The Captain and the Cartographer: A Tofino History Lesson

A history of Tofino’s strange name, and the rad people who called it home first

Where did Tofino get its unique name? It’s a common question from visitors, and the answer is relatively straightforward: in 1792, two Spanish commanders named Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores Bazán chose the stunning, turbulent waters of a particular inlet to be called “Tofino” in honour of Vicente Tofiño de San Miguel, a hydrographer whom educated them. That inlet became the site of our town, and the launching point for Tofino Resort + Marina adventures. But when teased out, the story becomes much more interesting, wrapped in history and conflict and many, many more recognizable names from up and down the west coast. Let’s explore, dear reader.

While most people can ascertain that the word Clayoquot comes from the similarly-sounding “Tla-o-qui-aht”—the name of a local First Nation people of the Nuu-chah-nulth-speaking Nations—the name “Tofino” stands out in stark contrast to the Indigenous names of the coast. It’s just, well, weird. And it makes sense, Vincente Tofiño was a Spanish hydrographer who made his mark over 5000 years after the Tla-o-qui-aht settled here. Nothing like showing up late to the party and demanding to cut the cake, eh?

While we are at it, do you know what hydrography is? Me neither. Turns out that hydrography is the science behind measuring and describing the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes and rivers, and how they transform over time. Essentially, Señor Tofiño was in charge of making sure captains had reliable maps of waterways. A cartographer of the seas, if you will. It was an esteemed position, and it makes sense that Commander Galiano would be so indebted to Tofiño that he would name a beautiful, dynamic waterway bordered by dramatic mountains after him.

A little-known fact is that Tofiño chose Galiano to assist him in mapping coastlines, not the other way around. I thought captains were the ones in charge? Teacher’s pet Galiano studied astronomy under Tofiño at the Royal Observatory in Cádiz, alongside Captain Alexandro Malaspina. When ordered to create an atlas of Spain’s coast, Professor Tofiño chose Galiano to work on the project. The Atlas Maritímo de España was published in 1789—lauded for its unprecedented accuracy due to the use of new technology such as chronometers—and the relationship between Galiano and Tofiño was cemented.

Let’s get back to B.C. Early famous Europeans who visited coastal B.C. waters were Spanish captain Juan Josef Pérez Hernández in 1774, and British captain James Cook in 1778. They came for sea otter fur, and brought guns, germs and steel in exchange. The Nuu-chah-nulthaht (or “Nuu-chah-nulth people”) were heavy traders, and famous chiefs Maquinna and Wickaninnish were big time enough to dine on the ships with an international coterie of captains. Rich dudes, eh? By 1791, Spain was under pressure to beat the English in gaining a monopoly on the fur trade industry, so the King ordered Malaspina to search for the fabled Northwest Passage. He sailed past Van Isle on his way as far north as Alaska’s Prince William Sound before returning to the Spanish outpost at Nootka Sound. Defeated, he did what we all do in winter; booked it to Mexico and ordered Galiano and another captain, Cayetano Valdés y Flores Bazán, to explore the rich waters around Vancouver Island. Hence, Galiano’s visit to Tofino and the subsequent naming.

A question remains…did Tofiño himself make the voyage? Some internets say yes, and some allude to “no.” As usual, the web is not to be trusted. This sleuth will read a book and get back to you. The rest is history: a trading post was established in the area in 1854, located on what was then called Stubbs Island, right off the end of Esowista Peninsula, and now rightfully called Clayoquot Island (or should it be Tla-o-qui-aht?). This would be the first spot for non-First Nations to settle in the area. Modern-day Tofino came later. By 1901, the future townsite of Tofino had a store. By 1906, a school. In 1908, a wharf was built, and the following year the establishment of a post office, making the current townsite of Tofino “official.”  Officially a municipality in 1932. — Mike Berard