Archive for December 2009

Spanish names in the Pacific Northwest

December 19, 2009

The era of Spanish exploration in the Pacific Northwest, circa 1774 to 1794, is largely forgotten. Some of it was basically forgotten before the era was over. The results of Alessandro Malaspina’s voyages were locked up in Spain after his return. Much has been lost. Some information has survived only via second hand English sources, such as the logs and reports of George Vancouver. One thing that has survived is Spanish place names—albeit in bits and pieces, in odd clusters.

I tried to make a map showing places in the Pacific Northwest whose names were given by Spanish explorers, but a number of problems came up. First, many Spanish names were given long after the era of Spanish exploration in honor of the earlier Spanish explorers, or in association with another Spanish placenames. Galiano Island, for example, was named by a British officer for Dionisio Galiano. Lopez Island in the San Juans was named for Gonzalo López de Haro. In both cases the names were given decades after the explorers came and went. And in both cases the Spanish explorers saw the islands in question but did not know they were islands, and did not give them names. As far as the Spanish knew the San Juans were a single island, which they named San Juan (although to cover their bases they actually named it Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan). The name “San Juan” honors the Viceroy of New Spain at the time, whose long name, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas [Orcas] y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, gave rise to a great many seemingly unrelated place names in the Pacific Northwest. Second, in many cases the origin of a place name is unknown or “presumed”. Third, many names have been Anglicized to one degree or another. Some have been respelled a little, like Camano instead of Caamaño. Some have been subjected to typographical errors, like Toba instead of Tabla (as in Toba Inlet). Some have been fully translated into English. Still others have been moved around the map. Rosario Strait, which today lies just east of the San Juan Islands, takes its name from the Spanish-given name for the Strait of Georgia—La Gran Canal de Nuestra Señora del Rosario la Marinera. When the British overhauled their nautical charts around 1850 they moved and shortened the old Spanish name. Finally, some names appear to be Spanish or in honor of Spaniards, like Hecate Strait, which I assumed honored Bruno de Heceta. But no, it was named after the surveying ship HMS Hecate. Whether the ship was named after old Bruno I couldn’t say.

So it quickly became clear that no map of Spanish place names in the Pacific Northwest can be cleanly broken down into classes such as “Spanish-given name”, “English-given name in honor of a Spanish explorer”, and so on. It also became clear that a truly thorough study of  this topic would require a book. So the best I can do is a rough-and-ready presentation. Here is my basic map of Spanish place names in the Pacific Northwest. It is a screenshot of Google Earth. I tried to include all the names still in use that were given by Spanish explorers, as well as Spanish names given during the early and mid-1800s in honor of Spanish explorers. A number of additional names are also included. I have a KMZ file of all the Google Earth placemarks, most of which have additional information. But I don’t think I can upload it with this freebie blog software. I’ll try to figure out how to improve these maps. And someday, if I keep posting to this blog, I’ll move to better software.

Map showing places in the Pacific Northwest with Spanish names

Click this map to see it on my Flickr photostream, where you can view it full-size. My apologies for the lack of text. But hey, everyone can read a textless map, right? You all know where Anchorage, Alaska, is, right? Up there near the top-left corner, on Cook Inlet, yes? And there’s the Queen Charlotte Islands offshore (um, I mean Haida Gwaii, as they are about to be officially renamed), and Vancouver Island, Puget Sound, and so on, right? So y’all know the names of the places the dots correspond to, right?

Anyway, even if you can’t name everything on this map, you can see several obvious clusters of the yellow dots I used to mark Spanish placenames. The westernmost dot is Santa Flavia Bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. It was given in 1943 by the United States Coast Survey in honor of the 18th century Spanish explorers. Yes, the Spanish reached Kodiak Island and areas west to Unalaska Island, but none of their place names survived. The area had already been colonized by the Russians anyway. Looking east and south, there are clusters at Prince William Sound and Yakutat Bay. The most famous Spanish name in Prince William Sound is, of course, Valdez. The Spanish gave the name to an inlet of Prince William Sound, after an officer of the Spanish Navy. The present city of Valdez, Alaska, takes its name from the inlet. The infamous oil tanker took its name from the city. Another Spanish-given name in Prince William Sound is Cordova. Yakutat Bay was explored in 1791 by Alessandro Malaspina. The gigantic glacier just north of the bay is now called Malaspina Glacier. There’s a very dense cluster of Spanish names near Prince of Wales Island, especially the western side near Bucareli Bay. The Bucareli Bay area contains hundreds of Spanish names, nearly all given by the Spanish in the late 1700s. South along the British Columbia coast is another, smaller cluster, around Caamaño Passage. This area was among the last explored by any nation—in this case by Jacinto Caamaño in 1792. Some of his names survived thanks to Vancouver learning of them and incorporating them into his charts.

Vancouver Island is surrounded by Spanish names. The island itself was once called Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, giving the Spanish and British equal place name honors. But go figure, the Spanish name was dropped in time (“Quadra” being part of the name of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, one of the most important Spanish explorers of the region; and yes, the same person for whom Bodega Bay, California, is named for). Spanish names around Vancouver Island are particularly thick in the areas of Nootka Sound (where Spain established a fort in 1790 and conflicts nearly led to war with Britain), Discovery Islands, Gulf Islands, and San Juan Islands. The five names south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, along the ocean coasts of Washington and Oregon are Cape Alava, Sonora Reef, Three Arch Rock (named Las Tres Marías in 1775 by Quadra and Mourelle), Heceta Head, and Cape Blanco.

I made some close-up screenshots of some of these clusters.

Southeasternmost Alaska. You can see the boundary between Alaska and British Columbia as a yellow line. That dense cluster around Bucareli Bay needs a closer look:

Finally, here’s the Nootka Sound area, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, rotated a bit:

I feel like I should say a lot more needs to be said about all this. But it would take a book to say it all, so I’ll leave it here for now. I will, however, try to make or find some better maps, perhaps even with text! At the least I can give this ACME Mapper topo maps link of the Bucareli Bay area. Scroll around (and perhaps zoom out!) and take a look.


Happy tenth birthday, Terra

December 17, 2009

NASA’s Terra satellite, one of the new generation of “landsat” satellites, and the flagship of the Earth Observing System (EOS), just turned ten years old. Happy birthday, Terra! I remember when they launched you. I still sometimes browse the MODIS Rapid Response System website. You can find unlimited gobs, yes gobs of fairly high resolution, near-realtime satellite imagery there. Turns out most of the Earth is cloudy and/or ocean, go figure.

Make ’em rectangular and make ’em big

December 9, 2009

There is a distinct difference in the shape of U.S. states created early on and those created later. Call it a difference between boundaries created during the colonial era and those created by Congress under the Constitution. States in the east vs those in the west. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as those states created by Congress out of the lands of the national public domain, vs those created in any other way. States whose boundaries were not created by Congress include the original thirteen colonies, Vermont, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, California, and West Virginia.

The above map, made using a Wikimedia Commons blank map, shows the original thirteen colonies’ successor states in blue (including Maine, which was a part of Massachusetts). States created by Congress out of the Public Domain lands are orange. Special cases are shown in brown. They include California, Texas, and Vermont, which were all de facto independent nations before becoming states. Kentucky was part of Virginia until statehood. Tennessee was briefly federal territory before becoming a state, but its borders were essentially given to Congress, not created by Congress. West Virginia was created during the turmoil of the Civil War, based on counties and votes.

Bill Hubbard writes, in his book American Boundaries, “In all of the Public Domain, only two principles for state shaping were consistently applied: “make ’em rectangular and make ’em big.” One of the results, he argues, was the “yoking together of opposites”, that is, states containing “factions” that “would forever be contending”. Examples include Oregon and Washington, with their western forests and their eastern deserts, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, with their western mountains and eastern plains, and, well, look at basically any western state. Hubbard further argues that this is not a bad thing—on the contrary it is exactly the kind of thing James Madison would have wanted: that “the tyranny of a majority” is best avoided by throwing divergent interests together.

This is all well and good. What surprised me was not that Congress made states that were generally rectangular and big—that is obvious—but that in all the states created by Congress the boundaries either follow rivers or straight lines (almost always lines of latitude or longitude). The only border that is not a straight line or a river, is the Idaho-Montana border, which mostly follows the Continental Divide and the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains. And of the straight line boundaries, the only exceptions to the rule of following lines of latitude or longitude—that is, the only diagonal straight lines, are: the Ohio-Michigan border, part of the Wisconsin-Michigan border, part of the Mississippi-Alabama border, and part of the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. The blatantly diagonal California-Nevada border was not created by Congress but by the Republic of California. As said above, this is counting only those states created by Congress out of the Public Domain lands, meaning every state after Tennessee, excepting Texas, California, and West Virginia. Ohio too might be excused, as it was the first state with borders given to it by Congress, and Congress was still working out how it would create states in the first place. Its slightly diagonal border with Michigan was something the people of Ohio requested and Congress granted.

Screaming Left Hand Turn

December 1, 2009

While I continue to try and fail to write something with substance for this blog here are a few silly maps. Once I got the GNIS database into ArcGIS I was able to query it for place names with any words or parts of words I wanted. So I mapped places with unusual words in them—at least unusual for place names. Words like unknown, scream, terror, calamity, ghost, haunt, and so on. Here are the results.







The word “devil” occurs in so many place names and in so many different ways I felt obliged to make a slightly different style of map.

I hope to finish writing up some longer and perhaps more interesting posts soon; more interesting in the sense of being about arcane, esoteric bits of toponymical history.