How Cascadia Got Its Name: Short Version

DMcC-CascMap-DawsonFalls,B.C.How Cascadia Got Its Name: Short Version

By David McCloskey © Cascadia Institute

Spring Equinox, 2016

(In response to an inquiry):

Thanks, Sylvester, for your inquiry regarding, “who coined the name Cascadia?”

Someday I’ll write the full story of “how Cascadia got its name,” but, for now, here’s a nutshell version. 

It begins not with a person, but a place–especially the waters….

The Great River of the West stepped down thru many cascades and waterfalls— for instance, from Kettle Falls to all those rapids on the mid-Columbia that your fellow Wenatchee-ite Bill Layman so eloquently tells of in his books Native River and River of Memory–esp. Celilo Falls, the Chutes, and the Great Cascades (submerged under The Dalles and Bonneville Dams, respectively). The explorers and fur traders, esp. the Hudson’s Bay men at Fort Vancouver who had to laboriously portage around the boiling whitewaters, began to name the snowpeaks so prominent in the Columbia Gorge and surrounding Plateau–Pahto, Loowit, Wy’east–calling them collectively “The Mountains-by-the-Cascades,” eventually shortened to “The Cascade Range.” Thus, the mountains were named after the central fact of life there & then—namely those  cascading waters…!

It is crucial to note that this area and the Cascade Mountains were named for what they do–for that’s what these mountains and a hundred more ranges in the wider region do–they cascade! Some naturally assume that Cascadia is the land created by the Cascade Mountains, and even though we love our snowcapped peaks, in fact the whole region cascades from the “Cascade Corner” of Yellowstone NP westward down to the coast, and all the way north thru BC & SE AK. So beware of allowing Cascadia to become a westside “I-5 conceit.” Cascadia is The Land of Falling Waters!

By a circuitous route too long to describe here, Cascadia passed into and out of geological usage, and eventually became attached as a commemorative to several seafloor features such as the Cascadia Basin and the Cascadia Channel, several decades before the great plate tectonics revolution. In 1972, Bates McKee, an assistant prof at UW, published a regional geological history textbook entitled Cascadia: The Geologic Evolution of the Pacific Northwest (though he failed to receive tenure for his fine effort). Its virtue was that it addressed and briefly synthesized PNW w/ S. B.C. geology up thru the late 1960’s, but its drawback was that it was descriptive at an intro level, and remained largely pre-tectonic. Many new revolutions in geology then exploded, literally cascading thru the region every year since…!

In the mid-1970’s I was teaching at Seattle University, and beginning to help lead a group of ecologically and culturally minded enviros and innovators. (Later I founded an Ecological Studies Program at SU). I was searching for a new, accurately grounded, and evocative name for our region, and finally found McKee’s out-of-print textbook, loved the exposition, and adopted the name “Cascadia” for our BioRegion. Great ferment followed, for instance, in 1986 our group of bioregionalists held the First Cascadia Bioregional Congress at Evergreen State College in Olympia, and then we co-sponsored eight more conferences from 1985 to 1995. 

I made the first map of Cascadia in 1988 for the great Third North American Bioregional Congress (held at Squamish, B.C.), and all the other maps you see on the web are derivative of it….

So one needs to be careful here–as several strands of usage emerged. I/we were the first to call the wider PNW w/ BC & SE AK from the coast to the crest of the Continental Divide a bioregion, which we named “Cascadia.” But we always grounded the notion in the bones of the earth, esp. the extraordinary breakthroughs in plate tectonics geology, which gathered many of its new insights from this region.

So both attributions are true: 

  I was the first to name the wider biogeographical province/BioRegion “Cascadia,”

  and I borrowed the geological inspiration from the title of McKee’s book.

In telling the story the two “Mc’s” go together!

All subsequent reference to Cascadia as a wider region with its own distinctive character & context, history & destiny, stems from our bioregional innovations….

Now, geologists with their Cascadia Subduction Zone and the “Big One” continue to make great strides, as do bioregionalists in several ways. For instance, my new map of “Cascadia” won several awards as “Map of the Year, 2015.” It has gained widespread recognition as the new Master Map of Cascadia.

Some folks don’t know this story, b/c they weren’t there or have other interests, thus often don’t tell it well, but here you’ve got the straight scoop from the author himself.

Hope this helps….   As a lover of the region, I bet you’d  like the new map!

Check out the website at

Bioregionally yours,

David McCloskey

Cascadia Institute

(Listen to a 2013 interview with David McCloskey here.)


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