While many other explorers were interested in obtaining gold, spices, and plunder on their voyages, British explorer James Cook was focused on mapping new lands, making astronomical observations, collecting botanical samples, and establishing relationships with indigenous populations. As a young man, he devoted himself to the study of math, cartography, geography, and astronomy.

    In the 1760s, Cook traveled to Newfoundland, where he charted the first maps of the area. He conducted astronomical observations, studying eclipses to determine the longitude of Newfoundland.

In 1768, the British Royal Navy commissioned Cook to lead a scientific journey to the Pacific Ocean. The goal was to observe and record the Transit of Venus, an event that takes place when that planet passes directly between the Sun and another planet, making Venus visible from Earth as a small black dot moving across the Sun’s face.    The purpose of this study was to determine the distance between the Sun and Earth. Departing England in August, 1768, Cook sailed around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America and out into the Pacific. The fleet arrived in Tahiti in April, 1769, where Cook conducted his astronomic observations in June.   

•    Cook set out from Tahiti for New Zealand, where he mapped the country’s entire coastline. It was on to the southeastern coast of Australia, where, in 1770, he and his crew became the first Europeans to set foot on the continent’s eastern coast. Here he recorded his first observation of Aboriginal Australians, followed by a complete mapping of the East Coast.

Hocking County Veterans Service Commission

    Cook’s second journey, from 1772 to 1775 was another scientific expedition. At the time it was believed there was another larger continent south of New Zealand. Cook set off in search of the hypothetical “Terra Australis,” sailing as far south as the Antarctic Circle. Proving there was no Southern Continent, he set sail for Tahiti, discovering and mapping many previously unknown islands along the way.   

During Cook’s third journey, from 1776 to 1780, he became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands. In 1778, he set foot on Kauai, and named the group of islands the Sandwich Islands in honor of one of his patrons, John Montague, the fourth Earl of Sandwich and First Lord of the Admiralty. From there, he navigated to the west coast of North America, sailing north to what is now Oregon, past the Strait of Juan de Fuca, entered the sound on Vancouver Island, mapping the coast all the way to the Bering Strait, then west to the Siberian coast until the fleet was blocked by ice.

    The fleet returned to Hawaii. Although they had been heartily welcomed the first time, the second visit was full of tension and quarrels. The sailors brought diseases with them, infecting the native population. The crew stole firewood from a sacred burial ground, which was followed by the theft of one of Cook’s longboats in retaliation. Cook responded by trying to kidnap their King. During his attempt, the Natives attacked and killed the navigator and four of his men.   

•      James Cook spent 12 years sailing around the Pacific Ocean, providing invaluable maps of continents, islands, and coastlines. Although he had six children, all of them died before having children of their own, so there are no direct descendants of the explorer.