The naming of Mount Baker (Kulshan)

The naming of Mount Baker (Kulshan)

Mount Baker was named by George Vancouver after his third lieutenant, who was the first on his ship to see it.

About this time a very high conspicuous craggy mountain... presented itself, towering above the clouds: as low down as they allowed it to be visible it was covered with snow; and south of it, was a long ridge of very rugged snowy mountains, much less elevated, which seemed to stretch to a considerable distance... the high distant land formed, as already observed, like detached islands, amongst which the lofty mountain, discovered in the afternoon by the third lieutenant, and in compliment to him called by me Mount Baker, rose a very conspicuous object... apparently at a very remote distance.

George Vancouver [1]

Vancouver was not the only person going around arbitrarily naming things. At the time, the British and Spanish were competing to chart the Pacific Northwest for colonialist reasons. Manuel Quimper’s expedition had actually seen Mount Baker two years before third lieutenant Baker did, and named it La gran montaña del Carmelo [2]. Perhaps if the Nootka Crisis been resolved differently we'd be calling it Monte Carmelo instead.

Vancouver's diary mentions friendly encounters with different indigenous groups of the area, but he never stuck around in the same place long enough to learn their names or pick up their languages [3]. If he had, he might have recognized Mount Baker by the name Kulshan, the term used by the Lhaq'temish (Lummi) people around Bellingham and the San Juan Islands.

I got [the name Kulshan] from the Lummi tribe at its base, after I had dipped in their pot at a boiled-salmon feast. As to Baker, that name should be forgotten. Mountains should not be insulted by being named after undistinguished bipeds.

Theodore Winthrop [4]

The mountain itself is surrounded by the traditional lands of the Nuxwsá7aq (Nooksack) and Upper Skagit peoples. The Nooksack used the cognate term Kwelshán for the high open slopes of the mountain and Kweq’ Smánit for the glacier-covered summit [5].


  1. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean, and Round the World: In which the Coast of North-west America Has Been Carefully Examined and Accurately Surveyed : Undertaken by His Majesty’s Command, Principally with a View to Ascertain the Existence of Any Navigable Communication Between the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans, and Performed in the Years 1790, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1794, and 1795, in the Discovery Sloop of War, and Armed Tender Chatham, Under the Command of Captain George Vancouver : in Three Volumes, Vol. I. George Vancouver (1798). ↩︎

  2. Plano del Estrecho de Fuca reconocido por el Alferez de Navio de la Rl. Armada Dn. Manuel Quimper: en la Espedición que hizo con la Balandra de S.M. de su mando nobrada la Princesa Rl. en el año de 1790. University of Washington Libraries Government Publications Section. Gonzalo López de Haro (1873). ↩︎

  3. Vancouver claims that his crew tried to pick up vocabulary from the people they met, but found it wasn't much help. That's to be expected if they heard (say) Txʷəlšucid (Lushootseed) in one place, Hǝn̓q̓ǝmin̓ǝm̓ (Halkomelem) in the next, and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim (Squamish) a while after that. The crew's rudimentary skills in Nuučaan̓uɫ (Nuu-chah-nulth) from the Island's west coast would have been completely useless due to that being in a different language family altogether. ↩︎

  4. CITATION UNDEFINED ↩︎

  5. Nooksack Place Names: Geography, Culture, and Language. Allan Richardson and Brent Galloway (2011). ↩︎