Place Names

The original names of most natural features in the Steilacoom area were given by the Salish Tribes. Most of these names are recorded by the Steilacoom Cultural Center, and are still available. Later explorers tended to chart the area naming the places after themselves, their associates, important members of their expedition, and local settlers. The expeditions of Captain George Vancouver in 1792, Lt. Charles Wilkes in 1841, and Robert A. Inskip in 1846 all produced charts with very different names for the same geographical features. This presents the local historian with an interesting puzzle, making accounts difficult to follow. Nevertheless, study of the various names of local places leads to many important historical figures and events.

Exploring the Pacific Northwest
The main reason for the European and American interest in exploring the Pacific Northwest was acquisitive. For the British, Captain Vancouver’s mission was to follow up on Captain Cook’s earlier investigation of the Pacific Northwest — one on which he served. Vancouver assigned Lt. Peter Puget to map out the Sound with the fading hope of finding the long-sought Northwest Passage. What Puget did find was the fertile, mild South Sound: “Nature as if she studied the Convenience of Mankind”. In the time just before steamships, their eyes were also drawn to the woods, seeing in them amazing timber resources and “enough masts to build ships for every nation of the world.” Even without a Northwest Passage, the British had a strong desire to keep possession of the Sound.

Mapping and Naming Disagreements
For the Americans, Lt. Charles Wilkes remapped the Sound area almost fifty years after Puget. The desire to “Americanize” the area showed itself in his renaming every feature after his American crewmembers and friends stationed in the area.

The British replied quickly: R. A. Inskip’s mapping mission came only five years later. Inskip kept the tradition of ignoring his forebears, and make a detailed chart with all-new names — again mostly taken from his fellow British crewmembers.

Some names, like Anderson and McNeil Islands, are still in use. Others are only to be found in historical documents. The current place-names often arose from function — for instance, “Brickyard Point” — and after the settlers — such as “Louise Lake.” Of course, a few original Indian names — including Steilacoom — remain.