Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society

 

HYPERTEXT GUIDE TO THE EXPLORATION OF THE CANADIAN ARCTIC

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1000-800 BC / 330 BC / 600-1000 AD / 1000-1500 / 1500-1580
1580-1590
/ 1590-1615 / 1615-1635 / 1767 / 1817 / 1818 / 1819

 

Pytheus / St. Brendan / Eric the Red / John Cabot / Sir Hugh Willoughby / Richard Chancellor
Stephen Burroughs / Sebastian Cabot / Sir Martin Frobisher / Sir Humphrey Gilbert
John Davis
/ Willem Barents / Henry Hudson / William Baffin / Sir Thomas Button
Luke Foxe
/ Thomas James / Samuel Hearne / Edward Scoresby
John Ross
/ William Edward Parry

 

Please be aware that this chronology is under construction!
Three hundred years of history will be added soon. More importantly, bibliographical
attributions remain to be cited! Please be patient and check back with us frequently.

 

1000-800 BC

Evidence exists that Norse and Celtic settlement of North America begins at this time in history. For a fascinating introduction to this thinking, find Barry Fell's America BC. The author of this document has visited one of Dr. Fell's sites and the evidence is compelling indeed.

 

330 BC- Pytheus of Massalia (Marseilles)

Pytheus discovers "Ultima Thule" (modern Iceland or possibly Norway) after circumnavigating Great Britain. He is ridiculed for claiming to have seen a "midnight sun". His two original texts having been lost to antiquity, we know of his explorations only through the (rather enthusiastic) criticism of his contemporaries: Strabo and Polybius.

 

600 AD- St. Brendan

Sailing with fourteen Celtic Monks, St Brendan describes in detail the eruption of Mount Hecla, Iceland. Probably in flight from the marauding Norse, they settle to monastic life in Iceland before again fleeing the Vikings in 795 AD, probably to Greenland.

 

985- Eric (The Red) Thorvaldsson

Eric the Red "discovers" Greenland, mapping a great deal of its southwestern coastline. Subsequently leads a massive expedition to colonize Greenland in the vicinity of modern Julianehaab and Godthaab. Eric's son, Lief Ericksson then proceeds to "discover" North America, probably landing in modern Anse au Meadow, Newfoundland ("Vinland" of the Norse Sagas) and New England.

 

1497- John Cabot

Cabot plants the English flag on what is now Canadian soil (Cape Bauld, Newfoundland). (Columbus, it should be remembered, never set foot on North American soil and, to his dying day, thought he had landed in Asia) Cabot, travelling in a more northerly direction, can accurately be said to have initiated the attempt at Marco Polo's Cathay by the Northwest Passage. Indeed, on his subsequent voyage of 1498, Cabot entered Hudson Bay at 64"N!

 

1553-Sir Hugh Willoughby, Richard Chancellor and Stephen Burroughs

Sebastian Cabot, son of John Cabot (above), organizes attempt at Northeast Passage. In the name of  "The Governor of the Mysterie and Companie of the Merchants Adventurers" (later renamed "The Muscovy Company") they discover the Russian Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya and open trade with the Czar Ivan through the Russian seaport of Archangel.

 

1576- Sir Martin Frobisher

An infamous pirate and privateer who turns to exploring after having made the mistake of taking English booty in the name of the Queen. He continues mapping the western limits of what was to become Baffin Bay by sailing into Frobisher's Straits in search of passage to the West; he claims to have found gold in the mountains surrounding Baffin Bay. His "colorful" exchanges with the Eskimo natives show him to be a formidible opponent and warrior, and he dies accordingly: slain while in battle against the Spanish Armada in 1594.

 

1583- Sir Humphrey Gilbert

Sails into a crowded harbor in Newfoundland and takes possession in the name of the British. Surprisingly, this works.

 

1585- John Davis

Further advances the work of Frobisher (above) by navigating throughout Davis Straits, as far north as Sanderson's Hope at 72"12'N. He carefully charts the entire area and gives the name to the modern Cumberland Sound. "He lighted Hudson into his Strait; he lighted Baffin into his Bay." (Sir Clements Markham)

 

1594- Willem Barents

Travels north of Novaya Zemlya in a Dutch effort to open a Northeast Passage. He reaches the open Kara Sea, a feat unequalled for 200 years after. On his third voyage, he discovers Spitsbergen, then becomes marooned on Novaya Zemlya, his ship crushed in the ice, for the first Arctic overwintering in written history. Barents dies the next spring as his men break for freedom in their lifeboats; many of them are rescued. Their winter camp remains undisturbed for nearly 300 years. Barents is also fondly remembered for introducing the game of golf to the Arctic.

 

1607- Henry Hudson

Sails north of Spitsbergen to the 80th parallel, an accomplishment which remains unbested until Elisha Kent Kane's expedition of 1853. He accurately predicts the wild success of the fishing and whaling industries there. On his third voyage (this time for the Dutch) he sails up the Hudson River from Manhattan to Albany, thinking it might open into the Northwest Passage. Hudson and his youngest son die after being set adrift in Hudson Bay, Canada, by mutineers during his fourth voyage to seek the Passage.

 

1612- William Baffin

Sailing Hudson's boat "The Discovery", Baffin sails three hundred miles north of John Davis' explorations, finding both Smith Sound (the American "Highway to the Pole" of the 19th and 20th Centuries) and Lancaster Sound (which eventually turns out to be the entrance to the closest  version of an actual Northwest Passage) Baffin proves an enormously proficient astronomical navigator, making extensive notes of his compass' erratic behavior near the magnetic pole, as well as numerous excruciatingly accurate celestial sightings under difficult and hitherto untried conditions.

1612- Sir Thomas Button

Sailed to the western shores of Hudson Bay and did much charting and exploration in that region, in addition to surviving a brutal overwintering in the Canadian North. Interviewed by Luke Foxe (see below) prior to Foxe's departure, he remained convinced of the existence of a Northwest Passage.

 

1631- Luke "North-West" Foxe and Captain Thomas James

Fierce competitors in a much publicised race to Cathay, these two skippers could not have been more different one from the other: Foxe was a seasoned seaman, born of a master mariner and as practical and pragmatic in his approach to the challenge as his competitor, James, was ingenuous. James made the dubious choice, for instance, of taking along not a single crew member who had sailed in arctic waters! Both mariners spent several months charting the vast interior of Hudson Bay. Foxe covered much new ground in the northern straits of the Bay, making it back to England in late fall; James, on the other hand, missed the window of opportunity and spent a difficult winter on Charleton Island at James Bay. Returning fully a year after Foxe, their lives, at least, finished in a dead heat, as they died within a month of one another in 1635.

 

1767- Samuel Hearne

Found the Arctic Ocean by traversing the Canadian Northwest Territory on foot. Starting at Fort Prince of Wales on the western shore of Hudon Bay, near the mouth of the Churchill River, Hearne sets out on foot with his Indian guide Matonnabbee. He finds the mighty Coppermine River, then Great Slave Lake. Following the Coppermine to its mouth, he claims the northern coast of Canada in the name of the Hudson Bay Company on 18 July 1771.

 

1817-Edward Scoresby

A second-generation whaling man of the Greenland waters, Scoresby was not content to lead the simple sea-captain's seasonal life. During the winters, he took university courses. He proceeded to invent several tools of Arctic exploration and to write "The Polar Ice", known as "the foundation stone of Arctic science." Scoresby, passed over by the Admiralty for a mission command of his own openly disdained the concept of the "Open Polar Sea", which formed the central thesis to the British approach to the Arctic.

1818-John Ross

A seasoned, war-scarred naval veteran, Ross recharted Baffin Bay, confirming Baffin's accuracy and entering Smith Sound. He carried with him on his mission two future stars of Arctic exploration: James Clark Ross (his nephew) and William Edward Parry. In a famous print made by a crew member named Sachausen, Ross is depicted making contact with the Inuit Eskimos at Etah. Later that season, in an unaccountable move, Ross turns back after entering Lancaster Sound, claiming to have seen mountains (Croker Land) at the end of the (imaginary) bay. This faulty decision resulted in much derision upon their return and cost John Ross the command of the following season's expedition.

 

1819-William Edward Parry

Second in command during Ross' ill-starred 1818 expedition, Parry's luck gained him the following year's command, and nearly the Northwest Passage itself, as Parry sailed clear waters through Lancaster Sound to Melville Island. This was an extraordinarily mild season, and the like was not reported again during the same century. The first white men to winter in the Arctic, Parry worked hard to overcome the brutal weather and the crushing ennui during eight months in his "Winter Harbour" on the south coast of Melville Island. Parry returned to England in 1820 after sighting Banks Island in the distance. He might not have turned back had he known that, after Banks, there was probably clear sailing below the High Arctic pack to the Bering Sea!

Returning in 1821 to try the Passge through Hudson Bay, Parry wintered two consecutive years in Foxe Bay with a band of hitherto uninfluenced Inuit Eskimo. It is interesting to note the complete disregard by the British Admiralty of the survival techniques taught to Parry by the natives throughout the remainder of the British exploration of the Arctic. (Indeed, it is not stretching the truth to say that Sir John Franklin nor Robert Falcon Scott may not need have perished but for this systematic cultural myopia.)

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