DUNCAN, CHARLES, naval officer, explorer, and maritime fur-trader; fl. 1786–92.
It may be assumed that Charles Duncan had spent many years in the naval service before taking part in voyages between 1786 and 1788 as a member of the merchant marine. The evidence is his own “Sketch of the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” published in 1788 by Alexander Dalrymple, the hydrographer, which notes that he then held the rank of master in the Royal Navy.
In 1786 Richard Cadman Etches and Company, commonly known as the King George’s Sound Company, fitted out the Prince of Wales and its tender, the Princess Royal. James Colnett* was given command of the former; Duncan of the latter. The company, one of several commercial associations formed to pursue the trade in sea otter furs with China, had sent vessels under Nathaniel Portlock* and George Dixon to the northwest coast the year before. Duncan and Colnett left England in September 1786 and, after establishing a sealskin and oil factory on Staten Island (Isla de los Estados, Argentina), arrived at King George’s Sound (Nootka Sound, B.C.) the next July. There they traded with the Nootka Indians and, in mid August, met Dixon, who had spent the season trading to the north. Duncan and Colnett then sailed to winter in the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. They returned to the coast in March 1788 and parted, Duncan putting in to Nootka Sound for repairs. In May he headed to the Queen Charlotte Islands, on Dixon’s recommendation that trade there would be good. He was the first to prove that they were islands by sailing through Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance, thus confirming the speculations of Dixon and the Comte de Lapérouse [Galaup].
Duncan spent June and July shuttling between these islands and those lying off the mainland between the mouth of the Skeena River and Calvert Island. He named this chain Princess Royal’s Isles, but only one island has retained this appellation. His chart of the area was subsequently used by George Vancouver. On 5 August he continued south to Nootka Sound, where he met another trader, John Meares*. Farther south, in Clayoquot Sound, Duncan anchored off the Nootka village of Ahousat, then located on Vargas Island, and traded with the tribe Of Wikinanish. Duncan then sailed by the mouth of Juan de Fuca Strait. His map and sketch of the entrance, dated 15 August, contains some comments on the Indians of Cape Claaset (Cape Flattery, Wash.). It also includes a drawing of Pinnacle Rock (Fuca’s Pillar, Wash.), off the cape. The resemblance of the rock to the one described in Juan de Fuca*’s account of the Strait of Anian, and the Indians’ comment that a “Great Sea” lay to the east, stimulated belief in England that the strait led to the polar sea.
On 17 August Duncan sailed for the Sandwich Islands, where he joined Colnett, and together they sailed for China. Duncan’s season on the coast had been profitable; almost 2,000 furs had been obtained. He did not return to the northwest coast but exchanged ships with Colnett and sailed to England from Canton in the Prince of Wales.
Duncan’s discoveries on the northwest coast made him a firm, even fanatical, believer in the existence of a northwest passage. His return to England coincided with a growing interest in the fabled passage aroused by the Nootka crisis [see Esteban José Martínez], the explorations of Peter Pond* and Samuel Hearne, the promotions of Dalrymple, and a planned government expedition to establish a settlement on the northwest coast. In May 1790 Duncan received instructions from the Hudson’s Bay Company to sail for the west coast of Hudson Bay, find the passage, sail through it to the entrance of Juan de Fuca Strait, and either return or proceed to China. If he did not find such a passage, he was to push inland from Chesterfield Inlet (N.W.T.) as far as the Yathkyed and Dubawnt lakes. Dixon was to accompany Duncan and from the lakes was to travel overland to the Pacific; this plan was subsequently cancelled, and Duncan went alone. He made a voyage in 1790 and another in 1791. On the second occasion he wintered at Churchill (Man.); he examined the shores of the bay and Chesterfield Inlet in July 1792 but found no indications of a passage. Duncan, who “prior to his Sailing, entertained the most positive Assurances that he should discover the often sought for North West Passage . . . felt the disappointment so severely, that whilst on his Voyage home he was attack’d by a Brain Fever.” He made several attempts to commit suicide and had to be tied to his bunk, but he still held to the existence of a passage, believing that a rising of land on the west coast of Hudson Bay had made it impassable. There are no further known references to Duncan.
[William Beresford], A voyage round the world; but more particularly to the north-west coast of America . . . , ed. and intro. George Dixon (London, 1789; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1968). The Dixon-Meares controversy . . . , ed. F. W. Howay (Toronto and New York, 1929; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1969). Meares, Voyages. Walbran, B.C. coast names. H. H. Bancroft [and H. L. Oak], History of the northwest coast (2v., San Francisco, 1884). Cook, Flood tide of empire. H. T. Fry, Alexander Dalrymple (1737–1808) and the expansion of British trade (Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto, 1970). Glyndwr Williams, The British search for the northwest passage in the eighteenth century (London and Toronto, 1962).