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Lived: 1758-1798
Explored California in: 1792-1794
Exploring for: England
Explored: by sea along the coast and inland on the San Francisco peninsula

England had made a claim to California when Sir Francis Drake landed somewhere near San Francisco in 1579. More than 200 years passed before the next English explorer, Captain George Vancouver, came to California, which he called New Albion, as Drake had named it.


George Vancouver was born in Norfolk, England, into an upper-class family. His father was a deputy customs collector. Before George was 15 years old, he left school and joined the navy. For eight years (1772-80) he sailed with Captain James Cook, traveling throughout the Pacific. During the next decade (the 1780s) he explored the West Indies.


Spain, knowing that they did not have the power to defend the coast of North America against others who might want to settle there, tried to keep foreign ships from exploring along the coast. The English, however, made claim to a bit of land at Nootka Sound on the coast of what is now Vancouver Island in British Columbia. In 1790 Spain agreed, in the Nootka Sound Convention, to allow English trapping and trading north of California.

To make sure Spain did as they promised, England sent an expedition to reclaim the land at Nootka Sound, and to explore the northwest coast and the Spanish settlements in California. The expedition was also to make one last search of the rivers entering the ocean, in hopes of finding a good water route to the interior. Captain George Vancouver, who knew the Pacific well and who was an excellent cartographer (mapmaker), was chosen to lead this expedition.


Vancouver’s ship, the sloop-of-war Discovery, left England on April 1, 1791, accompanied by a smaller ship, the Chatham, captained by Lt. William Broughton. On board were surveyors, scientists, and cartographers. Their route took them down the coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope, then across the Indian Ocean to Australia. They crossed the Pacific, reaching land near Cape Mendocino in California on April 17, 1792.

Turning north, Vancouver surveyed the coast on his way to Nootka Sound. He explored Juan de Fuca Strait and determined that this waterway separated a large island (now Vancouver Island) from the mainland. On October 12, the Discovery headed south toward California, and arrived off the entrance to San Francisco Bay on November 14, 1792. The Discovery was the first non-Spanish ship to enter San Francisco Bay.

During the ten days they were anchored in San Francisco Bay, Vancouver and his men were well received by Hermenegildo Sal, commandante at the presidio (fort) there. He provided the visitors with a good supply of food for their ships. In turn, Vancouver presented Sal with some knives and table utensils, church ornaments, and barrels of wine and rum. Each group entertained the other with elaborate dinners.

Vancouver was surprised to see that the presidio was simply a few mud-brick buildings with only two old, broken cannon for defense. Using horses provided by Sal and escorted by Spanish soldiers, Vancouver visited the mission at San Francisco as well as Santa Clara Mission. This was further inland than any Europeans other than the Spanish had been in California.

Vancouver then sailed on to Monterey, where he was warmly welcomed by Lt. José Darío Argüello, in command at the Monterey presidio. Here Vancouver built an observatory on the shore so he could conduct scientific observations.

During the seven weeks the ships were anchored at Monterey, six men deserted. One was found, but on January 15, 1793, Vancouver sailed for winter quarters in Hawaii, leaving five deserters behind.

Vancouver’s second visit to Monterey was in the fall of 1793. He stayed only a few days, for the new acting governor in Monterey, José de Arrillaga, made it clear that the English were not welcome. Arrillaga did not want outsiders to see how poorly defended the Spanish settlements were.

This time Vancouver sailed south, stopping briefly in Santa Barbara. He passed Pueblo de Los Angeles, and reached San Diego on November 27. The commandante at the San Diego Presidio knew he was not to allow Vancouver to stay, but he tried to be welcoming anyway.

In his journal, Vancouver left the first detailed description of San Diego after its Spanish settlement, from a visitor’s viewpoint. He praised the missions for their kindness to him, and left them an unusual gift. It was a barrelled organ for use at Mission San Carlos Borromeo. This organ later found its way to Mission San Juan Bautista.

Vancouver returned to California for a third time in November 1794. Diego de Borica had just been appointed governor. Now the visitors were again welcomed. Several of the men who had deserted in 1793 were returned to their duty. Vancouver stayed until early December, when he left California and headed back to England.


A Voyage of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and Round the World was published in 1798 in London. In this complete report, Vancouver told of the rich land with good harbors. He also told how little the Spanish had developed the land, and how poorly it was defended. His descriptions brought more interest in California, and led to the challenge of Spain’s control there.


Back in England, George Vancouver found himself accused of beating a young nobleman who was on his ship. Humiliated and disgraced by these charges, Vancouver died in England on May 12, 1798, at the age of 41.

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