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Sir Robert McClure

Sir Robert McClure

Sir Robert McClure (1807-1873) was a British naval officer who, while searching for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, discovered the Northwest Passage.

Robert McClure was born in Wexford, Ireland and educated at Eton (an English private school) and Sandhurst (the British military academy). He entered the Royal Navy in 1824. He first traveled to the Arctic in 1836-1837 as mate on the Terror under the command of Sir George Back on an expedition that went to Hudson Bay and explored the Melville Peninsula. He was promoted to lieutenant on his return to England in September 1837. He then served on British ships in the Great Lakes and in the Caribbean.

In 1848 McClure was chosen to be an officer on the first ship sent out to look for the missing expedition of Sir John Franklin, serving under James Clark Ross. They returned to England in the fall of 1849 without finding any trace of Franklin. McClure was then appointed to command the Investigator under the general command of Captain Richard Collinson in the Enterprise on a second attempt to find Franklin. This time they proposed to solve the mystery of Franklin's disappearance by attacking the problem from the opposite side—from the Pacific and Alaska.

They sailed together from England on January 10, 1850 but were separated by a storm in the Pacific Ocean soon after they had passed through the Straits of Magellan. As McClure's ship headed through the Pacific, it was hit by a sudden storm that knocked down all three masts. The Investigator arrived in Honolulu on July 1, 1850, only to find that Collinson had sailed the day before.

By cutting through the Aleutian Islands rather than following his instructions and sailing west of them, McClure reached Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia before Collinson. For unknown reasons that have since caused much speculation, he did not wait for his superior but set out on his own. McClure's goal was to reach Melville Island in the northwestern Arctic, which had been visited by William Edward Parry as long ago as 1819. He rammed the ship through one patch of pack ice and then had to use five rowboats to tow the Investigator past Point Barrow. Forced by the pack ice of the Beaufort Sea to travel eastward along the coast of Alaska to the Mackenzie delta, McClure turned northwards east of the Mackenzie and reached the south shore of Banks Island, which had been spotted from the north by Parry, who named it in honor of Sir Joseph Banks.

Off the east coast of Banks Island, McClure saw a channel, later named Prince of Wales Strait, with a clear stretch of water leading to the northeast. As he sailed up it, he realized that if this body of water connected with Melville Sound, already sailed by Parry, he would have found the long-sought-after Northwest Passage.

By then, however, it was getting late in the year. On September 17, 1850, at a point about 30 miles from Melville Sound, McClure was forced to stop by increasing ice and rising winds. Wind pushed the Investigator 30 miles farther back down the channel. The growing ice toppled the ship on its side and threatened to crush it against some rocks. The men on the ship were convinced they were doomed and broke out the store of alcohol. On September 28, however, the storm died, the ship righted itself and was iced in for the winter.

On October 21, 1850, McClure took seven companions and headed north over the ice in sledges. On the fifth day, they reached the north end of Banks Island. On October 27, 1850, they climbed a small mountain and looked out on Melville Sound—McClure and his men had found the Northwest Passage. On the return trip, McClure ran ahead of the rest of his crew, got lost, and arrived barely alive after a sleepless night fighting his way through a storm.

The Investigator stayed locked in the ice during the winter of 1850-1851. During that time, McClure sent out three land parties to try to find traces of the Franklin expedition, without any success. In the summer of 1851 he tried to sail through Prince of Wales Strait into Melville Sound once again. This time he was stopped by ice 25 miles short of his goal. He then decided to sail south and try to get around Banks Island from the west side. Initially, he made very good time—300 miles in three days. Then, on August 20, 1851, the ship got caught in the ice once again. It was wedged in a small channel of open water too narrow to turn around in—so McClure continued north for another week. Once he had sailed around the northern end of Banks Island into Melville Sound he was once again stopped by ice.

McClure found a small harbor on the north coast of Banks Island, which he named Mercy Bay, and spent the winter of 1851-1852 there. While his men spent their time hunting, McClure took a small party north to Melville Island, hoping to find another one of the ships sent out to search for Franklin. He did find a note from Francis McClintock who had been there the previous June but who had long since left.

During the summer of 1852, McClure tried to get the Investigator free from the ice that blocked Mercy Bay but to no avail. By September when it became obvious that they were going to have to spend another winter in the Arctic, food supplies were dangerously low. Two of the junior officers showed signs of insanity, and 20 men were ill with scurvy. The following spring, McClure proposed to split up his crew into three different groups to try to get help overland.

In the meantime, the British government had sent out ships to look for McClure and Collinson, who had also disappeared. In September 1852 Captain Henry Kellett found a note on Melville Island that McClure had left five months previously indicating his location. Also iced in by the winter, Kellett could not go look for McClure until the following year. On April 6, 1853, shortly before he was to send out his land parties, McClure and his first officer were walking on the beach discussing the burial of a crew member who had died of scurvy. They looked up to see a strange man running down the beach towards them. It was Lieutenant Bedford Pim, an officer from Kellett's ship sent to fetch them.

At first, McClure refused to abandon the Investigator, and three more men died while waiting for supplies. When only four men volunteered to stay with him, McClure was forced to give up and leave the Investigator in Mercy Bay. Once his men reached Kellett's ship and crowded on board, it was too late in the year to depart. The following year, on the orders of Sir Edward Belcher, they abandoned Kellett's two ships and used supply ships to sail back to England via Baffin Bay, arriving home in September 1854.

McClure was given credit for discovering the Northwest Passage, even though he had not been able to navigate it. He was promoted to captain, knighted, and given a reward of £10,000. The journal of his voyage was edited and published in 1856. He then served in the Pacific Ocean from 1856 to 1861. After that, he returned to the Admiralty Office in London. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1857 and vice admiral in 1873 shortly before his death.

Further Reading

There are three original accounts of the Investigator expedition by participants in it. There is also an account by the ship's doctor, Alexander Armstrong: A Personal Narrative of the Discovery of the North-West Passage (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1857) and by a Moravian missionary, Johann August Miertsching, who served as interpreter with the Inuit: Leslie H. Neatby, editor, Frozen Ships: The Arctic Diary of Johann Miertsching, 1850-54 20 (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1967).

There are two fairly recent studies of the expedition: J.H. Nelson, "The Last Voyage of H.M.S. Investigator, 1850-53 and the Discovery of the North West Passage," Polar Record, vol. 13 (1967), no. 87 and Leslie H. Neatby, The Search for Franklin (London: Arthur Barker, 1970).

Other histories of Arctic exploration have good summaries of McClure's voyage: Jeannette Mirsky, To the Arctic! The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948); George Malcolm Thomson, The Search for the North-West Passage (New York: Macmillan, 1975); and Pierre Berton, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909 (New York: Viking, 1988; paperback edition, New York: Penguin, 1989). □

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