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HANNA, JAMES, pioneer in the maritime fur trade on the northwest coast of North America; d. 1787.

Nothing is known about James Hanna prior to his departure from Macao, China, on 15 April 1785 in the brig Harmon (60 tons) with a crew of 20 men. It is not clear whether the vessel sailed under Portuguese colours or under the British flag with a licence from the East India Company. Hanna, who had the financial backing of John Henry Cox, a merchant residing in China, headed, for Nootka Sound (B.C.), which had been described by Captain James Cook as a likely place to acquire a profitable cargo of sea otter pelts.

Arriving there in August, Hanna and his men were attacked by the Nootka Indians, and in the ensuing struggle 20 Indians, including several chiefs, were killed. Hanna claimed that the attack occurred after he fired on the Indians in retaliation for their theft of a chisel. The Nootka chief Muquinna told Esteban José Martínez in 1789, however, that it had been in response to a humiliating and painful practical joke played on him by Hanna and his men, which involved setting off a charge of gunpowder under his chair as he sat on the deck. Whatever the cause, peaceful relations were established after the battle, and in the resulting trade Hanna acquired 560 sea otter pelts. As a token of friendship he exchanged names with Cleaskina, chief of Ahousat, a Nootka village then located on Vargas Island, who was known to later voyagers as “Captain Hanna.” Hanna returned to Macao in December, selling his furs for up to $60 apiece and realizing $20,600.

Encouraged by the profit made from such a short cruise, Hanna’s backers fitted him for a second trip. He left Macao in May 1786 in the snow Sea Otter (120 tons) with a crew of 30. When he arrived at Nootka in August, he found the situation greatly altered. James Charles Stuart Strange* of Bombay had already been there in July with two ships and had bought all the furs. Hanna remained at anchor in Nootka for a fortnight, purchasing only about 50 good pelts. He then sailed northward, discovering and naming several sounds, islands, and harbours on his way. He appears to have thought that the north end of Vancouver Island was a separate island, naming it after Cox, and he is said to have sighted the Queen Charlotte Islands, to which, with the land north of them, he gave the name Nova Hibernia. By the end of September Hanna had managed to collect about 100 prime pelts, and on 1 October he sailed for China, reaching Macao on 8 Feb. 1787. The cargo brought $8,000, despite its small size. Plans were made for a third trip, but Hanna died before they were completed.

Hanna’s visits to the northwest coast were brief, and the information he kept concerning them was scanty, but his observations were useful to others. George Dixon, John Meares*, and George Vancouver all consulted his charts. In 1790 Alexander Dalrymple, the British geographer, cited Hanna’s explorations when he advanced British claims to the northwest coast and its fur trade.

Richard A. Pierce

Provincial Archives of B.C. (Victoria), Sea-Otter (ship), Journal of a voyage from Macoa towards King Georges Sound in the Sea Otter, Captain Hanna, commander; Brig Sea Otter from Macao towards America through the northern Pacific ocean (1785). [William Beresford], A voyage round the world; but more particularly to the north-west coast of America . . . , ed. and intro. George Dixon (London, 1789; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1968). [Alexander] Dalrymple, The Spanish pretensions fairly discussed . . . (London, 1790). The Dixon-Meares controversy . . . , ed. F. W. Howay (Toronto and New York, 1929; repr. Amsterdam and New York, 1969). Geschichte der Reisen, die seit Cook an der Nordwest- and Nordost-Küste von Amerika and dem nôrdlichsten Amerika selbst von Meares, Dixon, Portlock, Coxe, Long u.a.m. unternommen worden sind . . . , ed. and trans. Georg Forster (3v., Berlin, 1791). Meares, Voyages. G. Vancouver, Voyage of discovery (J. Vancouver). Voyages ofColumbia’ (Howay). Howay, List of trading vessels in maritime fur trade. Walbran, B.C. coast names. H. H. Bancroft [et al.], History of Alaska, 1730–1885 (San Francisco, 1886); [and H. L. Oak], History of the northwest coast (2v., San Francisco, 1886). Cook, Flood tide of empire.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Richard A. Pierce, “HANNA, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hanna_james_4E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hanna_james_4E.html
Author of Article:   Richard A. Pierce
Title of Article:   HANNA, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1979
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 27, 2023