Unalaska hoping to keep sketch from Cook visit

Posted: Monday, December 11, 2000

UNALASKA (AP) -- The sketch is a simple one, of a young Unangan woman. She is adorned with traditional Aleut jewelry and tattoos, and wears a faint smile.

In terms of local history, the 1778 sketch made by an artist on Capt. James Cook's ship has great meaning. It was made by John Webber, the famed artist who traveled aboard Cook's vessel.

The sketch is one of the most recognizable glimpses of that 18th century journey to the Aleutians.

For at least the next two years, it will reside in the Museum of the Aleutians, just 10 miles from the spot where it was originally drawn.

Since then, it has traveled the world in a battered wooden boat, been viewed by King George III of England, and passed through the hands of several collectors.

During its visit here, the museum hopes to raise about $70,000 to purchase the drawing and keep it in Unalaska.

The sum is a large one for a small museum. But Rick Knecht, the museum director, said the chance to obtain the piece is exciting.

''It's a reach, but God, to have a world-class piece back here 222 years after it left,'' Knecht said. ''It would be amazing.''

The information that can be gleaned about this particular piece is fascinating.

By matching landmarks in another sketch Webber made that afternoon, Knecht believes he can determine the exact hillside where the picture was drawn. Thanks to notes from an officer who witnessed the meeting, historians know it was sketched on July 1, 1778. Census records narrow the woman's identity to one of two people.

The woman in the portrait was born into a world that knew nothing of Europeans. Cook's voyage came just a decade after the first Russians arrived at Unalaska Island.

Journal entries describe the woman's beauty, charm and intelligence.

In exchange for the sketch, Webber gave the woman and her husband tobacco and jewelry.

''It's one of the best and earliest sketches we have of an Unangan person,'' Knecht said. ''It's the nearest we can come to being there that afternoon.''

Knecht said the sketch is also significant because of its broad importance. It tells something about the Natives who lived on Unalaska Island and about the Europeans who visited.

The picture has achieved some fame as an engraving that was widely reproduced from the sketch.

But that picture, titled ''A Woman of Ounalashka,'' took some unfortunate liberties with the drawing. Somewhere in the process, the woman went from being simple and attractive to awkward and primitive.

The sketch came from an auction house in Sydney, Australia, which was selling two other sketches from the Cook voyage to Alaska buyers.

When the auction house owner learned the origin of the sketch, he called Knecht and asked if he would be interested in purchasing it. As an incentive, he allowed the museum to borrow the sketch for two years.

Knecht says it's important to seize the moment. He plans to begin a fund-raising drive in the next month, with activity both inside and outside Unalaska.

''If it ends up leaving the island, we'll never get another one,'' he said.

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