Monday, March 9, 2020

Captain Cook in Alaska, 1778

In April 1778, the two ships of Captain James Cook’s 3rd voyage of discovery, Resolution and Discovery, left Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, and sailed north in search of the Northwest Passage, the fabled and perhaps imaginary sea route between Europe and the Orient. Over the next few weeks they would explore Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, sail past Kodiak Island on their way to the Bering Sea, and reject walrus meat as “disgustful.” While the Russians had been in Alaska for thirty years, Cook and his sailors were the first Englishmen to visit this part of the North Pacific.

The impetus for the voyage had been a dinner in London in January 1776, attended by Cook and hosted by the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Mantagu, fourth Earl of Sandwich. Sandwich mentioned that the British government was launching a new expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which, despite centuries of speculation, numerous expeditions, and a £20,000 prize offered by the British Parliament for its discovery, remained unfound. Cook, back from a three-year voyage only since the previous July, and presumed to now be in glorious retirement with two young sons and a pregnant wife, volunteered to lead the new venture.

In July 1776 Cook and his two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, left England, passing a military fleet gathering to repress the recent rebellion in the American colonies. Sailing around Africa, across the Southern Ocean and north to Hawaii, they arrived off what is now Oregon in March 1778. The plan was to sail up the coast looking for a chink in the Pacific wall of North America that would lead to the Atlantic

The British knew that Vitus Bering had sailed from Siberia as far east as Yakutat in 1741, and that he had previously determined that Siberia and America were separated by the Bering Sea. The British also possessed a chart Bering had made of Alaska’s coast, but it was vague in many details.

HMS Resolution in Cook Inlet, June 1778
So, during the late spring of 1778, Cook and his men felt their way north. In early May the Resolution’s sailing master, a young William Bligh, later of HMS Bounty infamy, mapped the various islands of Prince William Sound, and Cook buried a bottle with a note in it on Kayak Island.

The expedition then sailed into Cook Inlet and spent two frustrating weeks inching north on the flood tide and anchoring on the ebb, before realizing it was a dead end, and that if there was a viable Northwest Passage, it would be through the Bering Sea, not through the Pacific coast of Alaska.
Early 19th century French chart of Cook Inlet

On June 1st, at Point Woronzof, off the end of the what is now Anchorage International Airport, they “hoisted English colors on a pole… and left a bottle with a paper in it whereon was wrote the ship’s names and that of the Captain and the time of our being here as is usual on these occasions, and each drank a bumper of porter to his majestie’s health.”
The ships then passed down the Inlet and the east side of Kodiak Island. On June 6th, they struck a reef east of Shuyak Island but managed to get off safely. They passed Pillar Cape and Marmot Bay on the 7th, Cape Greville on the 8th, and Cape Barnabas on the 12th. Off the Trinity Islands on the 14th they saw people in kayaks in the distance.  

In the Shumagins on June 19th two men in a kayak paddled up to the Discovery and handed a small box with a piece of paper in it to the English sailors. While none on board could read the Russian writing, it was later determined to be a receipt for the payment of “iasak,” a fur tax imposed on the natives by the Russian government.  The British eventually came to believe the note indicated the eastern limit of Russian influence in Alaska. They were correct, at least for the moment, as the massacre and subjugation of Kodiak Sugpiak by the Russians at Refuge Rock near Old Harbor, was six summers in the future.

On June 21st, Cook’s sailors caught several hundred pounds of halibut and met a man in a kayak wearing “green breeches,” who seemed entirely comfortable in the presence of Europeans. Soon after, they entered the Bering Sea. On August 18th, north of Icy Cape at 70 degrees north, they ran into a 12 foot wall of ice, moving south at a mile and half an hour. Cook turned south.

Captain Cook, Royal Museum, Greenwich
On November 26 the lookouts sighted Maui, and on February 14, 1779, in a violent encounter with the Hawaiians, Cook, four Royal Marines, and an unknown number of Hawaiians were killed on the beach at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Cook’s body was dismembered and roasted, but a few days later his remains were handed over to Captain Charles Clerk, now in command of the expedition, who buried them at sea.

The Resolution and the Discovery arrived home to England in October 1780, having been gone four years. While several memorials to Captain Cook exist in Alaska, the bottles and notes he buried on Kayak Island and at Point Woronzof remain yet undiscovered.

Sources: Explorenorthcom, Captain Cook Society, Royal Museums Greenwich

Route  of the Captain cook's third voyage, July 1776- October 1780
Outward bound with Cook in command in red, homeward bound,  after Cook's death, in red. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

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