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All Over The Map: The man who named Elliott Bay and more

This 1841 nautical chart of Puget Sound waters was made by the United States Exploring Expedition and US Navy Commander Charles Wilkes; do you think Eagle Harbor is shaped like an eagle? (NOAA Historic Map & Chart Collection)

Elliott Bay, Eagle Harbor, and many other ports-of-call around Puget Sound all have something in common besides the seagulls, friendly boaters, and bracing sea air.

What they share is a connection to US Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. He’s not as well known as Captain George Vancouver, but he should be. Wilkes was in Northwest waters 50 years after Vancouver, and bestowed names on dozens of geographic features, and many of those names remain nearly 200 years later.

Charles Wilkes was born in 1798, and he commanded the United States Exploring Expedition, also known as the “US Ex. Ex.” or the “Wilkes Expedition” for short, which sailed around the world on behalf of the United States from 1838 to 1842.

Wilkes had six vessels under his command: The sloops of war USS Vincennes and USS Peacock, the ship USS Relief, the brig USS Porpoise, and the tenders USS Sea-Gull and USS Flying Fish. They spent several months in and around the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River and Puget Sound, mostly in the spring and summer of 1841.

This was five years before the British and the Americans settled the long-running joint occupation of the Oregon Country, and Wilkes’ time here can be viewed as a strategic assertion of American influence.

For my money, this is the very best kind of “big government” anyone could ask for in 1841, and likely played some part in the Oregon Country officially becoming American territory with the Treaty of 1846.

While they were here, Wilkes and his sailors and officers also put on what amounted to the first public celebration of Independence Day down near Dupont on July 5, 1841 (because the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday that year). The monument to this monumental event is at JBLM, and not accessible to the general public.

In the spring and summer of 1841, Wilkes and his crew conducted a major hydrographic survey, mapping the land and measuring the depth of the water in harbors and bays, and bestowing names that stuck on dozens of now familiar places.

Tacoma’s Commencement Bay

This is where the survey of Puget Sound began or “commenced” on May 15, 1841, let by Lt. Cadwalader Ringgold in the 88-foot long “brig” (or two-masted, square-rigged sailing ship) called USS Porpoise.

Seattle’s Elliott Bay

There’s some confusion as to who Wilkes had in mind when he named Elliott Bay. For decades, it was assumed to have been named for the chaplain of the U.S. Ex. Ex. Reverend J.L. Elliott, but it’s generally now believed to have been named for Midshipman Samuel Elliott.

As noted place names scholar James W. Phillips wrote in the 1970s, researchers at some point determined that Reverend Elliot “was in such poor standing with [Commander Wilkes] that he eventually resigned from the expedition, whereas the midshipman was actually a member of the survey party that explored the bay.”

And if that weren’t enough, there was at least one other member of the crew with a similar name, 1st Class Boy George Elliot.

Early Pacific Northwest historian Edmond S. Meany wrote in the 1920s that Elliott Bay was still better known as late as the 1850s as Duwamish Bay, for the Duwamish people who lived there and along the river of the same name. Meany may have been wrong when he also wrote then that the name “Seattle Harbor” had supplanted Elliott Bay.

Point Elliott, nowadays better known as Mukilteo, has the same murky origins and the same confusion. This was also the site in 1855 of the signing of the Treaty of Point Elliott, which was one of several long-questioned agreements negotiated by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens to hasten the removal of Native Americans from land to make way for settlers.

Olympia’s Budd Inlet

This part of Puget Sound near the territorial and state capital was named by Wilkes for Thomas A. Budd. Budd was the “acting master,” or navigation specialist, of the USS Peacock and then later, he became master of the USS Vincennes. The Peacock famously ran aground on the north bank of the Columbia in July 1841, at a place known ever since as Peacock Spit.

Bremerton’s Sinclair Inlet

Sinclair Inlet was named by Wilkes for George T. Sinclair, another “acting master” aboard one of the U.S. Ex. Ex. ships. Sinclair later served during the Civil War in the Confederate States Department of the Navy as a “naval agent in Europe.”

Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island

This port on the east side of Bainbridge Island was purportedly named by Wilkes for its shape [I just don’t see it]. The people who study these things say that this theory is supported by the fact that the north cape of Eagle Harbor is called is Wing Point — get it? — and the south cape is called Bill Point, as in beak.

But, as we know from the confusion surrounding Elliott Bay, we may be taking a big leap to assume that this part of our local landscape is not in honor of some guy named Bill.

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