Empires In The Northwest


Harmonized in Nootka—for the first time continental unity as an emotional as well as a geographic fact had entered an American’s thinking. The Pacific was not something apart. Its shore, too, was America.

On those shores, moreover, a new source of wealth awaited the man bold enough to seize it. For the unabashed sake of patriotism and profit, John Ledyard hoped to be that man.

He spent the rest of his life trying—and failing. He almost talked Robert Morris of Philadelphia into promoting an expedition, but the postwar depression had left American merchants chary of untried ventures. Unable to secure additional financing, Morris switched his interest to the tea trade with China. Disgusted, Ledyard went to Europe. For a time John Paul Jones flirted with the idea, but that hope too collapsed. Thomas Jefferson, the United States representative in France, now helped the onetime corporal further a wild scheme whereby Ledyard proposed to cross Siberia to Kamchatka, catch a ship from there to the Northwest Coast, and then hoof across America, even as he supposed trade goods crossed the continent from tribe to tribe. It was a fantastic idea, fantastically begun. After a series of exhausting ordeals, including a i,5oo-mile hike in the dead of winter around the Baltic Sea, Ledyard reached east-central Siberia, only to have the suspicious Russians drag him back. Brokenhearted then, he turned to African exploration. In Cairo, aged 37, he died.

He should have come home. As he lay mortally ill in Egypt, two Boston ships, whose captains had each read his journal, were wallowing through stormy seas off Cape Horn. Their destination—Nootka Sound.

Ledyard’s Heirs

In 1785 there arrived in New York with a profitable cargo of tea and silk the Empress of China , a ship that might have been Ledyard’s had not the caution of Robert Morris and her other backers shifted her from Nootka to Canton. One year later the Grand Turk of Salem returned to New England with an equally exotic and even more remunerative lading. To traders struggling out of the doldrums left by the Revolution the effect of these arrivals was galvanic. The only limit to the new commerce, apparently, was what the Orientals would accept in exchange. Silver was one medium; ginseng was another (aging mandarins had a notion that a powder from ginseng’s bifurcate root would restore virility), but American supplies of both commodities were small. A more likely possibility, as revealed in the recently published journals of James Cook and John Ledyard, was sea-otter fur.

Promptly the alert imagination of merchant Joseph Barrell added up the various elements into what soon became the famous three-cornered trade of the Yankees: Massachusetts gimcracks to the Northwest; northwestern furs to Canton; and Chinese goods on around the world to Boston. Barrell interested five other merchants. Together they subscribed fourteen shares of stock, each share worth $3,500. With the proceeds they outfitted two ships. One was the fourteen-year-old Columbia Redeviva , 83 feet long, 212 tons burthen, mounting ten guns and manned by thirty men. The other was a go-ton sloop named the Lady Washington . Almost immediately the sailors contracted the names to Columbia and Washington .

No precedent other than Cook’s brief account existed to tell the owners what sort of goods would most appeal to the Nootka Indians. As a result the ships were filled with quantities of such unlikely objects as snuffboxes, rattraps, and jew’s-harps, together with items favored by East Coast savagespocket mirrors, iron tools, and cooking utensils.

To command the expedition the owners selected John Kendrick. He should have been a good choice, for he had been on the sea for a quarter of a century and had commanded, during the Revolution, three different privateers. He was a huge man, tempestuous, brave, persuasive. But he was 47 years old, almost ancient for those times and that trade; and age may help explain the strange indolence, even lethargy, that so often sapped his effectiveness. But age alone can hardly explain the dishonesty which later closed his career.

As Kendrick’s subordinate, in charge of the sloop Washington , the proprietors placed an obscure captain named Robert Gray. Like Kendrick, Gray was rough, hot-tempered, and brave to the point of foolhardiness. There resemblances end. Fifteen years younger than his superior, Gray possessed a restless, driving energy and, so far as his employers’ interests were concerned, a scrupulous honesty.

Not until the first day of October, 1787, were the two ships able to cast off on the initial step of their journey, a month-long crossing to the Cape Verde Islands. There they paused to fill their water casks and take on fresh food in the form of live cattle, hogs, and a milk goat named Nancy. It should not have been a lengthy job, but Kendrick’s dilatoriness made it so. Sourly Gray wrote to Barrell, “We lay forty one days, which was thirty six more than I thought was necessary.”

Because of the delays, the two ships approached Cape Horn at the worst season of the year. On April 1, 1788, huge seas and a blinding snowstorm separated them. As Gray dryly put it in his report to Barrell, “I had the good luck to part Company s… and I made the Coast six weeks sooner by being alone.”