Until Mount St. Helens erupted last May, leaving 62 dead or missing and devastating 138,000 acres, nobody had paid much attention to the volcano—or, of course, to where it got its name. The logical answer is Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine who converted the empire to Christianity in the fourth century. Logical but wrong. Surprisingly, the fuming mountain is not named for a woman at all. Instead, it honors an obscure British diplomat known for his amiable disposition and polished manners: Alleyne Fitzherbert, the first Baron St. Helens.
The mountain was discovered in 1792 by Capt. George Vancouver, the English explorer, as he sailed down the coast of present-day Washington and Oregon, seeking a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. En route he passed the snow-covered peaks of the Cascades and grandly named them for fellow naval officers—Baker, Rainier, Hood—except for the now notorious mountain. This one, he proclaimed, "I have distinguished by the name of Mount St. Helens in honor of His Britannic Majesty's Ambassador at the Court of Madrid."
Why was the baron singled out? Two years earlier he had negotiated a treaty between Britain and Spain in which the Spaniards, in effect, handed over the Pacific Northwest to Britain. For this diplomatic coup he was elevated to the peerage and chose the title of St. Helens after the house in Derbyshire where he was born in 1753.
A true gentleman of the 18th century, Fitzherbert was schooled at Eton and Cambridge, knew French, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, hobnobbed with Catherine the Great and poet Thomas Gray, and helped negotiate peace with the rebellious American colonies. He was the favorite courtier of King George III, who made the lifelong bachelor a Lord of the Bedchamber. Before his death at 85 in 1839, Baron St. Helens directed that he be commemorated by nothing more than a copper plaque in the family chapel. Ironically, his name now symbolizes one of nature's most awesome contemporary disasters. Says the baron's great-great-great-grandnephew, Sir John Fitzherbert, 67, "I don't know whether to feel proud or not."
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