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    John Meares

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0500                                                                                                                  

    (W. Kaye Lamb)


            Captain John Meares (1756?-1809), British naval officer, navigator, and

    pioneer fur trader on the northwest coast of North America, was born about 1756.

    According to the Dictionary of National Biography , he "entered the navy in 1771

    on board the Cruiser, in the rating of 'captain's servant,' and after serving

    for nearly seven years, mostly in small ships, passed his examination September

    17, 1778, when he was said to be no more than twenty-two (passing certificate);

    the next day he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. After the peace of 1783

    he entered the merchant service and obtained command of a ship for a voyage to


            Cook's last expedition had revealed the wealth of furs awaiting the adventurer

    on the northwest coast of North America, and in Calcutta Meares and some associates

    organized the Bengal Fur Society to exploit this trade. Two ships were purchased

    in January 1786, and renamed Nootka (200 tons) an d Sea Otter (100 tons). The latter

    sailed for Malacca late in February with orders to proceed thence to the northwest

    coast and there meet her consort in Prince William Sound. Meares himself took

    command of the Nootka , which left Calcutta on March 12th, and after calling at

    Madras and Malacca sailed from the latter port on May 29th. A slow, dreary voyage

    across the Pacific followed. Meares chose a northerly course, where he frequently

    encountered fog and unfavorable winds. In August he stumbled upon the Russian

    settlement at Unalaska, which he later described in some detail in his Voyages .

            It was late September before he reached the rendezvous in Prince William Sound.

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    EA-Biography. Lamb: John Meares

    There he found evidence that convinced him - correctly, as we now know - that

    the Sea Otter had visited the place recently. Meares assumed that she had sailed

    for China; asit proved, she was never heard of again. Meares decided to winter

    in the Sound, and all went well until the turn of the year, when scurvy broke

    out. There is more than a suspicion that a too-generous ration of inferior but

    potent liquor contributed to the physical deterioration of the crew. Meares him–

    self noted that when his first officer developed the first symptoms of the disease

    he got rid of them "by continually chewing the young pine branches, and swallow–

    ing the juice; but, from the unpleasant taste of this medicine, few of the sick

    could be prevailed upon to persist in taking it." Before the warm weather final–

    ly came in May 1787, 23 of the Nootka's officers and crew, originally 45 in number,

    had died, and most of the rest were in dire straits.

            On May 19th, Captain George Dixon, of the British trading vessel Queen Char–

    , appeared in a longboat, and he and his trading companion, Captain Nathaniel

    Portlock of the King George, gave Meares two seamen and some supplies. This assist–

    ance was given on condition that Meares abandon fur trading and leave the coast.

    Meares had no alternative but to accept these terms, first, because of his virtual–

    ly helpless condition, and, secondly, because he had neglected to secure a trading

    license from the South Sea Company. Indeed, the Nootka could probably have been

    seized as a poacher by Portlock and Dixon, whose ships were properly licensed.

    Meares finally got to sea on June 21st, after having spent no less than nine

    months in Prince William Bound. He proceeded almost at once to the Hawaiian

    Islands, and after a stay of a month there sailed for China. He reached Typa,

    near Macao, on October 20th, 1787.

            In spite of the failure of his expedition, Meares became an influential

    shareholder in a new and larger partnership formed to continue the fur trade.

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    EA-Biography. Lamb: John Meares

    This is referred to both as the "Merchant Proprietors" and as the "Associated

    Merchants trading vessels to to the North West Coast of America." The new con–

    cern included Messrs. Etches, who had been interested in four of the five trad–

    ing vessels known to have visited the coast in 1787, including those commanded

    by Dixon and Portlock. In 1788 the new partnership dispatched two ships from

    China. The 230-ton Felice Adventurer , with Meares in command, sailed in January;

    her consort was the Iphigenia Nubiana , of 200 tons. To avoid the necessity of

    securing trading licenses both ships flew Portuguese colors and carried Portuguese

    sailors who could pose as their commanders in case of need.

            Upon this occasion Meares headed straight for Nootka Sound, already the

    chief rendezvous in the area. He arrived in May, and was joined there by the

    Iphigenia in June. A longer-term view was now being taken of the fur trade, and

    Meares brough with him Chinese artisans to help construct a station on shore.

    At Nootka he either purchased or arranged to secure the use of a plot of ground

    from the Indians, and duly constructed a rough storehouse. On the shore nearby

    his men assembled the 40-ton schooner North West America , which had been brought

    from China in knocked-down form. She was launched on September 20th, and, so far

    as is known, was the first vessel constructed by white men in that part of the

    world. Meare's own trading activities in the Felice extended from Nootka Sound

    south to Tillamook Bay, now in the State of Washington. The Iphigenia visited

    Prince William Sound and then worked her way southward, naming Douglas Entrance

    (now Dixon Entrance) en route. Late in September Meares sailed for China in the

    Felice, leaving the Iphigenia and North West America behind with orders to con–

    tinue trading and then winter at the Hawaiian Islands.

            May of 1789 found the two ships once more at Nootka, awaiting the arrival of

    the two additional vessels Meares had told them would be coming from China. On May

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    EA-Biography. Lamb: John Meares

    6th the Spanish frigate Princess arrived, and she was joined a week later by

    the corvette San Carlos . At this time Spain still regarded the northwest coast

    as a private preserve. Even the presence of ordinary trading vessels was felt

    to be an infringement of her rights, but as long as they were merely birds of

    passage they caused her no great alarm. The activities of Meares and his assoc–

    iates were another matter. They represented a sustained and systematic approach

    to the area, and the purchase of land and the erection of a building on shore in

    1788 had made it clear that a permanent settlement of some kind was a part of the

    general plan. Martinez, the Spanish commander of the Princesa , decided that the

    time had come for action in defense of Spain's pretensions, and on May 14th he

    seized the Iphigenia and North West America. In July, when the expected ships

    from China — the Argonaut , commanded by Captain James Colnett, and the Princess

    Royal — finally appeared, they were seized as well. The Iphigenia was later

    released under bond, but the other three craft were held. The Argonaut was taken

    to Mexico as a prize; the Princess Royal and North West America were renamed

    Princess Real and Gertrudis , respectively, and employed by the Spaniards on the


            As soon as news of the seizures reached Meares he left at once for England.

    There, in a memorial dated April 30, 1790, he aired his grievances in ringing

    tones and claimed damages against Spain to the tune of $653,433. On May 13th

    this memorial was presented to the House of Commons, and, happening as it did to

    fit the temper and prejudices of the time, it created much excitement and aroused

    great indignation. Immediate satisfaction and reparation were demanded from Spain,

    and when these were not at once forthcoming a formidable fleet was assembled —

    the famous "Spanish armament of 1790." In September Meares boldly recalculated

    his losses and raised his claims to the fantastic total of £469,865. But in

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    EA-Biography. Lamb: John Meares

    October, when Spain finally gave way, it is noteworthy that he accepted the

    relatively modest sum of $210,000 in full settlement of his wrongs.

            Shortly after this Meares published in London the narrative entitled Voyages

    Made in the Years 1788 and 1789, from China to the north west coast of America

    Its appearance at once gave rise to a lively controversy with Captain George

    Dixon, late of the Queen Charlotte , who took exception to many of Meare s 's state–

    ments and claims.

            This was Meares's last fling in the spotlight of popular attention, and he

    drops from sight thereafter. He was promoted to the rank of commander, R.N.,

    on February 26, 1795, but so far as we known saw no further active service in the

    Navy. He died in 1809.

            Meares was a braggard, much given to pretence and exaggeration, and the

    circumstances that his memorial almost precipitated a war with Spain has made

    him loom larger in history than he probably deserves. At the same time he must

    have possessed ability, or he could not have held his place amongst the men who

    were his partners in the Associated Merchants. Nor can a man who returned to

    Alaskan waters after the grim experience he had had there in the winter of 1786-

    87 be accused of being lacking in courage.

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    Meares's Voyages Made in the Years 1788 and 1789 appeared in a quarto volume

    in London in 1790; a second edition in two volumes followed in 1791. A French

    translation in four volumes (vol. 4 consisting of maps and plates) was published

    in Paris in 1790. Two editions were later printed in Italian.

    Mr. Meares' Memorial, dated 30th April 1790, with fourteen enclosures, to

    the Right Honorable William W. Grenville, His Majesty's Secretary of State
    . (London,

    1790), is now extremely rare. An Authentic copy was printed by Debrett in London

    the same year. The text has been reprinted with notes and an introduction by

    Nellie B. Pipes under the title The Memorial of John Mears (sic) to the House of

    Commons Respecting the Capture of Vessels in Nootka Sound
    (Portland, Oregon:

    Metropolitan Press, 1933).

    For the literature of the Dixon-Meares controversy, see the article on that


    Many articles relating in one way or another to Meares will be found in the

    Oregon Historical Quarterly and the Washington Historical Quarterly . A more de–

    tailed and sympathetic account of his voyages than is usually given in general

    histories will be found in chapters XI-XIII of The Far West Coast , by V. L. Denton

    (Toronto, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1924).


    W. Kaye Lamb

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