The ships chosen for expeditions to the Pacific Northwest were often converted from war and trading vessels. They were sometimes equipped with small cabins for the officers and the captain, but the crew was crowded together. In cold climates, they spent their time among coiled ropes, sacs, and barrels of provisions. Some would take advantage of warmer weather to sleep on deck. The hammock, adapted from South American models, was a length of canvas suspended from hooks on the wall in which sailors slept, centimetres apart, with less than half a metre for each man to swing with the rocking of the ship. Food was served in the galley or kitchen, where a stove and gargantuan metal pots simmered with porridge, fat drippings, and soups. Meals were taken to the “mess,” the general-use room on the lower decks (which was often the gun deck with tables on hinges) where sailors sat to eat.

The areas of the vessel beneath sea level were watertight, meaning air could not circulate and ventilation was a problem. Breathing men quickly used up oxygen, and dangerous gases like carbon monoxide took its place. Sailors suffocated and died due to lack of oxygen while sleepi Read More
The ships chosen for expeditions to the Pacific Northwest were often converted from war and trading vessels. They were sometimes equipped with small cabins for the officers and the captain, but the crew was crowded together. In cold climates, they spent their time among coiled ropes, sacs, and barrels of provisions. Some would take advantage of warmer weather to sleep on deck. The hammock, adapted from South American models, was a length of canvas suspended from hooks on the wall in which sailors slept, centimetres apart, with less than half a metre for each man to swing with the rocking of the ship. Food was served in the galley or kitchen, where a stove and gargantuan metal pots simmered with porridge, fat drippings, and soups. Meals were taken to the “mess,” the general-use room on the lower decks (which was often the gun deck with tables on hinges) where sailors sat to eat.

The areas of the vessel beneath sea level were watertight, meaning air could not circulate and ventilation was a problem. Breathing men quickly used up oxygen, and dangerous gases like carbon monoxide took its place. Sailors suffocated and died due to lack of oxygen while sleeping. One of the jobs of the ship’s doctor sailing with Malaspina was to test the air quality below deck. English ships were fitted with bellows to circulate fresh air to the lower decks. In the Regulations Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, an article was added in 1756 that stated, “His Majesty’s ships are ordered to be furnished with ventilators … to be made use of at least one half hour in every watch” to “keep the ships free from foul air”.

Sailors generally did not have many possessions beyond what they could stuff into a bag. Several bags were then stored in sea chests so that loose objects were not left to roll around in the moving vessel. Captains and officers kept chests in their cabins to store their weapons, clothing, and personal items. When trade became an official objective of American expeditions to the Pacific Northwest and China, space was allotted in the “hold,” the storage areas in the hull of the ship, for the captain and mates to stock between ½ and 5 tonnes of personal trade goods as part of their wage privileges. The hold was also used to keep food, sails, and general supplies.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Wooden Sea Chest

Wooden sea chest belonging to Lt. James Ward, sailed on Cook's 3rd Voyage

The National Maritime Museum, London

© National Maritime Museum


The lavatories (toilet facilities) of 18th century expeditionary vessels don’t get as much attention in historic records as the profound scientific knowledge and the navigational advances made in the Pacific Northwest. But the most basic of human functions deserves some discussion because it was an important aspect of daily expedition life.

Aboard ship, the toilet was referred to as the “head.” This term developed during the early 1700s due to the placement of the toilet, a seat with an opening, towards the front end or head of the vessel. Waves of seawater, splashing up towards the bowsprit as the vessel cut a course, naturally cleaned away waste and mess.

The proper conduct for relieving oneself became a subject of discussion due to the serious diseases that spread rapidly in unhygienic conditions. The bacteria that cause typhoid fever and cholera, both of which may result in death, could quickly pass through a ship that did not address its human waste disposal. Anyone found guilty of “unclean behaviour” such as urinating or defecating anywhere but the toilet facilities (apparently instances of sailors “easing thems Read More
The lavatories (toilet facilities) of 18th century expeditionary vessels don’t get as much attention in historic records as the profound scientific knowledge and the navigational advances made in the Pacific Northwest. But the most basic of human functions deserves some discussion because it was an important aspect of daily expedition life.

Aboard ship, the toilet was referred to as the “head.” This term developed during the early 1700s due to the placement of the toilet, a seat with an opening, towards the front end or head of the vessel. Waves of seawater, splashing up towards the bowsprit as the vessel cut a course, naturally cleaned away waste and mess.

The proper conduct for relieving oneself became a subject of discussion due to the serious diseases that spread rapidly in unhygienic conditions. The bacteria that cause typhoid fever and cholera, both of which may result in death, could quickly pass through a ship that did not address its human waste disposal. Anyone found guilty of “unclean behaviour” such as urinating or defecating anywhere but the toilet facilities (apparently instances of sailors “easing themselves in the hold” had created a problem) was severely punished. Those incapable of using the head due to illness or broken bones might have the luck of their own facilities, fashioned by the ship’s cooper. The British Admiralty of the 1700s described these as “buckets with covers for the necessary occasions of the sick men”.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

18th Century Vessel

Model of an 18th Century Vessel

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The overland expeditions to the Pacific Northwest travelled the river systems of North America in canoes and flat-bottomed boats. When the paddlers reached the end of the rivers and streams, they portaged, trekking overland carrying their vessels and supplies on their backs until they reached the next suitable river. They could not sleep aboard their small craft, so much of their energy was spent making camp at various points along the expeditionary route.

The main tasks included gathering wood, preparing a fire, and erecting shelter. Tents and lean-tos were adequate temporary shelters while en route and during the autumn and summer months. When the weather fronts of western North America ushered in cold and stormy winters filled with torrential rains and snow, it was necessary to set up better protection against the elements. The Lewis and Clark expedition built a winter fort on the Pacific Coast at Fort Clatsop. Wooden palisades enclosed a small group of buildings warmed by smoking fires that eventually inspired the construction of chimneys.

Because all food and supplies needed to be carried, expedition members continually acquired fresh food along th Read More
The overland expeditions to the Pacific Northwest travelled the river systems of North America in canoes and flat-bottomed boats. When the paddlers reached the end of the rivers and streams, they portaged, trekking overland carrying their vessels and supplies on their backs until they reached the next suitable river. They could not sleep aboard their small craft, so much of their energy was spent making camp at various points along the expeditionary route.

The main tasks included gathering wood, preparing a fire, and erecting shelter. Tents and lean-tos were adequate temporary shelters while en route and during the autumn and summer months. When the weather fronts of western North America ushered in cold and stormy winters filled with torrential rains and snow, it was necessary to set up better protection against the elements. The Lewis and Clark expedition built a winter fort on the Pacific Coast at Fort Clatsop. Wooden palisades enclosed a small group of buildings warmed by smoking fires that eventually inspired the construction of chimneys.

Because all food and supplies needed to be carried, expedition members continually acquired fresh food along the route. Expeditions gathered plants and berries, and spent time fishing and hunting for elk, deer, seals, and waterfowl such as duck for fresh meat. Their indigenous guides and the peoples they met along their route also provided them with food exchanged in trade, including fish, roots, game, and berries.

When not hunting and keeping the fire burning, the explorers were engaged in observing and noting their environment and in making repairs to their clothing and equipment. Everything they wore, their footwear, tents, weapons, baggage, and tools had to be patched, cleaned, mended, and maintained to keep the expedition safe and comfortable on its long journey.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Fort Clatsop

Fort Clatsop, Oregon. Reproduction Fort

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


The life of an explorer, whether part of an expedition on land or by sea, was filled with hardships and dangers. Although captains tried to watch after the health and safety of their men, there was still more than a small chance that many people, including the captains themselves, might never return home. Compared to other eras of sea travel, the Pacific Northwest expeditions of the 18th century vastly improved the conditions and, therefore, life expectancy of their crews. But freezing temperatures, high winds, snowstorms, starvation, disease, skirmishes, scurvy and malnutrition, homesickness and loneliness, and even a simple boredom of life at sea took their toll. Rats, fleas, and lice were constant foes, and a member of the Malaspina expedition recorded their ongoing struggle with giant cockroaches that bit the hands and faces of the men. Order had to be maintained, and flogging or beating was one of the few ways to punish seamen that did not maim or imprison them, allowing them to continue their shipboard duties.

Scurvy was the universal hardship, known as the “plague of the sea.” A disease caused by the lack of vitamins C and B in the salt-meat and b Read More
The life of an explorer, whether part of an expedition on land or by sea, was filled with hardships and dangers. Although captains tried to watch after the health and safety of their men, there was still more than a small chance that many people, including the captains themselves, might never return home. Compared to other eras of sea travel, the Pacific Northwest expeditions of the 18th century vastly improved the conditions and, therefore, life expectancy of their crews. But freezing temperatures, high winds, snowstorms, starvation, disease, skirmishes, scurvy and malnutrition, homesickness and loneliness, and even a simple boredom of life at sea took their toll. Rats, fleas, and lice were constant foes, and a member of the Malaspina expedition recorded their ongoing struggle with giant cockroaches that bit the hands and faces of the men. Order had to be maintained, and flogging or beating was one of the few ways to punish seamen that did not maim or imprison them, allowing them to continue their shipboard duties.

Scurvy was the universal hardship, known as the “plague of the sea.” A disease caused by the lack of vitamins C and B in the salt-meat and biscuit diet of sailors, scurvy usually set in not long after ships left sight of shore. This created the mistaken belief that scurvy was caused by the long separation from land. The disease resulted in the deterioration of tissue and bones, the loss of teeth, and mental and emotional breakdown. Healed wounds and old scars would open as if they were new sores, and delicate tissue, like that around the gums, would swell up. Bodega y Quadra’s expedition of 1775 returned to San Blas with every man on board suffering from scurvy. Captain Bering succumbed to scurvy, which caused his death in the north Pacific.

The simple cure was a good dose of vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables, but the expeditions of the 18th century continued to experiment with treatments and preventions as they were unable to carry these fresh provisions. Antiscorbutics, foods thought to prevent the onset of scurvy, included dried vegetable soup tablets, malt, vinegar, and boiled, concentrated fruit juice known as “rob,” made from an Arab recipe. Captains Cook and Vancouver worked together with their surgeons to ensure the seamen consumed these preventative foods, and Vancouver ordered the ship’s brewer to make beer flavoured with spruce and western hemlock needles about once a month during the expedition to the Pacific Northwest. He believed that this would ensure ascorbic acid intake with the daily beer rations. Ironically, the rats that were responsible for destroying food provisions were often roasted and eaten and the fresh meat, which contained ascorbic acid, saved many men from scurvy.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

The Significance of Spruce Beer in 18th Century Expeditions

Greg Evans, Executive Director, Maritime Museum of British Columbia, Discussing the significance of spruce beer in 18th century expeditions.

I believe that spruce beer played quite a significant role in voyages of exploration on the Pacific coast. Particularly with British explorers who knew from experience that water taken on board ships was often rancid, skunky and slimy by the time two or three months of the voyage had passed. Therefore, realizing that that was not a nutritional drink they looked for other means to encourage and ensure that the health of their crew was paramount. One nutritional item was spruce beer. So Royal Navy ships and British ships of exploration would take malted barley on board along with a yeast and hops for brewing on board. When they got to the Pacific Coast, they would take the young needles of the spruce tree or indeed the bark as well they would also use that as a seasoning and a flavouring and they believed at that time that it had preservative qualities and had nutritional value. Whether or not they understood vitamins C and B in those days, I’m not sure but we do know now that vitamins C and B was present in spruce beer.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia


Daily life on an expedition of exploration was full of hard work and challenges. But there were many ways to break up the routine and have some fun. Much of the work was done to the tempo of shanties or working songs, with a rhythm set to the pull of the lines and lyrics filled with dirty jokes to keep the sailors paying attention. Music brought the expedition together, reminded the men of home, and immortalized people and stories in verse. The Spanish gathered on deck to sing in honour of Maquinna at Yuquot, and Tadeo Haenke of the Malaspina expedition recoded sheet music for a Tlingit song of peace. The words for “flute” and “music” are part of an 18th century Russian glossary of terms in Unalaska, and the fiddler was sometimes listed as a hired crewmember on English vessels of the 1700s.

Alcohol is famously linked to sailors, who were issued a daily ration of beer. The Royal Navy doled out a “tot” of rum, alcohol distilled from the sugar cane grown on the British plantations in the Caribbean. Tots were rationed from 1655 until the practice was ended in 1970. The Spanish provisions included stores of wine. These rations were Read More
Daily life on an expedition of exploration was full of hard work and challenges. But there were many ways to break up the routine and have some fun. Much of the work was done to the tempo of shanties or working songs, with a rhythm set to the pull of the lines and lyrics filled with dirty jokes to keep the sailors paying attention. Music brought the expedition together, reminded the men of home, and immortalized people and stories in verse. The Spanish gathered on deck to sing in honour of Maquinna at Yuquot, and Tadeo Haenke of the Malaspina expedition recoded sheet music for a Tlingit song of peace. The words for “flute” and “music” are part of an 18th century Russian glossary of terms in Unalaska, and the fiddler was sometimes listed as a hired crewmember on English vessels of the 1700s.

Alcohol is famously linked to sailors, who were issued a daily ration of beer. The Royal Navy doled out a “tot” of rum, alcohol distilled from the sugar cane grown on the British plantations in the Caribbean. Tots were rationed from 1655 until the practice was ended in 1970. The Spanish provisions included stores of wine. These rations were given out in measured amounts to prevent what the Admiralty called “drinking in drams” which led to drunkenness (and drunkenness led to fighting and men falling overboard). This didn’t stop the sailors from buying, trading, stealing, or even brewing their own beverages.

Holidays on expedition were still working days, but the food and drink rations might be a little larger, even if they tasted the same as they always did. In 1805, Lewis and Clark spent the third Christmas of their expedition at Fort Clatsop on the Pacific. The men greeted each other with the shout of “Christmas gift!” and exchanged tobacco and handkerchiefs.

Some men learned to draw or to read while on expedition. Because of the watch system aboard ship, sailors were generally sleep deprived and took advantage of any free time to take a nap – a welcome, if not very “merry” pastime. An ivory chess set was among the personal possessions of Captain Cook, whom we can imagine plotting strategy on the chequered board. There is no doubt that seamen found opportunities to gamble, placing money and the clothes on their back as wagers on tests of strength, cockroach races, and other bets sailors continue to make today.

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Cook's Ivory Chess Set

Cook's Ivory Chess Set

The National Maritime Museum, London

© National Maritime Museum


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • construct, interpret, and use graphs, tables, grids, scales, legends, and various types of maps
  • locate and describe major world landforms, bodies of water, and political boundaries on maps
  • locate and describe current and historical events on maps

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