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Humboldt: What's in a Name?


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The schooner Laura Virginia made history on April 14, 1850, by becoming the first vessel to enter our bay. Captain Douglass Ottinger and his second officer, Hans Buhne, promptly named the bay "Humboldt" after a German naturalist. Three years later, Humboldt Bay gave its name to our county when it was detached from Trinity County. We share the name with two other counties in the U.S. (in Nevada and Iowa), not to mention a dozen cities and towns, many parks, rivers and mountains worldwide, and -- going beyond Earth -- a lunar mare ("sea") and an asteroid.

Who was this German, who was apparently so well known that he earned practically universal acclamation? Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt was perhaps the most fĂȘted man in Europe in the first few decades of the 19th century. He was generally applauded as a true renaissance man, someone who took an interest in just about everything and advanced the knowledge of our planet dramatically.

Like Charles Darwin some 30 years later, Humboldt was instructed and inspired by a five-year expedition that started in South America. The 30-year-old explorer and naturalist arrived in Venezuela in 1799, and for the next several years almost no area of knowledge was off-limits to his boundless curiosity. Physical geography, botany, meteorology, astronomy, geology, anthropology: He took an interest in everything around him. He even set the record at the time for altitude, climbing to over 19,000 feet on Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.

Upon his return to Europe, laden with thousands of hitherto unknown specimens of flora and fauna that he had collected, he began the 21-year task of publishing his findings in 30 encyclopedic volumes. In between writing, he led a scientific expedition to Russia, he served as a diplomat on behalf of Louis Philippe, the last king of France, he taught other budding scientists and he championed the new science of terrestrial magnetism -- that is, defining the Earth's magnetic field. He is one of the founders of modern geography.

So for Ottwell and Buhne, their choice of the name of our bay was an acknowledgment of not just one of the finest scientists anytime, anywhere, but of someone possessed by the same spirit of curiosity and adventure as themselves.

Barry Evans is an author and recovering civil engineer living in Old Town Eureka. His book "Everyday Wonders: Encounters with the Astonishing World around Us" led to a four-year stint as a commentator on National Public Radio. He welcomes comments at


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