One of Anchorage's most popular parks is Point Woronzof and its approaches. The parking lot on the point is usually filled with the cars of people taking a look at Cook Inlet, perhaps during an especially dramatic sunset, or looking for beluga whales. Winter and summer, people often stop on the bluff at the north end of Anchorage airport's north/south runway to marvel at the big planes passing directly overhead, or to take in the moonlight over the Chugach Mountains looking back at downtown Anchorage. The bike path along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail leading to the park is among the most frequently used in the city.
But who was Woronzof? It's safe to say hardly anyone who visits the park has more than a clue.
The name sounds Russian, and it is. Some likely assume that the point was named by the Russians — perhaps Bering, or maybe Baranov.
Well, no. The point was actually named by a Brit, Joseph Whidbey, the same person for whom Whidbey Island opposite Seattle is named.
But how did Point Woronzof come to be named by a Brit we associate with Puget Sound?
This is where the story gets interesting. Lots of folks know that the name Cook Inlet honors Captain James Cook and his third round-the-world voyage, which took him to Alaska and the body of water later named for him, in 1778. The statue at the curve at Third Avenue and L Street (long without his chart and compass calipers) commemorates Cook. But Cook did not name the inlet after himself. That was done by a fellow countryman 16 years later.
Cook was the first to figure out the general shape of Alaska and the Aleutian Peninsula, which was badly misunderstood before because no one had done a contiguous voyage all around the perimeter of the northwest quadrant of North America. But Cook discerned only the general shape. The British admiralty followed up with a detailed, comprehensive coastal survey, carefully mapping most of the bays, coves, inlets, river mouths and islands all the way from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to … Cook Inlet. And it was Captain George Vancouver who named it Cook Inlet.
Vancouver was a master mariner. In 1772 at the age of 14 he sailed on Cook's second circumnavigation, searching for the southern continent, and in 1776 on Cook's third voyage. Following the Nootka Sound Affair in 1789 which nearly brought England and Spain to war over claims to the Northwest Coast, the British Admiralty commissioned Vancouver to meet with the Spanish navigator Bodega y Quadra at Nootka, and then to conduct a complete and accurate survey of that coast for England. It took Vancouver three years, from 1792-1794. His teams worked northward from Vancouver Island the first two years, among other landmarks, circumnavigating Admiralty Island in the Alexander Archipelago. But in April 1794, they started southward from Knik Arm. Most of the work was by longboat, probing close to shore. Future masters on the survey included Peter Puget and Whidbey.
It was Whidbey who named Point Woronzof — in Russian, Vorontzov. Count Semyon Romanovitch Vorontzov was a Russian aristocrat who distinguished himself in Russia's wars against Turkey. In 1785, Tsarina Catherine the Great appointed him ambassador to England. His service there was beneficial to the Russian state, facilitating cordial relations between the two countries. He became very popular in England, where he lived on after his retirement, until his death in 1832. Whidbey's designation of the point, with Vancouver's blessing, was meant to honor the accomplished Russian diplomat who helped maintain peace between the two regimes.
Vancouver's survey has been ranked by maritime historians as one of the great navigational achievements. Vancouver scholar Robin Fisher of Mount Royal College, Calgary, says Vancouver put the Northwest Coast on the map. Some of his charts are still used today.
Anchorage historian Jim Barnett has published a very useful book on the survey: Captain George Vancouver in Alaska and the North Pacific (Todd Communications, 2017). He reconstructs major aspects of the three years the explorers spent on the coast.
It would be helpful to have an explanatory plaque at Point Woronzof, giving texture to people's visits there and satisfying the historically curious.
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