Joseph Whidbey

Joseph Whidbey Explores And Meets a Friendly Chief

As written by William Haroldson


Joseph Whidbey

In the spring of 1792 two British sailing ships arrived off of the coast of Washington.  The Discovery was newly built 96-foot vessel and the Chatham was a sixty-five foot armed tender.  They had been at sea for over a year sailing easterly from England.  Under the command of Captain George Vancouver, they had been sent to chart the coastline of the Pacific Northwest, determine the economic importance of the region, and claim land for the British Empire.  As they sailed north, they sought the entrance to the Straits of Juan De Fuca.  It had been rumored for hundreds of years that this was the western entrance to the fabled Northwest Passage.

The ships found and entered the straits on April 29th.  They continued on an easterly course and came to anchor in what we call Discovery Bay.

George Vancouver was placed in command because of his experience with Cook in the North Pacific.  The crew was made up of the finest men available to the British navy.  Joseph Whidbey was selected sailing master of the Discovery. Archibald Menzies was appointed as chief naturalist and would become the ships surgeon.  Peter Puget an up and coming navy officer was appointed third lieutenant at the request of George Vancouver.  The interaction of these three men with Vancouver helped insure the success of the voyage.

When Captain Vancouver entered what we now call Puget Sound, it was an area that had never been explored or charted by Europeans.  If the Spaniards did sail into the area, it was never charted.  The difficulty for sailing ships of this era is that they could not maneuver in waters that had shifting winds and strong tidal currents that would change direction every six hours.  It became necessary to make detailed exploration by rowboat.  The ships the Discovery or the Chatham would make an anchorage at a safe location and send two rowboats out with up to ten men and a week’s provision.  Usually, the rowboats were in command of either Joseph Whidbey or Peter Puget who had the knowledge to make the necessary celestial readings to prepare a chart of the area.


Joseph Whidbey

Typically, the rowboats would follow the shoreline.  They would come ashore for their main meal or to take readings.  They towed a devise behind the boat, which gave them the distance traveled.  They also would take soundings to measure the depth of the water.  In the evening they pitched a tent and slept on the beach.  Early in the morning one boat would start out while the other took down the campsite.  The first boat would come ashore and prepare breakfast.  It would be ready by the time the second boat caught up to them.

They were instructed to make little contact with the natives.  Vancouver had been with Cook when he was killed in Hawaii.  There they found the natives to be friendly.  Yet, they turned on and engaged them in battle when Cook lost his life.

When the rowboats returned to the mother ship, the raw data was incorporated into rough charts of the region.  The process was slow and tedious not unlike mapping a maze.  Each arm had to be charted.  Vancouver also began the practice of assigning British names to key landmarks.  This was done to lay claim on the land in the name of the British Empire.


In this document the focus is on Joseph Whidbey and the days he charted the waters surrounding Whidbey Island.

Whidbey, two years older than Vancouver, earned the rank of Sailing Master at age twenty-four.  He and Vancouver first worked together when they surveyed and charted Port Royal in the Caribbean in the 1780’s.   Joseph Whidbey had a life filled with both adventure and accomplishment.  He was one that helped the more famous like Captain George Vancouver make their mark in the annals of time. He was known as a person who had knowledge and skills others did not have and as a person who would complete complex tasks.

During the week of May 20th, while Discovery was at anchor near Blake Island, Peter Puget with Joseph Whidbey explored to the south.  Vancouver named the area south of the Tacoma Narrows Puget’s Sound.  Chatham, who had been exploring the San Juan Islands, caught up with Discovery by the end of the week

On Monday May 28th, Vancouver ordered that Chatham proceed north with Joseph Whidbey, two launches and a crew to explore the arm to the north.  Chatham sailed north during the day coming to anchor in the evening in what we call Mukilteo.



Original chart of Whidbey Island as prepared from the measurements taken by Joseph Whidbey 1792.

Original chart of Whidbey Island as prepared from the measurements taken by Joseph Whidbey 1792.

Tuesday May 29th

Comment: The following in Joseph Whidbey’s words is an account of his exploration of the waters around the island named for him.  It is put into perspective of a day-by-day account.  The information comes from Vancouver’s log of June 2nd   through June 10th.    The wording has been changed as if it was coming directly from Whidbey.  It should be noted that  Vancouver was not present for the exploration of Whidbey Island and in fact the wording would have had to been that of Joseph Whidbey.  Much of the description has been modified to modern language to make it easier to understand.  The incidents are all true even to the time of day.

Early in the morning of May 29th, we left in the two launches and headed north.  Captain Vancouver gave us orders to explore the eastern most arm.  However we were caught with a flood tide and southerly wind, which carried us to the western arm.  We had quitted in the morning, and saw Chatham working off the east end of the round island (Hat or Gedney Island) at so little distance, that we concluded the boats could not have escaped the observation of those on board.  We availed ourselves to survey the other branch (now Saratoga Passage).

Having advanced about four miles, we found a low projecting point on the Western shore (Likely Fox Spit or East Point.).  Here there was a village containing numerous natives.  My orders, as well as the general inclination of the officers, was to prevent any chance of misunderstanding, it was the uniform practice to avoid landing in their presence.  It was now dinnertime.  We very prudently made the choice of the opposite shore, in the hope of making a quiet meal without the company of the Indians.

Having reached the opposite shore, we were met by upwards of two hundred, some in their canoes with their families and others walking along the shore, attended by about forty dogs in a drove, shorn close to the skin like sheep.  Not with standing their numbers, it was important to land for the purpose of taking angles; and they had the satisfaction of being received on shore with every mark of cordial friendship.  We however thought it prudent to remain no longer in their society than was absolutely necessary; and having finished the business for which we had landed instantly embarked, and continued this route up the inlet until evening. We landed for the night about nine miles from the entrance.

Wednesday May 30th

In the morning we again pursued our inquiry, and soon after landed to breakfast when we were immediately met by an hundred more of the natives, bringing with them the mats covering their temporary houses, and seemingly every other article of value belonging to them.

On landing, which they did without the least hesitation, their behavior was courteous and friendly to the highest degree.  A middle-aged man, to all appearance the chief or principal person of the party, was foremost in showing marks of the greatest hospitality; and perceiving our party at breakfast, presented us with water, roasted roots, dried fish, and other articles of food.  This person in return, received some presents, and others were distributed amongst the ladies and some of the party.

The chief, for so we must distinguish him had two hangers, one of Spanish, the other of English manufacture. On which he seemed to place a very high value.  The situation of the spot where they landed was delightful; the shores on each side of inlet being composed of low country, pleasingly diversified by hills and dales, extensive verdant lawns, and clear spaces in the midst of the forest, which, together with the cordial reception they had with the natives, induced me to continue our examination on shore; on this occasion I was accompanied by the chief and several of the party, who conducted themselves with the greatest propriety.  Though, they had no small degree of civil curiosity in examining my clothes, and expressing a great desire to be satisfied as to the color of my skin. They made signs that my hands and face were painted white, instead of being black or red like their own.  I convinced them of their mistake by opening my waistcoat.   Their astonishment was inexpressible.

From these circumstances, and great tenor of their behavior, I concluded they had not before seen any Europeans, though from the different articles they possessed, it was evident a communication had taken place, probably by means of distinct trading tribes.

I ordered the boats to receive myself. As the launch came ashore it became grounded. The gentle chief that attended me during our walk was more than helpful in floating the boat.  This being effected, and the gentlemen embarked, most of these good people took their leave, and seem to part with their newly acquired friends with great reluctance.

The chief, and a few others, accompanied our party until they had advanced about fourteen miles from the entrance, when they very civilly, took their departure; here the arm branched off from its former direction of about N.N.W.  westward (Penn Cove & Oak Harbor) and N.E.(Skagit Bay)  The latter being the object of our pursuit.

We soon arrived off another and extensive and populous village, whence several canoes came off with not less than seventy natives in them; and several others were seen coming from different parts of the shore.  Those that approached the boats conducted themselves with the utmost propriety, showing by repeated invitations to their dwellings, the greatest hospitality, and making signs that they had plenty of food to bestow.  In their entreaties the ladies were particular earnest, and expressed much chagrin and mortification that their offers of civility were declined.  As our boats sailed past the village those in the canoes returned to the shore.

We continued in a northerly direction.  The depth at the entrance was twenty fathoms; but gradually decreased to four as they advanced up the channel, where it then ceased to be navigable for vessels of any burden.  On meeting these impediments, and a disagreeable tide our party returned.  (This would have been in the vicinity of Hope Island.)

As we passed the village, their friendly chief, attended by two or three canoes, again visited us. They presented us with a most welcome supply of very fine small fish, which in many respects resembled and most likely were, a species of the smelt.  The Chief accepted, with apparent pleasure, an invitation into our launch, where he remained with us until the evening.  As our party went ashore for the evening, he bid farewell with every mark of friendship and confidence.

Thursday May 31st

In the morning, the examination of the western branch (Penn Cove) was pursued, and found to terminate in a very excellent and commodious cove or harbor, Its western extent situated is not more than a league from the eastern shore of the main inlet, within the straits.

On each point of the harbor, was a deserted village; in one of which were found several sepulchers found exactly like a sentry box.  Some of them were open, and contain skeletons of many young children tied up in baskets; the smaller bones of adults were likewise noticed, but none of the limb bones could here be found, which likewise gave rise to an opinion that these, by the living in habitants of the neighborhood, were appropriated to useful purposes, such as pointing their arrows, spears and other weapons.

The surrounding country, for several miles in most points of view, presented a delightful prospect, consisting chiefly of spacious meadows, elegantly adorned with clumps of trees; among which the oak bore a very considerable proportions, in size from four to six feet in circumference.  In these beautiful pastures, bordering on an expansive sheet of water, the deer were seen playing about in great numbers.  Nature had here provided the well-stocked park.  The grass of an excellent quality grew to the height of three feet, and the ferns, which in sandy soils, occupied the clear spots, were nearly twice as high. The country in the vicinity of this branch of the sea is the finest we had yet met with.

The number of its inhabitants was estimated at about six hundred, which I suppose would exceed all the natives we had before seen.  It was my opinion that this region would be an excellent place to relocate prisoners from England.  It would be easy to ship them to Hudson Bay and then transport them cross-country.

Friday June 1st & Saturday June 2nd

We continued our pursuit southward locating another harbor on our right. The weather brought some rain and foggy weather with clearing by the afternoon with a light northerly wind. We camped for additional night.  Then we continued south to the original opening that we had entered where we spotted Discovery and Chatham at anchor in the distance near the far shore (Tulalip Bay).  We reached Discovery on the evening.  At that time I made my report to Captain Vancouver.

Sunday June 3rd

 We have been in this inlet for a fortnight and are finding the work exhausting and very slow.  The Captain saw fit to give us holiday allowing the men to fish and find recreation ashore.

Chatham & small boats from Wing and Newall

Chatham & small boats from Wing and Newall

Vancouver Takes Possession In Honor of King George III’s Birthday

Monday June 4th

The weather on this day was clear with only light breezes.  Being that it is King George’s Birthday, Vancouver decides to take formal possession of the land.  Many of the officers went ashore and with all of the appropriate ceremony, including a discharge of royal salute from the ships, took possession in the name of King George and all of his heirs.   The men are served a good dinner and a double allowance of grog to drink to King’s good health.

Following the ceremony, the Captain assigned the name of The Gulf of Georgia to the various waterways at the eastern end of the Straits of Juan De Fuca and the continent binding said gulf, and extending southward to the 45th degree of north latitude, with the of New Georgia, in honor of the present Majesty.  This northerly branch of Admiralty Inlet obtained the name of Possession Sound its western arm. The arm, which we had explored this past week, was named Port Gardner (Now Saratoga Passage) after Vice Admiral Sir Alan Gardner the organizer of our expedition.  The smaller eastern arm was named Port Susan after the Admirals wife. The point of land separating these two inlets was named Alan’s Point (Now Camano Head). Captain Vancouver chose to honor of a particular friend and name the harbor I explored Penn’s Cove in honor of Granville Penn   He was the grandson of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania.  Granville Penn witnessed Vancouver’s will.

Tuesday June 5th

A light breeze from the northwest sprung up about seven in the morning.  The ships weighed their anchors and headed south out of Possession Sound. Several canoes and the chief, who befriended us the week before, joined our vessels.  The chief came aboard Discovery with some reluctance.  He presented the crew with fruit and dried fish.  Once on board the chief became very inquisitive as he toured the ship.  The novelty of various mechanical objects filled his mind with surprise and admiration.  It was the first encounter these Native Americans had with Europeans.  The canoe’s remained with the vessel until we neared Possession Point.

Once the vessels rounded Possession Point we headed northward.


As the ships headed northward, Captain Vancouver assigned the name of Partridge Point, the east entrance to Admiralty Inlet, for his brother John’s wife, Martha Partridge.  He further designated Point Wilson, the western entrance to Admiralty Inlet, after his much-esteemed navy friend, Captain George Wilson.

Vancouver was frustrated by the lack of progress the ships were making.  He elected to send Whidbey and Puget ahead in to explore the openings that lay to the northeast of them.  They were outfitted with a week’s provision and ordered to rendezvous with Discovery and Chatham at Strawberry Bay.

Upon arrival they found the entrance so narrow, and thought it impossible to connect with any other body of water.  After a short time, they were convinced of their error.  When the tidal current changed and ebbed with such force, they were totally in check of their efforts to stem the stream.  The maximum current that night was in excess of seven knots.  They decided to camp for the night.