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Arctic Exploration in the 19th and 20th Centuries

By François Cartier, archivist, McCord Museum

At the end of the 15th century, when Europeans first officially landed in North America, led by Christopher Columbus and then John Cabot, they discovered that a land mass of unknown size stood between them and the coveted markets of Asia. The explorers had in fact sailed east across the Atlantic Ocean in search of the legendary riches - the silks and spices - of the Orient. Upon encountering the "obstacle" that was North America, which they called Terra Incognita, they began trying to find a northerly route around it, especially after realizing that this "unknown land" was immense and its interior rivers did not lead to the legendary Cathay. Thus was launched the idea of discovering a northern passageway to the Orient, a navigational route called the Northwest Passage.

In the 16th century European nations such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark began sending out Arctic exploratory expeditions. Over subsequent years, decades and centuries, several generations of explorers sailed the northern seas in search of the elusive passageway to the west: Sebastian Cabot (son of John, 1484-1557), Sir Martin Frobisher (1539?-1594) , John Davis (1550?-1605), Henry Hudson (?-1611), William Baffin (1584-1622), Samuel Hearne (1745-1792), Sir Alexander Mackenzie (1764-1820), among others. If several of these names are familiar, it is because the explorers named geographic features after themselves (Baffin Island, Hudson Bay, Mackenzie River, etc.). Despite their contribution to knowledge of the Ultima Thule - the Great North - the passageway to the Orient remained shrouded in mystery.

Exploration in the 19th century

At the beginning of the 19th century Europe was at war, so all exploration was put on hold, to be taken up again at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In England, the scientific community began demanding new information about the Arctic at the same time as others were realizing that, in addition to the inherent economic benefits, discovery of the Northwest Passage would ensure British naval supremacy on the high seas.

The race was on to discover a route to the Pacific, and several series of explorations were launched, both by sea and by land. The British explorer John Franklin (1786-1847), setting out first by ship in 1818, then twice more overland between 1819 and 1827, explored the northern shoreline of Canada, travelling down the Mackenzie and Coppermine Rivers, a route that Peter Warren Dease would retrace from 1837 to 1839. Captain George Back (1796-1878), a former member of Franklin's party, also took an overland route, from Great Slave Lake to Chantrey Inlet, between 1833 and 1835. Nonetheless, the majority of exploratory expeditions were by sea. Ships laden with provisions set out from England for Davis or Hudson Strait, with some expeditions lasting several years: Sir John Ross (1777-1856) spent four winters in the Arctic, between 1829 and 1833, before he was rescued. And John Franklin left England for the last time in 1845 in command of two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. Trapped by ice near Victoria Strait, Franklin and his men abandoned their ships to search for help. By late 1848, all of them had died, either from cold, sickness or starvation. Several expeditions were sent to find Franklin, including one led by Sir John Richardson in 1848 and another led by Francis L. McClintock (who found traces of Franklin's party). Accompanying McClintock was David Walker, a doctor and naturalist. Ironically, all of the searches contributed to advancing knowledge of the Great North, primarily through the maps they produced of different regions in the Great North.

Exploration in the 20th century

Expeditions to the Arctic continued in the 20th century, with the Norwegian Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) finally succeeding in travelling from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast between 1903 and 1905. In Canada it was the government that organized subsequent explorations, most of which were scientific in nature. The geologist John Johnston O'Neill took part in the Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913. He was followed by others such as Hugh A. Peck (1888-?) and George E. Mack (1887-1941), sailing on commercial steamships that stopped at each trading post. Some, like R.H.S. Cresswell, were drawn to the northern lands out of a sense of adventure, a little like today's "explorers" who set out with the best of high-tech equipment.

The Northwest Passage that took so many years, and lives, to locate never proved to be a safe and effective maritime route, especially for commercial shipping. Nonetheless, the numerous attempts to locate it resulted in detailed maps of Canada's Arctic regions, records on the flora and fauna, and improved knowledge of the natural resources.

Most importantly, Arctic exploration introduced the world to the remarkable knowledge and complex culture of the different Inuit peoples who are "at home" in this icy realm.

Source: "Guide thématique des fonds d'archives du Musée McCord
d'histoire canadienne ayant trait à l'exploration dans l'Arctique canadien"


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