How Did Bainbridge Island Get Its Name?

By Erin Jennings

Bainbridge Island was a peninsula until Captain Charles Wilkes arrived in 1841. No, Wilkes didn’t excavate Agate Pass. Instead, during the first U.S. Navy exploration of the Pacific Northwest, he discovered that the landmass was surrounded by water. This discovery contradicted the previous determination by British Captain George Vancouver that our little island was a peninsula.

Wilkes took great fondness in naming the places he discovered. He christened the island “Bainbridge Island,” in honor of his mentor Commodore William Bainbridge, who had died in 1833. Bainbridge, who was a great leader and sailor, became captain of his own ship at the age of 19. When the War of 1812 broke out, Bainbridge commanded the USS Constitution, which holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest commissioned warship and is still afloat today.

Wilkes was on a naming mission for Bainbridge, and many of his la-bels stuck: Agate Pass, Eagle Harbor and Port Madison can all thank Wilkes for their designations. And though Wilkes excelled in mapmaking and catchy names, he was known to be a tyrant and punish sailors with more lashes than allowed per the Navy’s recommendation. It’s believed the character of Ahab—the harsh and obsessive captain in “Moby Dick”—was modeled after Wilkes.

William Bainbridge
Oil on wood, 30 by 21, by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840). Painted circa 1814. Painting in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection. Transferred from the U.S. Naval Lyceum, 1892. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.