- Historic Sites
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
Ledyard notes that the explorers were uncertain whether this part of the world was populated “but we had scarcely entered the inlet before we saw that hardy, that intriped [ sic ], that glorious creature man approaching us from the shore.” What he found very exciting was that the natives of Nootka seemed clearly to be “the same kind of people [ i.e., Indians] that inhabit the opposite side of the continent.” Despite his service with the British Navy, Ledyard had never lost the sense of being an American; and now his heart was stirred with a strong feeling of national identity. “Though more than two thousand miles distant from the nearest part of New-England,” he wrote, “I felt myself plainly affected. … It soothed a home-sick heart, and rendered me very tolerably happy.” Doubtless it was at this moment in the voyage that he had his first vision of an adventure which was to lure him on for the rest of his life. Why not, some day, come back here and then tramp across the whole of North America to the colonies? It would be a feat worthy of an American Cook, resulting in well-won fame for himself and inestimable opportunities for his country.
The spring and summer of 1778 were spent in painstaking exploration of the coast from Nootka Sound to Alaska and the Aleutians, with time off to repair the ships, trade with the natives, and send the men ashore for exercise and berry-picking. Near the end of May they entered a deep inlet on the south shore of Alaska and sailed northeast, again “not without hopes,” as Ledyard put it, “of the dear Passage, which was now the only theme.” It proved to be only a deep estuary (now called Cook Inlet), and they turned back, disappointed. While there, they landed near the future site of Anchorage, and “took possession” in the name of George III (a vain gesture, since the Russians already had a well-established claim to the area). They also viewed with appropriate awe the mountain one day to be named McKinley, after an American President—the highest point, though they did not know it, on the North American continent.
In all of these events young John Ledyard was a fascinated participant; and now he was about to have a moment of personal glory. As they moved southwest, in order to circumnavigate the Alaska Peninsula, they began to meet signs of Western civilization: natives with iron tips on their spears, scattered articles of European clothing, and, finally, an Aleut who produced a note written in Russian. Nobody from Cook on down could make out a word of it, but since it was dated 1778 they had no doubt that they were intruding into a fur-trading area which Catherine the Great’s entrepreneurs were currently working.** Cook was curious to see some Russians but felt impelled to push his exploration as far as possible before the end of summer. They therefore paused briefly at the island of Unalaska, and then made the final thrust up through Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. Here they soon encountered a formidable barrier of ice. No further progress being possible, they returned to Unalaska in early October, and now Cook decided to send someone in search of Russian traders. One man, he thought, could do better than a party. John Ledyard volunteered.
So it was that the young American was able to test his theory that he could make his way through uncharted wilderness alone and unarmed, depending for survival on his ability to get along with the natives of any country, especially if they were primitive. (“Like all uncivilized men,” he had noted when observing the Nootka Indians, “they are hospitable.”) He took with him no weapons, and only a little bread and a flask of rum by way of provisions. With a native who had claimed, by sign language, to know something of a white settlement, he made his way across the island, arriving by nightfall at a small Aleutian village where he was indeed hospitably received. Dinner—dried fish--was nothing to cheer about, but with the help of the rum Ledyard and the Aleuts managed to make a very sociable evening in the low, grass-thatched hut: “Ceremony was not invited to the feast, and nature presided over the entertainment until morning.”
The next day Ledyard found a cove where a Russian sloop lay at anchor; nearby was a well-established trading station. Although verbal communication between him and the handful of Russians posted there was hopeless, he demonstrated his usual facility at making strangers like him. They plied him with such delicacies as boiled whale, dressed him in Russian clothes, and in the morning insisted that he take a steam bath. Three of them then accompanied him back to the Resolution, where he got a taste of acclaim from the whole ship’s company for the successful completion of his mission.
It was now time to think of winter quarters, and Captain Cook headed back for the Sandwich Islands—with no premonition of the disaster that lay ahead. Coming in from the northeast, they discovered the island of Hawaii itself—Owhyhee, as Cook spelled it***—by far the largest of the group, and the most easterly. Although the men were desperate to get ashore, Cook cruised around the island for seven weeks while Master William Bligh made a careful survey. Finally, on January 17, 1779, they anchored in “Karakakooa” (Kealakekua) Bay, and Cook went in to the beach surrounded by a mass of canoes estimated by an officer, observing the scene from the rigging of the Resolution, at three thousand. Ledyard described the scene: