Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Our History: Cook’s visit to Nootka Sound in pictures

Explorer’s April 1778 visit to the Island’s west coast recorded by expedition’s artist

This essay, by former Royal B.C. Museum anthropologist Richard Inglis, offers a close study of records and logs kept by Captain James Cook and members of his crew during their month-long sojourn at Nootka Sound in 1778. The excerpt forms part of Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage, an illustrated anthology commemorating Cook’s exploration of the Northwest Coast and Bering Strait in 1778-79.


In the late 18th century, Nootka Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island was the centre of international diplomacy and the commercial maritime fur trade in the north Pacific. The third voyage of Captain James Cook to the Northwest Coast of America in 1778 and the reactions of the Indigenous Peoples of the region did much to set the stage for these later developments.

This essay focuses on the descriptions and drawings of the Indigenous people of Nootka Sound and the artifacts collected from them that constitute the Cook expedition record. It evaluates the identification of the people and their villages as well as the interactions between these people and the crews of the two ships during their one-month stay in April 1778. It examines two features of this encounter in particular: rights of ownership and the nature of trade, including the collecting of “curiosities.”

Nootka Sound is the traditional territory of the Mowachaht/ Muchalaht First Nation. At the time of contact, the Mowachaht and Muchalaht had numerous villages located throughout the region to which people traced their origins.

Archeological research has dated the occupation of Nootka Sound to more than 4,000 years ago. The arrival of the Cook expedition is remembered in the traditions of the Mowachaht and Muchalaht people and described by Chief Mike Maquinna, in a paper presented at the Anchorage Museum, March 15, 2011:

“When the two ships from the Cook expedition arrived at the end of March, the beach keeper from our village went out in a canoe to greet the newcomers, standing up in the canoe and with his best oration welcomed the ships to our territorial waters and invited them to come to the harbour in front of our village.

“In our history, the words that the chief was calling out were ‘nu.tka.?icim, nu.tka.?icim, nu.tka.?icim,’ which translates into English as ‘sail around.’ Of course, there was misunderstanding as the newcomers did not understand our language. The words somehow became the name that was applied to us by the outsiders, the Nootka.

“The Cook expedition ships did not come in the direction that our chief was beckoning but instead chose an anchorage that was distant from our villages but still in our territory. We considered the ships as drift on our waters, and according to the traditional ownership rights of our chiefs they were under our control. This meant that we constantly had to be with the ships to prevent any trespass by our neighbours.

“The month-long visit of the Cook expedition in our territory established an economic and political relationship. We provided the ships with daily supplies of fish, as well as water, wood, oil and furs in trade for metal, a rare material of great value to us.”

The Cook expedition arrived off Nootka Sound on March 29, 1778. Two days later, the two ships anchored in Ship Cove, now known as Resolution Cove, on the southeast side of Bligh Island, where they remained until April 26.

The expedition arrived in Nootka Sound not by intent but out of necessity, as the ships were in need of repairs and Cook wanted to rest the crews. The one-month stay of the expedition introduced Cook to cultural behaviours that were dramatically different from those of the people he had interacted with in the South Pacific on the previous voyages and in Hawaii on the third voyage.

Interactions with the Indigenous population occurred initially off the entrance to Nootka Sound and then daily at the anchorage in Ship Cove. Cook also deployed two launches on a one-day exploration around the sound, a distance of approximately 30 miles. During this trip, he visited three villages, two occupied and one abandoned. He returned to the first village on another day with the expedition artist, John Webber.

There are more than 30 extant logs or journals from Cook’s third voyage, of which seven complete texts and extracts of another five are published. The rest remain as manuscripts held primarily in the National Archives of the United Kingdom. A number of journals are missing, including that of William Bligh (master on the Resolution) and George Vancouver (midshipman on the Discovery). The logs and journals vary greatly in length, in subject matter recorded, and in details provided. Some are incomplete, and a few appear to be copied from the ship logs.

The difficulty of relying on published official accounts has been well documented by I.S. MacLaren. He identifies four stages in the production of an official account: the log or notebook of the recorder; the journal (narrative) written by the recorder based on the first-stage document; a manuscript for a book, often produced by a professional writer (with or without the assistance of the recorder); and the final publication. The products of the third and fourth stages are often edited to meet the expectations of the market and other considerations. MacLaren noted that as an account progresses through the four stages, there is increased distance from the words of the observer and consequently a reduction in the reliability of the publication as an account of what was actually witnessed or experienced.

The large number of accessible original logs and journals provide a valuable resource for developing an understanding of Indigenous life in Nootka Sound at the time of contact. The logs recorded events on a daily basis and are generally brief and factual. In many of the records, a descriptive section providing a summary of the land, resources, and manner and customs of the people follows the daily entries for the time in Nootka Sound.

The journal entries on Indigenous life are limited to what each writer was able to view from the ships or the shore. As the ships were anchored far from any of the villages, the observations would have been extremely limited if Cook had not undertaken two visits to the village at the western entrance to the sound. Here the officers had free access to the village and the houses, providing them increased opportunities to observe Indigenous life.

Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith have identified 42 drawings from Nootka Sound by the expedition artists. The images include the ships at anchor in Ship Cove, the scenery at the anchorage, the Indigenous people, and, in the words of Cook, “drawings of every thing that was curious both within and without doors” at the village at the western entrance to Nootka Sound. The drawings by John Webber in particular are of great documentary value.

As with the written record, there are a number of stages evident in the illustration process that affect the accuracy of the depictions. In the case of the Cook expedition drawings, one original field sketch might yield several finished drawings; and, for some scenes, separate illustrations were prepared for the engraver, the engraving and any re-engravings for subsequent editions. The engravings and re-engravings are the images that are the most generally known and used. Some are faithful copies of the field sketches, while others show significant changes and embellishments. No reason for the changes has been identified other than the esthetics of the time.

The “curiosities” (artifacts) purchased by the crews of the ships during the expedition form a third data set. These were not an official collection made by the expedition but the result of individual purchases by crew members. As a result, the various items dispersed quickly upon the return of the expedition to England. Adrienne Kaeppler has identified nearly 100 artifacts collected by the Cook expedition as coming from Nootka Sound. This is the largest number of artifacts collected from any area visited by the expedition on the Northwest Coast.

Excerpted from Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage, James K. Barnett and David L. Nicandri, eds. © Heritage House Publishing, 2015.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks