Roger M McCoy
In part one we saw that the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company financed much exploration of the North American Arctic. The stories of men who made those expeditions are especially interesting for the hardships they endured along with the great gains they made in knowledge of the area and in our understanding of survival in the Arctic environment.
Henry Kelsey began working for the Hudson Bay Company in 1684 at the age of seventeen, when the HBC was still in its formative years. He was assigned to the York Factory fort and trading post on the west shore of Hudson Bay. The company’s main interest lay in expanding trade with Indians in the far-flung, unexplored territory beyond Hudson Bay. This required someone to search the vast region to find unknown tribes and induce them to bring furs...preferably beaver...to the far-away trading post. As new trade grew the company built additional trading posts in the interior. Kelsey was instructed to carry hatchets, knives, beads, and tobacco as payment for pelts.
He began the journey in 1690 with a group of Indians canoeing up the Nelson River trending southwest from York Factory. They traveled by canoe through forests and lakes of Manitoba with many portages between water bodies. They lived off the land by hunting as they went, which meant a meager diet part of the time, then feasting on buffalo when they reached the plains of Saskatchewan near present day Saskatoon. Kelsey was the first European to visit most of the tribes he encountered and probably the first to see the great herds of buffalo on the Great Plains. After a journey of nearly 1,400 miles and two years of exploring the wilderness, he had mixed results in opening trade with the tribes.
Now fast-forward eighty years for another example of the intrepid HBC explorers: Samuel Hearne (see Explorer’s Tales blog of 9/15/2014). In 1770 Hearne traveled with a band of Chipewyans who scouted the territory and hunted for meat. Hearne recorded that the Chipewyan women carried the baggage, put up tents at night, and cooked meals. The group traveled from York Factory on the west shore of Hudson Bay to the Arctic shore of North America, a round trip of about 1,500 miles. There he made celestial measurements to determine his position and provided the first bit of information on the location of the north edge of the North American mainland between the east and west shores.
The initial purpose of Hearne’s expedition was to check out reports of copper deposits far to the north. Indians occasionally brought bits of copper to the trading post at York Factory and HBC decided to learn if copper mines might be developed. Not far from the Arctic shore Hearne found the place where Indians had taken small amounts of copper, but no mineable deposits. The Coppermine River, so named by Hearne, is the only reminder of that episode.
Probably the best known HBC employee/explorer was John Rae. His ability to learn survival techniques from the natives of the region allowed him to travel very light and exist for long periods in the Arctic. Rae lived entirely off the land for months with a crew of eighteen or twenty men. The technique was simple. They made snow shelters in less than one hour at the end of every day of travel, hence no need to carry the extra weight of tents. They wore animal skin clothing for reliable warmth in the coldest weather, and they slept in animal skin sleeping bags. Rather than travel in one large group, they broke into small groups to better utilize the scattered resources.
In 1853 Rae found some Inuits who told him about the ill-fated Franklin expedition which left England in 1845 and never returned. The Inuits had a number of artifacts taken from the dead men of the expedition, and reported signs of cannibalism among the bones. When Rae reported this news back in England, he met with disbelief and severe criticism for accepting the “savages” stories. Rae’s acceptance of native ways in the Arctic played against him as much as the disbelief that an Englishman could resort to cannibalism. He was roundly criticized for dressing and living like the natives and not dealing with the wilderness in a “proper” way. Many British naval officers received knighthood for far less accomplishment than John Rae, but he was denied such honors and never received the £10,000 award due him for discovering the fate of Franklin.
Rae’s accomplishments actually surpassed those of any other Arctic explorer. He surveyed 1,776 miles of uncharted territory and traveled 6,555 miles on snowshoes as well as another 6,700 miles in small boats along the shores. Yet Rae received no recognition because he dared to utter the truth about the Franklin expedition. Later Rae passed his knowledge of survival to the Admiralty, but it was ignored, and several future expeditions faced scurvy and starvation that could have been avoided.
The North West Company also had several outstanding, the best known of whom was a Scot named Alexander Mackenzie. In 1789 he embarked on an expedition with twelve Indians in canoes on the northwest flowing river called Dehcho by the native people. Despite Samuel Hearne’s failure to find a northwest passage nineteen years earlier, Mackenzie hoped to find such a passage in this more westerly location. He expected the Dehcho River to reach Cook’s Inlet in Alaska but found instead that it emptied into the Arctic Ocean. His dismay at this discovery led him to name the river Disappointment River. Despite Mackenzie’s feeling of failure, this expedition provided a second, very significant surveyed point marking the northern limit of the North American mainland. Together with Hearne’s earlier survey, Mackenzie proved, to his disappointment, that there is no navigable waterway through the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
Mackenzie made a second important expedition in 1792-93 beginning from Fort Chipewyan in the northwest portion of present-day Saskatchewan. With two Indian guides and six Canadian voyageurs, Mackenzie traveled up the Peace River westward to the continental divide, then down the Bella Coola River to the Pacific Ocean at the present day site of Bella Coola, British Columbia. This feat made Mackenzie the first person known to have completed a crossing of the North American continent north of Mexico. Furthermore his efforts provided the Northwest Company a great amount of information about western Canada and its native people.
The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company were a primary support for exploration in Canada until after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. After that time the Royal Navy decided to utilize their resources in a search for a sea route through the Arctic archipelago and added many men and ships to the exploration effort.
This exploration effort by the British navy along with exploration by the U. S. government in the nineteenth century opens another topic for consideration: exploration by government organizations such as the Royal Navy, the U. S. Army, the U. S. Topographical Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey, and others. All this governmental interest in exploration resulted in the great surveys of the American West by Lewis and Clark, Clarence King, Ferdinand V. Hayden, John Wesley Powell, and George Wheeler, and soon opened the wilderness to settlement.
McCoy, R. M. On the Edge: Mapping the Coasts of North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Phillips, P. C., Smurr, J. W. The Fur Trade. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1961.