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Portraits of eighteenth century men with their ruffled shirts and white wigs can be grossly misleading, appearing to be gentlemen who never endured hardship of any kind. This is certainly a mistaken image of Samuel Hearne. Born in London in 1745, he shunned an extensive education in favor of a career in the Royal Navy beginning at age twelve. Ten years later he left the navy and became an officer on a Hudson Bay Company (HBC) ship engaged variously in the fur trade and whaling. During these years he developed navigational skills and became a skilled snowshoer, both making him an obvious choice for the HBC to send as an overland explorer.
Indians bringing furs to the HBC at Prince of Wales Fort, at the present location of Churchill on Hudson Bay, sometimes carried pieces of native copper they said came from a copper mine in the far north. This bit of information prompted the HBC to investigate the possible source of copper by sending their man Hearne on an expedition. He made two false starts in November 1769 and February 1770, but had to turn back each time due to insufficient provisions for feeding the expedition. Another problem was accidental damage to the quadrant, his instrument for measuring latitude.
The third try in December 1770 was successful. You may notice these expeditions all began in the dead of the Arctic winter. This time was selected by the Chipewyan guides because the frozen ground, lakes, and rivers made travel easier. By the time they reached the Coppermine River—named by Hearne—in the spring, they could travel in canoes which they carried with them. They also carried enough provisions to last until the spring hunting period began. The expedition consisted of Hearne and a band of Chipewyan guides led by Matonabbee, a native man that Hearne had come to know and trust. Eight wives belonging to Matonabbee came to carry the loads, pull the sledges, make camp, and cook. Some of the women carried children as well. The men spent their time scouting the trail and hunting. Hearne noted that the Indians replenished clothing, tents, and sleeping bags as needed along the way. He discovered that it required eight or ten deerskins to make one complete set of clothing, including stockings and moccasins. A total of about twenty deerskins per person were needed for making clothing, tents, bedding, snowshoes and towing thongs. This huge need for skins accounted for the hunters sometimes taking only the hide from a deer.
When deer were available, the women cooked a variety of dishes. One that Hearne declared most delicious was called beeatee; its description sounds similar to haggis. According to Hearne: It was made with blood, a good quantity of fat, some of the tenderest flesh, and the heart and lungs torn into small slivers. All of this was put in the deer’s stomach and roasted over the fire. When it is sufficiently done it will emit steam, which is as much as to say, ‘Come eat me now!’”
Hearne kept a detailed and fascinating journal with an abundance of details about the conditions they encountered, the behavior of the Northern Indians (Chipewyan), the role of women in their tribe, and the intense enmity between the Indians of the forests and the Inuit of the barren Arctic tundra. Their hatred for the Inuit was based on a superstition that any death in their tribe was caused by an Inuit conjuror. This belief led to frequent conflicts between the two groups. Hearne gave a detailed account of an attack his Indian guides made on an Inuit encampment during which about twenty men, women, and children were slaughtered in a ghastly incident that caused Hearne great horror for the rest of his life. When he tried to persuade Matonabbee to abandon the night-time attack, Hearne was ignored and derided as a coward. Hearne wrote in his journal:
... a young girl, seemingly about eighteen years of age, was killed near me… I solicited very hard for her life; but the murderers made no reply till they had stuck both their spears through her body ... even at this hour I cannot reflect on the transactions of that horrid day without shedding tears.”
Hearne was again ridiculed for wanting to save the girl’s life. The melee continued with wrecking all the Inuit tents, tools, and cooking pots. Hearne named the nearby rapids on the Coppermine River, Bloody Falls.
Near this location Hearne and his party found the so-called copper mine. It could scarcely be called a mine, consisting only of a few minor excavations on the surface. Examination of the area revealed only occasional pieces of copper and the site was never deemed viable as a commercial mine.
Finally the party reached the Arctic shore of North America on July 1, 1771, and Hearne measured its latitude. He observed that the sea ice had not yet broken up, but had melted for three-quarters of a mile out from the shore. He erected a cairn and took possession of the coast on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company and the Crown. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this single measurement.
Until this time the only mapped points delimiting the extent of North America in the Arctic were on the east coast of Labrador and the west coast of Alaska. There was nothing known to Europeans between these points. Hearne’s land survey established two important features: 1) the location of the north coast at a place approximately half-way between the east and west points, and 2) the absence of any possible water passage farther south, thus ending any hope for a navigation route though the continent. It now became certain that the elusive Northwest Passage must pass through the ice of the Arctic Ocean, but many exploration voyages were made over the next 135 years before the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, managed to navigate it from east to the west, 1903-06.
About fifty years after Hearne’s trek, the British Royal Navy sent another overland expedition led by Sir John Franklin to the same area. That expedition nearly starved by ignoring the native ways of dressing and traveling, and Franklin became known as “the man who ate his boots.” Franklin’s measurement showed that Hearne had placed the mouth of the Coppermine River 200 miles too far north. Despite the error, however, Hearne’s effort stands as a significant contribution to the exploration of North America.
During Hearne’s return to Fort Prince of Wales, the Indians pushed forward even faster than on the outward journey. On one day the Chipewyans pushed forty miles to a camp where the women had waited while the main party went ahead. Hearne complained bitterly that during this intense trek his feet became so irritated with blisters and abrasion that he was in constant severe pain.
The nails of my toes were bruised to such a degree that several of them festered and dropped off. ...I left a print of my feet in blood with every step.
When they arrived at the campsite they found the women had moved on, and the Indian guides insisted on pushing ahead until they caught up with the women. Finally at 2 a.m. Hearne’s group located the women, and rested for several days in the camp. This gave Hearne’s feet a chance to heal.
On June 29, 1772 after eighteen months and twenty-three days of trekking, Hearne and Matonabbee returned to Prince of Wales Fort. The total distance covered on foot—not counting the false starts— amounted to about 1,500 miles.
Two years later in 1774, the HBC sent Hearne to establish a new trading post called Cumberland House in what is now Saskatchewan. Two years after that he was given command of Fort Prince of Wales. While under his command, the fort was attacked by a French naval force consisting of 400 men. As the fort had only thirty-nine men, Hearne had no choice but to surrender. He was taken to France as a prisoner, ransomed to the HBC, and resumed his command at the fort the following year. He returned to England in 1787 and died in 1792 at the age of forty-seven years.
I assume he did most of this without the white wig.
Hearne, Samuel. A journey from Prince of Wales Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. Toronto: The Champlain Society. 1911.
Mowat, Farley. Coppermine Journey: An account of a great adventure—from the journals of Samuel Hearne. Boston: Little, Brown & Company. 1958.
Savors, Ann. The search for the North West Passage. New York: St. Martin’s Press.1999.