Captain James Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) of discovery was an attempt to locate a North-West Passage, an ice-free sea route which linked the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Cook commanded the Resolution while Charles Clerke commanded Discovery. (State Library, New South Wales)
“Cook had chosen his subordinates well or had been lucky. The officers of the third voyage were a remarkably intelligent group of men.” (Captain Cook Society)
“All the great remaining voyages of the eighteenth century drew on Cook’s officers. Bligh, Portlock, Vancouver, Colnett, Riou, and Hergest all got their commands and served with great distinction. These men then passed on their skills to a second generation of men such as Flinders and Broughton.” (Mackay, Captain Cook Society)
George Dixon, an armourer in the Royal Navy per a warrant dated April 16, 1776, joined the Discovery and also sailed for the Pacific on Captain James Cook’s third voyage of exploration.
As an armourer Dixon was a skilled mechanic, with the rating of petty officer first-class, whose duty it was to assist the gunner in keeping the ship’s arms in order. The Discovery was at King George’s Sound (Nootka Sound, B.C.) in March and April 1778 and touched at other places along the northwest coast before returning to England in 1780.
“In the early periods of navigation, it does not seem that the extension of commerce was altogether the aim of the enterprizing adventurer; and though generally patronized by the reigning powers, where these designs originated …”
“… yet, a thirst after glory, and a boundless ambition of adding to the strength and extent of territory, on one hand, or a rapacious desire of accumulating wealth, or, perhaps the same of making discoveries, on the other, appear to have been the only object in view.” (Dixon)
Cook’s voyage had initiated the maritime fur trade in sea otter pelts with China. (Gould) “(D)uring the late Captain Cook’s last voyage to the Pacific Ocean, besides every scientific advantage which might be derived from it, a new and inexhaustible mine of wealth was laid open to future navigators, by trading furs of the most valuable kind, on the North West Coast of America.” (Dixon)
“This discovery, though obviously a source from which immense riches might be expected, and communicated, no doubt, to numbers in the year 1780, was not immediately attended to.”
“Who the gentlemen were that first embarked in the fur-trade, is perhaps not generally known, though it is certain they were not hardy enough to send vessels in that employ directly from England; for we find, that the first vessel which engaged in this new trade was fitted out from China: she was a brig of sixty tons, commanded by a Captain Hanna, who left the Typa in April, 1785.” (Dixon)
Then, in the spring of 1785 Dixon and Nathaniel Portlock, a shipmate in the Discovery, became partners in Richard Cadman Etches and Company, commonly called the King George’s Sound Company, one of several commercial associations formed to conduct trade.
Portlock was given command of the King George and of the expedition; Dixon commanded the Queen Charlotte. A licence to trade on the northwest coast was purchased from the South Sea Company, which held the monopoly for the Pacific coast.
William Beresford, the trader assigned to the expedition, wrote that Dixon and Portlock had been chosen for their ability as navigators, their knowledge of the Indians and of the best trading spots, and because they were …
“… men of feeling and humanity, and pay the most strict attention to the health of their ships companies, a circumstance of the utmost consequence in a voyage of such length.”
“These gentlemen were … not only … able navigators, but (having been on this voyage with Captain Cook) they well knew what parts of the continent were likely to afford us the best trade; and also form a tolerable area of the temper and disposition of the natives”. (Beresford to Hamlen; Dixon)
The vessels left London on August 29, 1785 and arrived at Cook Inlet, Alaska the next July. There they traded with the Indians before sailing to winter in the Hawaiian Islands.
In the spring of 1787 they sailed to Prince William Sound, Alaska, where they met another British trader, John Meares, whose ship had been iced in. Dixon and Portlock lent aid but exacted from Meares, who was trading illegally within the bounds of the South Sea Company’s monopoly, a bond not to trade on the coast.
From Prince William Sound, Dixon, having separated as planned from Portlock, sailed south to trade. He came across a large archipelago, which he named the Queen Charlotte Islands (BC.)
Dixon sailed along the western shores of the islands, named Cape St James, and then went up their eastern coasts as far as Skidegate. Along the way he purchased a large number of sea otter pelts.
Since Portlock failed to appear at Nootka, Dixon steered for the Sandwich Islands and China. He sold his furs there and then returned to England in September 1788. (Gould)
It has been suggested that Dixon taught navigation at Gosport and wrote The navigator’s assistant, published in 1791. There are no references to him after that date. A skilled navigator and successful trader, Dixon rose from obscurity to become an important figure in the history of the northwest coast. (Gough)