Alaska News

Experts gather for Cook conference

From England to Australia, some of the world's foremost experts on the subject of explorer James Cook have assembled in Anchorage to take part in this weekend's Imagine Anchorage symposium.

On Saturday, as part of the celebration of the centennial of the founding of the city, the event will present a series of speakers addressing aspects of the town's past 100 years.

But Friday's speakers will push back the clock by more than another century, to 1778 and the first encounters between Europeans and Natives in Southcentral Alaska. The meetings are detailed in a chapter of "Arctic Ambitions: Captain Cook and the Northwest Passage," excerpted here.

The weekend of historical discussions started on Thursday with visitors from Whitby, England, one of Anchorage's sister cities and the port town where Cook served his apprentice years. Mayor Heather Coughlan was honored at a reception at the Anchorage Museum, where this summer's main exhibit focuses on Cook's voyages. Sophie Forgan, chair of the trustees of the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby, spoke on Cook's background and training and the environment of Whitby 250 years ago.

Forgan and her husband, Charles, arrived in Alaska last week to check out the "Arctic Ambitions" exhibit at the Anchorage Museum and tour Alaska to see regions associated with Cook. Over coffee at the Hotel Captain Cook on Sunday, three blocks from the Captain Cook statue overlooking Cook Inlet, she talked about the connection between Whitby and Anchorage.

The seaside town now has a population of 13,000. It was home to about 5,000 in the 1700s, 1,000 of whom were apprentice sailors. It was a training ground for young men with naval aspirations. The merchant marine and Royal Navy were somewhat more egalitarian and merit-based than other forms of commerce and government service, dominated by class preference. The sea was a route by which an ambitious and intelligent commoner could advance in society.

The Whitby museum is located in a fine home once owned by Captain John Walker, under whom Cook served his apprenticeship. Cook himself lodged at the house, which also served as Walker's warehouse and business offices.

Walker was a Quaker and, though Cook was not, he adopted some of the Quaker mind set, Forgan said. "He would have learned the importance of education, respect for skill and ability, good ship management and principles of behavior -- how you treat people."

As Aron Crowell's chapter in "Arctic Ambitions" reports, the interaction between Cook's crew and Native North Americans was fairly peaceful, if sometimes tense. No blood was shed, except for a dog acquired from Cook Inlet Dena'ina and then shot in front of the startled Alaskans as a show of force.

A more positive connection between Alaska and European culture -- as well as between the past and the present -- is found in the drawings of artist John Webber. Webber skillfully recorded details of the ways of life and decorations in the newly encountered cultures. More importantly, he managed to convey some of the personality of the people he drew.

The raised eyebrow of the "Woman of Prince William Sound" takes us past her exotic face paint and piercings. She communicates a bit of the wonder, doubt, curiosity and hope that must have been in every mind at the historic occasion. Similar expressions are seen in several of Webber's portraits. They show the subjects of the paintings studying the artist as intently as he was studying them.

His sketch of "People of Sandwich Sound and their Canoes" (Sandwich Sound was Cook's name for Prince William Sound) show a man of rank in a large skin boat standing with his arms stretched out, a signal of openness to parlay and trade. The rough ink drawing was probably dashed off shortly after the paddlers approached the ship, perhaps while it was taking place. It's as close to a photograph of the meeting as one can get.

Cook's sojourn in Southcentral Alaska is best remembered for two things. The first is that he did not find the Northwest Passage he was seeking and had to retreat from the place he named -- with an echo of disappointment -- Turnagain Arm.

The second is that he "claimed" the upper inlet for England in a ceremony at Point Possession. His men buried a bottle with a note and some coins on the north shore of the Kenai Peninsula just south of Fire Island.

The practice is often misunderstood, Forgan said. "They were claiming possession, if you like, but not of the land. They were claiming trading rights," trying to establish precedence over their European rivals.

"The 'claim' was not against the people who were already there," Forgan said. "It was against the French and Spanish who might follow them."

IMAGINE ANCHORAGE, a symposium in conjunction with the city's centennial celebration, is now underway. Those planning to attend are advised to make reservations now at The cost for the event is $85 for members of the Cook Inlet Historical Society, $95 for non-members. All events take place at the Anchorage Museum except for the cemetery tour.

Friday, June 19

9 a.m. "James Cook: from the South Seas to the North Pacific," Michelle Hetherington, senior curator, National Museum of Australia

9:45 a.m. "Intimations of Cook's Achievements and Mortality that Emerge from his Earlier Voyages," David Nicandri, retired director of the Washington State Historical Society

11 a.m. "Imagining Alaska in North Pacific America: Native Peoples and their Material Culture," Aron Crowell, Alaska director for the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center

11:45 a.m. "Cook and Vancouver's Cartographic Contributions to Alaska and the North Pacific," John Robson, map librarian at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand

2 p.m. "Imagining Alaska in the North Pacific -- The Visual Record," Robin Inglis, fellow of the Canadian Museums Association and formerly of the Vancouver Maritime Museum

2:45 p.m. "Alaska and the Northwest Coast beyond Cook: Russian, British and American Trade and Encounters," Barry Gough, author of several books on Pacific Northwest history and the "Historical Dictionary of Canada"

3:45 p.m. "Bones of Empire: Imagining Alaska in the North Pacific and Arctic North America," Ian MacLaren, professor of history at the University of Alberta

Saturday, June 20

9 a.m. "Growing Up in Anchorage," Bill Bittner

10 a.m. "Coffee with the Mayors," a panel discussion with Dan Sullivan, Mark Begich, Rick Mystrom, Tom Fink, Tony Knowles and Jack Roderick

Noon "Anchorage in Pictures," Sara Piasecki, photo archivist, Bob and Evangeline Atwood Alaska Resource Center; this event includes a book signing and buffet lunch

1:30 p.m. Breakout panel one, "Envisioning Early Anchorage: from Fish Camps to Fourth Avenue," with Jim Blasingame, Vic Fisher, Steve Haycox and Aaron Leggett

1:30 p.m. Breakout panel two, "The 61st Parallel in the 21st Century: A Modern and Diverse Community," with Eleanor Andrews, Sherri Buretta, Neil Fried and Archana Mishra

3 p.m. "Searching for the Heart of Anchorage: Reflections on Writing the Centennial History," Charles Wohlforth, author of "From the Shores of Ship Creek"

Sunday, June 21

7 p.m. 21st annual Summer Solstice Tour at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, with presentations on 10 Anchorage pioneers buried in the graveyard; enter at the John Bagoy Gate, Cordova Street and Seventh Avenue. This event is free.

Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.