William Alexander’s Watercolours of Vancouver’s Voyage

Village of the Friendly Indians near Bute's Canal. Watercolour by William Alexander. Source: University of Illinois.

Yesterday I posted an engraved  view of  a village near the entrance to Bute Inlet, the view seen in 1792 during the voyage of Captain Vancouver.  Much as with the earlier posts on John Webber (1, 2, 3), there are multiple versions of these scenes.  The above shows a watercolour rendering made by William Alexander, a well known artist and draughtsman of the late 18th century.  It seems his series of works on the NW Coast was not done from life but was a commissioned finalization of the drawings of William Daniell, who was actually on Vancouver’s voyages, and perhaps other artists/oficer’s sketches.  At least that is the story I’ve been able to winkle out, starting from a position of sheer ignorance.  Nicely, though, Alexander’s watercolours from the Vancouver Voyage series, covering Alaska, the Northwest Coast and some views of California and Chile, are all available online through the Newberry Library at the University of Illinois.  These renderings were not familiar to me and perhaps not to you, either.

The picture above, viewable at the library here, is in close agreement with the version yesterday.  Possibly a little more detail is clear about the structure of the uppermost house.  The versions available online are not very high resolution, all the more maddening because on the catalogue page it shows the source image as being a 67 meg TIFF.  That’s a lot of bandwidth, but a higher resolution jpeg would be nice, U of I.

Deserted Village, Gulf of Georgia. Watercolour by William Alexander. Source: University of Illinois.

The above image (original) is also interesting.  It clearly shows a shed-roof house frame on the left, while on the small islet or peninsula there is a chaotic assortment of structures which I take to be small house frames on a defensive site, complete with either boardwalks or pallisades overhanging the bank.

"Indian Village, Point Mudge". Watercolour by William Alexander. Source: University of Illinois.

The above view of the very distinctive setting of Cape Mudge is very striking (link), with the houses jostled togethery presumable for defense.  Note the small structure on the uppermost beach.  Also note the lack of driftwood — one of my pet hobby-horses is to think of the NW Coast without the massive amounts of logging debris which still give an artificial look, and probably configuration, to many stretches of shoreline.  Almost all of the logs you see on a beach have been cut by a chainsaw – think about the implications of that for daily life in the pre-contact period.

"Remarkable supported Poles at Port Townsend". Watercolour by William Alexander. Source: University of Illinois.

While I had never seen the Cape Mudge image before, I have seen numerous renditions of these “remarkable poles“, which I take to be structures for duck-hunting nets.

The Discovery on the Rocks, Queen Charlotte Sound. The Chatham stands off in the distance. Watercolour by William Alexander; sketch by Zachary Mudge. Source: University of Illinois.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing and civilized sketching, as the well known image above exemplifies.

As I noted, you can see the whole set here, though the resolution is poor.  I’ve found a way to munge the URL to at least view them larger, but they are still quite grainy.  I wish the UI would link to the original TIFFs — bandwidth yes, but trivial compared to what a major university handles every day. I am sure historians have figured out the exact place of these images and know the entire story of the relationship between Vancouver, Daniell, and Alexander and if anyone knows the story or has any other insight, I welcome comments.

But for now I am just enjoying these skillful watercolours with their origin in the first decade after the first Europeans to enter the Salish Sea.

William Alexander: Self Portrait, 1793. Source: Wikipedia.

16 responses to “William Alexander’s Watercolours of Vancouver’s Voyage

  1. Very cool images. I find it extremely interesting that several of these are on defensible sites.

    As a side note, though, can’t help but wonder who added the see-through eyepatch to William Alexander’s self-portrait?


  2. Hi Heather, yeah it is almost as if the navy was scouting out the territory, military-reconnaissance style, while they were at it. I don’t know if there has ever been a “reading” of the voyages that took that into account – assessment of potential enemies and their strengths/weaknesses.

    The see-through eyepatch might actually be archaic unilateral sunglasses?


  3. For the first image in today’s blog:
    I wonder what is depicted on top of the rocks that are immediately to the left of the beached canoes. Plants? In flower? Stems of salal plants? Some kind of drying racks or something? Something to do with burials?

    The deserted village image – could those be tree burials to the right of the house frame(s)? They do look a bit like falling down house frames, but would they still have planks associated with them if people had moved elsewhere?


  4. Yeah, good question APM. In this detail from the engraving , it looks more like plants of some kind

    Source: http://www.lunacommons.org/luna/servlet/detail/JCB~1~1~3392~5380007

    In the lunacommons page it has the note which partially reads:
    “In 1792, Captain Vancouver landed at the village of Tsa-Kwa-Luten, a rocky site on Vancouver Island.”

    Tsa-kwa-Luten is the name being used by We Wai Kai Kwakwaka’wakw for the large resort at Cape Mudge, which is not Bute Inlet – and not Coast Salish either (though conceivably it was at the time of Vancouver’s trip). As seen above, there actually is a painting of Cape Mudge, which might be the source of some confusion.

    For the “deserted village” image, tree burials are an interesting idea, or maybe grave houses? There seem to be a number of vertical poles (plank holders??) but the whole effect is a bit shambolic. Interestingly, I don’t find any engravings of the “Deserted Village” watercolour in the usual places.

    Anyway, there is obviously a tricky geneology of imagery to unpick with these and similar images (we saw this with the Webber images too) and I know essentially nothing about them. It’d be fun if knowledgeable readers chipped in with any insight!


  5. That most driftwood was cut by chainsaw is fascinating…


  6. Alex — yeah, I think so too. Next time you are on a beach, check out the logs. Pretty well everyone is cut by a saw. Even the root masses one occasionally sees are very often sawn stumps. And the logs which do have roots and no saw marks are likely, in at least some cases, to be the byproduct of logging or development induced erosion.

    Now think of a beach like Long Beach with no driftwood on it.


    The sand dune environment might be completely different, and the animal and bird habitat also.

    Now think of finding a log in the pre-contact time, when such things were rare and valuable. it would have been a good and unusual day to corral a large piece of “free wood”, one that did not need to be cut down with stone or bone tools.

    During the period at the end of the last ice age, from about 13,000 to 10,000 years ago in Haida Gwaii, sea levels were rapidly rising and so mature Spruce-Hemlock forest was being constant undercut, on the order of 5 cm/year of rise. This would have been a time of “free wood” – perhaps more wood floating around and drifting up than at any time since. When sea levels stopped rising, that source of wood dwindled.

    This is one example of how thinking about the past environment in human-centered terms is interesting. A change from a dynamic, unstable environment to a stable one actually would have decreased the supply of a major resource and made the adaptation more difficult in at least one way. A little counter-intuitive!


  7. I am delighted to let you know that the original drawing by Thomas Heddington – Village of the Friendly Indians near Bute’s Canal has been purchased and finally come back home to Vancouver after all these years from the UK.. You can follow the link below to see the image.
    Best wishes,


  8. Hi MVP, thanks so much for letting us know. That’s great news, I wonder if it will go on display at some point – private collector or public institution?

    Readers should check out that link of MVP’s (included are many amazing items of polar exploration, etc) and especially the enlarged image

    Way more detail than usual shows, including showing the house on top of the hill as an incongruously rectangular barracks-like building. The islet to the left is clearly vegetation. There is what looks like a section of a house leaning up against the lower right house. all kinds of neat little details.

    As noted above with the “genealogy of images”, these early sketches and watercolours went through multiple iterations and while many stayed surprisingly faithful to the original it is obviously ideal to look at the original where possible.

    (more discussion of this image/ Bute Inlet village is here), BTW:
    https://qmackie.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/houses-on-stilts/ )

    The lot notes are interesting, especially as it seems a number of these Heddington works got lost?

    Lot Notes

    Heddington was a midshipman on the armed tender Chatham which, with Vancouver’s Discovery, set sail from Falmouth on 1 April 1791 under instructions from the Admiralty to survey the northwest coast of America. Sailing via the Cape, New Holland, New Zealand, the south Pacific and Hawaii, they reached the northwest coast and surveyed the coastline until September 1794, the Chatham returning to England in October 1795. Heddington was one of three seamen (along with Henry Humphreys and John Sykes) whose drawings were later worked up by William Alexander to illustrate the voyage, Heddington’s drawing here the model for plate IV in volume I of Vancouver’s Voyage. Heddington prepared several surveys and drawings of the coast between Cape Elizabeth and Prince William Sound. After the voyage, Heddington submitted his work to the Hydrographic Office, but later in 1808 requested that his work be returned. The Admiralty honoured the request only to lose all record or trace of the drawings. Humphreys’ and Sykes’s drawings remain in the Hydrographic Office, Taunton and there are further voyage drawings by the latter in the Bancroft Library (U.C. Berkeley, Honeyman collection), California.


  9. OK, note also the house at the top is gable roof, while the dilapidated houses on the flanks are shed roof.

    There are many lines of evidence to suggest that around the time of first Europeans, this stretch of the coast was a volatile borderland between Coast Salish people and expansionary Kwa’kwa’kawakw people.

    Hypothesis (you read it here first): this village had recently changed hands from Coast Salish to Kwa’kwa’kawakw. The latter built new gabled houses at the very top as a defensive measure and allowed the shed roof houses to fall into disrepair.


    • Hi qmackie,

      I am a private collector but willing to let the public institution borrow for further study and display if requested. I fought hard for the piece which is more than what I wanted to pay because I think it is so rare. It is so hard to put a value on this drawing and the historical connections to Vancouver, B.C as discovered by the Europeans.
      I would like to hear qmackie & william Angelbeck (UBC) expert opinion on this particular sketch. Thanks! Looking forward to your reply.



  10. interesting hypothesis, ask Bill Angelbeck what he thinks?


  11. Hypothesis: (you read it here first): this village had recently changed hands from Coast Salish to Kwa’kwa’kawakw. The latter built new gabled houses at the very top as a defensive measure and allowed the shed roof houses to fall into disrepair.

    I don’t think so. NWC framed houses, with the possible exception of tenoned post northern ‘fit’ houses had extremely portable walls and roofs, simply slung on withes between paired small posts or, in the case or roofs, laid down loosely and held there with big rocks. Any Kwa’kwa’kawakw invaders putting up a new home-away-from-home would surely avail themselves of such easily-removed boards rather than whittling away at a tree and then sweating in a bunch of wedges to make the same product from scratch.

    Cool idea though. The furthest north Salishan village name on Johnstone Strait is ‘Hkusum’ (with various spellings), meaning ‘soapberry’. It has of course been Kwa’kwa’kawakw for a couple of hundred years now, but retains the Salish-origin place name. I speculated that the end of intensive forest use of the Newcastle Block, about 20 km further up the channel (and the location of the furthest north Salishan place names of any type) in the 1800 decade may have been due to the initial expansion. That was published in the CMT article I co-authored with C. Mobley in Arctic Anthropology.

    I think in another thread I mentioned the difference in canoe bows to those that came a little later. You’ll see in both the drawings of the Discovery in trouble and the fortified village we’ve just been discussing that there are several canoes with virtually horizontal bow extensions. This style seems very common throughout the region and doesn’t carry on much later, except in some river canoes. I’m positive this isn’t an error by the artists, as they tended to be meticulous about accurately portraying nautical stuff (“arrrr, look-ee Billee, yon dabbler knows naught, he’s showin a Dutch-cut to the lower mizzen tops’l on this painting of the “Dogs Breakfast” when everyone knows she was built as a French privateer”).


  12. Morley wrote: “Any Kwa’kwa’kawakw invaders putting up a new home-away-from-home would surely avail themselves of such easily-removed boards rather than whittling away at a tree and then sweating in a bunch of wedges to make the same product from scratch. ”
    Well, that theory assumes boards were not in ready abundance. Since there seems to have been a major epidemic on the NWC sometime not long before this image was drawn, it is possible that the supply of house boards exceeded the amount needed for a much reduced population. Also, would the vanguard of a settlement movement include a really large population, or would it more likely be of sufficient size and composition to defend the new holdings? I think there is an argument to be made that in the period after expansion into a territory that the local population would be much reduced for a while until the ownership was consolidated. Too bad the sample of plank scarred CMTs is so small, and often hard to date precisely. It would be interesting to see if there was a change through these times.

    However, while those houses seem to be drawn to depict them as if in disrepair, this may just be an editorial/cultural statement by the artist. They look complete and likely have roofs on them, so I suspect that they were in use. In the drawing it appears as if someone is exiting the house on the mid-slope, though that might be someone from a ship. It also looks as if there is one platform next to the lowest house, which could be all that is left of a house. It would be interesting to see a detailed archaeological map of this location for comparison.


  13. Hi MVP = oh I didn’t realize it was you who bought it! Well, you got a real treasure, one of the iconic images of the exploratory phase of European-First Nations relations, and one of the most visually striking too!

    I don’t have Bill Angelbeck’s email but I am sure another reader does and might be able to alert him to come and make a comment if he was so inclined. In the meantime you can download his PhD thesis (which is well illustrated) here:

    http://hdl.handle.net/2429/7412 (allow for multiple tries since UBC dspace is buggy).

    Your image is discussed on MS page 207, Figure 27:

    A similar architectural style to the “scaffolds projecting over the Rock” was employed near the mouth Bute Inlet at a likely Homalco village, according to a drawing from the Vancouver Expedition (Figure 27). The drawing shows housefloors overhanging the edges from the top of the slope, representing another instance where plankhouses were situated in defensible locations, while not being fortified.

    Comparing his version to the original, I’m not sure you really can say the floors are cantilevered out. It’d be nice to have a super high-res snapshot of the top of the hill, but even so judging by the excessive regularity of the houses there may be some artistic licence too.

    Anyway, thanks for letting us all know this has come to BC and I hope to see it in person one day in a gallery or museum if you were inclined to loan it!

    Morley — Well, you could still have the new houses on top regardless of the disposition of the older houses. Thanks for that other info. What is the bow extension for do you think? Adds buoyancy of course, perhaps useful for the Cape Mudge standing waves! but maybe a rest for equipment? The Gulf of Georgia is not really known for big seas in the way the outer coast is. PS Talk like a Pirate Day was a few days ago, arrr.

    APM — wasn’t it Jim who had surveyed this site? Trick is, you’d have to have a strong inclination to be looking for and finding house platforms on what looks like a low potential slope. One thing about this is we don’t really know the scope,mode, tempo, “shape” of any Wakashan expansion in this area, or elsewhere really, in detail, so maybe an image like this can be a source of hypotheses about that vs. something to fit into pre-existing models.


    • Hi qmackie,

      Could you please provide the name of the book where my image is discussed and reproduced. Thanks!



      • The page 207 quote was from the PhD thesis of Bill Angelbeck, called:

          “They recognize no superior chief” : power, practice, anarchism and warfare in the Coast Salish past.

        This is the download you can get at http://hdl.handle.net/2429/7412 .

        I am sure your image is cited many times in the literature on early BC European History and FN-Euro relations. That’s not my field at all but other readers may have citations specific to your image and if so I hope they throw into the comments here.


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