All Over The Map: Where there’s a will, there’s a Whidbey

Mar 3, 2023, 9:59 AM
Whidbey Will...
The 1833 last will and testament of Joseph Whidbey was recently discovered in Illinois and donated to the South Whidbey Historical Society. (Courtesy South Whidbey Historical Society)
(Courtesy South Whidbey Historical Society)

An Illinois man has discovered a last will and testament from nearly 200 years ago with a direct connection to the Pacific Northwest.

As first reported by the Whidbey News Times, the 1833 will of one Joseph Whidbey – a member of Captain Vancouver’s crew when the British explored what’s now Washington waters in 1792 – turned up recently in some old papers in the Land of Lincoln.

Fortunately, the man who found the Whidbey will among his late father’s belongings – Craig Leach of Mazon, Ill. – did some Googling, and found the website of the South Whidbey Historical Society in Langley, Wash. Leach reached out via email, and then put the fragile old document in the mail. Leach told the newspaper he has no idea how the will came into his father’s possession, though he says his father did collect old documents.

Bill Haroldson is president of the South Whidbey Historical Society and he couldn’t be more thrilled with Leach’s discovery and with the package that recently arrived at the Langley post office.

Haroldson is a Whidbey Island man – no, not that Whidbey Island man – but is originally from Seattle. He’s been studying the life and times of Joseph Whidbey for 20 years, and he has even visited Whidbey’s grave in the UK.

How does this newly acquired priceless document rank against other items in the South Whidbey Historical Society collection?

“Well, I gather it would be probably one of the most important ones, you know,” an obviously pleased Haroldson told KIRO Newsradio on Thursday. “And I’m not sure that it really has a financial value, but it definitely has a historic value.

“I’ve gone through the will, it’s 13 pages in length,” Haroldson continued. “And I recognize people’s names in it, and I understand. Everything appears to be authentic.”

Haroldson, perhaps one of just a handful of living scholars who would recognize names recited in Joseph Whidbey’s 190-year old will, says Whidbey never married, and he did accumulate property and cash in his lifetime. In the 1800s, Whidbey worked as an engineer designing the breakwater for the UK port city of Plymouth, and he purchased an apartment building in a place called Taunton. Taunton is home to UK Hydrographic Office, where the British make their world-famous nautical charts, which the survey work of Captain Vancouver, Joseph Whidbey and others of that era informed more than two centuries ago.

Though he had no children of his own, the famed explorer did have a niece whose daughter was listed as one of his main beneficiaries when Whidbey died in his mid 70s in October 1833. If Whidbey has any living descendants now, Bill Haroldson has not been able to track them down.

As far as the connection between the man and the Pacific Northwest, Haroldson says Joseph Whidbey led the effort to survey what’s now Whidbey Island. It was late May and early June of 1792 when Whidbey and Peter Puget (yes, that Peter Puget) spent several days mapping the shoreline and taking depth soundings.

“Vancouver sent Whidbey and Puget in rowboats to go into [what’s now known as] Deception Pass,” Haroldson said. “They rowed in, and by the next day, Whidbey realized that it was an island. And when that got back to Vancouver, in his log he wrote, ‘I name this Whidbey’s Island and Deception Passage.’”

If there’s ever been pressure to remove Whidbey’s name from the island, it hasn’t gotten as much attention or traction as efforts focused on Mount Rainier. At least one printed source – Robert Hitchman’s 1985 Place Names of Washington – says that the Indigenous name for what’s now Whidbey Island is “Tscha-kole-chy.” Hitchman cites no source, and offers no pronunciation advice.

Meanwhile, one radio historian helpfully points out that, unlike those absentee British scoundrels Peter Rainier or the Right Honourable Lord Samuel Hood or Alleyne FitzHerbert (aka the “First Baron St. Helens”) whose names Vancouver placed willy-nilly on mountains and other geographic features, at least Joseph Whidbey was actually here in person and had a hand in surveying his eponymous island.

One thing about which there’s now no debate is the correct spelling of Whidbey. Along with the legal disposition of Whidbey’s estate, the will confirms “Whidbey” is correct. Examining old maps and charts from the 19th and early 20th centuries often reveals multiple variations, including Whitby and Whidby, as well as the original possessive versions, such as Whitby’s.

For those who want to see the actual 1833 will, Bill Haroldson says it has been digitized and plans are to make it available soon on the South Whidbey Historical Society’s website.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Where there’s a will, there’s a Whidbey