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Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Northwest Coast of America

By Robin Inglis

November 4, 2013

Review By I.S. MacLaren

The fourth in a series of historical dictionaries from the Scarecrow Press, Robin Inglis’s Historical Dictionary meets the standard set by its predecessors. In a good, general introduction (there are no citations or notes), Inglis traces the history of the region as Europeans both imagined and came to know it. As one would expect, the Northwest Coast, taken as extending from northern California to Alaska and, in some instances, Kamchatka, is introduced as the home of many peoples and the object of imperial designs by Russians, Spanish, British, and USAmericans; however, French voyages are also included, and there is a wee entry about Asian voyages. Readers will be divided on whether a work bearing this title requires a Native perspective; at any rate, one is not attempted. Although an extensive, seventy-five-page bibliography – with its own table of contents (35558) and divided into twenty-four parts, ranging from an introductory section (that includes, among other things, reference works, maps, and “key monographs”) to a section on the Oregon Treaty – is too often not up to date, descriptions found in various entries are solid and accurate, maps of the coast drawn for the volume helpful, and the Chronology satisfactory as far as it goes (14941867). 

Notably error-free for the most part, the text for entries uses bold font for names of people, places, and events that have their own entries, so the resource serves its reader well as far as it goes. A considerable disappointment is the volume’s lack of an index (other titles in this series lack one as well). Few illustrations four are included, none in colour. This aspect of the book, together with the absence in the bibliography of a section on artists who accompanied expeditions, is a surprise given a prefatorial emphasis on their contribution (ix) and entries for many of them. 

The “historical” in Historical Dictionary is exhibited in the emphasis on the role that a person or place played before 1867. For example, Vancouver Island’s Friendly Cove, “a small but well-sheltered harbor at the entrance to Nootka Sound” (132), derives its significance from being home to “Mowachaht” people and having hosted Cook (1778), the Nootka Sound Incident (1789), and Malaspina and Vancouver (early 1790s), all of whom/which have entries of their own (the Mowachaht excepted). The entry for “Nootka” mentions Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations (238) but does not indicate the Mowachaht Muchalaht as one of them. An index could have provided clarification. Without one, the reader likely puts down the book and embarks on an internet search. 

Entries on luminaries of exploration, such as Bering and Chirikov, Bodega y Quadra, Cook, Malaspina, Vancouver, Mackenzie, Lewis and Clark, and Thompson are factually accurate and sufficiently detailed (e.g., in terms of the inclusion of dates) and are buttressed by solid entries on lesser lights such as Dimitrii Bragin, Peter Puget, Ivan Fedorovich Kruzenshtern, Zachary Mudge, and the remarkable Cossack Semen Dezhnev, “the first to sail around the northern edge of Asia, now Cape Dezhnev, and through what was later named Bering Strait” (102). As one would perhaps expect in a reference book, the entries offer no groundbreaking historical interpretation. 

There are few sins of commission, but sins of omission abound. There is no entry for Chinook Jargon, arguably the foremost product of Pacific Northwest discovery and exploration, yet there is a short one on the labret, which is inaccurately associated only with Tlingit and only with Tlingit women. That no entry exists for David Douglas or for Charles Pickering (the foremost naturalist on the US Exploring Expedition) would be defensible if there were not entries for George Wilhelm Steller, the naturalist on Bering’s second Kamchatka expedition of 1741; Dufresne, on La Pérouse’s 1781 expedition; Tadeo Hanke, on Malaspina’s expedition; and Archibald Menzies, on Vancouver’s expedition. Similarly, fur trader Gabriel Franchère, known because he published a book about his time on the Pacific Slope, has an entry, but fellow trader Ross Cox, who published a better book, does not. Among other traders on the Columbia River, Peter Skene Ogden, John McLoughlin, and James Douglas rate an entry; William Fraser Tolmie (whose name appears in the entry for Fort Nisqually), John Work, and Samuel Black do not. Despite placing the end point of the Chronology at 1867 (marking the date not of Canadian Confederation but, rather, of Russia’s selling of Alaska to the United States), neither the Fraser River (185859) nor the Cariboo (1862) gold rushes have entries, nor do New Westminster, Yale, Fort Langley, or Fort Rupert. San Francisco receives an entry, but the California gold rush (184855) does not. The 1859 Pig War on the San Juan Islands is remarked on in the Chronology (xliii), but it is only discussed in the entry entitled “San Juan Boundary Dispute,” which does not appear in the Chronology. 

This marks another instance of how an index would have enhanced the volume, and yet another occurs in an attempt to sort out which First Nations have entries and which do not. Although the entry on Natives does as good a descriptive job as is possible in nine hundred words, only general groups are identified. Elsewhere in the volume, Haida, Tlingit, Chinook, and Makah have their own entries, but Nisga’a, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Songhees or any Coast Salish group do not, and neither do Interior/Plateau Salish. As to individuals, Wickaninnish, Maquinna, and Cunneah have entries, but Comcomly and Casenov/Cazenove/Cassino, the Chinook leaders whose rule of the lower Columbia River during the height of the fur trade at Fort Vancouver was considerable, do not. Some Spanish missionary activities are mentioned, and Eusebio Francisco Kin and the Carmel Mission have entries, as does the Russian Orthodox Church, but the volume has nothing about Belgian, French-Canadian, British, and USAmerican missionaries (such as François Norbert Blanchet and Modeste Demers, Pierre-Jean De Smet, Cushing and Myra Eells, Henry Spalding, Asa Bowen Smith, Elkanah and Mary Walker, Daniel Lee, and Marcus and Narcissa Whitman). 

Yet, while there is no comprehensive entry for missionaries, there is one for artists and for each artist who accompanied expeditions of exploration for instance, John Webber with Cook, Atanásio Echeverría with Revillagigedo and Bodega y Quadra, Luka Voronin with Joseph Billings, Gaspard Duché de Vancy and Blondela with La Pérouse, Tomás de Suría with Malaspina, Robert Haswell and George Davidson with Gray, Henry Humphrys with Vancouver, Louis Choris with von Kotzebue, William Smyth with Beechey, and Friedrich Heinrich von Kittlitz with Litke/Lütke. (Alfred Agate, Joseph Drayton, and Henry Eld who served on the US Exploring Expedition under Charles Wilkes are listed in the entry for him.) However, no entries exist for other early European or Euro-North American artists who came overland, so Paul Kane, John Mix Stanley, and Gustav Sohon are absent. There is nothing about animals, birds, or fish (an entry for Monterey Shells is one exception) or fishing and hunting. The design of watercraft, whether of Native or non-Native manufacture, attracts no entries, an exception being baidarka (Aleutian open boats, larger than kayaks). 

A few surprise entries are welcome. One is for early historians of the region, such as Hubert Howe Bancroft and Frederic W. Howay. An entry occurs for geographer and speculative cartographer Philippe Buache, who, on his 1752 map, plotted Buddhist monk Hui Shen’s fanciful kingdom of Fusang in British Columbia. An entry for cartography provides a good, brief history of its evolution with respect to the region, and entries for Aaron Arrowsmith and Alexander Dalrymple suggest that the author is particularly interested in the history of maps. Brobdingnag, Jonathan Swift’s imaginary realm in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), has an entry, which is meritorious for noting that Swift “exploited the Pacific as a region outside the sphere of reality, approachable only in fiction and satire, as indeed it remained for another generation” (51). Entrada de Hezeta has its own entry, as it should, for this first European name (1775) for the delta of the Columbia River is seldom recalled. The entries for health and disease are troubling in that the former is reserved for whites and the latter for First Nations. The “vanishing Indian” motif, which ends the section on First Nations and disease, concludes that, in the hundred years between 1774 and 1874 “the native population of the Northwest Coast fell by up to 80 percent from 188,000 to 38,000” (104). Entries occur for artefacts, navigation, and running surveys as well as for cannibalism and violence (principally, between whites and Natives) but not for religions or the relationship between evangelizing and exploring (let alone Native belief systems). Meanwhile, however, scientists garner an entry, presumably because much European exploration of the region occurred during the Age of Reason (290). 

This is, taken altogether, a fairly comprehensive dictionary, exhibiting some wide gaps and some genuine strengths. Suturing people, places, and events together is perhaps still a necessary scholarly and publishing activity, but it is fast being outflanked by contributions to Wikipedia, the cross-referencing capability of which enables many links to be drawn that no reference source without an index can achieve.

Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of the Northwest Coast of America
By Robin Inglis
Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2008, 429 pp. $49 US cloth