In 1773, Connecticut native John Ledyard dropped out of Dartmouth College to travel the world. From 1776 to 1780, he traversed the Pacific as a member of British explorer Captain James Cook’s crew. John Ledyard was the first United States citizen to reach the west coast of the American continent, the first to see the Hawaiian archipelago and the first to witness maritime fur trade between the Northwest American coast and China – and he had no idea the United States even existed. Ledyard was unaware that he left England on Cook’s ship just before British American colonists signed the Declaration of Independence.
Read historian Jared Sparks’ Memoirs of the Life and Travels of John Ledyard from his Journals and Correspondence (1828)
John Ledyard returned to New England in the 1780s to find several British American colonies newly minted as the United States. In the first decade of United States independence, he was a vocal advocate for U.S. involvement in the lucrative maritime fur trade he had witnessed on his voyage. While life in the new United States may have been provincial for most, and Atlantic for some, the Pacific was central to John Ledyard’s life. He saw an opportunity for the new United States, not to connect the Americas to the Pacific World, but to enter a world already connected for centuries.
The United States as a political body or geographic place did not exist until 1776. Early American histories that focus on the British colonies create a shared past and a nation where one did not yet exist. The East-to-West narrative of United States history means certain regions only enter the story when Anglo-Americans begin to populate them or the United States annexes them. Like Spanish and French colonial America, Pacific stories are rarely included in U.S. history before the mid-eighteenth century. The United States acquired overseas territories in the Pacific from Alaska in 1867 to Hawai’i, the Philippines, and Guam in 1898, and the most recent—the Trust Territory of the Pacific after World War II. Like the thirteen British colonies that first formed the United States, these places also have a history that predates the formation and arrival of the United States. A completely different story emerges when we reorient early American history so that the western American continent becomes the Eastern Pacific.
One way that historians can paint a more accurate picture of early America is to trace connections that transcend present-day political boundaries. This short article does not attempt to encompass all aspects of the Pacific World. That effort has been undertaken by Dennis O. Flynn and Arturo Giráldez in The Pacific World: Lands, Peoples, and the History of the Pacific, 1500-1900 and has taken seventeen volumes to accomplish. Instead, we focus on two trans-Pacific trade routes in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries: the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco and maritime fur trade between the Pacific Northwest and China. These trade routes moved goods, but also peoples, cultures, and ideas across and throughout the Pacific.
Manila Galleon Trade (1565-1815)
From the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, the Pacific Ocean was known as the Spanish Lake. In 1565, Spanish navigator Andrés de Urdaneta discovered a path from the Philippines to the Spanish Americas by sailing north from Manila to capture favorable winds in the North Pacific. This 1565 voyage marked the beginning of the Manila galleon trade that would persist into the nineteenth century. Two to three times per year, giant Spanish ships called galleons laden with prized goods from Asia goods traveled across the Pacific to New Spain by way of the Spanish colony in the Philippines. The galleons returned to Asia with silver mined in Spanish Latin America. Once goods arrived in Acapulco, they were transported across the American continent to Spanish ports in the Atlantic. In this manner, goods from Asia traversed first the Pacific to the Americas, then the Atlantic to Europe, creating the first truly global trade.
These galleon ships carried goods, but they also carried people and their cultures. The Spanish employed Filipino workers on galleon crews from the beginning of the trade in the sixteenth century. Filipinos built the galleon ships and many traveled to or settled in the Americas. Because the ships moved slowly through the islands surrounding the Philippines, Micronesian islands, and American bays, the galleons connected and transformed cultures along the way. While trans-Pacific trade could mean hybridization and positive cultural interactions, it also involved environmental destruction, reckless slaughter, and indigenous slave labor. The same galleons carrying prized goods from China brought slaves from throughout Asia to work in the silver mines of Spanish Latin America.
The Spanish were not the only European imperialists in the Pacific Ocean. California became connected to the Pacific World because of inter-imperial competition. The Spanish had claimed California and first became interested in developing Alta California as a stopping place for weary galleon crews before they reached Acapulco, although they found its coast rocky, inhospitable, and unsuitable for development. No action was taken until necessitated by increased threats to galleon ships and their treasures from English pirates such as Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. The Spanish first settled Alta California in 1769 as a strategic buffer against foreign aggression. Spanish missionaries soon followed, setting up missions throughout California. Through its connections to the Manila galleon trade, California became a self-sufficient part of the Spanish Empire.
Maritime Fur Trade
To the north, a new trade was emerging that could rival the Spanish position in the Pacific. In 1741, Russians made contact with Native Americans on the Northwest Coast of the American continent. That first expedition returned in 1742 with otter skins that sold well in China. Russians returned to establish a colony and contract native labor to procure the prized pelts. We might recognize this region as present-day Alaska, but until the Russian empire sold the land to the United States in 1867, it was known as Russian America.
The maritime fur trade brought furs from the Northwest Coast of America to China and brought Chinese goods back to America. The Hawaiian Islands became a way station on this journey, linking Hawaiians to the Pacific trade. A Pacific triangular trade network, much like the one that developed between Africa, Europe, and the Americas in the Atlantic, developed between China, Hawaii, and the Northwest American Coast. The Russians held a monopoly over this lucrative trade until British Captain James Cook’s third voyage brought him to the Northwest American Coast in the late 1770s. There Cook’s crew discovered, like the Russians had decades earlier, that furs obtained from the natives could be sold in Canton, China for a 400% profit. The British ended the Russian monopoly on the Northwest Coast fur trade. U.S. Americans dominated the maritime trade with China within a decade of its opening by the British.
- Read John R. Bockstoce’s The Opening of the Maritime Fur Trade at Bering Strait online
- The Russian-American Company in Hawaii
The first U.S. ship to travel to China, the Empress of China, departed the new United States on February 22, 1784—the same day that the Edward sailed for England with the newly ratified Articles of Peace between the United States and Great Britain after the Revolutionary War. The trans-Pacific fur trade opened at an opportune moment for the fledgling United States: New England merchants needed to escape the economic depression that followed the Revolutionary War and replace their lost trading partners in the British Isles and West Indies. The United States needed commerce to generate wealth after the war and had idle ships and sailors who could participate.
New U.S. Americans placed a great deal of symbolic value on the voyage of the Empress. Material goods represented independence. Under the Navigation Acts, the British American colonies received all goods through British trade and British ships. If the United States could trade with China independently, it would prove they no longer needed the British to provide Asian goods. The United States initially had trouble establishing a foothold in the Canton trade, but eventually found success trading ginseng and “soft gold”—sea otter fur. Before the nineteenth century, California’s sea otter population remained untapped. The sea otter industry boomed between 1803 and 1812 when the Russian-American Company’s contract labor system coordinated with U.S American traders. The two imperialist powers joined forces, enslaving skilled Aleut and Kodiak otter hunters from the Northwest Coast and sending them to California to provide the precious pelts.
A Pacific Approach to U.S. History
The United States citizens who were actively involved in Pacific trade disrupt the traditional narrative of United States history: a march from East to West as Anglo-Americans triumphantly conquered the continent. Manifest Destiny, the belief that the United States was destined to expand overland across the American continent, still looms large in the stories we tell about America’s past. The familiar story highlights the hopes of expansionists who dreamed that one day, when the United States expanded to the Pacific coast of the American continent, U.S. Americans would have access to the natural resources and trade opportunities in the Pacific Ocean. But, by the time the United States expanded to the Pacific Coast in the 1840s, U.S. citizens had been involved in the Pacific trade for decades.
In 1955, when Senator Mike Monroney opposed Hawaiian statehood, he based his argument on the idea that United States westward expansion happened overland, in wagons filled with frontiersmen and dedicated homesteaders. Historian John Whitehead notes, “the senator’s explanation of the normal pattern of migration included no mention of ships or boats. He seemed unaware that anyone had ever gone West by such craft, even to California.” The distance across the American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean on a map obscures the fact that the Pacific was much closer to the early United States than the majority of the western continent that remained divided from the early United States by the Rocky Mountains. When California became a U.S. state, it was “separated from the nearest other state, Texas or Iowa, depending on your routing, by some 1,500 miles of desert and mountains that were more difficult to traverse than the 2,500 miles of ocean between Hawai’i and the mainland.” Before railroads cut across the American continent, California was reached by way of the Pacific Ocean.
The United States eventually dominated the American continent between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel and expanded to hold territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. United States dominance over territory and trade was the outcome, but early American history need not lead tidily to that end. The stories told here show a very different world in which the United States was just a young nation, a newcomer in a world connected by empires and indigenous peoples, struggling to find its place in a vast ocean.