Webber in Nootka Sound, 1778

Detail of a Nootka Sound watercolour by John Webber, 1778. Click to enlarge. Source: British Museum.

From the British Museum, a superb watercolour:

Nootka Sound, on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island in Canada, was discovered by Captain Cook in his two ships, Resolution and Discovery in 1778. This drawing records this bay and some of its inhabitants. It is drawn in ink, pencil and wash and watercolours. The artist, John Webber (1751-93), accompanied Captain Cook on his third voyage of exploration in the South Seas and Pacific Ocean, which lasted for four years from 1776 to 1780. Webber was one of several artists employed to record the peoples, animals birds, fishes, plants and landscapes of the newly discovered Pacific Islands.

The written descriptions of the location are confirmed by the drawing. It is severe and inhospitable. High cliffs, rocks that reach right down into the sea, and the jagged shore line gave it a ‘melancholy appearance’. The terrible weather, which left the trees ‘mutilated by rough gales’ contrasted greatly with the tropical scenes ans palm trees enjoyed by the explorers in Tahiti.

Webber also drew the native people. Their clothing, basically the same for men as for women, consisted of a woven cloth, fastened at the shoulder or neck. According to Captain Cook, the cloth was the bark of the pine tree, beaten flat like a sort of rough felt. The head was covered with a conical hat made of matting. It is probable that Webber modified the drawing for the sake of decency and for public viewing. Cook described the men’s dress as generally bare in the ‘… Middles, nor are they ashamed to appear naked’.

It’s not clear what the kneeling man on the right is doing: is he using a mussel shell to dig?  Several harpoons complete with foreshafts seem to be visible.  It is a skillful and atmospheric rendering of Nuu-chah-nulth life shortly after first contact with Europeans.

22 responses to “Webber in Nootka Sound, 1778

  1. This is a great painting. Sure puts the likes of Swan in their place artistically. Though there seems quite a lot of sanitisation and romanticisation in the image compared to what Swan does, though his paintings are the product of and depictions of a different time and cultural context, which apart from artistic talent, is probably the main reasons for differences.

    I wonder if this location is rendered accurately, even if the scene at the bottom is artifice. If so, it would be fun to find the spot. I take it to be in Nootka Sound somewhere, probably close to Yuquot. I like the shore-pine, I have a soft spot for that plant community on parts of the west coast.


  2. Yes, this guy was an artist, but I agree that Swan, with his apparently deep rapport and friendship and hence familiarity did, in his slightly clumsy way, produce sketches that are more valuable as insight into traditional ways of life. This painting is notable mainly for its artistic skill, and I suppose for documenting in a fairly generic way a scene and setting so close to the time of first contact. He does depict two different hat styles and as I noted the ?harpoons have some detail, but he might have been assembling all this visual detail much later.

    I sure wish I knew what the kneeler is meant to be doing!

    I should have added some info about Webber. Here is a short wikipedia entry:

    And here is a beautiful 1779 Webber painting of the inside of a Kamchatka dwelling, also from Cook’s third voyage:


    • Webber also did the original work, on which the famous engraving of a house interior at Yuquot is based:



      • Just had another look at the person kneeling. I ordered a copy from the BM so I could see the part that is cropped out of your blow-up on the left side. It rather looks as if there is a rectangle of some kind which the person is working on the edge of. Perhaps they are using a mat creaser to prepare a mat, or are adzing the surface of a board. The tool is held rather like a D-adze.


      • I looked again too, and now I think the strongly horizontal lines just below his knees indicate flowing water, and the man is drinking from the creek, using a shell as a cup.


      • I think you have it.

        I thought a stream was over there, but could not think what he was doing, the rectangle is a flat part of the stream course.

        What could be more likely than having a drink of water – how many hundreds of times did Cook and his crew observe such behaviour on their travels?. And when you think about it, its an activity that is so mundane that it almost never (ever?) shows up in early, or any, illustrations of NWC life. This makes the illustration of even more value, trivial though that might seem.


  3. That Kamchatka painting is very interesting when you think of what kind of archaeological “footprint” that house structure would leave behind. Some small post holes, and yet a large structure (and a plank floor from the looks of it). That is a good model to keep in mind for the early period in the more southern NWC. Prior to colonisation by cedar and other larger rot-resistant trees something like that house might well have been used.

    I would love to see the original painting or sketch for that Yuquot house – surely it survives somewhere, though maybe not on-line. Yet, I have to say since none of this stuff was on line 10 or 15 years ago. Which of course ensures years of new stuff yet to come to feed your blog – pretty good business model qmackie.


    • Agreed — the plank floor (and partial planking in the Webber Yuquot image) is really interesting for site formation process implications. And, as you note, the Kamchatka example could be the sort of structure we might expect in, say, those early Holocene “complex” sites in Gwaii Haanas, when a collector strategy was already in place and we know they had wooden splitting wedges which must have had some purpose. It’s a very interesting analogue for a lighter-weight but recognizably-NW Coast adaptation.


  4. I have often thought the canoe illustrations by Webber and other really early maritime artists were probably essentially correct. As you know, the ‘head’ canoe was a very odd beast (Bill Holm did several nice paintings of these and various others, used to be bookmarked in Nat’l Museum, my link is broken now).

    But many of the other canoe designs, especially those showing long, low bow projections, were considered by many anthropologists to be errors by people unfamiliar with NWC culture. I’ve always thought that, of anything, the ‘boats’ were the most likely to be correct; sailors of the time could tell a French from a Flemish collier by the cut of their upper topsails, and were extremely picky about nautical detail, and I’m sure most contemporary artists were careful about such detail.

    This canoe is very clearly a Nuu-chah-nulth design, with its ‘clipper bow’ and wolf-ears. and plumb stern.


  5. Don’t think the guy standing to viewer’s right is holding a harpoon. Some kind of spear maybe? What is the “tassle” down from the tip? Maybe the artifact on the left in the canoe is a harpoon as there is to my eyes binding for attaching a foreshaft. Agree with Morley’s comment on the early depictions of th Nuu canoe, not the pronounced shear of later Nuu canoes (Holm’s observation). Interesting that the canoe depicted on the Tlingit pipe that you illustrated earlier is a “head” canoe” . The latter was replaced by the Northern canoe with the vertical cutwater. Love your blog. Thanks.


  6. Those long bow projections would add a lot of very-welcome forward buoyancy when headed with a following sea, I suppose – could save from spearing the overtaken wave. I wonder what the adoption of the sail had to do with changing canoe bows/sterns. Definitely the early artists would have been particularly keen observers of watercraft, and this is reflected in the written accounts as well. I couldn’t google up any Bill Holm head canoe stuff though I didn’t try to hard — there is a NMC web page on canoes but it is pretty superficial (and illegible):



    Hi Alan, thanks for the comment – yeah, I thought I had seen a lanyard at the base of the upright spear-y thing but now not very sure. I agree the one on the left of the canoe is more likely to be a harpoon, if any of them are.


  7. I checked J.C.H. King’s Artificial Curiousities (1981:70, he illustrates what he calls pikes, one collected by Cook. King references Drucker (1951:335) who states that warriors carried 7-8 ft. “lengths of yew with sharp fire-hardened points” as weapons.


  8. This is one of my favourites with canoes:

    This shows the head canoe and the transition to the northern style; but quite appropriately has spruce dugouts that were the only thing the northern Tlingit could make. Another nice touch is the early-style ‘Raven’s tail’ Chilkat blanket worn by the welcoming chief.


  9. Thanks Alan, that looks very likely. I see in Morley’s link several individuals holding long pike-like objects and one in the canoe in the foreground, as well, for what that’s worth.

    Morley, why do you think those are spruce canoes depicted?


  10. Because this is too far north for cedar. I was doing it from memory, but Holmes has a good description under the earlier link you made and I don’t think I balled too much up:


    “The painting was made to illustrate my article “The Head Canoe” for the Sheldon Jackson Museum’s centennial volume Faces, Voices, and Dreams. I wanted to show three canoe styles: head-canoes, the early form of the classic “northern” canoe that superseded them in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and the northern Tlingit “spruce” canoes that were related in form to the head canoes and continued in use until the twentieth century.

    Since the setting of the picture is the beach in front of the Sitka village, the time had to be before Baranof drove the Tlingits from this site in 1804. When they returned to Sitka in 1821, the head canoe had gone out of use. Since the early form of the northern canoe was just being developed at the beginning of the century, I chose 1803 as the date of the picture. At that time the classic Chilkat blanket was just on the verge of appearing, so all the twined blankets in the picture are of the early geometric or the transitional design. The Tlingits had been trading with Europe for nearly a decade by that time, so trade blankets and European shirts would have been seen among them.

    It is a clear winter morning, with the sun low in the south and Mount Edgecumbe looming over Japonski Island to the west. The host chief, in the shadow of the houses above the beach, greets his guests who are dancing and singing in their canoes clustered in the channel just offshore. ”

    Wow, I’d like to have the original of the painting!


    • Thanks Morley, I knew there might be cedar problems but thought maybe there was a stylistic difference or something. This set of paintings seems really well researched, I should do a whole post on them some day!


      • de Laguna has quite a bit on spruce canoes among the Tlingit. I recall seeing a photos of a Tlingit village somewhere, maybe in de Laguna’s Yakatut Tlingit, which shows several styles of canoe in front of the village, including Nuu-chah-nulth canoes. My guess is that they might have been traded by Nuu-chah-nulth sealing crews on their way south – the sealing schooners would pick up west coast crews and their canoes on the way to the northern seal hunting grounds.


      • Here is a picture of a “Nootka” canoe hauled out Point Latouche, Yakutat Bay, Alaska from, as you suggest, de Laguna 1972, colume 3, page 991. Even though the bow is obscured it’s pretty clearly a Nuu-chah-nulth design.


  11. I’am reading from Lukas Hartmann ( a swiss man) the book “To the end of the sea”. The book is telling from John Webber and Captain Cook. Hartmann discribes the pictures of Webber and so I found googling your blog.
    I like your articels from John Webber.


  12. Al points out that schooners picked up fur sealers and canoes and took them north to hunt. I worked a lot with Wilbur Claplanhoo, a Makah Elder and fur seal hunter who also carried the name Maquinna as a descendant of that royal family in Yuquot, and he indicated that his father, also of Neah Bay, owned two schooners himself and took sealing crews north. Wilbur indicated that the schooners were later confiscated by non-Indians for some reason. Al knew Wilbur and his wife Muzzie too since we often had picnics with their family in Neah Bay while working at Hoko. His grandson, Michael Lawrence (nickname Toogie) is Vice Chair and was Chair during the Paddle to Makah. Speaking of canoes, 100 came to the Paddle to Squaxin this summer and next year it takes place at Quinault. We need to organize a Q and A (Mackie) field trip where we can go Quinault and camp out for the week of protocol potlatching–they need volunteers (Q can fish and A can take amazing photos! Morley can surf? it will be right on the beach). Would be a hoot! Dale


  13. few years late to the conversation, but anyone think the original image is a clam garden? Canoe isn’t beached, right on edge shore. With a bit of a rockline (rockwall?), dude(?) digging? Are there many clam gardens in Nootka?


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