Before Lewis and Clark, Lt. Broughton's River of Names: The Columbia River Exploration of 1792

By Mockford, Jim | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Before Lewis and Clark, Lt. Broughton's River of Names: The Columbia River Exploration of 1792


Mockford, Jim, Oregon Historical Quarterly


THE BICENTENNIAL of the Lewis and Clark Expedition brings a new enthusiasm to the history of the Pacific Northwest and a desire by many to learn about the country that America's transcontinental explorers found when they arrived on the lower Columbia in 1805. At the end of their journey to the Pacific and just to the southwest of present-day Astoria, Oregon, is a small river named in their honor. The Lewis and Clark River empties into a confluence with Youngs River, which flows from the south and forms a bay along the estuary where the Columbia River so powerfully meets the sea. Youngs River and Youngs Bay were named after a British admiral who never saw the North Pacific; but it was Sir George Young's nephew, Lt. William Robert Broughton, who explored the Columbia River in 1792 and placed the names of British gentry on the landscape.

Broughton's map of the Columbia River was familiar to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, and President Thomas Jefferson had instructed them about Broughton's exploration--how Broughton had entered the river and charted its course for some one hundred miles upriver, where he placed the name Vancouver on the north side of the river, from where Mount Hood was visible. At that point, the river was reported to be a quarter-mile wide and from fourteen to thirty-six feet deep. Yet, Broughton had turned back, leaving the possibility open that the river might provide a passage farther into the continental interior. The British map gave Lewis and Clark some idea of what to expect as they made plans to follow the Great River of the West from the mountains to the estuary that had been discovered by American Captain Robert Gray on May 11, 1792.

The early explorers of Great Britain, Spain, and the United States were the first to name in writing the places they surveyed along the Oregon coast and the Columbia River. (1) British explorer Lt. William Robert Broughton, during his weeklong expedition by boat up the Columbia in October 1792, placed many names on what was to him a new and unnamed landscape, creating a river of names that was recognizably British and relevant to the world in which he lived. Thirteen years later, when Lewis and Clark saw that same landscape, the Americans made a new map, replacing Broughton's names with new ones that marked the new American presence in the Pacific Northwest.

Few of those names survive today on either side of the river. Those that do remain--Mount Hood, Youngs River, Tongue Point, Baker's Bay--tell part of the story of Broughton's expedition. They also tell us how the English lieutenant drew on the social connections of his family to place-names on the Columbian landscape. By looking at Broughton's place-names, we discover how small the British explorers' social world was. And it was through those social connections that Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, who had visited London in 1786, would find information that was useful to him as president in 1803 when he helped prepare Meriwether Lewis for his transcontinental expedition to the Pacific.

The Chatham: Across the Columbia River Bar

On Tuesday, October 23,1792, two boats were provisioned by the men of the British exploring vessel HMS Chatham, at anchor on the north side of the Columbia River across from a "remarkable projecting point that obtained the name of Tongue Point." (2) Lt. William Robert Broughton, commander, was preparing to take the boats inland in an expedition that would take him away from his ship for a week. (3) He and Capt. George Vancouver, commander of the Discovery, had sailed from England in 1791. For about a year and a half, they had conducted explorations in tandem across the Pacific, with only a few separations at sea forced by bad weather and for specific explorations in the San Juan Islands and the Inside Passage north of Puget Sound. The two ships were separated once again when the Chatham crossed the bar of the Columbia River, but Vancouver decided that both weather and hydrographic conditions at the river's mouth precluded a safe crossing for the larger ship. …

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