James Cook (1728-1779) was Britain’s greatest navigator. After receiving a modest education, he apprenticed at a small shop on the Yorkshire coast where he developed a love for the sea. Cook enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1755. Sent to America during the French and Indian War, he made soundings of the St. Lawrence River in preparation for the British attack on Quebec. Cook’s notable charts of the St. Lawrence earned him a commission as surveyor of Newfoundland. In 1768 he was promoted and sent to the Pacific with an astronomical observation group where he surveyed Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. On his famous second expedition (1772-75) he explored Antarctica. In 1776 he undertook his third and final voyage in which he explored the West coast of North America and tried to locate a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. On this voyage he discovered the Hawaiian Islands (which he named the Sandwich Islands), and sailed up the coast of North America through the Bering Straits to the Arctic Ocean. He concluded that a usable passage to the Atlantic Ocean did not exist. On his return he was killed by Hawaiian islanders.
Cook’s exploration of the Pacific coast was momentous, though fraught with errors. He missed the mouth of the Columbia River (then known as the Oregan River or River of the West), as well as the Juan de Fuca Strait, a passage into Puget Sound. He also mistook Vancouver Island for the mainland. Despite these oversights, Cook’s third voyage significantly increased knowledge of and interest in the Northwest. Cook’s chart of the Pacific coast served as a chief reference source for Nicholas King as he prepared his map of America for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803. More significantly, Cook’s widely read accounts of his voyage provided fascinating descriptions of the indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest and publicized the brisk trade between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indians. Cook’s almost incidental discovery of the sea otter trade—he found that the furs of the region’s abundant sea otters brought enormous profits in the markets of Canton, China—sparked a race to the Pacific Northwest. Upon the 1783 publication of an unofficial account of Cook’s third voyage and the release of the official account the following year, Britain, France, and the new United States joined Spain and Russia in the contest for control of the Pacific Northwest and the sea otter trade.
After the third voyage of Captain Cook, one of Cook’s sailors, the American John Ledyard, wrote an unofficial account of the journey. Ledyard tried, unsuccessfully, to raise a fur-trading expedition to the Northwest in 1784-85. In 1785 he met Thomas Jefferson and the two quickly became friends. Jefferson, then ambassador to France, owned three unofficial versions of Cook’s Third Voyage, including Ledyard’s, as well as the official account of 1784. These accounts, as well as the renewal of French interest in the Pacific Northwest signaled by La Pérouse’s expedition, strengthened Jefferson’s commitment to finding a path to the Pacific. Jefferson, in fact, sponsored Ledyard’s bizarre expedition of 1787-88 to cross Russia, travel to the Northwest coast of North America by ship, and then find a route to the Missouri by traveling from west to east. Ledyard got as far as Siberia before being arrested by Russian authorities under Catherine the Great.