It’s been called the Salish Sea, officially, for the last 26 years. A long time, yes, but it is among the most recent names applied to our area. The naming of the Northwest’s nautical landmarks and places has been unfolding for centuries, but who coined these names? And how did they originate?
More than two decades ago, Western Washington University marine biology professor Bert Webber launched the concept for a more inclusive name for the 5,500 square miles of brine that ranges as far south as Olympia, north to British Columbia’s Quadra Island and west to Cape Flattery, Washington. Webber grew up on Vancouver Island and then moved to Bellingham in 1970. Familiar with the regional waterways, its flora and fauna, and knowing that marine life didn’t give a hoot about the Canadian/U.S. border, Webber believed a collective term to describe an integrated ecosystem would help preserve its quality.
He chose the term “Salish Sea” to cover these majestic waters, however, this collective term does not supplant the existing names of its constituent waterways, bays, and coves.
Webber introduced the term in the 1980s and asked Washington officials to formally adopt the moniker “Salish Sea” in 1990. The state’s Board on Geographic Names rejected his request, stating that few people used the term. But the words crept into the language colloquially, especially in school programs. Whale watchers and tourist promoters thought it a locally fitting name. Scientific groups also cottoned to it. Eventually, the Chemainus First Nation and the Coast Salish adopted the term. Once the term became of common usage, official entities on both sides of the border formally approved.
The indigenous peoples who lived along the Salish Sea tended to identify places by their physical characteristics. Examples include Esquimalt, which means “place of gradually shoaling water,” or Nanaimo, where a group of villages had banded together in a loose confederacy called “Sne-ny-mo,” meaning “people of many names” in Halkomelem. Nanaimo is adapted from this word. Tsawwassen also comes from the Halkomelem and means “beach at the mouth.” Names of chiefs crept into the nomenclature as well, so Seathl, a Duwamish and Suquamish tribal chief, lent his name to Seattle. And it’s believed that Kitsap was an Indian chief who welcomed Captain George Vancouver as he explored Puget Sound. Kitsap means “brave and good.”
Although many navigators bestowed names, a group of 1770s Spanish navigators, most with extremely long names, were the first Europeans to do so. Captain George Vancouver arrived in the 1790s, and, through his journals and survey work, was the first to literally put the region on the map by creating charts that were so detailed that many sections were used until the 1920s.
In the early 1840s, American Lieutenant Charles Wilkes surveyed Puget Sound and named 261 places, although Henry Kellett, who reorganized the official British Admiralty charts in 1847, reversed or changed many of the names Wilkes had chosen. In the 1850’s, Captain George Henry Richards, followed by Daniel Pender, continued naming the capes and promontories of British Columbia’s Inside Passage.
The Spanish Arrival
Spanish explorer Jacinto Caamaño left his name on Camano Island. The island north of it, Fidalgo Island, is named after the Spanish explorer and cartographer Salvador Fidalgo y Lopegarcía who explored the area in 1790. Fidalgo didn’t only survey here, but sailed as far north as Alaska where he planted the Spanish flag, although fellow Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa had already claimed the entire Pacific Ocean for Spain in 1513. It’s a near thing that most of us in this region speak English instead of Spanish!
Anacortes is the largest city on Fidalgo Island and was named after Annie Curtis, who arrived in 1879 to homestead the scarcely populated wilderness together with her husband Amos Bowman and other pioneers. Amos added a Spanish twist to Annie’s name, probably to intermingle with the other Spanish sounds in the region. Anacortes looks north to Guemes Channel and Guemes Island, which both inherited the name of the Viceroy of New Spain, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, Second Count of Revillagigedo, who had ordered the expedition in 1794 (good thing he didn’t have to sign checks in those days).