George Dixon, who sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage in Discovery as the armourer, was born in Kirkoswald, Cumberland. He was baptised on 8 July, 1748.
George was the son of Thomas Dixon. His early life is documented in a book published in 1840.1 In the biographical section at the end of the volume is an entry about Captain George Dixon, who was “born in Leath Ward, a native of Kirkoswald”, and who “made a voyage round the world in the years 1785-88, and wrote an account of it”.
Dixon’s early career was recorded amongst some annotations made in another book published in 1811.2 They include the following remarks about Dixon.
Mr Dixon’s first entrance into the world was bound an apprentice for seven years to a silversmith in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, from whom he absconded after serving a few years.
His father in consequence fitted him out. His father followed him to London in order to prevail on him to return, but persuasion was of no avail; his determination was to go to sea.
As a result, he was round the world with Captain Cook as armourer and was first noticed by making some gold rings which the captain wished to present to the chiefs in different islands; when done, Cook explained he was not aware he had such a man along with him.
He was generally noticed among the crew as ‘Mr Dixon the armourer fears neither Devil or Monster’ [but] died in the Island of Bermuda on November 11, 1795.
Dixon began his apprenticeship on 15 October, 1763, with the Newcastle silversmith John Langlands. It was due to last eight years. The Newcastle Goldsmiths’ company minute book has the following entry for George Dixon.
Deserted his Master's service on the 12th December, 1767, so will be no way intitled to his freedom.
George’s time up to joining Discovery on 16 April, 1776, remains unaccounted for. He was appointed the armourer, one of the ship’s petty officers. Holding such a position indicates that he must have gained some experience and ability, but what that comprised remains unknown.
Dixon does not feature in the record of the Third Voyage. However, some of the natural history specimens drawn by William Ellis, the surgeon’s mate, carry annotations by, or referring, to Dixon.3 The implication is that a friendship must have developed between them, and Dixon appears to have helped with identification of several specimens, especially birds.
After Discovery returned home in 1780, Dixon appears to have left the Royal Navy. Nothing is known about him until he was engaged in 1782 by William Bolts for a voyage to the North Pacific to obtain sea otter pelts.4 A ship, Cobenzell, had been acquired for the venture. On 29 June, 1782, the Viennese newspaper, Wiener Zeitung, reported from Fiume that,
in the early days of this month, Herr von Bolts, Director of the Triestine East India Company, together with the English captain, Herr Digson, arrived in this city.
The British Consul in Trieste, Nathaniel Green, reported on 28 February, 1783, that Dixon and three other former members of Cook’s ships’ companies had been taken on by Bolts.
Mr Bolts… means however, to retain in His Service, several Englishmen for Officers of the Ship in question... Mr [George] Gilpin, an Astronomer, Dixon, & [William] Walker, English Seamen, & [Heinrich] Zimmerman, a German, which four last named were all with Capn. Cook in His last Voyage
George Dixon confirmed his involvement when he wrote in the introduction to the account of his later voyage to the Northwest Coast in 1785-1788.5
So early as 1781, William Bolts, Esq; fitted out the Cobenzell, an armed ship of 700 tons, for the North-West Coast of America. She was to have sailed from Trieste (accompanied by a tender of forty-five tons) under Imperial colours, and was equally fitted out for trade or discovery: men of eminence in every department of science were engaged on board;
However, Bolts went bankrupt and the expedition never sailed.6 Dixon returned to Britain, where he talked with Sir Joseph Banks and British merchants about exploiting the Northwest Coast sea otter fur trade. In 1785, the King George Sound Company was formed, and two ships were purchased, King George and Queen Charlotte, for which Nathaniel Portlock and Dixon were appointed captains.7
Dixon commanded the smaller, companion ship, Queen Charlotte, which left Gravesend on 29 August, 1785. John Gatenby, boatswain’s mate in Discovery, sailed with Dixon as boatswain. Also on board as steward was a Henry Forrester, who probably was the same man who sailed in Discovery.8
The two ships, King George and Queen Charlotte, sailed together via Hawai`i to reach the mouth of Cook Inlet on 18 July, 1786. They remained there for several weeks before moving south to Nootka Sound by 24 September, and on to Hawai`i again. In March 1787, they returned north, and on 24 April, they anchored in Prince William Sound, off the northwest side of Montague Island. It was then that they encountered John Meares, who had wintered in the sound in his poorly-provisioned ship, Nootka. Having bailed out Meares, Dixon and Portlock agreed to separate, and Dixon headed south to the region around the Queen Charlotte Islands, which he named after his ship. The strait that divides those islands from Prince of Wales Island was later named Dixon Entrance after him.
In late 1787, Dixon returned once more to Hawai`i before continuing, and Queen Charlotte anchored at Macao on 9 November. Moving to Whampoa (Huangpu), they sold their furs for a good price, and on 25 November, they were joined by King George. On 9 February, 1788, the two ships sailed for Britain, though they did not always keep together. Queen Charlotte arrived off Dover on 17 September, having been preceded by King George by about a fortnight.
An account of Dixon’s voyage appeared under his name, but was mostly written by William Beresford, the ship’s supercargo, as a series of letters. It was published in 1789.9 When John Meares, whom Dixon and Portlock had saved at Prince William Sound, published an account of his own voyages of 1788 and 1789,10 in which he made many false claims and errors, Dixon felt it necessary to write a pamphlet criticising Meares, and pointing out the work’s errors.11 Meares replied with a pamphlet of his own,12 but Dixon countered that with another pamphlet,13 including testimony from another fur trader, Charles Duncan, that won the day for Dixon.
Dixon wrote to Joseph Banks with ideas for further British voyages to the Northwest Coast, and gave advice prior to George Vancouver’s expedition.
At one point, Dixon may have been living at Gosport, near Portsmouth, teaching navigation. A book, The Navigator’s Assistant, was published in 1791, written by a Captain George Dixon, R.N.14 It has been suggested that he was one and the same as Cook’s Dixon. However, as Cook’s man was never a Royal Navy captain, it is unlikely, though not impossible.
We do not know when or where, but Dixon married Ann—maiden name unknown. Together they moved to Bermuda, via New York, in February, 1794. Dixon’s intention was to revert to his original training and work as a silversmith/jeweller. It is borne out by an advertisement in the Bermuda Gazette in April 1794 announcing his intentions: “George Dixon, jeweller from London”.
Sadly, Dixon would not have a long and happy stay in Bermuda. The Gazette soon reported that Dixon’s wife Ann, “lately from England”, died in childbirth in May 1794. She was buried at St. George, Bermuda, on 20 May, 1794. Dixon was left with his only child, Marianna—we do not know when or where she was born. Dixon died shortly afterwards on 11 November, 1795, and was also buried at St. George. Dixon’s death was mentioned in Bowman’s annotations about Dixon, and it was confirmed by a notice in the Cumberland Pacquet in February 1796, which recorded,
[died] November 11 at Bermuda, Capt Dixon, the circumnavigator, a native of Kirkoswald in this county.
The orphaned Marianna Dixon later married a Bermudian merchant, Charles Bryan Hayward, in 1814.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 21, volume 40, number 4 (2017).
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