Cook's exploration left lasting impression on Alaska

Image/National Library of Australia/Anchorage Museum

Editor’s note: This is the conclusion in a series of articles by the Journal of Commerce recognizing the Anchorage Centennial and examining the events and the industries that have shaped Alaska’s largest city. The series is now available as a single special edition of the Journal at centennial events throughout the summer.

For Alaskans, the story of Captain James Cook’s exploration of Cook Inlet in search of the Northwest Passage is deeply woven into the history and identity of Anchorage.

However, the descendents of the Dena’ina who lived in the area are decidedly ambivalent about the celebration of Cook — after all, they were the original discoverers, a thousand years or more earlier.

But Cook and his crew were the first European visitors and their arrival, on Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific, was to have huge significance in the long run, says Jim Barnett, an Anchorage attorney who has become a Cook scholar.

At the time the Spanish were exploring Southeast Alaska but had not ventured west of Yakutat, Barnett said. The Russians, meanwhile, were still in the Aleutians.

Cook’s two ships, the Discovery and Resolution, had worked their way northwest from what is now Oregon and Puget Sound, along the British Columbia and Alaska coast, hoping to find the long-sought Northwest Passage.

They were in Cook Inlet by late May and early June 1778, hoping it would lead to the imagined passageway to Europe. It didn’t, once again, but Cook sent his crew exploring in small boats, which led to the naming of Turnagain Arm, so named because it was a disappointing “turn again” for Cook’s crew (Cook originally called it “River Turnagain”.

William Bligh, later of Bounty fame, was a master’s mate in Cook’s crew and led the boat crew exploring what is now Knik Arm, reporting the discovery of a large river at its head (either the Matanuska or Knik Rivers) as well as beautiful mountain scenery to the north, possibly the Alaska Range and even Denali, known to the Lower 48 as Mt. McKinley.

Cook’s ships were in the Inlet for just over a week, long enough to establish that this wasn’t the Northwest Passage. While here, though, Cook took time to land at what is now Point Possession on the Kenai Peninsula to proclaim the region for English. That happened on June 1, 1778, where his crew claimed possession of the area in front of dozens of puzzled local residents, the Dena’ina. It was the first significant encounter between Europeans and Dena’ina.

The visit to Cook Inlet was part of Cook’s longer exploration of the Alaska coast from which included a stop in Prince William Sound, which Cook named, along with Bligh Reef in the Sound, which was to become famous in 1989 when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on it and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil.

Prince William Sound, interestingly, was almost named “Sandwich Sound” by Cook after the Earl of Sandwich in England (and who invented the sandwich as a food item). The Sound was renamed by Cook after Prince William, a scion of the royal family when his journal was published.

Leaving Prince William Sound, Cook ventured west along the Alaska coast in subsequent exploration, and after leaving Cook Inlet, he named Bristol Bay and Norton Sound and other features after places and people in England, as was the custom at the time.

As he continued his quest for the Northwest Passage Cook entered the Chukchi Sea through the Bering Strait and, amazingly, got as far as Icy Cape, on Alaska’s northwest coast, before being stopped by ice. The two ships were almost trapped by ice off Icy Cape, in fact.

Leaving an impression

Cook was in the Inlet that carries his name for only a short period, but he left an impression on the Dena’ina who recorded the visit in their oral history. His visits to Alaska, however, were even more significant to the world because they led directly to more visits by British, and later American, ships for trade, and the development of a strong British and American presence as a counterweight to Russian domination.

One direct result of Cook’s voyages, for example, was the subsequent detailed charting of the Alaska coast, including Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound and down to Puget Sound, that was ordered by the British Admiralty.

The charting expedition was led by George Vancouver, who had been a midshipman on Cook’s crew and was selected to do the coastal charting based in his experience and abilities demonstrated on Cook’s voyages.

Vancouver’s charts were of such high quality that they were used widely until the early 20th century, when the U.S. government finally conducted its own marine surveys along the Alaska coast after a series of devastating shipwrecks in Lynn Canal in Southeast Alaska, Barnett said.

“His orders were to chart the coast, not the rocks,” Barnett said of Vancouver.

Still, “Vancouver’s charts were the accepted maps of the Alaska coast for more than a century, until well past the Alaska purchase,” Barnett said.

To their credit, “the British Admiralty published the charts, making them widely available,” even to competitor nations, in the Age of Enlightenment spirit and sense of cultural superiority that shaped British policy at the time, Barnett said.

In contrast, “the Spanish were very secretive about their navigational information, to keep competitors away from their territory,” he said.

The Russians seemed intent only to pillage. In Britain, however, this was the era of influential “armchair” geographers among the aristocracy and members of the rising merchant community who were intensely curious about unknown regions, particularly the Pacific, Arctic and Antarctic regions.

They pushed the Royal Navy to commission Cook’s voyages, and explore he did, not just the Alaska coast but Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and Hawaii, where Cook died when he and his crew were attacked by Native Hawaiians just eight months after he had left Cook Inlet.

Barnett also said the drawings of Native Americans, and places that Cook’s ships visited including Prince William Sound and the Arctic, by artists John Webber and William Ellis who were with Cook, had a major effect of stimulating scientific curiosity about Alaska in Europe.

Native Americans in Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, the Aleutians and Norton Sound were drawn and painted by Webber.

“Cook was the first explorer to make an accurate record of what he saw,” Barnett said. “Because of that we have a pictorial record of what people looked like and what places looked like at the first point of contact,” between Native Americans in Alaska and Europeans.

Cook was a close observer of people.  “He realized that the people of Hawaii were Polynesians and he figured out that people in Prince William Sound were Eskimos, distantly related to the Native people of Greenland,” Barnett said.

This encouraged Cook to believe he was close to Greenland, just wishful thinking as it turned out, because he soon learned there was no nearby passageway to Europe.

Cook himself was “a man of the Enlightenment,” of middle-class origins in England who rose base on his skills to become one of the earliest recruitments in the Royal Navy due to merit, not family connections.

His early experience in surveying made him a close observer of his surroundings, leading to his invitation to Webber to join the voyages as official artist. Ellis, another artist, was also a surgeon’s mate on the voyages.

After Cook’s death his ships and crew returned to Alaska to continue their work, even returning to the Chukchi Sea and Icy Cape in another effort to penetrate the ice and find a Northwest Passage. Cook’s second-in-command, Charles Clerke, also died on the voyage.

Interestingly it was a Virginian, John Gore, one of Cook’s officers who, at the time of the American Revolutionary War, assumed command of the expedition and saw the ships with Cook’s journals and Webber’s drawings and paintings safely back to England.

Cooking up a passion

As an accomplished amateur historian and long-time president of the Cook Inlet Historical Society, Barnett has a keen interest in promoting more public knowledge of the history of the U.S. west coast and Alaska history precisely because there is so little awareness of it.

“When I was growing up in California our sense of history was focused on the east coast,” Barnett said. “We learned about the pilgrims in school but not about why San Francisco had a Spanish name.”

When he subsequently moved to Alaska, Barnett was struck by the fact that Alaskans’ sense of their state’s history seemed to start with the American purchase in 1867. There seemed little awareness of anything prior to that, including the Russian colonial story and even Captain Cook, and certainly the Dena’ina.

Barnett soon developed a fascination with Cook because his last voyage to Alaska “offered a look into our prehistory, prior to the Russian and American occupation of Alaska.”

But while researching Cook, Barnett discovered that even Cook scholars had written little about his final voyage to Alaska because it was so shortly followed by the tragedy of his death in Hawaii. The accounts of Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific were quite detailed, “but we would find only a few paragraphs about the North Pacific voyages, and particularly Alaska.”

Barnett’s interest, and the paucity of information about Cook in the North Pacific, inspired him to write, “Captain Cook in Alaska and the North Pacific,” which was published in 2008.

That and other efforts by the Cook Inlet Historical Society has now led to the exhibition “Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage,” a major exhibit on Cook in Alaska that will be at the Anchorage Museum until Sept. 7, 2015.

The exhibit, which is cosponsored by the Anchorage Museum, Cook Inlet Historical Society and Washington State History Museum, includes artifacts and reproductions of the most famous of Webber’s illustrations and paintings.

An extensive catalogue of “Arctic Ambitions,” on sale at the museum gift shop and online, contains extensive reproductions of photographs and illustrations as well as essays on Cook’s voyages by international scholars and records of contacts with Alaska Natives.

The book was co-edited by Barnett and David Nicandri and published by the University of Washington Press. Barnett’s own book is also at the gift shop.

After the Arctic Ambitions exhibition closes in Anchorage it will travel to the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Wash.

Updated: 
11/20/2016 - 4:30pm

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