Europeans began to explore the island in 1774, when rumours of Russian fur traders caused Spain to send a number of expeditions to assert its long-held claims to the Pacific Northwest. The first expedition was that of the Santiago, under the command of Juan José Pérez Hernández. In 1775, a second Spanish expedition under the Spanish Peruvian captain Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra was sent. By 1776 Spanish exploration had reached Bucareli Bay including the mouth of the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, and Sitka Sound.
Vancouver Island came to the attention of Britain after the third voyage of Captain James Cook, who spent a month during 1778 at Nootka Sound, on the island’s western coast. Cook claimed it for Great Britain. The island’s rich fur trading potential led the fur-trader John Meares to set up a single-building trading post near the native village of Yuquot (Friendly Cove), at the entrance to Nootka Sound. The building was removed by the end of 1788.
The island was further explored by Spain in 1789 with Esteban José Martínez, who established the settlement of Yuquot and the artillery battery of Fort San Miguel at Friendly Cove, which Spain called Puerto de San Lorenzo de Nuca. This was to be the only Spanish settlement in what would later be Canada. Asserting their claim of exclusive sovereignty and navigation rights, the Spanish force seized the Portuguese-flagged British ships. The two nations came close to war in the ensuing Nootka Crisis, but the issues were resolved peacefully with the first Nootka Convention in 1790, in which both countries recognized the other’s rights to the area. The terms of the convention called for Spain to turn over to Britain the buildings and land that had been seized in 1789. For this purpose the British Naval Captain George Vancouver was sent to Nootka Sound in 1792. His Spanish counterpart in the negotiations was Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, who was commandant of Santa Cruz de Nuca in 1792. Vancouver had sailed as a midshipman with Cook. The negotiations between Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra ended in a deadlock with nothing resolved. Vancouver insisted the entire Spanish establishment be turned over, but Bodega y Quadra held that there were no buildings seized in 1789 and the only possible land was a tiny and useless cove nearby. The two decided to refer the entire matter back to their respective governments. The friendly meeting between Bodega y Quadra and Vancouver led the former to propose that the island be named after both: “Quadra and Vancouver Island”, which became the original name. While we know this island today as “Vancouver Island”, the English explorer had not intentionally meant to name such a large body of land solely after himself. In his September 1792 dispatch log report for the British Admiralty, Captain Vancouver reveals that his decision here was rather meant to honour a request by Bodega y Quadra that Vancouver:
“would name some port or island after us both in commemoration of our meeting and friendly intercourse that on that occasion had taken place (Vancouver had previously feted Bodega y Quadra on his ship);….and conceiving no place more eligible than the place of our meeting, I have therefore named this land…The Island of Quadra and Vancouver.”
Bodega y Quadra wrote, however, that it was Vancouver who made the suggestion of combining their names to designate some geographical feature.
In 1792, the Spanish explorer Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and his crew were the first Europeans to circumnavigate Vancouver Island. On April 8, 1806, Captain John D’Wolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, sailed the Juno to Newettee, a small inlet in the northwestern promontory of Vancouver’s Island. The Captain described Newette as one of the southernmost harbors frequented by American fur traders at lat. 51 degrees N. and long. 128 degrees. He relates that since Captain Robert Gray of Tiverton, Rhode Island, had sailed the Columbia River in 1792, the trade of the Northwest coast had been almost entirely in the hands of Boston merchants, so much so that the natives called all traders “Boston Men.”
The newly discovered “Quadra’s and Vancouver’s Island” was the most prominent name on maps of the coast, and appeared on most British, French and Spanish maps of the period. But as Spanish interests in the region dwindled, so did the use of Quadra’s name. The Hudson’s Bay Company played a major part in the transition; by 1824 ‘Vancouver’s Island’ had become the usual designation in its correspondence for the island. A quarter of a century later, Vancouver Island had become such a well-known geographical feature that the founding of the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849 gave this name full official status. Period references to “Vancouver” referred to Vancouver Island until the naming of the city of Vancouver in 1885.
Shortly thereafter, in 1846, the Oregon Treaty was signed by the British and the U.S. to settle the question of the U.S. Oregon Territory borders. It awarded all of Vancouver Island to Britain, despite a portion of the island lying south of the 49th parallel. In 1849, the Colony of Vancouver Island was established. Following the brief governorship of Richard Blanshard, James Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay post, assumed the role in 1851.
The first British settlement on the island was a Hudson’s Bay Company post, Fort Camosack, founded in 1843, and later renamed Fort Victoria. Fort Victoria became an important base during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush in 1858, and the burgeoning town was incorporated as Victoria in 1862. Victoria became the capital of the colony of Vancouver Island, retaining this status when the island was amalgamated with the mainland in 1866. A British naval base, including a large shipyard and a naval hospital, was established at Esquimalt in 1865 and eventually taken over by the Canadian military.
The economic situation of the colony declined following the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1861–1862, and pressure grew for amalgamation of the colony with the mainland colony of British Columbia (which had been established in 1858). The colony’s third and last governor, Sir Arthur Kennedy, oversaw the union of the two colonies in 1866.
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