Empires In The Northwest

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That name—Cook—shows how seriously the admiralty took the venture. England had no finer navigator. Cook’s painstaking work in charting the St. Lawrence River (he was with Wolfe at the capture of Quebec) and his surveys of the Newfoundland coast had led to his being sent on his first great voyage, a trip into the South Pacific to observe the transit of Venus. While there, he had developed, though he was no physician, revolutionary plans for controlling the dread killer of the seas, scurvy. On his second voyage he finished the charting of the southern oceans. He also proved his dietary and sanitation theories, defeating scurvy in spite of objections by his sailors against staying alive at the cost of eating sauerkraut, drinking broth, and airing their bedding.

For his trip to the Northwest Cook was given detailed instructions. After completing various incidental errands he was to strike the coast of Drake’s New Albion and sail northward along it, wasting no time “exploring rivers or inlets, or upon any other account,” until he reached latitude 65°. From that point on, however, he was “very carefully to search for, and to explore such rivers or inlets as may appear to be of a considerable extent, and pointing towards Hudson’s Bay or Baffin’s Bay.”

Shortly before sailing Cook signed on as corporal of his marines a Connecticut-born Yankee who was in some ways as remarkable as his commander. This was fortune’s favorite fool, John Ledyard. Fatherless at ten, John had been raised first by a grandfather, then by an uncle, who sent him off to newly opened Dartmouth College. Chafing under discipline, he persuaded several friends to help him chop down a tree and hollow it into a clumsy fifty-foot dugout. Alone in this oversized creation, he fled Dartmouth by sailing down the Connecticut River to a job as a common sailor with a shipload of mules bound for Africa. Seafaring brought him to London, aged 24. There he enlisted with Cook.

The Resolution and Discovery sailed eight days days after the Declaration of Independence but well before news of the event reached England. The voyage to western America was uneventful enough, even counting an idyllic interlude in Polynesia and the rediscovery of the Hawaiian Islands, which Cook named for the Earl of Sandwich. On March 7, 1778, the ships raised the coast of New Albion. Contrary winds kept the mariners from seeing very much of the land, which in any event Cook had been instructed to waste no time exploring. Thus he missed both the mouth of Bruno Heceta’s river and, later, Juan de Fuca Strait.

On March 29, beating landward after still another storm, he found his vessels confronted by snow-covered peaks. Heavily wooded, these dropped abruptly to a rocky, serrated shore. Dead ahead, but separated by several miles of rugged littoral, were two deep inlets. As Cook later found, these sea arms, embracing triangularly, formed a small island tucked snugly into what he thought was the mainland. Actually it was the coast of Vancouver Island, though the geography would not be straightened out for several years. The southern inlet, toward which Cook now steered and which Juan Ferez four years earlier had designated as San Lorenzo, the English mariner called King George’s Sound. Later, because of some mistaken notion rising from the gabble of the natives, he changed the name of both the small island and the sound to Nootka, though actually there was no such word in the language of the local Indians.

As the storm-buffeted ships drew in toward the sound, three canoes approached, the occupants flinging out feathers, red dust, and occasionally bursts of oratory by way of welcome. More canoes followed, until there were 32, loaded with both men and women. They were singular craft, light of weight and instantly maneuverable, though some were as much as forty feet long and seven wide, each manufactured with infinite labor, fire, and steam, from the trunk of a single huge cedar tree.

The rowers were equally singular. A few of the men shouted stark naked up at the staring sailors; the women, more decorous, wore garments woven from the inner strands of cedar bark. Such men as were dressed sported a blanket of mixed bark and dog’s hair, the whole skillfully decorated, Corporal Ledyard noted, with paintings of whale hunts or other aquatic scenes. Over these blankets some of the men negligently draped robes of ill-treated fox or seaotter skin. Many of their blankets were also edged with fur. They showed neither surprise nor awe at the sight of the great winged ships, though later they told Cook (or so he interpreted their gestures) that they never before had encountered European vessels. (Yet what of Ferez?) Indeed, the only thing that ruffled the Indians’ aplomb during the white men’s stay was the firing of a musket through six folds of the heavy leather garments they used as protective armor in warfare.

Knowing they were bound for the Arctic, the English sailors traded trinkets for “the skins of various animals, such as bears, wolves, foxes, deer, racoons, pole-cats, and martins, and, in particular, that of the sea-otter,” planning after they had used the articles to sell them at the first civilized port the ships reached.