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Captain Cook’s American
Connecticut-born John Ledyard became the first American to see Alaska and Hawaii. Years before Lewis and Clark, he planned to cross the North American continent—from west to east
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
He was to get his red coat again, ironically enough, just before his native country declared its independence. The fourth of July, 1776, found Ledyard on the deck of H.M.S. Resolution as it lay off Plymouth, England, about to sail for the Cape of Good Hope and the Pacific. Knowing little of the stirring events back home, he had eagerly signed up with Captain James Cook in the spring of 1776 when fortune had brought him to London. Cook was no doubt impressed with the young American’s bursting good health, good looks, and alert enthusiasm; at any rate he saw to it that Ledyard was commissioned a corporal in the complement of marines chosen to go along with a handpicked crew.
It was to be the third of Captain Cook’s momentous voyages of discovery in the Pacific. Few men in history have so changed the map of the world as this sailor son of a Yorkshire farmer. A near-genius in marine cartography, he had already made notable surveys of the St. Lawrence River and the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland before the Admiralty, in 1768, sent him on his first mission to the South Seas. Like images emerging on a photographic print thrust into developing fluid, Australia and New Zealand took shape on the map as Cook cruised and charted their shores. Going out again in 1772, he penetrated the Antarctic Circle and proved that the old rumor of a great continent lying just south of Australia was a myth; he partially made up for this erasure by discovering New Caledonia and a few smaller islands.
But the North Pacific was still largely a realm of wild surmise. The exploration of this vast area and, more specifically, one last search for a Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific, were the goals of Cook’s third voyage. The dream of easy access to China across the top of the American continent—perhaps by a strait linking Hudson Bay to the Pacific—was one that died hard in the minds of English kings, queens, and navigators. Sailing from the south, Sir Francis Drake had tried to make it a reality for Queen Elizabeth in 1579, but never got farther than what is now the state of Washington; many others had tried, in later years, from the northeast. Cook’s aim—kept secret from his crew until they had been gone from England for many months—was to strike the western shore of North America at approximately the forty-ninth parallel of latitude—which passes through Vancouver Island off the mainland of present-day British Columbia—and then nose carefully up the coastline, charting as he went, and poking into any likely-looking inlet that might conceivably be the Passage. At best, he would get through; at worst, it was hoped, he would contribute some realistic zigs and zags to the map of northwestern North America, the eighteenth-century outline of which was absurdly smooth.
Cook was in his prime as a sea captain—he was forty-seven in 1776—and knew all there was to learn about successfully conducting a long ocean voyage in a sailing ship. His qualifications as surveyor and navigator were matched by a shrewd insight into the nature of the British seaman; he was always firm but seldom unjust, and made the men feel a rare sense of participation in the mission of each voyage. In an age when it was common to lose nearly half a ship’s company through disease on a long expedition, Cook had no peer as a guardian of his crews’ lives and health. He seemed to have a sixth sense about such shipboard scourges as dysentery and scurvy: his innovations in diet and sanitation alone would have earned him a place of honor in the annals of the sea. Of 117 men who sailed on the Resolution, only five succumbed to sickness on a voyage lasting over four years; her consort ship, the Discovery, lost not a single man.
Although only a corporal, John Ledyard ranked as an officer in Cook’s company, and as such found himself among an extraordinary group of men. There was George Vancouver, a midshipman who later (1792–95) would immortalize his own name by leading a similar exploratory venture. There was Lieutenant John Gore, one of the most experienced sailors afloat—born a Virginian, but a veteran of the Royal Navy for so many years that he no longer considered himself a colonial. And there was the sailing master, William Bligh, who because of the mutiny led by Fletcher Christian was fated to achieve a most unsavory reputation as captain of the Bounty, but who nevertheless was a first-rate navigator and deck officer. Besides these accomplished seamen there was a parcel of scientists who interested Ledyard even more: an astronomer, a botanist, and an artist sent along to record flora and fauna, including Polynesian natives.
One Polynesian native was already on the Resolution. This was Omai, a young man from Raïatéa (an island near Tahiti) adopted on Cook’s second voyage and taken to London. Having soon acquired a gloss of fashionable manners and upper-class English speech, he was the guest most in demand at London parties for an entire season—arrayed not in his native loincloth, but in silk, velvet, and lace. It was the era of the “noble savage,” that sentimental invention of eighteenth-century Europe which was to find its American counterpart in the saga of Hiawatha. Almost everyone in London society saw Omai as Nature’s original gentleman; even Dr. Samuel Johnson, no romanticist, remarked that his table manners were unimpeachable.