Empires In The Northwest

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Although Cook believed that the Nootkas had never before encountered Europeans, they were none the less familiar with certain articles of European origin. They had chisel-ended bits of strap iron that they inserted into wooden handles and pounded with stone mallets. They possessed copper for ornament—they were wild to obtain the brass button rings off the sailors’ clothes for nose bobs—and one native was found wearing two silver teaspoons on a cord around his neck. The spoons, Cook decided, were of Spanish origin—and he caused future trouble for England by noting the fact in his journal. The other metal, he concluded, must have followed aboriginal trade routes across Canada from Hudson Bay, a notion he clung to even up in Alaska amidst signs of Russian penetration. Actually, assuming that the iron had indeed crossed the continent, a starting place with voyageurs working for the North West Company out of Montreal might have been a better guess than the traders of Hudson Bay. Whatever its source, the metal planted in Corporal John Ledyard’s mind seeds for future speculation. If a white man’s goods could cross America, why couldn’t a white man?

[ Leaving Nootka, Cook pushed north along the coast, through the Aleutians and into Bering Strait, where he was stopped by ice. With winter coming on, he turned back and made for the Sandwich Islands. It was there, in February, I1JJc1, that he met his death in a skirmish with natives. Command devolved on Captain Clerke, who took the fleet north again the next summer, doggedly following Cook’s orders until he too died, of consumption, off the icy coast of Kamchatka. The fleet then repaired to the Macao Roads below Canton. ]

In search of supplies, Lieutenant King of the Discovery went upriver to Canton, taking with him twenty sea-otter skins. The effect on the Chinese was electric. To King’s amazement he was paid $800 for twenty low-quality pelts and besieged with requests for more.

His sailors, he said, might have a few. Promptly, through the English merchants in Canton, arrangements were made for an auction on shipboard in Macao. The few prime skins available brought $120 each.

In the official journal he had been keeping since Cook’s death, King wrote: “When … it is remembered, that the furs were at first collected without our having any idea of their real value; that the greatest part had been worn by the Indians, from whom we purchased them; that they were afterwards preserved with little care, and frequently used for bed-clothes, and other purposes, during our cruise to the north; and that, probably, we had never got the full value for them in China; the advantages that might be derived from a voyage to that part of the American coast, undertaken with commercial views, appear to me of a degree of importance sufficient to call for the attention of the public.”

Meanwhile Corporal John Ledyard was developing his own variations on the same theme. Nothing could be done at the time, of course. Ledyard was almost penniless, and his enlistment had three more years to run. Furthermore, the explorers now knew that war was raging between England and her American colonies, supported by France. Though each belligerent had issued orders that Cook’s ships were not to be molested, the officers prudently added more armament before beating on around the Cape of Good Hope to England.

In England Ledyard managed to sit out all but the tag-end of the war. When at last he was sent against the land of his nativity, his transport anchored off Long Island. Promptly Ledyard deserted, made his way to a boardinghouse run by his mother, and then fled to Connecticut. There, buried in his uncle’s law office during the greening April days of 1783, he scribbled off at white heat his own story of Cook’s third voyage.

Exactly five years had passed since his first sight of Nootka Sound. In those five years Yorktown had ripped the British Empire apart; and although the formal terms of peace remained to be announced, there was no doubt that a new nation had risen in the New World.

How big was that nation? To Ledyard’s warweary Connecticut neighbors, the Appalachian Mountains, or at most the Mississippi, were far enough. The Pacific, if they thought of it at all, was a Spanish ocean, too remote for meaning. Ledyard, however, alone of all his countrymen, had stood on that distant shore. Southward, as he knew, Drake had taken possession for England. North and south, as perhaps he did not know, Heceta had erected crosses and had buried bottles for Spain. Northward, too, a Russian fur trader named Grigori Shelekhov was already talking to his empress about Russian colonies, Russian sovereignty. But these men were outsiders. Only Ledyard had returned home to “the shores of that continent which gave me birth.”

Always he was a romantic and highly emotional man. As his pen paused over the paper and his mind cast back to that exotic day when the welcoming savages had flung out their handfuls of feathers and red dirt, his remembered feelings became inextricably mixed with his feelings here on the eastern seaboard, so that with complete conviction he could write of that distant day: ”… though [I was] more than 2,000 miles from the nearest part of New-England, I felt myself painfully affected.∗ All the affectionate passions incident to natural attachments and early prejudices played round my heart and I indulged them because they were prejudices. I was harmonized by it.”

∗Actually, as Ledyard should have known from Cook’s calculations, he was more than 3,000 miles away.