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Captain James Cook in Alaska

by Murray Lundberg


      Captain Cook is universally regarded as one of the most ambitious explorers of all time - in particular, his three expeditions in 1768-1771, 1772-1775, and 1776-1779 accomplished an impressive list of "firsts," including the first European sighting of Hawaii. While his exploration of the coast of Alaska in 1778 was not one of his greatest accomplishments, it added an enormous amount of information to the blank spots on the maps of the northern coast.
James Cook, 1776 James Cook
by N. Dance,
May 1776

      Born on October 27, 1728, Cook rose rapidly through the ranks after joining the Royal Navy in 1755. He received his promotions the hard way, through sheer determination and ability, with no powerful connections to assist him. After serving in several battles against the French, his mapping abilities earned him a posting as surveyor of Newfoundland, and for the same skill, he was appointed to his first expedition command in 1768. During this first voyage he conducted the first detailed mapping of Tahiti and New Zealand.

      On his second voyage, Cook had made one of the great non-discoveries of the age, arriving home with proof that Terra Australis Incognita, the continent that was imagined to be in the southern hemisphere to balance the Earth, did not exist. He was also able to conclusively prove that with a high level of cleanliness and a proper diet, scurvy could be prevented, regardless of the length of time spent at sea.

      The primary reason for organizing another expedition for 1776 was to find the fabled Northwest Passage, a trading route across the top of North America, from Europe to the Orient. Over the previous 280 years, dozens of unsuccessful expeditions had been launched - so important was the discovery of this route that a £20,000 prize had been offered by Britain. Although Cook had been given an honourary shore posting in gratitude for his previous service, and was not initially considered to lead this new expedition, the prize money must surely have been a consideration in his offer on January 9, 1776 to lead the expedition. Significantly, another expedition was launched in 1776 with the mission of locating the Northwest Passage from the east.

      Cook was heading into tricky waters politically - Vitus Bering had reached Alaska 35 years before, and the Spanish sent exploration parties north from California to Alaska in 1774 and 1775. The exact extent of Spanish and Russian cliams was not clear, however, and on British maps the central part of the west coast of North America was named New Albion, despite the fact that no British claims had yet been made on the country. Cook was ordered to avoid any possible conflict, specifically not to land where any other European presence was noted.

      The 462-ton Resolution finally left England on July 12, 1776, eight days after the Declaration of Independence had been signed on the opposite side of the Atlantic. At Plymouth Sound on June 30th, Cook had encountered 3 warships and 62 troop transports heading for the revolution on the east coast of North America. The captain of the Discovery, Charles Clerke, had been thrown into debtor's prison as a result of a brother's flight from creditors, and did not get away until two weeks later.

      Among the crew of 112 men on the Resolution and another 70 on the Discovery were a total of 35 Royal Marines, and several crew members would later become famous in their own right. Among these were William Bligh, George Vancouver, Edward Riou, John Ledyard, and the expedition's artist, John Webber.

      Following months exploring the South Pacific, the coast of New Albion was sighted on March 6, 1778, south of present-day Newport, Oregon. Three weeks later, after fighting violent weather, Cook arrived at Nootka Sound (he named it St. George's Sound) on March 29, making the Resolution the first British ship on the Northwest Coast. During the first months at sea, it had become clear that the Resolution had been very poorly rebuilt, and major work, including replacement of the masts, was again necessary at Nootka.

      On April 26 the repairs to the ships were complete, and the journey north continued in good weather.
H.M.S. Resolution
          H.M.S. Resolution, by Herb Kane

      To more fully understand the expedition's wandering route as they attempted to locate the Northwest Passage, you may find it handy to have a good map of Alaska handy from here on. The chronology used has largely been adapted from a work by the late Paul Capper, and originally published in the newsletter of the Captain Cook Society. There are many discrepancies in the various accounts of the voyage, both as to dates and locations - the Alaska section of Cook's third voyage has received comparatively little study, and I have used Capper's account because it is the most detailed, and I am thus hopeful that it is also the most accurate.

May 1, 1778 - off Sitka Sound, Baranof Island, finally in "perfectly serene" weather.

May 3 - passes Cross Sound, at the north end of Chicagof Island.

May 4 - sights Mt. Fairweather

May 6 - sights Mt. St. Elias, first reported by Vitus Bering.

May 11 - the expedition's first landing in Alaska, at Kayak Island.

May 12 - enters Prince William Sound, which Cook named to honour the King's third son. While the ships anchored near the mouth and traded with a large number of natives who had paddled out with furs, William Bligh took a small boat and explored enough of the Sound to ascertain that this was not the passage that they sought.

May 18 - leaves Prince William Sound, heading southwest, the opposite of the desired direction. Following their departure, the journey had few positive experiences, and much danger. High, unpredictable winds made following the shore closely exceptionally dangerous, and when the winds dropped, that danger was replaced by low visibility in mist and fog.

May 21 - passes the south end of the Kenai Peninsula. This was the birthday of King George III's daughter Elizabeth, and Cook named the point in her honour.

May 24 - sights Afognak and Kodiak Islands.

May 25 - enters a huge inlet that led off to the north-east. Against opposition by Bligh, who stated that it was only a river, the ships spent almost 2 weeks exploring Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm before giving up.

June 6 - passes Shuyak Island, off the north coast of Afognak Island.

June 14 - off Trinity Islands. The first Aleuts paddling kayaks are seen.

June 15 - stays well offshore, passes Chirikof Island.

June 17 - among the Shumagin Islands.

June 20 - sights Unimak Island and the Shishaldin Volcano.

June 26 - Cook narrowly averts disaster while sailing fast with the wind in thick fog. An alert look-out heard breakers ahead, and the ships managed to stop only a few hundred yards from rocks off Unalaska Island (Cook aptly named it Providence Island).

July 2 - rounds Umnak Island, sails to the northeast along the Alaska Peninsula.

July 9 - enters what is probably now Kvichak Bay - Cook named it the Bristol River.

July 14 - passes Hagemeister Island.

July 18 - in Kuskokwim Bay.

July 23 - heads northwest into the open Bering Sea.

July 29 - off Cape Upright, St. Matthew Island

August 3 - William Anderson, the expedition's surgeon, dies off St. Lawrence Island. Cook renamed it Anderson Island, but the name given by Bering in 1728 was later officialized.

August 5 - lands on Sledge Island, west of the current location of Nome.

August 8 - off Cape Prince of Wales, which Cook named to honour the King's eldest son.

August 10 - crosses to Siberia, lands at Zaliv Lavrentija (St. Lawrence Bay) and meets the Chukchi people.

August 12 - passes through Bering Strait.

August 14 - crosses the Arctic Circle.

August 18 - reaches the ice pack at 70° 44'N., north of Icy Cape. Cook reported that in the early afternoon, sailing in a chilly mist, they encountered a wall of ice about 12 feet high, stretching from horizon to horizon. After noting that the pack ice was advancing at the rate of 15 miles in 10 hours, they of course then headed south again. The following night, they encountered a huge herd of walruses on icebergs - although dozens of the animals were killed, the men were unwilling to eat the meat, which they termed "disgustful" and compared to train oil.

August 21 - off Cape Lisburne, heads due west in broken ice, with the intention of traversing a Northeast Passage back to England. They reached the Siberian coast near Mys Smidta (Cape Shmidta) on the 29th, but then Cook abandoned his plan, and sailed to the southeast to escape the rapidly-approaching ice. Back at Zaliv Lavrentija on September 3, they then headed east to Norton Sound.

September 8 - passes Cape Darby, entering Norton Bay.

September 11 - leaves Norton Sound, passing Cape Denbigh.

September 12 - lands at Bessborough Island and trades with the natives.

September 18 - passes Stuart Island, off the present location of St. Michael. Then sails west.

September 20 - returns to Anderson (St. Lawrence) Island.

September 23 - off St. Matthew Island again.

October 2 - enters Unalaska Bay.

October 14 - despite orders to avoid contact with other Europeans during this expedition, Cook meets Russian fur traders and Unalaska post factor Gerassim Ismailov. Cook and Clerke were able to benefit from the study of several charts which Ismailov showed them.

October 26 - leaves Unalaska, heading for the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, where they would winter, and then head north again in 1779.

October 27 - Cook's birthday. A gale began which lasted 3 days, battering both ships badly. On the Discovery, 3 men were badly hurt, and Captain Clerke's servant, John Mackintosh, was killed in a fall down the main hatchway.

October 30 - the last view of Alaska for Cook, as they pass Umnak Island in a storm.

November 26 - sights Maui.

      On February 14, 1779, Captain James Cook was killed at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, along with Royal Marine Corporal John Thomas, Privates Theophilus Hinks, John Allen and Tom Fatchett, and many Hawaiians. Cook's body was dismembered and burned, but the remains were returned to Captain Clerke, who had taken over command on the Resolution and the expedition, despite being so ill that he could barely stand. On February 21, as much of Cook's remains as could be recovered were buried at sea.

      The day after Cook's funeral, the expedition headed for Kamchatka to restock for another attempt to find the Northwest Passage. The morale on this voyage was very poor - on August 3, 1779, Captain Charles Clerke died of the tuberculosis he contracted while in debtors prison. He was buried at Petropavlovsk, and the expedition continued under the command of John Gore. The voyage finally ended on October 7, 1780, when the Resolution and Discover anchored at Deptford and Woolrich respectively.

      There is no denying that James Cook was a very different person during his final journey - his violent outbursts, the incredible cruelty from a man who had previously treated his crews and the natives he met with the greatest respect, have received a great deal of study. Former Royal Navy Surgeon-General Sir James Watt has reported his believe that Cook was suffering from a parasitic infection of the lower intestine (quoted in Hough, 363). The effects of this infection would be poor health generally, fatigue, loss of appetite, constipation, loss of interest and initiative, depression, and several other signs exhibited by Cook. His death could be directly attributed to these effects, as he apparently sauntered casually away from his attackers.

      In Alaska today, there are several memorials to Captain Cook, including the Captain Cook State Recreation Area on the Kenai Peninsula, and a statue in downtown Anchorage.


References & Further Reading:


  • J. C. Beaglehole, The Life of Captain James Cook (Stanford University Press, 1992)
  • Christine Holmes (editor), Captain Cook's Final Voyage: The Journal of George Gilbert (University of Hawaii Press, 1982)
  • Richard Hough, Captain James Cook (New York: Norton, 1997)

    Related Links

    Captain Cook Society
    By far the best source for information about Cook's life and travels.

    To Yukon & Alaska Pioneer Biographies

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