James Cook and Alaska

United States - Scott #1732 (1978): First Day Cover, ArtCraft cachet
United States – Scott #1732 (1978): First Day Cover, ArtCraft cachet

On January 3, 1959, the huge Territory of Alaska was admitted to the United States as the nation’s 49th state. Last year, I wrote an overview of the history of the region illustrated by U.S. Scott #800, released in 1937 as part of a series commemorating territorial possessions. The only other Alaska-related stamp currently in my collection is a first day cover of Scott #1732, part of a pair issued in early 1978 commemorating the Pacific explorations of Captain James Cook. Cook sailed along the coast of Alaska between the beginning of May and the end of October in 1778 on his third voyage, before returning to Hawaii where he was stabbed to death on February 14, 1779. I wrote about this voyage for ASAD last July, using Scott #30 of Aitutaki released in 1920, but only included two paragraphs about the Alaska explorations which I am expanding upon today.

The surprising, momentous discovery of Hawaii had occurred earlier in the year. With the sun rising over the islands’ volcanic mountains, Cook’s ships Resolution and Adventure anchored off today’s Waimea on Kauai, a good watering place. Trading pigs and potatoes for nails began immediately with canoeists coming alongside; venturing aboard, the islanders were astonished at what they saw and could not refrain from trying to steal anything they could. When Cook went ashore on the morning of January 20, 1778, the people prostrated themselves on the ground in his honor; remarkably, they understood the Tahitian language. Later, Cook learned that Third Lieutenant John Williamson, who had been in charge of the search party that had found this anchorage, had shot and killed a native in senseless fear. An ominous, symbolic beginning. The people, though, were friendly, the water was sweet, and the trading was excellent. Cook was impatient to get to New Albion, the British name for the region that Sir Francis Drake had explored along northwest North America in 1579, so they stayed at Kauai and nearby Niihau for only two weeks.

Captain James Cook
Captain James Cook

On March 7 they sighted North America, in the vicinity of the coast nearest today’s Eugene, Oregon, at 44°33′ N. Foul weather kept them at sea until the end of the month, when they landed on the west side of Vancouver Island in Nootka Sound, having missed the Juan de Fuca Strait. The Indians they met, “mild and inoffensive” according to Cook, had a familiar obsession with anything metal and eagerly traded animal pelts. Unlimited timber provided some new masts, and much needed repair work was done over several weeks. Meanwhile, the men enjoyed the new sights and sounds (so many diverse birds), visited the Indians’ log-framed settlements, and cooked abundant fish. When they cast off their moorings on April 26, the local chief gave Cook a full-length beaver cloak and received, in turn, a broad sword with a brass hilt.

Cook’s ships arrived off Baranof Island in Sitka Sound on May 1, 1778, in “perfectly serene” weather. Two days later, they passed Cross Sound at the north end of Chicagof Island and sighted Mount Fairweather the following day. On May 6, Cook sighted Mount Saint Elias, which had been first reported by Vitus Bering. The expedition made its first landing in Alaska itself at Kayak Island on May 11.

Having followed the northwesterly course of the continent, Cook entered Prince William Sound on May 12. He named it to honor 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, finding it was only an inlet. There was contact and fur trading with Eskimos, whose facial features and canoes were recognized by sailors who had been to northeastern Canada on earlier voyages.

On May 18, the expedition left Prince William Sound, heading southwest, the opposite of the desired direction. Disappointingly to Cook and his officers, the coastline began trending south and west. 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.

The south end of the Kenai Peninsula was passed on May 21. This was the birthday of King George III’s daughter Elizabeth, and Cook named the point in her honor. Two days later, the expedition sighted Afognak and Kodiak Islands. The next day, May 25, the ships entered a huge inlet that led off to the northeast. Against opposition by Bligh, who stated that it was only a river, the ships spent almost two weeks exploring Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm, which embrace today’s Anchorage. This investigation seemed wasted when they encountered fresh water. Cook’s behavior alternated between cautious and careless in a strange manner that almost sailed Resolution onto the rocks in the fog as they broke through the Aleutians on June 25. 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. At Unalaska, they found tobacco-smoking Eskimos and other evidence of Russian visitation.

Turning north, they sailed up the coast of Alaska through July, rounding Umnak Island on July 2 and sailing to the northeast along the Alaska Peninsula. The expedition entered  what is probably now Kvichak Bay on July 9. Cook named it the Bristol River. The ships passed  Hagemeister Island on July 14 and were in Kuskokwim Bay on the 18th. On July 23, 1778, Cook headed northwest into the open Bering Sea. By July 29, he was off Cape Upright and St. Matthew Island .

On August 3, William Anderson, the expedition’s surgeon, died off St. Lawrence Island. Cook renamed it Anderson Island, but the name given by Bering in 1728 was later officialized. Two days later, he landed on Sledge Island, west of the current location of Nome. On August 9, the ships reached Alaska’s most western point. Cook named it Cape Prince of Wales, noting fairly accurately its true location at 65°46′ N, 191°45′ E without going ashore.

James Cook's Resolution and
James Cook’s Resolution and “ice islands”

On August 10, a gale swept them across the Bering Strait to the coast of Asia — the passage is just over fifty miles at its narrowest point — landing at Zaliv Lavrentija (St. Lawrence Bay) where they met the friendly, fur-trading Mongoloid Chukchi people. Cook was at his fearless best here, distributing beads and trinkets and tobacco, and the crew enjoyed a drum-beat dance by the natives. But the celebration had to be short, for the exploring season was ending.

On August 12, the ships passed through the Bering Strait. In the middle of the strait, they could see the land on both sides stretching away to the east and west, opening to a sea without land nor, they hoped, ice. The Arctic seemed similar to the Antarctic, as the weather was as variable and fog-heavy, but they had the advantage here of following a coast when they could see it. Two days later, they crossed the Arctic Circle.

On August 18, however, at a latitude of 70°44′, Cook reached the ice pack. 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. He named the nearest, most prominent point of land Icy Cape. After noting that the pack ice was advancing at the rate of 15 miles in 10 hours, Cook realized that he couldn’t penetrate the Arctic any further.  A brief attempt 21 at heading due west in broken ice off Cape Lisburne began on August 21, with the intention of traversing a Northwest 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. Soon the expedition was heading south in bright sunshine 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.

Back at Zaliv Lavrentija on September 3, they then headed east to Norton Sound, passing Cape Darby and entering the Sound on September 8. Originally planning on returning to New Albion, Cook decided while in Norton Sound to winter in the Sandwich Islands where the climate was more benign. He left Norton Sound on September 11, passing Cape Denbigh. On September 12, he landed at Bessborough Island and traded with the natives. Stuart Island, off the present location of St. Michael, was passed on September 18 and the expedition then sailed west, returning to Anderson (St. Lawrence) Island on September 20 and were off St Matthew Island again three days later.

They stopped again at Unalaska on October 2 and remained for three weeks, repairing a stubborn leak. On October 14, despite orders to avoid contact with other Europeans during this expedition, Cook met Russian fur traders and Unalaska post factor Gerassim Ismailov. Cook was able to exchange charts with the Russian governor and to send a letter to the Admiralty via the seaport of Petropavlovsk and St. Petersburg. The ships left Unalaska on October 26, heading for the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, where they planned to winter before heading north again in 1779.

Leaving the Aleutians, the expedition sailed directly into a gale on October 27 — Cook’s birthday — that damaged their sails and rigging. The gale lasted three days, battering both ships badly. On the Discovery, three men were badly hurt, and Captain Clerke’s servant, John Mackintosh, was killed in a fall down the main hatchway. Captain James Cook had his last view of Alaska as he passed Umnak Island in a storm.

Lotter, Tobias Conrad, 1717–1777. “Carte de l’Océan Pacifique au nord de l’equateur, et des côtes qui le bornent des deux côtes: d’après les dernieres découvertes faites par les Espagnols, les Russes et les Anglois, jusqu’en 1780” (Augsburg, 1781.)Copperplate map, with added color, 42 × 50 cm. on sheet 59 × 73 cm. [Historic Maps Collection]. The first published map to show Cook’s third voyage and the first map to show Hawaii.
Lotter, Tobias Conrad, 1717–1777. “Carte de l’Océan Pacifique au nord de l’equateur, et des côtes qui le bornent des deux côtes: d’après les dernieres découvertes faites par les Espagnols, les Russes et les Anglois, jusqu’en 1780” (Augsburg, 1781.)Copperplate map, with added color, 42 × 50 cm. on sheet 59 × 73 cm. [Historic Maps Collection]. The first published map to show Cook’s third voyage and the first map to show Hawaii.

The ships south and sighted the Hawaiian island of Maui, with its ten thousand–foot extinct volcano (Haleakala), on November 26 — finding a typically Polynesian welcome of canoeists seeking trade and young women posing provocatively. However, this idyllic setting was not to last and a series of unsettling events ended on February 14, 1779, when 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 Discovery anchored at Deptford and Woolrich respectively.

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. 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.

The 13-cent Captain Cook commemorative stamps were issued simultaneously on January 20, 1978, at Honolulu, Hawaii, and Anchorage, Alaska. The commemorative issue was comprised of two separate stamp designs. One featured, in a vertical format, a portrait of Cook in blue (Scott #1732), and the other stamp, in a horizontal format, depicted Cook’s ships at Hawaii in green (Scott #1733). The portrait stamp was designed by Robert F. Szabo, and the ships stamp was designed by Jak Katalan. Printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on the Giori press, they were printed in sheets of fifty, perforated 11, in a total quantity of 101,077,500.

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