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[Detail] Ships at the Erie Basin, New York.


This collection contains first-hand accounts of some of the earliest explorations of the Pacific coast of North America.  Not only do they provide information about the expeditions of such noteworthy explorers as Great Britain's Captains James Cook and George Vancouver, but they also convey what an explorer's daily life was like. 

Search on Vancouver for Edmond Meany's Vancouver's discovery of Puget Sound . This discussion of the explorer's 1791 expedition includes several chapters from Vancouver's own journal as well as a brief biography of Vancouver, in which Meany explains that the expedition was a consequence of Spain's seizure of English ships, factories, and fisheries on the northwest coast of America in 1790.  In Vancouver's words:

". . . it was deemed expedient that an officer should be sent to Nootka to receive back in form a restitution of the territories on which the Spaniards had seized, and also to make an accurate survey of the coast, from the 30th degree of north latitude northwestward toward Cook's river; and further, to obtain every possible information that could be collected respecting the natural and political state of that country.

The outline of this intended expedition was communicated to me, and I had the honor of being appointed to the command of it."

In addition to the biography of Vancouver, Meany also provides information about the Englishmen after whom Vancouver named so many geographical features.  He also discusses the issue of discipline aboard the Discovery before presenting chapters of Vancouver's journal, which detail his exploration of America's northwest coast and its interior.

Meany's work also contains several references to Captain Cook, under whom Vancouver served.  Search on Sandwich Islands and Hawaii for histories such as Hiram Bingham's A residence of twenty- one years in the Sandwich Islands, which tells the story of Cook's 1778 discovery of what are now called the Hawaiian Islands. 

". . . returning from the North West coast of America, Captain Cook discovered Maui, Nov. 26, 1778. . . . Captain C. passed on by the eastern part of that island, and discovered Hawaii. As he appeared off Kohala, some of the people scanning the wondrous strangers, who had fire and smoke about their mouths in pipes or cigars pronounced them gods. Passing slowly round, on the east and south, and up the western side of Hawaii, Cook brought his ships to anchor in Kealakekua bay, Jan. 17, 1779, amid the shoutings of the multitudes who thronged the shores to gaze at the marvellous sight."

According to Bingham, Cook soon squandered the respect of his hosts.  He "invaded their rights, both civil and religious, and took away their sacred enclosure, and some of their images, for the purpose of wooding his vessels."  When the islanders discovered that Cook's men had seduced some of their women, violence broke out, resulting in Cook's murder.

  • Why was Captain Cook killed?  What events led up to the killing?
  • How, according to Bingham, might this killing have been avoided?
  • What were the short- and long-term effects of Cook's discovery of the Sandwich Islands?
  • In what ways did Vancouver attempt to influence the islanders in his visits of 1792, 1793, and 1794?  What was his actual impact on the islands?

The collection also contains a narrative by Gabriel Franchère (originally published in French in 1820), describing his expedition from Montreal to the Pacific Northwest from 1811 to 1814.  Franchère brings the trials of exploration to life, reflecting that:

"One must have experienced it one's self, to be, able to conceive the melancholy which takes possession of the soul of a man of sensibility, at the instant that be leaves his country and the civilized world, to go to inhabit with strangers in wild and unknown lands. I should in vain endeavor to give my readers an idea, even faintly correct, of the painful sinking of heart that I suddenly felt, and of the sad glance which, I involuntarily cast toward a future so much the more frightful to me, as it offered nothing but what was perfectly confused and uncertain. . . . For the first time in my life, I found myself under way upon the main sea, with nothing to fix my regards and arrest my attention but the frail machine which bore me between the abyss of waters and the immensity of the skies."

Narrative of a voyage to the northwest coast of American in the year 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814.

Commissioned by a New York fur trader, Franchère and his associates traveled the Pacific to the northwest coast and the Columbia River to establish a trade center.  On the banks of the Columbia, fear of neighboring native people and the approach of winter prompted swift efforts to obtain shelter and food:

"The dwelling house was raised, parallel to the warehouse; we cut a great quantity of pickets in the forest, and formed a square, with palisades in front and rear, of about 90 feet, by 120; the warehouse, built on the edge of a ravine, formed one flank, the dwelling house and shops the other; with a little bastion at each angle north and south, On which four small cannon. The whole was finished in six days, and had a sufficiently formidable aspect to deter the Indians from attacking us; and for greater surety, we organized a guard for day and night. . . . To the necessity of securing ourselves up, against an attack on the part of the natives, was joined that of obtaining a stock of provisions for the winter: those which we had received from the vessel were very quickly exhausted, and from the commencement of the month of July we were forced to depend upon fish. Not having brought hunters with us; we had to rely for venison, on the precarious hunt of one of the natives . . ."

  • What were the reasons for each expedition?
  • What was life on ship like?  How was order maintained?
  • What were some of the challenges that explorers faced?
  • How dangerous was exploration?  What were the dangers?
  • How important were Native Americans to the survival of these early explorers?  How often were they responsible for their demise?
  • What role did the Sandwich Islands play in maritime exploration?
  • How did international rivalries impact exploration of the west coast of North America?