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Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon’s Expedition




In May 1785, Richard Cadman Etches, with a group of other London merchants, formed the King George’s Sound Company.  Their intention was to exploit the sea otter fur trade identified during Cook’s Third Voyage when Cook’s men sold pelts at Macao on their journey home to Britain.  King George’s Sound was the name Cook first gave for Nootka Sound.  


The Company acquired two ships and two seamen with experience in the North Pacific as they had sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage.  Nathaniel Portlock was given command of the expedition, and of the 320 ton ship King George.  George Dixon captained the companion vessel, the 200 ton Queen Charlotte.  It has been suggested that the use of the royal names for the ships indicates that the expedition had Government approval, if not overt involvement.  However, they did possess a five year license from the South Sea Company, and would use this “authority” when dealing with other traders that they met, such as John Meares.  They also had William Beresford in Queen Charlotte, who kept a detailed record of the voyage.


Nathaniel Portlock was an American who had sailed in Discovery and Resolution as a master’s mate.  Near the end of the voyage, Captain John Gore discharged Portlock from Resolution at the Cape of Good Hope, and sent him ahead in HMS Sybil with copies of the ships’ journals, and with news of Cook’s death.  Portlock received his lieutenant’s commission in September, 1780.  


George Dixon, originally from Cumberland, had been the armourer in Discovery.  Earlier he had served an apprenticeship as a silversmith.  The Discovery connection was strong, as at least two other members of the crew joined this expedition.  Henry Forrester sailed as steward in Queen Charlotte, while John Gatenby was the ship’s boatswain.


The Voyage Begins


Portlock and Dixon left Britain in September 1785, and sailed down the Atlantic via Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands to the Falkland Islands, reaching them in January 1786.  After 16 days in Port Egmont, the ships left, and rounded Cape Horn to sail north up the Pacific.  They arrived off Hawai`i on 24 May, and stood off Kealakekua Bay (where Cook had died in 1779), to trade for fresh food.  Scurvy had taken hold, and the ships’ companies were in need of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Portlock was wary of landing, not being sure how Kamehameha, the overall chief of the island, would respond to them.  Portlock therefore moved the ships on past Molokai.  As he did, he nearly met the French explorer, La Pérouse, who was just arriving at Maui.  Portlock anchored on the south coast of O`ahu at Maunalua Bay—the eastern end of the bay is still called Portlock.  Some of his men rowed west past Waikiki, and saw the entrance of Pearl Harbour beyond. 


Waimea, on Kaua`i, was the next anchorage before they proceeded to Ni`ihau, known to be a good source of yams and pigs.  On 13 June, King George and Queen Charlotte left the Hawaiian Islands, and finally headed for Cook Inlet (Cook’s River) in Alaska.  Fog was encountered in early July as they approached the Alaskan coast.  Land was sighted on 16 July, possibly Cape St. Hermo­genes on Marmot Island.  Two days later, they passed the Barren Islands and Cape Elizabeth.  On 19 July, near Cape Bede, they were surprised to hear a cannon firing. 


Portlock and Dixon had found a Russian factory, and contact was soon established.  The ships were anchored in Coal Bay (Coal Cove) on the north side of the entrance to Graham’s Harbour (Port Graham), near the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula.  The Russians were based opposite at Russian Point.  Dixon surveyed the inlet while water and wood were taken on board.  They sailed again on 26 July, and crossed Kachemak Bay to proceed up Cook Inlet.  From 29 July until 3 August, the ships anchored off the western shore in Trading Bay, and attempted to trade for pelts, which were in short supply.  The local Tanaina people told them of their dislike of the Russians.  Portlock sailed out of Cook Inlet on 13 August, and headed for Prince William Sound.


On 17 August, the ships attempted to enter the south west approach to Prince William Sound, to the west of Montague Island.  Giving up after a week, they then tried to enter near Hinchinbrook Island, but again with no success.  Portlock and Dixon decide to move on, and sailed south along the coast toward Nootka.  Mount St. Elias was sighted on 5 September, and they soon passed Lituya Bay, which La Pérouse had left a month earlier.  They reached the entrance to Nootka Sound on 22 September, but once again could not manoeuvre the ships into the inlet.  After six days they agreed to sail to Hawai`i instead.


They arrived at the Hawaiian Islands on 14 November, and plied back and forth close to Maui and Hawai`i, all the while trading.  Portlock decided to move on to O`ahu, but the weather held them up off Maui until the 30th.  When they eventually came to O`ahu, they found Maunalua Bay deserted as a taboo had been placed by the king, Taheeterre.  He visited, lifting the taboo.  Having taken on fresh provisions, Portlock and Dixon sailed for Waimea Bay on Kaua`i.  From 22 December until 15 March, the ships were based at Waimea, or at the neighbouring island of Ni`ihau, moving back and forth between the two.  They were able to obtain good supplies of yams and pigs.  They met the king, Taaao, and one of his relations called Kaiana (known by the British at the
time as Tyaana).


On 15 March, 1787, King George and Queen Charlotte left Waimea, and again sailed north for Alaska.  Montague Island was sighted on 23 April, and the ships anchored in an inlet near the south-western end of the island.  Local Chugach people visited them, and used the word “Nootka” repeat-edly while pointing to the northeast.  The British did not initially understand what was meant.  Portlock sent off parties to explore their present harbour (MacLeod’s Harbour), a nearby one (Hanning’s Harbour), and the island opposite, which Portlock called Mulgrave Island (Latouche Island).


Portlock had the ships moved north. On 2 May, they anchored near Point Gilmour at the entrance to Chalmers Harbour (Port Chalmers).  Two days later the ships were moved into Port Chalmers.  Dixon was dispatched with longboats to lead a trading and exploring expedition north into Prince William Sound.  Portlock had both ships in turn hauled on to a beach for repairs.  On 10 May, Dixon returned with momentous news.  He had reached Snug Corner Cove, where Chugachs informed him about another European ship that had spent the winter in the sound.  They had led Dixon up to Port Fidalgo, where he found John Meares, his ship Nootka, and what remained of the ship’s company.


Meares, a somewhat maverick character, had been trading in Alaskan waters.  He had decided to winter in Prince William Sound, but had been trapped by the ice.  When discovered by Dixon, 23 of his company had already died of scurvy.  Portlock claimed that Meares was trading illegally, not having any licencing arrangements with the East India and South Sea companies.  After being provisioned, Meares was released on a bond with the understanding that he would sail directly for Macao, and not return to the northwest coast.  However, he resumed trading on the coast, and sailed to Macao only after he had obtained further quantities of otter pelts.  In a heated correspond­ence between the two men a few years later, Dixon branded Meares as a liar and an ingrate for the help they had given him.


Portlock and Dixon decided to leave Prince William Sound, and to sail separately down the American coast, hoping to double their chances of obtaining sea otter pelts.  When both ships had been repaired, and returned to the water, Portlock departed from Port Chalmers, and sailed round the top of Montague Island to Hinchinbrook Entrance.  Portlock then took King George into an inlet on Hinchinbrook Island, while Dixon sailed off in Queen Charlotte.


Portlock’s Voyage


Nathaniel Portlock was still not fully ready to sail.  Finally, on 25 July, King George left Port Etches.  Portlock headed east, and on 6 August, reached an inlet south of Cape Cross on Chichagof Island.  He carefully edged the ship into the inlet, which he named Portlock Harbour after himself.  He remained here for 17 days.  A longboat was sent off to explore and to survey to the south of the inlet.  The expedition visited, and named, Salisbury Sound.  They showed that Mount Edgecumbe was on an island by passing through Hayward Strait.  It was Kruzof Island, though called Pitt Island by Portlock.  He obtained a few pelts, but was intrigued by signs of smallpox in the local Tlingit people.  He ascribed it to the visit of the expedition in 1775 of the Spaniard Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. 


On 23 August, Portlock left Portlock Harbour, and as the season was advanced, decided to make for Hawai`i.  He reached there on 27 September, and after trading near Hawai`i and Maui, moved on to Waimea.  Here, on 3 October, he learned that Dixon had been anchored there for three days, but had left for Macao fourteen days ago.  He also learned that John Meares had visited, and had been involved in an incident that left several Hawaiians dead.  Dixon had left a letter for Portlock, but it was under taboo.  Portlock crossed to Ni`ihau to obtain yams, and the letter was brought to him.  He left the Hawaiian Islands on 8 October.  Portlock anchored King George in Macao on 21 November, and four days later was reunited with George Dixon and Queen Charlotte


Dixon’s Voyage


Meanwhile, Dixon and Queen Charlotte had sailed from Port Chalmers on 14 May.  They head­ed east, and on 23 May entered a large inlet, Yakutat Bay.  The next day they went ashore, and while trading began, Dixon went off to survey the inlet, which he called Port Mulgrave.  There was much contact with local Tlingit people, but only a few pelts were obtained.  Dixon left on 4 June, and followed the coast to the south.


Queen Charlotte rounded Cape Edgecumbe, and entered a large sound on 11 June.  The ship stayed for 12 days while brisk trading took place with the Tlingit, and the sound was surveyed.  A shirt was identified as being Spanish in origin.  It was thought to have come from Bodega’s visit to the area in 1775.  Dixon called the sound Norfolk Sound (Sitka Sound).  Another inlet just to the south, which Dixon called Port Banks, was examined from 24 to 26 June, before they sailed again.  The Hazy Islands and Forrester Island were sighted over the next few days.  The latter was after the ship’s steward.  At the end of June, Dixon crossed the opening to a large inlet.  It was the Dixon Entrance (Dixon’s Straits) that separates the Queen Charlotte Islands from Prince of Wales Island.


On 1 July, Dixon reached Langara Island at the north of the Queen Charlotte Islands.  Juan Pérez, the Spanish explorer, had stood off here in 1774.  Dixon anchored Queen Charlotte in Cloak Bay, named for the many pelts that were obtained there by trading with the resident Haida.  After two days, Dixon moved on, passing Hippah Island and collecting many pelts.  The southern point of the Queen Charlotte Islands was reached on 25 July.  Dixon rounded it, and began sailing north up the east coast of what he realised were islands.  He named them after his ship.  They had proven very profitable as over 1,800 pelts had been acquired.


Dixon now headed for Nootka Sound, passing the Scott Islands.  He named one of them Beresford Island after the ship’s trader and chronicler.  On 8 August, Queen Charlotte encountered two ships leaving Nootka Sound.  They were Prince of Wales, commanded by James Colnett, and Princess Royal, commanded by Charles Duncan.  They proved to be fellow ships belonging to the King Georges Sound Company that had left Britain in September 1786.  The meeting was providential for both sides. Dixon learned that Portlock was not at Nootka, and there were no pelts left there, so he might as well sail for Hawai`i.  Colnett and Duncan learned that there were no pelts in Prince William Sound, and Dixon advised them to investigate the area inside the Queen Charlotte Islands.


The ships parted company on 9 August, and Dixon headed for Hawai`i, which he reached on 5 September.  Dixon worked his way through the islands, spending three days at both Maunalua Bay on O`ahu, and Waimea on Kaua`i.  He learned that Meares had been to Waimea, and had been involved in an incident that left several Hawaiians dead.  Dixon left a letter at Waimea for Portlock and sailed on 19 September for Macao.  He reached Macao on 8 November, 1787, and began arranging how to proceed to Canton to sell the sea otter pelts.  Nathaniel Portlock appeared in Macao with King George on 21 November.

Together Again


Having expected to sell pelts at about 80 dollars each, the 2,000 or so pelts Portlock and Dixon had acquired only sold for 20 dollars each, thus diminishing considerably any chance of the voyage producing a profit.  Portlock was hindered by the process, whereby trading could only proceed via the supercargoes of the East India Company, who determined prices.  The ships left Macao on 10 February, 1788, and anchored safely off Mar-gate, England, on 24 August.


Both Dixon and Portlock published narratives of their voyages, though the Dixon volume consists of only a series of letters by William Beresford.  Dixon’s correspondence with Meares was also published.  Dixon and Portlock included several original charts with their narratives.


Portlock went on to have a distinguished career with the Royal Navy. 


Dixon’s later career is sketchy, until having left the navy, he resumed his silversmithing, and moved to live in Bermuda.

John Robson



Dixon, George.  A voyage round the world but more particularly to the north-west coast of America: performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon.  London.  G. Goulding.  1789.

Portlock, Nathaniel.  A voyage round the world but more particularly to the north-west coast of America: performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon.  London.  J. Stock-dale and G. Goulding.  1789.

Laughton, J. K. (revised by Barry M. Gough.) “Dixon, George (1748?–1795)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Oxford University Press.  2004.  Online edition at www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/7696

Laughton, J. K. (revised by Barry M. Gough.)  “Portlock, Nathaniel (b. in or before 1747, d. 1817)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  Oxford University Press.  2004.  See www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22586

Howay, Frederic W. (ed.)  The Dixon-Meares Con-troversy.  Bibliotheca Australiana.  Extra Series.  N. Israel.  1969.

Robson, John. “The Gores, the Portlocks and the Gilmours” in Cook’s Log. page 21, vol. 30, no. 4 (2007).

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 41, number 1 (2018).

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