In June 1792, Joseph Whidbey, a British naval officer on Captain George Vancouver’s voyage of discovery to the waters of the future Washington state, circumnavigates a large island located at the intersection of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, which Vancouver promptly names for him. Whidbey Island, which together with nearby Camano Island makes up Island County, is the largest island in Washington and fourth-largest in the lower 48 states.
Whidbey was Master on the Discovery, the sloop of war captained by Vancouver. Discovery and the armed tender Chatham left England in 1791 with orders from the British Admiralty to explore the Northwest Coast of North America. In the spring of 1792, the ships reached the waters of Puget Sound, which they spent the month of May exploring. Vancouver dubbed every place he saw with the names of his friends, patrons, and crewmembers. (Peter Puget was a lieutenant on the Discovery).
On May 29, 1792, with the Discovery and Chatham anchored near present-day Mukilteo in Snohomish County, Whidbey, took the ship’s launches to explore two passages opening to the north. After exploring the right hand passage between Camano Island and the mainland, which Vancouver named Port Susan, they turned up what is now called Saratoga Passage, between Whidbey and Camano Islands.
A Friendly Reception
About four miles up the western (Whidbey) side of the passage, they noted a village with numerous inhabitants. In keeping with Vancouver’s orders to avoid landing near large numbers of people, they crossed to the Camano side, but were nevertheless met by several hundred people, who received them in a friendly manner. Some families were in canoes, others were walking on the shore, and Whidbey reported they had with them "about forty dogs in a drove, shorn close to the skin like sheep" (Meany, 162).
The next day, having sailed another nine miles up Saratoga Passage, the British landed on Whidbey Island. The people there were also very friendly, presenting the exploring party with water, roasted roots, dried fish, and other food. Although they appeared never to have seen Europeans, being surprised at the color of Whidbey’s skin, they had some European artifacts that they had evidently acquired in trade. When one of the British boats ran aground, the village leader organized his people to help push it off. At the top of Saratoga Passage, Whidbey turned east to explore what is now Skagit Bay. He found navigation difficult, and at this time failed to find the narrow passage separating Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island.
The British returned to Whidbey Island, where they again met the friendly villagers, and explored a large cove opening west into the island, which Vancouver named Penn’s Cove and is today called Penn Cove. Whidbey found deserted villages on both points at the entrance to the cove. Despite this, Whidbey found the passage he was exploring to be more populous than any other area of Puget Sound the expedition had seen, estimating it had some 600 inhabitants. Vancouver’s journals record that throughout the region there were burial sites, deserted villages and few living inhabitants, evidence of the small pox epidemics that had been devastating Indian inhabitants of the region.
Deception (Pass) Revealed
When Whidbey returned to the ships on June 2, 1792, neither he nor Vancouver realized that he had been exploring an island. However, on June 7, after the expedition had sailed north some way along the west shore of Whidbey Island, Whidbey set out again, in the cutter, to explore inlets leading to the east. When Whidbey returned on June 10, Vancouver recorded that the first inlet turned out to be a "very narrow and intricate channel, which ... abounded with rocks above and beneath the surface of the water" (Meany, 178). The channel led between Whidbey and Fidalgo islands to Skagit Bay and Saratoga Passage, which Vancouver called Port Gardner. Vancouver wrote:
"This determined [the shore they had been exploring] to be an island, which, in consequence of Mr. Whidbey’s circumnavigation, I distinguished by the name of Whidbey’s Island: and this northern pass, leading into port Gardner, Deception Passage" (Meany, 178).
The British captain evidently felt that he and his ship’s Master had been deceived by the tricky pass. Both Deception Pass and Whidbey Island retain the names Vancouver bestowed on them.