Sunday, January 3, 2010

Was George Vancouver Flemish?

Vancouver, the Winter Olympics, and the tie to Flanders

Like many of you I have been enjoying the Winter Olympics. Besides the actual events the draws for me are the drama, the color, and the chance to see superb athletes from across the globe in friendly, but earnest, competition.

One of the appeals of any Olympics is the chance to learn something about the locale of the Games. For Vancouver, this has centered around the story of the English explorer George Vancouver. Vancouver discovered and named many points around coastal British Columbia.

Of course, most informed observers might wonder about the “Englishness” of a name like “Vancouver”. A few decades ago a local Dutch consular official, in his desire to establish rapport with the Canadians around him, claimed that Vancouver had been of Dutch descent. The reasonably plausible argument purported to show that Vancouver had ancestral ties with the northern Netherlands:

“A search was made in the 1880s by a Dutch army captain and amateur genealogist, C.J. Polvliet, who published his findings in an 1883 issue of Heraldieke Bibliotheek, a Dutch heraldic magazine.

“Polvliet discovered that Reint Wolter van Coeverden had, for the first time in more than three centuries of the family's history, married someone from outside the country. She was an Englishwoman named Johanna Lillingston. The Lillingstons were a Yorkshire family of long lineage, and were in Burke's Peerage. Johanna is, it seems, the grandmother of the man for whom Vancouver is named.

“Polvliet's research was summarized in the February, 1973, issue of B.C. Historical News by Adrian Mansvelt, who was consul general for the Netherlands in Vancouver at that time. We learn that Polvliet's records of this English connection are vague and fragmentary, but it appears Reint Wolter's son Lucas may have stayed in England “because of his English affinities through his mother.”

“Somewhere along in here the English branch of the van Coeverdens changed and shortened their name to Vancouver. Lucas Vancouver “was, presumably, the grandfather of Capt. George Vancouver,” wrote Mansvelt, “and it may be assumed he (Lucas) married one Sarah Vancouver, whose maiden name remains unknown but who lived in St. James Street in King's Lynn, and was registered as a householder there.”

Today, visitors to the Olympics or the Vancouver website, are met with this story as established fact. Fortunately for us, recent research published in Vancouver’s own, British Columbia Historical Journal (called British Columbia History), suggests a different, Flemish, origin for George Vancouver. The author, John Robson, wrote “Origins of the Vancouver Name: Another Possibility” in 2006, commemorating the 250th Anniversary of George Vancouver’s birth. I have excerpted several key passages below (p.23):

“The City of Vancouver and Vancouver Island (plus several other features around the world) derive their name from that of George Vancouver, a late-eighteenth century British surveyor-explorer. As a surname, Vancouver is very rare and only made its appearance about the middle of the eighteenth century with George Vancouver’s own family. It then all but died out as members of the family had mostly female children if they had any children at all.

“Adrien Mansvelt, the consul for the Netherlands at Vancouver in the 1970s, researched Vancouver’s ancestry and produced a genealogy that has been accepted by most people since that time, even though there is little or no documentary evidence for some of the facts included therein…

“The lack of documentary evidence for the Vancouvers and van Couverdens in England and, especially in King’s Lynn [where George Vancouver was born] and Norfolk, prior to 1750, caused me to look elsewhere and for variant names. A genealogical search produced some results and with them an alternative version for the origins of the Vancouver name.”

Dr. Robson goes on to catalogue the migration of Vancouver’s ancestors. While George was born in King’s Lynn, his mother’s (Bridget Berners) maternal home, his father’s birth certificate is undiscovered.

The most likely candidate to be George Vancouver's father, an individual with the name "Jonas Vangover", was born a few miles away from King's Lynn at a similarily heavily-Flemish weaver town called Ipswich. Professor Robson believes that this Jonas Vangover is the same man as John Jasper Vancouver. Nor is that unlikely. Names were frequently modified in not only spelling but emphasis.
The relevance of the melding of identities between Jonas and John Jasper is key because Jonas Vangover’s father was a James Vangover who had been born at Colchester to a Dutch-speaking family that had deep roots in the town. James Vangover, George Vancouver’s possible grandfather, was the son of Abraham Vangover, a weaver and member of the “Dutch” church at Colchester. This Abraham Vangover (married in 1681 at Colchester) may himself be the namesake to (or the same individual as) an Abraham Vangover, listed as a Flemish weaver at Colchester in 1618 (see the Proceedings of the Huguenot Society published at London, 1889; Volume II, p.185).
So while we do not have proof either way, there exists the possibility of Flemish ancestry for George Vancouver. If the identities of John Jasper and Jonas Vangover are identical, then George Vancouver had links to a family of Flemish weavers from the Westkwartier of Flanders. But even if we cannot prove the connection today, a look back at time reminds us of the Flemings who ran the good race and fought the good fight.

My next postings will be a little closer to home. This time the focus will be Chicago, and other Flemish contributions in the U.S.

Copyright 2010 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No publication without my express, written permission.