- 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
Or was it really Lono? That, apparently, was the question that was beginning to bother some of the Hawaiian leaders. About this time one of the English sailors died of natural causes, and instead of concealing his death Cook had him buried on the island with a good deal of ceremony, thinking to impress the natives. They were certainly impressed, but perhaps what struck them above all was the fact that their troublesome guests were not, obviously, immortal.
The British departed from Kealakekua Bay, in an atmosphere of strained cordiality, on February 5, 1779. All might have ended reasonably well had not a heavy storm sprung the Resolution’s foremast before they were a week away, so back they came to make repairs. The Hawaiians were not happy to see them. “When we entered the bay where before we had the shouts of thousands to welcome our arrival, we had the mortification not to see a single canoe,” Ledyard wrote. Violence between sailors and natives broke out several times within twenty-four hours; and now systematic thefts occurred as if in further effort to discourage a longer stay. On the night of February 13 the Discovery’s cutter was stolen. Cook was furious, and decided to take action in person. His plan followed a pattern he had effectively used at other islands: he would lure King Kireeaboo aboard ship and hold him until the cutter was returned.
Early the next morning Cook took two boats ashore with a guard of ten marines, including Corporal John Ledyard, and went to Kireeaboo’s dwelling. Ledyard noted that the settlement showed “every symptom of mischief”; no women or children were to be seen, and very few men. The old king came out to greet Cook amicably enough, and seemed willing to come aboard the Resolution for a visit. As they walked back to the beach, however, several hundred Hawaiians appeared as if from nowhere, most of them armed and wearing thick, woven mats hung over their chests like armor. Things looked ugly, and Cook ordered his marines to beat an orderly retreat to the waiting boats. He had given up any idea of taking the king with him.
But it was already too late. The crowd was excited, those in the rear pushing and agitating those in front; and at this point word swept through their ranks that one of their chiefs had been killed by gunfire from the boats waiting offshore. Another chief, standing near Cook, made a threatening gesture. To frighten the natives, the Captain, who was carrying a double-barreled musket, promptly fired a load of harmless small shot at the chief. Since this did no damage, the crowd’s boldness rose with its anger: the chief rushed Cook, who then fired a ball from the second barrel and hit him in the groin. The sailors waiting in the boats and the retreating guard of marines now began to fire into the crowd, while the foremost Hawaiians leaped to attack the marines with clubs, spears, and daggers. Ledyard, who was in the thick of it, describes the next few seconds:
Cook, having at length reached the margin of the water, between the fire of the boats, waved with his hat to cease firing and come in; and while he was doing this, a chief from behind stabbed him with one of our iron daggers, just under the shoulder-blade, and passed quite through his body. Cook fell with his face in the water, and immediately expired.
Thus the greatest explorer of the eighteenth century died on the shore of his greatest discovery.
Everything after that was painful anticlimax. Ledyard and five other marines got to the boats and back to the ship; four were left dead beside Captain Cook. The Resolution’s guns fired some cannon balls into the crowd on the beach, to keep them out of the bay, and the skirmish was over. That night and the next, several natives sneaked out to the ship bringing various parts of Cook’s body. They were charred; Ledyard was firmly of the opinion that the rest had been eaten in some unpleasant religious ritual. More misery followed: in going ashore for water, the sailors met stiff resistance and ended by burning a third of the Hawaiian village and killing scores of their former friends.
And so, under a pall of bitterness and gloom, the English left the islands they had so happily discovered to make a halfhearted second attempt at the Northwest Passage before getting under way, late in 1779, for home. It had been a dismal year, and their spirits were only partially raised when they touched at Canton, and found that Chinese merchants were delighted to pay tremendous prices for furs which had been casually acquired from the natives of Nootka and Alaska for a handful of trinkets the year before.
John Ledyard’s life, after his voyage with Captain Cook, was short but fantastic; and in a sense his remaining eight years were a projection of that voyage. For at Nootka Sound he had been gripped by an obsession. He would return to the Pacific Northwest on an expedition of his own—not merely to make a fortune in the fur trade, but to realize his dream of crossing the American continent alone. He would open to his astonished countrymen the unmapped plains and forests beyond the Mississippi, and the name of John Ledyard would be remembered whenever men spoke of the westward thrust of American destiny.