The Henry and Holly Wendt Collection includes 29 of the earliest maps of the north coast of North America with 11 illustrations and five books.

ASTORIA — Samuel Johnson is grinning like a Cheshire cat this week — and no wonder.

He has just learned that the Columbia River Maritime Museum has been chosen as the permanent home for a collection of maps, books and engravings valued at $1.2 million.

"It is truly a national treasure," said Johnson, who became executive director of the museum earlier this summer. "The guys at the Smithsonian would love to have this. It is an incredible addition to our collection."

Henry Wendt of Friday Harbor, Wash., is a retired chief executive for a giant pharmaceuticals company. He and his wife, Holly, started buying maps and other historical artifacts in the early 1960s and whetted their appetite for exploration by sailing their 55-foot sloop up the coast from San Francisco to Alaska.

The Henry and Holly Wendt Collection includes 29 of the earliest maps of the north coast of North America with 11 illustrations and five books. The materials date from 1540 to 1802.

Such maps — with uncharted areas of the West Coast and what would become the Western states — spurred President Thomas Jefferson to send Lewis and Clark on their Voyage of Discovery.

During that era, the Pacific Coast was considered "the edge of the world" as European explorers sought new trade routes to the East, said Wendt. "These stories not only inform us about the exciting history of our country, but also appeal to the explorer in all of us," he said.

Some of the documents, books and engravings refer to explorers like Sir Francis Drake, Captain Cook and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. They span the European Renaissance to the Age of Enlightenment.

The materials were part of the 2007 exhibit, "Mapping the Pacific Coast, Coronado to Lewis and Clark," which Johnson said was one of the most popular displays at the Maritime Museum. This traveling exhibit is at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. After that, it will be shown at the Autrey National Center in Los Angeles, the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco.

Once those four exhibitions are completed, the maps will come to Astoria to be put on display in 2012.

The donation comes with a $250,000 endowment to help pay for the care of the collection and for related educational programs.

Johnson said the Wendts chose Astoria, in part, because of the professional and cordial manner in which they were treated by the staff. Also, the museum has accreditation from the American Association of Museums, which reviews issues like security and climate-control conditions.

"This gift is an invaluable contribution that builds on the strength of our collections as a nationally known institution specializing in the maritime history of the Northwest," said Johnson.