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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
Near the end of 1777 Cook decided that it was time to tear his crew from the delights of the South Pacific and push northward into the unknown ocean above the equator. They encountered nothing but a few coral reef’s until early in January, 1778; then a stir of excitement arose as signs of land began to occur. A tree branch drifted by; small birds flew past. At daybreak on January 18, the lookout in the crow’s nest of the Resolution sighted land to the northeast. All hands rushed to the rail, and as the ship surged northward through the blue swell of the Pacific, Captain Cook trained his spyglass on the emerging heights of a large island. Soon a second island appeared, directly ahead. Having observed both carefully, Cook made for his chart room and marked the ship’s position with satisfaction. They had just discovered the Hawaiian Islands.
If the Resolution and the Discovery had veered northeast toward that initial landfall, they would have sailed right into what is now Pearl Harbor. But the direction of the wind made it difficult to approach Oahu, so Cook held straight north for Kauai. He was, of course, ignorant of the native names for these islands; in fact he was not yet certain whether there would be any natives. Inhabited or not, however, they certainly were an important discovery, for existing charts showed the Pacific absolutely empty at this spot. Cook named them the Sandwich Islands, in honor of the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty.
Now Ledyard and his companions were about to have a new experience: contact with a Polynesian civilization which had never before known Europeans or even dreamed of their existence.* As the ships approached Kauai, several canoes put out toward them, but stayed a respectful distance until the English had anchored and furled their sails. Then the canoes came closer, and the men lining the ships’ rails could see that their occupants were bronzed young athletes not unlike those of Tahiti. Ledyard recorded that they “appeared inexpressibly surprised, though not intimidated: They shook their spears at us, rolled their eyes about, and made a variety of wild uncouth gesticulations.” Considering that over two thousand miles of ocean had been covered since leaving Tahiti, the visitors were in turn surprised to find that these natives spoke a language closely resembling that of the South Pacific. Encouraged by an exchange of phrases, a few of them accepted the invitation to come aboard, and with many expressions of amazement gazed about at the products and creatures of another world:
They were exceeding wild; ran up to us and examined our hands and faces, then stripping up our shirtsleeves and opening the bosoms of our shirts to view such parts of our bodies as were covered by our cloaths. Then they enquired if we could eat, which we discovered [ i.e., revealed] by eating some biscuit. As soon as they observed this they ran to the side of the ship and called to those in the canoes, who hove on board several little pigs and some sweet potatoes. … They had no knowledge of iron or European articles, but the moment we discovered its obvious importance they were in raptures about it, and gave us any thing they possessed in exchange for it.
The crew gladly would have stayed at Kauai for the rest of the winter, but their resolute captain had other ideas. His attention was now focused on the search for the Northwest Passage, and he was determined to reach America early enough to take every advantage of spring and summer as the ships worked up closer to the Arctic. After two weeks of stocking their larder with provisions supplied by the Hawaiians in return for trinkets and nails, they set out again into the huge expanse of the North Pacific. Conversation with the natives had indicated that there were several other islands in the Hawaiian group, just over the horizon beyond Oahu, to the east; but Cook decided to delay their investigation until later.
By this time the Captain had revealed to his men the main purpose of the expedition and the fact that King George had announced a prize of twenty thousand pounds to be divided among officers and crew if they succeeded in returning to Europe via the northwest. This made it somewhat easier to face a long siege of storms that beset them as they bore in toward the coast of what is now Oregon. Having caught a dim view of it through what Ledyard called “the ruggedest weather we had yet experienced,” they tacked northward to the forty-ninth parallel, and then put in for a landing.
The Resolution and the Discovery sailed into Nootka Sound, or King George’s Sound, as Cook patriotically named it, on the assumption that they were penetrating the mainland, and that this might be the fabled Passage. They were soon disillusioned on the latter point, but it remained for George Vancouver, coming back in 1792, to show that what they were probing was actually a large offshore island.