British explorer Captain James Cook names Cape Flattery on March 22, 1778.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/10/2003
  • Essay 5035
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On March 22, 1778, Captain James Cook (1728-1779) names Cape Flattery.  The Cape, home to the Makah Indians, and now part of the Makah Reservation, is the northwesternmost point in the continental United States, and marks the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The name that the British explorer bestows is the oldest non-Indian place name still in use on Washington state maps. 

In 1778, Cook, commanding the ships Resolution and Discovery, was undertaking his third and final voyage of discovery in the Pacific Ocean.  On the first two voyages, he explored the South Pacific.  This time he was also instructed to search for the fabled Northwest Passage, the long-sought water route from Europe to the riches of Asia.  Leaving the South Sea Islands late in 1777, he sailed for the far northern Pacific where it was hoped the Passage was located.  En route, in January 1778, Cook made one of his most significant discoveries when he reached the Hawaiian Islands, then unknown to Europeans.  The British ships spent two weeks there.

New Albion In Sight

On March 7, 1778, a month after leaving Hawaii, the expedition first sighted what they called New Albion.  That was the name given to the Pacific Coast of North America by Sir Francis Drake, who had explored the area briefly during his around-the-world voyage in the ship Golden Hind some 200 years before Cook’s journey.  No other British ship had passed that way since, but in the intervening two centuries the Spanish sailing north from Mexico and Russians sailing south from Alaska had explored the coast.  Nevertheless, the British relied on Drake’s brief visit to claim the Northwest coast for themselves.

For two weeks, Cook’s ships worked northward along the coast, without finding even a suitable harbor, let alone any sign of the passage that they sought through the continent to the Atlantic.  Like many explorers before and after, Cook missed the mouth of the Columbia River. 

Hopes of a Harbor

Then on Sunday, March 22, Cook saw, between a low cape and a steep island just off the cape, “a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding an harbour” (Morgan, 11).  The hopes lessened as the ships drew nearer. Cook decided that the opening was closed by low land and turned the ships away.  He named the point of land Cape Flattery. 

Having turned away, Cook crossed the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca without realizing it, and sailed on to Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  Cook’s activities at Nootka actually had a far greater impact on the future history of Washington than his brief excursion past Cape Flattery.  He and his crew were able to trade with the Nootka Indians for sea otter furs, which were highly coveted by Asian and European merchants. When Cook’s expedition finally returned to England following his death (Cook was killed on February 14, 1779, while on a return visit to Hawaii), news of the wealth available on the Northwest Coast inspired the fur trade that brought many more Europeans and Americans to the Pacific Northwest. 

Charting the Cape

There was some confusion among subsequent explorers as to exactly what cape Captain Cook had named Flattery.  A number of charts from the 1800s give the name Cape Flattery to what is now called Cape Alava, some 15 miles south down the Pacific coast, while using the name Cape Classet for the current Cape Flattery.  “Classet,” like “Makah,” is a translation into other Indian languages of the Makahs’ name for themselves - qwidièè?a.tx or "people of the cape."

In 1792, Captain George Vancouver, who had sailed on Cook’s voyage, returned in charge of his own expedition, and sought to identify the point Cook had named.  Although aware that the name Cape Classet was also in use for the northern point, Vancouver concluded that that was the place Cook had named Cape Flattery.

Vancouver did call a group of rocks located to the south, near Cape Alava, Flattery Rocks, a name that also remains in use.  However, it was the point at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca that Vancouver identified on his charts as Cape Flattery, and it is that point that bears the name today.


Daniel Conner and Lorraine Miller, Master Mariner (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), 20-21, 8-91; Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Washington State Historical Society, 1985), 37; Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1946), 14, 21, 24-25; Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923), 34-36, 87; Murray Morgan, The Last Wilderness (New York: Viking Press, 1955), 8, 10-12; Robert Sullivan, A Whale Hunt (New York: Scribner, 2000), 23; James G. Swan, The Indians of Cape Flattery (Smithsonian Institution, 1869; facsimile reproduction, Seattle: Shorey Book Store, 1972), 1.

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