Ending the Nootka name origin myth once and for all


One of the most-told stories relating to Nootka Sound is the story of the origin of the name Nootka Sound. It goes like this: Captain James Cook, upon first arriving in March 1788, was greeted by the Mowachaht, who yelled "go around," using the Nuu-cha-nulth word "nootka-a", an instruction for the safe place to go as the ships the Discovery and the Resolution approached Yuquot on south Nootka Island.

Cook misinterpreted that, or so the story goes, to mean the Mowachaht were in fact introducing themselves as the people the Nootka, and so he chose that name for the people of the sound he was entering.

It is a good story, to be sure, but the basis in fact was purely speculation. It was made by Father Augustin Brabant, a Jesuit priest who became the first colonial missionary on Vancouver Island's west coast, who resided at Yuquot in the late 1800s and who learned to speak Nuu-chah-nulth. His supposition has been picked up many times, notably in The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names by Andrew Scott (Harbour Publishing, 2009). Scott writes, "They may have been directing him to an anchorage or safe passage, or simply responding to his gestures." 

In Brabant's writings at the time, he speculated that one of the few words that could be misconstrued as Nookta was the Nuu-chah-nulth word "nootka-a" meaning "go around," and so Brabant speculated that the Mowachaht had given that advice to Cook, and he had misinterpreted it as an introduction.

Clearly, in making this assumption, Brabant had never read Captain Cook's journal nor those of the men in the expedition whose journals went on to be published. They tell a very detailed accounting, from multiple perspectives, of what transpired that day. And none of the versions contains any hint of an instruction to go around, nor any indication they could have used that information.

The day went like this. As Cook approached he viewed the entire region from Brooks Peninsula in the north to Estevan Point on the south end of Hesquiat Peninsula as one big bay, which he named Hope Bay. Cook also spied two inlets within that bay, one to the north and another to the south. His first intention was to make for the inlet to the north, which would have brought him to land at Kyuquot Sound instead of Nootka Sound, an outcome that would have changed history significantly had he done so (considering Nootka gave birth to the west coast sea otter fur trade, with Yuquot its epicenter, a village that would go on to become the focal point for what became known as the Nootka Controversy that almost put England and Spain at war. But that's a story for another time).

The wind wasn't favorable, though, for reaching Kyuquot, so instead Cook headed for the southern entry point. Their trajectory was along a point that brought them in line with Escalante Point on Hesquiat Peninsula. As they neared land they became assured there was in fact an inlet, and Cook was determined  to enter for an anchorage and water (now being badly in need of that since leaving the tropics). They turned towards the inlet but just as they reached the west point (Yuquot Point), at about 5 p.m., they became becalmed.

To get into the inlet, Cook decided to lower the boats to tow the Resolution in. Just as they did, a breeze arose, allowing the Resolution to venture farther into the inlet, just enough to see that the inlet continued a considerable distance inland. Unfortunately, the extra distance they were able to travel before the wind died again was not enough to see nor visit Friendly Cove, where the expansive Mowachaht village was located (Friendly Cove would have to wait several years more to be named that when George Vancouver, a midshipman on the Discovery on this trip, returned as captain of his own expedition. But that too is another story).

Thus positioned, and the wind dead yet again, Cook had no option but to drop anchor in 85 fathoms. The Discovery, following behind, never made the inlet, and instead parked outside, or rather dropped anchor, in 70 fathoms south and a bit west of Yuquot Point.

No sooner had they dropped anchor than they were visited by locals. Cook is quite descriptive of this encounter, as are other writers of the various surviving journals. Cook writes of the three canoes that approached: "a person in one of the two last stood up, and made a long harangue, inviting us to land, as we guessed, by his gestures... After tiring himself with his repeated exhortations, of which we did not understand a word, he was quiet; and then others took it, by turns, to say something, though they acted their part neither so long, nor with so much vehemence as the other."

And there ends the initial encounter. Numerous other locals followed to come alongside the ships, and trade. Cook also repositioned the vessels inside the sound as originally planned. Never in any journal is there any indication the Mowachaht played a role or offered advice in the decision to choose their eventual anchorage. Cook sent off a boat of officers to survey locations inside the sound up Zuciarte Channel (the most visible route from their anchored position), then set off himself, and chose the location he scouted over the choice of his officers. That location of course is Resolution Cove on Bligh Island.

Brabant's conjecture falls apart in various ways. Since the vessels had dropped anchor and were immobile, instructing them to go around made little sense. And even if they did, by Cook's own words, they understood nothing of what the locals said. 

Where and why Cook named the people the Nootka isn't clear from his journal. Nor did he name it Nootka Sound. Rather, he named it King George's Sound. 

Here's my theory. When you consider the Nuu-chah-nulth language uses vocalizations that don't translate well to the written English language, the best Cook could have done is his best to represent the sound of the word as actually presented to him and understood by him. So picture this. Locals tell Cook they are Nuu-chah-nulth. Cook tries to repeat it back to them to see if he understood it correctly. He doesn't. They correct him, emphasizing Nuu-chah. Cook repeats it back as Nootka. The locals decide that is close enough, they nod in agreement to congratulate Cook on his linguistic acumen, and Cook thinks he is right as so scribbles down Nootka for all posterity.

Was then Nootka simply a misunderstanding of Nuu-chah as part of Nuu-chah-nulth? Are they really so different? You decide, as there is no evidence one way or the other. The only evidence was can be sure of is there is none to suggest Captain Cook was told to "go around" Nootka Island. Hopefully, then, we can close the book on that chapter of yet another case of misapplied language in early west coast history. There are many examples!

John Kimantas wrote this after considerable research of the third expedition of discovery Captain James Cook, including reading the various journals of that journey and their interpretations of this period of the voyage, after once again hearing the "go-around" theory being told as an interesting fact. It is not! You stand corrected, Liam!  


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