All Over The Map: Mount St. Helens named for International Man of Mystery

May 15, 2020, 8:31 AM | Updated: 10:24 am

Mount St. Helens...

Baron St. Helens, volcanic namesake otherwise known as Alleyne Fitzherbert, was said to be a friend of Captain George Vancouver; he also helped negotiate the end to a crisis in 1790 that averted war between Spain and Great Britain over what's now the Pacific Northwest. (National Gallery of Scotland)

(National Gallery of Scotland)

In spite of the pandemic, the Pacific Northwest is this week marking the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, a peak which could just as easily have been known as Mount FitzHerbert.

Like so many mountains – and other places around here – Mount St. Helens was named in 1792 by … SURPRISE! … British explorer Captain George Vancouver.

Prior to Vancouver, indigenous names for the peak were, according to Place Names of Washington author Robert Hitchman, “‘Low-We-Not-Thlat’ or ‘Low-We-Lat-Klah,’ meaning ‘Throwing Up Smoke’ or ‘The Smoking Mountain.’”

The name “St. Helens” comes from a British diplomat and courtier – Alleyne FitzHerbert – whose title was “First Baron St. Helens” or “Lord St. Helens.” This royally-conferred title comes from an ancient village on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. The village was named for Helena, or Saint Helena, empress of the Roman Empire, and mother of Constantine the Great.

Alleyne FitzHerbert was born into a wealthy family in 1753. He is said to have traveled extensively in Europe as a young man, and in 1783, he may have worked behind the scenes to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris between the British and the United States – to end the Revolutionary War – mainly because, some claim, he was good friends with Ben Franklin.

Unlike fellow Cascade namesake Peter Rainier, FitzHerbert does have something of a “local” connection, which might explain Vancouver’s choice.

In 1790, FitzHerbert was the British ambassador to Madrid, and helped negotiate an end to the Nootka Controversy, when Britain and Spain almost went to war over competition to claim rights to the Northwest coast of America.

It seems FitzHerbert was some kind of “International Man of Mystery,” because later in his career, he was named “Lord of the Bedchamber” to either King George III, or perhaps to King William IV (sources are mixed on that).

In this role, his job would have been, according to Wikipedia, “assisting the monarch with dressing, waiting on him when he ate, guarding access to his bedchamber and closet and providing companionship. Such functions became less important over time but provided proximity to the monarch and the holders were thus trusted confidants and often extremely powerful.”

Alleyne FitzHerbert died in 1839 at age 85 and is buried in London. He appears to have no living descendants.

The Mount St. Helens name was generally accepted by later explorers who wrote about their travels in the area. However, in 1834, Oregon Country promoter Hall J. Kelley wanted to call Mount St. Helens “Mount Washington,” and change the Cascades to the “President’s Range.”

Meanwhile, no source has been found that says exactly why Captain Vancouver named the mountain for Alleyne’s “St. Helens” title rather than for the man’s surname of FitzHerbert.

KIRO Radio will have more coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption 40th anniversary on Monday. If you have memories to share or a story you’d like to tell, please contact Feliks Banel via the information below, and he might get in touch to feature your story on the air.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

MyNorthwest History


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All Over The Map: Mount St. Helens named for International Man of Mystery