The Name Game: History of the Salish Sea

Low tide at Possession Point, Whidbey Island

Low tide at Possession Point, Whidbey Island

The marine ecosystem that we now call the Salish Sea was recognized, and named something else, some 200+ years ago. June 4, 1792 was an important day for Captain George Vancouver—the birthday of King George the III. Standing on the land at Possession Point, at the southern end of Whidbey Island, he announced that on behalf of the King of England he “possessed” all of the land that he had been to, the lands where he was at the moment and the lands he would see in the continuation of his voyages. To solidify this statement of "ownership", he gave names to the bodies of land and water that he passed by. The inland waters, including the now Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia he thereby named: the Gulph of Georgia.

However, the name “Gulph of Georgia” did not persist over time. Although Capt. Vancouver had renamed the water and land features in his “Gulph”, he reluctantly kept the already existing name: Strait of Juan de Fuca, named by fur trader William James Barkley only five years earlier. Why he was reluctant is in itself another fascinating story that we will visit in the future. For now, I will explain how the Puget Sound came in to being, and how that name eventually eclipsed the “Gulph of Georgia”.

“Puget’s Sound” as named by Capt. Vancouver (after his ship Discovery’s 2nd Lieutenant Peter Puget) was a relatively smaller area than what Puget Sound encompasses today. “Puget’s Sound” was initially the part of the Gulph that applied to the waters south of the Tacoma Narrows—a much smaller area than today’s Puget Sound.  So, why did the “Gulph of Georgia” morph into the Strait of Georgia and “Puget’s Sound” become the Puget Sound we know now?  A few dates may help to clarify.

First, the American revolutionary war of 1783 saw the USA break free from Great Britain. Secondly, the 1818 treaty between USA and Britain meant to share the fur and fisheries resources of the Pacific Coast, and thirdly, the Oregon treaty of 1846 set the boundary between USA and Britain at the 49th parallel.

Edward S. Curtis Sunset on Puget Sound

Sunset on Puget Sound / Edward S. Curtis

In the early 1800’s, American settlers started to move west. The first settlement was in Tumwater, south of Olympia, in 1840, some 50 years after Capt. Vancouver named the Gulph. As the number of American settlers increased, there was the question of what to call the marine waters around “Olympia”. With memories of the revolutionary war still fresh, the name “Gulph of Georgia” was not attractive, but the Puget Sound name was acceptable. As the population increased and settled the land to the north of Olympia, the Puget Sound name went with them, and the Gulph of Georgia was reduced in size and became the Strait of Georgia.

In 1865, the US defined the southern boundary of the Strait of Georgia as a line starting at East Point on Saturna Island to the north of Patos and Matia Island, passing by Pt. Migley on Lummi Island. That left the city of Blaine, Point Roberts and Birch Bay as part of the now Strait of Georgia (or is it Puget Sound?)—read on.  At some point, the United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration settled on the entrance of Admiralty Inlet as the northern boundary of Puget Sound, where it remained for many years.

The Puget Sound story has one additional chapter. In the mid 1980’s the State of Washington decreed that all of the inland marine waters of the State should be called “Puget Sound”.  Now, the areas of the northwest Washington part of the Strait of Georgia, the San Juan Islands, the city of Blaine and the cities and towns located along the Olympic Peninsula side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, are also part of Puget Sound. (To date, the US federal government has not yet approved this definition of the Puget Sound and it remains to be seen if the name will adhere.)

Map of Puget Sound


Did the Coast Salish people have a collective name for what is now called the Salish Sea?

To the best of my knowledge the answer is no. There were names for distinct areas of the Salish Sea but not for its entirety. The closest I know of is the Lushootseed language name Whulge (or Whulj), an anglicization of x̌ʷə́lč, which means "sea, salt water, ocean, or sound” and is used by Puget Sound area Salish Tribes for at least a part of what today is generally called Puget Sound. The name was promoted by conservationist and author Harvey Manning in the 20th century, and is still used by a small number of people in the Puget Sound region as an alternate name for Puget Sound.

Will the current Salish Sea name persist?

Though this history of naming may seem confusing, we do know that accepted geographical names for areas are extremely important, and must be useful to scientists, cartographers, researchers and residents alike. The current name recognition of the Salish Sea is not very high. Surveys reveal that only about 8% of people living in the Seattle, WA area know what and where the Salish Sea is. In the Vancouver, BC area it is around 12%.  However, the name is certainly useful.  Resource managers and scientists use it frequently. For instance, the biannual Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference—the next one is coming up in 2020—is attended by over 1,000 interested people and is a strong measure of the usefulness of the name. The name also has economic value and has thus been adopted by many businesses operating on both sides of the border to distinguish their location within this unique and beautiful marine ecosystem. 

Personally, I am convinced that the name has a long future in helping with the necessary challenge of restoring and protecting the natural values of this jewel of a sea. (More on that in a future story.)

Related stories and projects:

The Naming of the Salish Sea
How Canada and the US adopted the name the "Salish Sea" - The Queen of England gets involved
The Heart of the Salish Sea
Fostering Responsible Stewardship of the Salish Sea
SeaDoc Society - Champions for the Salish Sea
The Salish Sea Stars of Pender Island