• Library and Archives Canada, e007152030

    (Map: Lieut. Henry Roberts, Chart of the N.W. Coast of America and the N.E. coast of Asia, explored in the years 1778 and 1779, Prepared by Lieut. Henry Roberts under the immediate inspection of Capt. Cook, 1784, Library and Archives Canada, e007152030)

In an age when detailed maps of places halfway around the world are at your fingertips, it’s easy to forget that large parts of the globe were once a complete enigma.

In the late 18th century, one of those mysterious regions was the northwest coast of North America — that is until Captain James Cook arrived and, quite literally, put it on the map. The British navigator was on what would be his final voyage — a search for the Northwest Passage — when he sailed into Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound in March 1778.

Cook wasn’t the first European to visit these waters — Spanish sailors had reconnoitered the area in 1774 and 1775, and when a mid-16th-century English shilling was unearthed on Vancouver Island last December, it added fuel to the theory that Sir Francis Drake voyaged to the region in 1579. But it was Cook who, in the words of the Canadian Institute of Geomatics, delineated the true shape of the northwest coast, ending the “imaginary cartography of the region.”

Cook and his crew spent a month in the sound, repairing their ships and, perhaps most notably, trading for furs with the Nootka people. They then sailed north and west, but were forced back by ice after passing through the Bering Strait.

Cook’s search for a route through the Arctic failed, but his exploration of the Pacific coast — and the subsequent tales of the treasures he found — helped bring to the West a flood of those hungry for the riches of the fur trade.

With files from Isabelle Charron, early cartographic archivist, Library and Archives Canada