Everybody Has a Story: Capt. Vancouver spending eternity in obscurity




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View a June 2013 graveside ceremony (not recorded by Wollert) honoring all sailors, and Capt. George Vancouver in particular


We tried to escape. We really did. But Vancouver proved a skilled and stealthy stowaway, slipping overseas in spite of firm resolve by my husband and me to make it stay home where it belonged.

We chose London for a brief and well-deserved escape, and excitedly embraced all things British: kings and queens, teas and ale, ancient architecture, manuscripts, monuments, Shakespeare. A favorite ritual was strolling through sunny St. James Park, where we were surprised one morning by a small orange ball rolling slowly across our grassy route. Following its trajectory was a panting golden cocker spaniel, straining against a leather leash in the hand of a breathless woman, who issued a quick apology on behalf of her rude furry charge.

Not a problem, we reassured her, exposing our obvious accent.

You're American? Where do you live?

Thus began Vancouver's inconsiderate intrusion into our foreign vacation.

There's a Vancouver in the United States, too?

Oh, yes. Ours is the first Vancouver. Fort Vancouver. Named after George Vancouver, the explorer.

Well, I never realized. … Say, did you know that George Vancouver is buried not far from here?

We truly had no idea. Nor did we care very much.

The dog rested in the grass as if he sensed the beginning of a familiar routine. His mistress was embarking on a long tale, and he might as well get comfortable.

Indeed, she proceeded to tell us about the annual George Vancouver Day celebration, only six days away, in a small village named Petersham, where the noted explorer and cartographer was laid to rest at the ripe old age of 40.

I glanced at my watch and reached for my husband's hand, attempting a gracious exit from this unwelcome diversion. Museums and artifacts awaited, and I was getting impatient. But the dog's knowledgeable companion persisted. She reported obscure details about Vancouver's life, including the fact that, after his return from extraordinary travels, he found himself in the unfortunate political crosshairs of England's powerful prime minister for harsh discipline he'd imposed on one of the minister's relatives.

The subsequent bad press appears to have tarnished Vancouver's reputation, and he died in relative obscurity.

She was beginning to get my attention.

Furthermore, she explained, many people believe George Vancouver deserves higher honors for his accomplishments and are determined to keep his memory alive at this annual ceremony in Petersham. Why, even British Columbia sends a government dignitary yearly to lay a floral wreath at the base of Captain Vancouver's headstone.

What? I made full eye contact with her now. No representative from America's Vancouver, the first and oldest one?

I pulled out a notepad and pen as this amateur historian recounted directions to the grave. The Tower of London could wait, but George Vancouver? Not today.

In less than an hour, we disembarked the underground line at Richmond, where we found a friendly volunteer seated at an information kiosk. He scribbled down the last of the route, which would include a sign for St. Peter's church and Petersham Nursery.

Turn right at Church Road, and you can't miss it. When you've had a chance to pay your respects, come back to the museum. We have an exhibit here that features Captain Vancouver.

Wow. Vancouver loomed large in this neck of the woods. We followed a narrow dirt road that passed St. Peter's and led to a fragrant country nursery and an equally fragrant herd of cattle. Weren't we in Britain's bustling capital city just 60 minutes ago?

Aha! Affixed to a post atop the brick wall surrounding the graveyard was a hand-stenciled sign on weathered gray wood:

George Vancouver Along South Wall (Of Churchyard)

We entered the iron arch gate. Inside the mossy brick walls were dozens of mottled limestone markers, most of them illegible due to time and weather. Strolling slowly in the direction of the south church wall, we spied a raised rectangle of pea gravel with whiter stone markers at its head and base. Quickening my pace, I excitedly discovered the grave.

Captain George Vancouver, Died in the Year 1798, Age 40.

My husband rushed to join me and read the contents of the footstone aloud:

Restored by The Native Sons of British Columbia, Post No. 2 (Canada), Maintained by the Late Major J.S. Matthews and the City of Vancouver, B.C. (Canada)

We stood together in silence, deeply moved by the simple tribute given this young sea captain, explorer and mapmaker whose name adorns two Pacific Northwest city halls. While his mentor and superior officer, Capt. James Cook, was honored in a grand memorial at London's Westminster Abbey, Capt. George Vancouver rests in quiet, unassuming peace, far away from the crush of tourists and intrusive camera clicks.

He needed a flower. We walked to the nursery and bought him one.

A blooming pink geranium now adorns George Vancouver's grave in Petersham. May he know that his American namesake city has not forgotten him, either.

Everybody has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Email is the best way to send materials so we don't have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.