Tag Archives: Northwest Passage

Thanks to the Celts!

In thе bеgіnnіng, Canada wаѕ a vаѕt piece оf land that had bаrеlу bееn examined. Mаnу of the first explorers wеrе Scots like Dаvіd Mасkеnzіе or Sіmоn Frаѕеr, whо both mарреd оut a large раrt оf our country. A Welshman nаmеd Sіr Thomas Button lеd thе first expedition fоr thе Nоrthwеѕt Pаѕѕаgе in 1612, whіlе Welsh саrtоgrарhеr Dаvіd Thоmрѕоn is rеfеrrеd tо аѕ Cаnаdа’ѕ Greatest Gеоgrарhеr. Aѕ more аnd mоrе ѕеttlеrѕ саmе, іt brought аbоut the Hudson Bау Cоmраnу and thе Nоrth Wеѕt Cоmраnу, both сruсіаl іn mapping оut thе bоundаrіеѕ of Cаnаdа.

Thomas Button

Admiral Sir Thomas Button, after an original oil in possession of G. M. Traheren, Glamorganshire, Wales. Source

Whіlе ѕоmе voluntarily саmе to Cаnаdа fоr a new life аnd орроrtunіtіеѕ, others had lіttlе сhоісе in leaving their homeland and coming here.  Mаnу Irіѕh lеft tо ѕаvе themselves frоm starvation duе to роtаtо famine. Fоr others, rеlіgіоuѕ dіѕрutеѕ wеrе the саuѕе for dераrturе. Whаtеvеr thе rеаѕоn, thousands left hоmе fоr a nеw wоrld. Many ships were оvеrсrоwdеd аnd unѕаnіtаrу, causing mаnу dеаthѕ. Hіt hаrdеѕt bу this were thе Irish; many dіdn’t survive thе journey. Fоr those lucky еnоugh tо аrrіvе ѕаfеlу, their nеw lіvеѕ wеrеn’t еаѕу. Thе fіrѕt settlers had to clear the lаnd аnd рrераrе іt tо grоw fооd аnd tо buіld ѕhеltеr. It was not еаѕу аnd many rеturnеd hоmе. Those соurаgеоuѕ еnоugh to ѕtау mаnаgеd tо buіld a new lіfе. Mаnу new tоwnѕ were сrеаtеd, оftеn nаmеd аftеr thоѕе whо founded them оr in rеflесtіоn оf whеrе thеу came frоm.

Canada bеgаn tо tаkе shape аnd Confederation саmе аbоut іn 1867, wіth Sіr Jоhn A. MасDоnаld, a Scotsman, bесоmіng оur fіrѕt Prime Minister. Irishman Thomas D’Arсу MсGее wаѕ аlѕо a Fаthеr of Cоnfеdеrаtіоn. Aѕ the соuntrу grеw, nеw dеvеlорmеntѕ аnd іnvеntіоnѕ came to lіght. Thе Sсоtѕ gave uѕ standard tіmе (Sir Sandford Fleming), аnd thе RCMP (Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald).  They gаvе us the modern trасtоr (James G. Cockshutt).

Thanks tо thеіr hаrd work and dеtеrmіnаtіоn, thе Scottish, Irish, and Wеlѕh people played a large part of making thіѕ соuntrу whаt іt іѕ tоdау.


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It Only Took 56 Years To Prove!

Usually the title “Maritime Province” is reserved for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, or Prince Edward Island.  Manitoba is grouped with  Saskatchewan and Alberta as a “Prairie Province,” but Manitoba was actually discovered from the sea, and has a coastline on Hudson Bay.

While Champlain was colonizing Nova Scotia and Quebec, he was also hoping to find a route to China through the continent.  At the same time, and even before, British and Danish sailors were trying to find the supposed “Strait of Anian” through the Arctic.  Among them were Hudson, Davis, Frobisher, Baffin and Munck.  On August 26, 1612, two British ships, Resolution and Discovery, came sailing down Hudson Bay under the command of Thomas Button.

Admiral Sir Thomas Button

Admiral Sir Thomas Button (Photo credit: lisby1)

He was searching for the Anian Strait, but all he had seen was shoreline stretching north and south.  He decided to stop in the estuary of a great river flowing from the southwest to rest his crew and make repairs.  Suddenly the weather turned cold and the ships were closed in by ice.  Button knew that he would have to stay for the winter and had his men build dykes to prevent the ice from crushing the hulls of his ships.  They were the first Europeans to spend a winter in Manitoba.  Button called “new Wales,” in honour of his homeland.

It was a hard winter.  Many men died from scurvy, among them Francis Nelson, sailing master of the Resolution; Button named the river after him.  There were only enough men left to handle one ship, so the Resolution was abandoned and they sailed back to Britain in the Discovery, the ship from which Henry Hudson had been put overboard by a mutinous crew.

Although Button had not found the Northwest Passage, he was still hopeful.  His encouraging reports led Gibbons, Bylot and Baffin to make further attempts to discover it.  Still it wasn’t until 1632 that other explorers proved there was no route to China through Hudson Bay, 56 years after Martin Frobisher began the search in 1576.

To read more about Sir Button, I suggest the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, the Manitoba Historic Site of the Day, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.


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Little Giant

English: 'Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Pra...

‘Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies’, oil on canvas painting by John Mix Stanley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was not until 1926 that historians could be certain that Henry Kelsey really did reach as far west as Saskatchewan in 1691.  He was an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company and his career was distorted by witnesses who criticized the company during a parliamentary investigation in 1749.  The story of his journey to Western Canada came to light in 1926 when his diary was found in the library of Castle Dodds, at Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was granted its charter in 1670 on the understanding that it would explore the enormous territory under its control, and try to find the Northwest Passage.  Kelsey, although only twenty years old, was working at the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Nelson, Hudson Bay.  He volunteered to go with a party of Stone Indians to their hunting grounds, and left with them on June 12, 1690.

Many of the great explorers, Cartier, Champlain, Mackenzie, Fraser, and Thompson kept diaries.  Fortunately Kelsey did too, but  much of his writing was in poor verse.  He described his departure:

Then up ye River I with heavy heart
Did Take my way & from all English part
To live among ye natives of this place
If God permits me for one two years space.

Kelsey’s writings are entertaining but do not give a clear account of where he went.  It is known now that he reached The Pas, which he named Deering’s Point after a director of the company.  He was the first white man to see the Prairies, musk oxen, and a buffalo hunt; he actually took part in a buffalo hunt on August 23, 1691.

Kelsey was given the name Mis Top Ashish by the Indians.  It meant Little Giant because he saved an Assiniboine Indian in a fight with two fierce grizzly bears.

Before any other white man penetrated the Prairies (La Vérendrye and his sons did so in 1738), Kelsey had spent nearly forty years on Hudson Bay, including the two years exploring the interior.  He was captured by Iberville in 1694 when the great French-Canadian military leader attacked York Factory.

For more about today’s post, I suggest going to Dictionary of Canadian Biography to learn about the man, and the Manitoba Historical History with more of his diary is revealed. And lastly, a site I just found, the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.



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Lady Franklin’s Rock

English: Graves of the dead crewman from the 1...

English: Graves of the dead crewman from the 1845 Franklin Northwest Passage expedition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are few more dramatic stories in Canadian history than the account of Sir John Franklin‘s death in the Arctic on June 11, 1847.  His expedition to discover the Northwest Passage sailed from Britain in May, 1845.  His ships, the Terror and Erebus, were last seen at the entrance to Lancaster Sound in July.  It took fourteen years of searching by many expeditions before it was learned what had happened.  A record was found in a cairn at Point Victory giving the history of the expedition until April 25, 1848.

After spending the winter of 1845-1846 at Beechey Island, North Devon, the expedition reached the west side of Cornwallis Island and followed a route that had been especially assigned before Franklin had left Britain.  He navigated Peel and Franklin Straits southward, but had been stopped by ice coming down McClintock Channel.  The ships were ice-bound on September 12, 1846.  Franklin died the following June.  By that time, the death toll of the expedition was 9 officers and 15 men of the total of 129 who had sailed from Britain.

The survivors stayed in the Erebus and Terror until April 22, 1848, when it was decided to trek overland to Back’s Fish River.  Not a single man survived.  Eskimos saw them trying to make their way over the ice, but said they died as they walked.

At one stage of Franklin’s career, he had been Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Tasmania, where British convicts were sent.  When he was lost, the colony gave Lady Franklin £7,000 to finance a search.  She not only sent out expeditions but went on one herself.  It tried to get to the Arctic by going up the Fraser River from the Pacific, but was stopped at what is now known as “Lady Franklin’s Rock.”

The record found at Point Victory included the information that Franklin had discovered a channel leading south along the west of North Somerset, discovered by Parry in 1819.  Franklin knew he could reach the Bering Sea through it, the long-sought Northwest Passage. Discovery of the Passage, however, was officially credited to Captain McClure who charted it when searching for Franklin in 1850.  His was only one of forty expeditions sent during the fourteen-year search.

Some of you will certainly want to learn more than what’s in this post, so I can suggest a few sites. You can begin with Sir John Franklin Was Here – it’s a real treat! Then, there’s The Canadian Encyclopedia  for a complete look at Franklin’s life and legacy. Another very interesting site, I suggest visiting Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society written by Russell A. Potter, Ph.D.. I found another good article at Canadian Geographic. Of course, another source that you can always depend on is CBC!


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King Charles II granted HBC Charter

Hudson' Bay Company

Hudson’ Bay Company (Photo credit: Gregalicious)


On May 2, 1670, King Charles II granted a charter to the “Merchant Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay,” which came to be known as the Hudson’s Bay Company.  It was a momentous charter in the history of Canada.

The head of the company was the king’s cousin, Prince Rupert, who rated in warfare as Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky do in hockey.  He would go into battle clad in scarlet, adorned with silver lace, and mounted on a black Arabian charger.  He was also a good mathematician, understood chemistry and made gunpowder.  The trading area granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company was known as Rupert’s Land, which extended from Labrador to the Rocky Mountains (although the Rockies had not then been seen by white men).

The company was given absolute power to control the fur trade, rule the inhabitants, make laws and even go to war.  Its duties included finding the Northwest Passage to China, gold, silver and anything precious.  It was not required to bring in settlers, or try to convert Indians to Christianity, as was the Company of New France.  In fact, 100 years passed before a priest went to the trading posts.

There was a condition that if the king visited the area he must be given two black elks and two black beaver skins.  These were given to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Winnipeg in 1939.

The company nearly always made a good profit, sometimes as high as 200 percent in a single year, but it had its lean years as well, especially when it was in competition with the Northwest Company, a rivalry that came close to civil war.

The activities of the company were also challenged by France.  In October, only a few months after it had been formed, Intendant Talon sent a mission to Hudson Bay where the Le Moyne brothers of Montreal captured the Hudson’s Bay Company posts.  The most famous Le Moyne of them all, Iberville, won the biggest naval victory in French history in Hudson Bay.

Despite the opposition, the Hudson’s Bay Company was a major force in the development of Canada.

The birth of Hudson’s Bay Company is such an important part of Canada, that I am sure some of you will want to read more about it. So, a few places to start looking is CBC Learning – a People’s History; BC Heritage – Family Album; The Government of Manitoba website; Canada; from the University of Alberta – Hudson’s Bay Company: Incorporated 2nd May 1670: A brief history; and The Canadian Encyclopedia.


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Captain Cook

English: "A Native of King George's Sound...

“A Native of King George’s Sound” (Nootka Sound), from the book An Authentic Narrative of a Voyage Performed by Captain Cook and Captain Clerke, in His Majesty’s ships Resolution and Discovery, during years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780, by William Ellis; published in London, 1783, by G. Robinson, J. Sewell and J. Debrett. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is amazing to realize that nearly thirty years before Champlain was active in Canada, Sir Francis Drake tried to find the Northwest Passage by sailing around the Horn and exploring the Pacific coast. He made that voyage in the Golden Hind, in 1579, and claimed what is now California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia for England.

Drake blamed them “stinking fogges” (fogs) for his failure to discover the Northwest passage, although he sailed as far north as Alaska. His voyage was a success, however, because when he returned to England, the ballast in his ships was gold and silver taken from the Spaniards.

Other romantic buccaneers followed Drake. The most successful was Captain Cook, who was also sent to try to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific. Cook had done a wonderful job as navigating officer for General Wolfe in 1759, guiding the Armada of British ships safely up the St. Lawrence. When the Admiralty sent him to the Pacific to look for the Northwest Passage, Cook’s navigating officer was the cruel Captain Bligh, who had been made famous by the book, Mutiny on the Bounty. Another of Cook’s officers was Young George Vancouver.

On March 7, 1778, Oregon was sighted by Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery. Sailing North, they unluckily missed the mouth of the Columbia River. A storm drove them out to sea when they reached Cape Flattery and they missed the Strait of Juan de Fuca leading to the water between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland.

However, Cook did find the beautiful harbour of Nootka Sound where he rested the crew for a month. Scurvy was cured by making a brew of Bruce bark. (Cartier learned a similar recipe when wintering at Quebec in 1535).

When Nootka, Cook sailed north until turned back by ice in the Bering Sea. From there he sailed south,and was murdered by natives in Hawaii. Drake and Cook have paved the way for Vancouver and the others who mapped and colonized British Columbia.


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Secret Arctic Mission

1772 Vaugondy - Diderot Map of Alaska, the Pac...

1772 Vaugondy – Diderot Map of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northwest Passage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On November 21, 1954, the H.M.C.S. Labrador completed an 18,000 mile trip around the continent via the Northwest Passage and the Panama Canal.

Patrick Duffy at the Ottawa Citizen wrote an article in November 2008 about the voyage. I found a reprint of it on the Forums.

Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Labrador was commanded by Captain “Long Robbie” Robertson, and it’s hydrographer was Lieut. Thomas Irvine, the 30 years old. It was Irvine’s job to map uncharted waters and plan a safe route.

This mission was authorized by Naval commanders because they feared that the United States were poised to send one of their Beaufort Sea Icebreakers through the Northwest Passage. That would have been a blow to Canada’s sovereignty claims over the arctic. The mission was kept secret, however, because Canadian officials were afraid of the consequences were the Labrador to fail.

When it succeeded,the accomplishment was made known to the world. Reporters met the ship when it docked in Esquimalt, British Columbia.

To learn more about the Labrador visit Wikipedia‘s page. To read newspaper articles of the voyage, you can find them here.


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