suspend their subs there to test their acoustical systems because the waters up here are so deep and so quiet.” It’s called SEAFAC, Southeast Alaska Acoustic Measurement Facility. Every submarine in the Pacific fleet goes through testing there every four years. When it was first proposed, Ray wrote letters to senators and congressmen, trying to get the facility built elsewhere. He eventually gave up and moved on to other causes.

It has always seemed to me that if you want to understand history, you need to go where it actually happened. Reading about it is fine, especially reading the primary sources written by people who were there at the time, but something else entirely comes across when you’re there yourself, seeing the lay of the land. It’s often unexpected.

Right now, it’s that the start of written history in the Pacific Northwest was poised, for one moment, on the misfire of a flintlock musket and a dozen men desperately rowing for their lives away from these very rocks. It’s also that now, within sight of those same rocks, we test the most powerful weapon system ever built, guided by a constellation of satellites and racks of computers.

The people on those submarines have 225 more years of technology, but they are no smarter or more evolved than the men in Vancouver’s row boats or the Tlingits in their painted war canoes. I hope they have an interpreter on board.

— William Urschel

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