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William Wales' Journal of His First Voyage - Part 3


In August 1768 Captain Cook travelled by coach to Deal to take command of the Endeavour prior to sailing to Plymouth for the start of what has become known as his First Voyage. Travelling on the coach with him was Charles Green the astronomer. They were both engaged as observers of the forthcoming Transit of Venus and, no doubt, their conversation encompassed the fact that Green’s brother-in-law William Wales had already been dispatched to Hudson Bay to do the same job [see Cook’s Log, page 27, vol. 27, no. 1 (2004)]. Neither of them at this stage could have envisaged that William Wales was destined to become astronomer on Cook’s Second Voyage on the Resolution.

Wales’ journal of his Hudson Bay voyage and his time there was read to the Royal Society on 8th and 15th March 1770, and was published by them in Philosophical Transactions, pages 100-136, vol. lx, the same year. It will be reproduced in Cook’s Log in four parts, to help us get a better understanding of this man and the experiences he brought with him when he joined Captain Cook on board the Resolution.

Part 3, below, reports on his stay in Canada as guest of the Hudson Bay Company. Wales’ assistant was fellow Yorkshireman Joseph Dymond who, like Charles Green, had also been assistant to the Astronomer Royal before heading off to help in the observing of this most important Transit. The terrain and climate experienced by Wales and Dymond at this time was in complete contrast to that which Cook and Green were experiencing in the South Seas.

Wendy Wales


August 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th, we got on shore the observatory and instruments; but the people were all so busy unloading the ship and repairing the quay, craft, &c. that we could not begin to put any part of the observatory up.

August 16th, I went with Mr Fowler about ten miles up the country, which, as far as we went, was nothing but banks of loose gravel, bare rocks, or marshes, which are over-flowed by the spring tides, and do not get dry before they return, and overflow them again. Our errand was, to see if we could not find some land likely to produce corn; and in all that extent we did not find one acre, which, in my opinion, was likely to do it. In some of the marshes the grass is very long, and with much labour they cut and dry as much hay as keeps three horses, two cows, a bull and two or three goats, the whole winter. I saw many acres of land covered with fir-trees, some of which might be perhaps about 20 feet high: these grow chiefly on the borders of the marsh-lands, or, which is the same thing, round the skirts of the rockey parts. I saw no other wood, of any kind, that would bear the name of trees; but except where the rocks are entirely bare, or where the ground is covered with water every tide, it is entirely covered with low bush-wood, after we get a few miles from the factory. These shrubs consist of willows of many kinds, birch, juniper, gooseberry, and black currants. I saw several plants, very different from any which I have ever seen in England; but am not botanist enough to class, or even give a tolerable description of them*.

August the 19th and 20th. We laid the foundation of the observatory in its proper place and position, which was on the S.E. bastion, the higher and lower observatories nearly N.N.E. and S.S.W. of each other respectively. This place and position, though inconvenient in some respects, were in my opinion, the most eligible for our purpose. We also got up the sides thereof, and fixed up a stiff plank of dry English oak to screw the clock to; this plank was about 5½ feet out of the ground, 4 feet in it, 16 inches broad, and 4½ thick, and supported with spurs to make it steady. There was likewise placed at the foot of it, in the most solid manner possible, a stone of about a quarter of a ton weight, with a flat surface, to set the bottom of the clock-case on; so that the clock stood entirely independent of the observatory.

The 22d and 23d, the people were allowed to write to their friends in England, so I employed myself to the same purpose.

The 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th. The carpenters were employed in making us bed-places, &c having hitherto had no where to lie but on the floor.

  • I have brought some of them home with me in the best manner I could; but imagine they are not worth notice, on account of my want of experience in drying them.

The 29th, 30th, and 31st were employed on the observatory; we got on the circular parts and roof of each. On the 31st the ship sailed for England.

September 1st, 2d, 3d, 5th, 6th, and 7th. We were employed in finishing the observatory. On the 8th we set up the two clocks. This morning the snow was about two inches deep on the plains. The 9th, put up the stove in the observatory, the two thermometers, and repaired such parts as had been broken in the carriage. Saturday the 10th, we filled the barometer and put it up; we also took out the quadrant, which we found much tarnished, especially the arc, and adjusted it ready for observation.

Sept. 12th. I found that the roof of the observatory would not permit us to take zenith distances of any stars on the arch of excess of the quadrant, without moving it farther to the southward and as I could not hit on any method of determining the error of the line of collimation, which to me appeared satisfactory, except by observations of stars near the zenith, I resolved to take up the floor of the observatory, and remove the piles on which the quadrant stood farther south; and which, with the assistance of the house carpenter, I effected on the 16th, so as answer our purpose completely.

From this time to August the 28th, 1769, I kept no journal, except of the weather; the original of which has been given in to the Royal Society; and which is, in reality, the only thing we have to keep a journal of here in the winter season; and therefore, what I have farther to offer is in short memorandums, which I made when the circumstance mentioned occurred to me; but as they will scarcely appear intelligible, in that form, to any but myself, I shall endeavour to throw it into a sort of historical account of the seasons, and manner of living, in that part of the world.

We arrived at Churchill just in the height of what is called the small bird season, which consists of young geese, ducks, curlews, plover, &c. This begins about the latter end of July, and lasts till the beginning of September, when the greater part of these birds leave that part of the country. The geese then begin to go fast to the southward, and continue to do so until the beginning of October. This is called the autumnal goose-season, in which every person, both native and European, that can be spared, is employed; but they seldom kill more geese at this time than they can consume fresh.

By the middle of October the ground is generally covered with snow. The partridges then begin to be very plentiful; and as soon as that happens the hunters repair to such places as they think most probable to meet with plenty of game in. The English generally go out in parties of three or four, taking with them their guns, a kettle, a few blankets a buffalo, or beaver skin coverlid, and a covering for their tent; which is made of deers skins, dressed by the natives, and sewed together, so as to make it of a proper form and size. In pitching their tents, they have an eye likewise to their own convenience with respect to shelter from the winds, and getting of fire-wood; which, it will easily be imagined, makes a considerable article here in the necessaries of life: I mean at this season of the year.

Much about this time, likewise, we who stayed at the factory began to put on our winter rigging; the principle part of which was our toggy, made of beaver skins: in making of which, the person’s shape, who is to wear it, is no farther consulted than that it may be wide enough, and so long that it may reach nearly to his feet. A pair of mittens and a cap, of the same, are all the extraordinary dress that are worn by those who stay at the factory, unless we add a pair of spatter-dashes, made of broad cloth, which we wear over our common stockings and two or three pair of woollen socks, which we have on our feet. Those who go out add to the fur part of their dress a beaver skin cap, which comes down, so as to cover their necks and shoulders, and also a neckcloth, or cravat made of a white fox’s skin, or, which is much more complete, the tails of two of these animals sewed together at the stump-ends, which are full as long and thick as those of the Lincolnshire weathers before they are shorn. Beside these, they have shoes of soft-tanned moose skin, and a pair of snow-shoes about 4 feet, or 4? feet long. Most of these articles of dress I was furnished with by the honourable Hudson’s Bay company; but my chest was broken open, after the ship came up the river, and every article, except the snow shoes, taken away by the officers of the customs. And though there was not one thing which was not an article of dress; and though a petition was preferred to the Commissioners, in favour of Mr Dymond and myself, yet, for some reason or other, they could not be restored.

But, to return to Hudson’s Bay. November the 6th, the river, which is rapid and about a mile over at its mouth, was frozen fast over from side to side, so that the people walked across it to their tents: also the same morning, a half pint glass of British brandy was frozen solid in the observatory. Not a bird of any kind was now to be seen at the factory, except now and then a solitary crow, or a very small bird about the size of a wren; but our hunters brought us home every week plenty of partridges and rabbets, and some hares; all of which are white in the winter season; and the legs and claws of the partridges are covered with feathers, in the same manner as the other parts of their bodies. We now killed two or three hogs which captain Richards had been so kind to leave with the governor, which before they were well opened, and cut into joints, were froze like a piece of ice, so that we had nothing to do but hang them up in a place where they would remain in that state, and use them when we thought proper. We used some of these, I believe in the month of May, which were as sweet as they were the moment they were killed, and much more tender and delicate. One thing however must be observed that if you roast them on a spit, or cut them in any manner whilst roasting, all the gravy will run out immediately.

In the fore end of December, I went to one of the hunters tents, where I stayed near a week. When I was there, I was told by one of the people that they had a spring very near them, which was not yet frozen over, notwithstanding the sea was frozen up as far as we could see, and the ice in the river was 4 or 5 feet thick. I went to see it; but that morning the frost had been so very intense, that it was frozen over about an inch thick; when we broke the ice, the water was so shallow, that we raised all the mud from the bottom; and yet other springs, that were at least six times its depth, had been frozen quite dry several weeks.

In the month of January, 1769, the cold began to be extremely intense: even in our little cabin, which was scarcely three yards square, and in which we constantly kept a very large fire: it has such an effect that the little alarm clock would not go without an additional weight, and often not with that. The head of my bed-place, for want of knowing better went against one of the outside walls of the house; and notwithstanding they were of stone, near three feet thick, and lined with inch boards, supported at least three inches from the walls, my bedding was frozen to the boards every morning; and before the end of February, these boards were covered with ice almost half as thick as themselves. Towards the latter end of January, when the cold was so very intense, I carried a half-pint of brandy, perfectly fluid, into the open air, and in less than two minutes it was as thick as treacle; in about five, it had a very strong ice on the top; and I verily believe that in an hour’s time it would have been nearly solid. About the beginning of December we began to use spirits of wine for the plumb-line of the quadrant which would have been evaporated to about half the quantity in a fortnight’s time, the spirituous part shooting up the plumb-line, and sides of the glass like coral; but perfectly white. What remained would then freeze, but not before. At the beginning of the winter I hung a small vial with about a tea-spoonful of proof spirits of wine by the thermometer, on the outside of the observatory, and when I had well corked it up, dropped some water on the cork, which was instantly frozen to ice, and thereby sealed the vial, in a manner hermetically. This, though it hung all the winter, never froze; nor, that I could perceive, altered its fluidity in the least.

It was now almost impossible to sleep an hour together, more especially on very cold nights, without being awakened by the cracking of the beams in the house, which were rent by the prodigious expansive power of the frost. It was very easy to mistake them for the guns on the top of the house, which are three pounders. But those are nothing to what we frequently hear from the rocks up the country, along the coast; these often bursting with a report equal to that of many heavy artillery fired together, and the splinters are thrown to an amazing distance.

On Sunday, March 19th, it thawed in the sun, for the first time, and on the 26th it thawed in reality. The yard of the factory was that day almost covered with water. After this, it continued to thaw every day about noon when the sun was out; and by the 23rd of April, the ground was in many places bare. On the 26th it rained very fast, almost the whole night, which was the first rain we had after October the 3d, 1768. It was really surprising next morning to see what an alteration it had made in the appearance of the country. We had now alternatively snow and rain, frosts and thaws, as in England; the grass began to spring up very fast in the bare places and the gooseberry bushes to put out buds: in short, we began to have some appearance of spring.

The latter end of April, the hunters began to come home from the partridge tents, in order to prepare for the spring goose season, which is always expected to begin about that time; and is, in truth the harvest to this part of the world. They not only kill, so as to keep the whole factory in fresh geese for near a month, but to salt as many as afterwards make no inconsiderable part of the year’s provision. There are various sorts of the geese, as the grey-goose, the way-way, the brant, the dunter, and several more, which I cannot now recollect. The gander of the dunter kind is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful feathered birds that I have ever seen, their colours being more bright and vivid than those of the parrot, and far more various.

Toward the latter end of May, the country began to be really agreeable; the weather being neither too hot nor so cold, but that one might walk anywhere without being troubled with any disagreeable sensation; and the dandelion, having grown pretty luxuriant, made most excellent sallad to our roast geese.

On June 16th, the ice of the river broke up, and went to sea; we now set our nets, and caught great plenty of fine salmon; I have known upward of 90 catched in one tide. We have beside, fishermen up the river, who brought us down plenty of pyke mathoy, and tittymeg; these two last being fish peculiar to this country, and both very good. But, in enumerating the fish, I must not omit the kepling, which comes about the middle of July. This fish is nearly of the size of a smelt, and has exactly the same smell; but its back is much darker, and it is not quite so thick as a smelt in proportion to its length, more especially toward the head: according to my opinion, it exceeds, in point of delicacy, every other fish whatever, and is in such plenty, that they are thrown up, and left on the shore by the surf of the sea; but then it must be owned that this rarity can never be had above a fortnight in a year, and sometimes not so long. This fish is well known on the banks of Newfoundland.

About the beginning of July we likewise got plenty of very fine radishes; and the tops of our turnips began to grow large enough to boil for greens to our beef and salt geese. Moreover, towards the middle, we had very fine lettuce, so that if the muschettos had not paid us a visit about the beginning of the month likewise, the two or three last months would have been extremely agreeable; but, taking altogether, I cannot help thinking that the winter is the more agreeable part of the year.

I shall here add such remarks as I have been able to make, relative to the natural history of the country; its inhabitants, soil, air, produce, &c. And first with respect to the inhabitants: They are of a middle size, but rather tall than otherwise; very spare and thin: I never saw one, either man or woman inclined to be fleshy; of a copper colour, wide mouths, thick lipped, and have long, straight, black hair; of which they are immoderately fond, and would not have it cut, except on the death of a friend, for anything that you can give them: their eyes are black, and the most beautiful that I ever saw. The rest of their features vary as those of Europeans do. Their disposition seems to be of the melancholic kind; good-natured, friendly, and hospitable to one another, and to the Europeans; and I believe the most honest creatures that are any were to be met with. They do not readily forget an injury; but will never revenge it when they are sober. They have no laws whereby to regulate their conduct, except that of reason; which, in their sober moments, they are seldom known to transgress. They converse extremely well on subjects which they understand, and are remarkably clever in repartees; but seem to have very little genius for arts or science. They lead an erratic life, living in tents, as all people must do, whose subsistence depends entirely on hunting.

They are not without some notion of religion, but it is a very limited one. They acknowledge two Beings; one the author of all good, the other of all evil. The former they call Ukkemah, which appellation they give also to their chiefs; and the latter they call Wittikah. They pay some sort of adoration to both, though it is difficult to say what. Their opinion of the origin of mankind is, that Ukkemah made the first men and women out of the earth, three in number of each; that those, whom we Europeans sprang from, were made from a whiter earth than what their progenitors were, and that there was one pair of still blacker earth than they. They have likewise an imperfect traditional account of the deluge; only they substitute a beaver for the dove.

With respect to the soil and its produce of the vegetable kind, I can add very little to what I said on my first coming on shore. As to corn, I am well convinced, that about Churchill it will produce none, except oats: those, from a trial which I have seen, I believe might be brought to some tolerable degree of perfection in time, and with proper culture. Its internal contents are, I believe, chiefly rocks; there are, however, many of them marble and some very fine. I have also specimens of copper, copper ore, mundic, spars, talk (different from the Muscovite), and several pyrites; for the greater part of which, I am indebted to Mr. Jacobs, chief, and Mr. Hutchins, surgeon at York Fort; from whom I received many favours.

The air in this country is very seldom, if ever, clear for twenty-four hours together; but we were not so much troubled with fogs as I expected we should be, from the accounts which I had read of the country, and from what we experienced in our voyage out: but in this point, as well as every other which respects the weather, the journal which we kept will, I presume, be most satisfactory.

I have before mentioned the haze which is continually found near the horizon here. This, I apprehend, is the cause why the sun’s rising is always preceded by two long streams of red light, one on each side of him, and about 20º distant therefrom. These rise as the sun rises; and as they grow longer, begin to be inflected towards each other, till they meet directly over the sun, just as he rises, forming there a kind of parhelion, or mock-sun. These two streams of light seem to have their source in two other parhelia, which rise with the true sun; and in the winter season, when the sun never rises out of the above-mentioned haze, all three accompany him the whole day, and set with him, in the same manner that they rose. I have, once or twice, seen a fourth parhelion directly under the true sun; but this is not common.

The aurora-borealis, which has been represented as very extraordinary in those parts, bears, in my opinion, no comparison to what I have seen in the north parts of England. It is always of the same form here, and consists of a narrow, steady stream of a pale straw-coloured light, which rises out of the horizon, about E.S.E. and extends itself through the zenith, and vanishes near the horizon, about the W.N.W. It has very seldom any motion at all: and when it has, it is only a small tremulous one on the two borders.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 3, volume 29, number 3 (2006).

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