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Historical FAQs about Mount St. Helens

Where did the name "Mount St. Helens" come from?

Some Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest variously called Mount St. Helens (Washington) "Louwala-Clough," or "smoking mountain." The modern name, Mount St. Helens, was given to the volcanic peak in 1792 by Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy, a seafarer and explorer. He named it in honor of a fellow countryman, Alleyne Fitzherbert, who held the title Baron St. Helens and who was at the time the British Ambassador to Spain. Vancouver also named three other volcanoes in the Cascades — Mounts Baker, Hood, and Rainier — for British naval officers.

What is the early-settlement documentation of Mount St. Helens?

The first documented observation of Mount St. Helens by Europeans was by George Vancouver on May 19, 1792, as he was charting the inlets of Puget Sound at Point Lawton, near present-day Seattle. Vancouver did not name the mountain until October 20, 1792, when it came into view as his ship passed the mouth of the Columbia River.

A few years later, Mount St. Helens experienced a major eruption. Explorers, traders, missionaries, and ethnologists heard reports of the event from various peoples, including the Sanpoil Indians of eastern Washington and a Spokane chief who told of the effects of ash fallout. Later studies determined that the eruption occurred in 1800.

The Lewis and Clark expedition sighted the mountain from the Columbia River in 1805 and 1806 but reported no eruptive events or evidence of recent volcanism. However, their graphic descriptions of the quicksand and channel conditions at the mouth of the Sandy River near Portland, Oregon, suggest that Mount Hood had erupted within a couple decades prior to their arrival.

Meredith Gairdner, a physician at Fort Vancouver, wrote of darkness and haze during possible eruptive activity at Mount St. Helens in 1831 and 1835. He reported seeing what he called lava flows, although it is more likely he would have seen mudflows or perhaps small pyroclastic flows of incandescent rocks.

On November 22, 1842, Reverend Josiah Parrish, while in Champoeg, Oregon, (about 80 miles or 130 kilometers south-southwest of the volcano), witnessed Mount St. Helens in eruption. Ash fallout from this event evidently reached The Dalles, Oregon (48 miles or 80 kilometers southeast of the volcano). Missionaries at The Dalles corroborated Parrish's account. Captain J.C. Fremont recounts the report of a clergyman named Brewer, who gave him a sample of ash a year later (Wilkes, 1845):

"On the 23rd day of the preceding November, St. Helens had scattered its ashes, like a light fall of snow, over the Dalles of the Columbia."