Samuel Hearne

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Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) was an English explorer who surveyed the Coppermine River, discovered the "Northern Ocean," and searched for the Northwest Passage.

Samuel Hearne was born in London, the son of Samuel and Diana Hearne. Upon his father's death in 1750 the family moved to Beaminster in Dorsetshire. The attempts of Samuel's mother to educate him seem to have failed: his spelling and grammar left much to be desired, although his mathematics was surprisingly reliable.

Soon after the commencement of the Seven Years War, Hearne joined the Royal Navy at age 11 or 12. He went to sea as servant to Capt. Samuel Hood, who had lived in Beaminster. Hearne's years at sea gave him useful experience for his future travels in Canada: he fought the French in 1759 and took part in bombarding the French coast. Thus, he grew hardened by the life and weather at sea. Perhaps, also, he gained some insight into the importance of navigation and the attendant sciences of geography and astronomy.

In 1766 Hearne joined the Hudson's Bay Company as a seaman, sailed from Churchill on summer whaling expeditions, gained a knowledge of Eskimo life, and sought a future as a master in one of the company's ships. But after 1769 the incompetent Moses Norton, the governor of Prince of Wales Fort at Churchill, sent him on three fruitless voyages in search of copper over what became known, after Hearne's discoveries, as the "Barren Lands."

Hearne's Three Arctic Expeditions

Hearne's first Arctic journey originated from Prince of Wales Fort and lasted from Nov. 6 to Dec. 11, 1769. It was poorly organized by Norton. Without knowledgeable guides, Hearne could not go into the vast spaces—Hudson Bay and Great Slave Lake. From this expedition Hearne learned that Indians could not be pushed and that he would not travel with other Europeans, for he had found them unable to take the hardships of travel in the Canadian sub-arctic.

Norton sent Hearne on his second expedition in February 1770. Again Hearne had a poor Indian guide, both in the sense of geographical knowledge and influence among his fellow natives. In August the party was plundered, and in latitude 70 ° N they became totally lost. The accidental breaking of Hearne's quadrant forced their return on November 25, for without this instrument he would have been unable to fix the exact positions of the Coppermine River according to instructions.

In December 1770 Hearne began his third and most important journey. In this he had a good guide, Matonabbee, and did his own planning. On July 15, 1771, Hearne reached the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Coppermine River, traveling en route via Artillery, Aylmer, and Contwoyto lakes. He was thus the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean overland from Hudson Bay. On this expedition he exhibited no great abilities as an astronomer, and the accuracy of his readings was justifiably questioned by contemporaries such as Alexander Dalrymple. Yet his principal objective—the examination of the practicability of exploiting the copper ore deposits near the river—was completed, even if the findings were negative. He returned to Hudson Bay on June 30, 1772, via Great Slave Lake and thereby proved the nonexistence of a Northwest Passage in the territory that he had traversed.

Hearne's later service in the company included founding Cumberland House in 1774, being in charge of Prince of Wales Fort after 1776, and defending it unsuccessfully against the French under La Pérouse in 1782. He died in England in November 1792 of dropsy.

Further Reading

The best work on Hearne's life and travels is his A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean, which appeared in 1795 and was subsequently edited by J. B. Tyrrell (1911) and Richard Glover (1958). His experiences at Cumberland House are recorded in Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, edited by J. B. Tyrrell (1934). See also A. C. Laut, Pathfinders of the West (1904), and Gordon Speck, Samuel Hearne and the Northwest Passage (1963).

Additional Sources

Lambert, Richard Stanton, North for adventure: Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1952.

Laut, Agnes C. (Agnes Christina), Pathfinders of the West; being the thrilling story of the adventures of the men who discovered the great Northwest, Radisson, La Verendrye, Lewis, and Clar, Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.

Speck, Gordon, Samuel Hearne and the Northwest Passage: Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1963.

Syme, Ronald, On foot to the Arctic; the story of Samuel Hearn, New York; W. Morrow, 1959. □

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Samuel Hearne


English Explorer

The first European to travel across the vast interior of northern Canada, Samuel Hearne also became the first to reach the Arctic Ocean from North America via an overland route. The findings of his journey, including the discovery of the Coppermine River, added to the growing knowledge that no viable Northwest Passage existed between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Born in London in 1745, Hearne was the son of an engineer who died when Hearne was three years old. By age 11, he was working as a servant on a Royal Navy ship, and would remain in the naval service until the age of 18. At that point he took a post as mate on a trading ship bound for Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill was a fur-trading post, but at that time Hearne's employer, the Hudson's Bay Company, had begun looking for opportunities to diversify. Copper looked promising, and after proving himself by his service to the company at sea, Hearne was commissioned to undertake an expedition for copper deposits in the Canadian interior.

He made the first of three trips in November 1769, but his Native American guide deserted him, and Hearne was forced to turn back. Another attempt in the following February ended in disaster, and Hearne spent several months wandering alone. On the third try, however, he had a highly experienced guide, the Chipewyan chief Matonabbee.

Departing from Churchill in early December 1770, the party crossed a wide desert, living on buffalo and caribou, before arriving at the Coppermine River on July 14, 1771. Along the way, the Chipewyan met a band of Inuit, their enemies, and Hearne later recorded the slaughter of the Inuit that he witnessed. The party followed the Coppermine all the way to the Arctic Ocean, then turned upstream to look for copper.

Though in fact there are sizeable copper deposits in the area, Hearne ran out of time before he could locate them, and returned with nothing more than a lump of copper he had found. On his trip back south with Matonabbee and the others, he became the first white man to see and cross the Great Slave Lake. They reached Churchill at the end of June 1772.

Recognizing Hearne's abilities, the Hudson's Bay Company chose him to open its first inland trading post, and in the winter of 1774-75 he established Cumberland House, the first European settlement in what came to be the province of Saskatchewan. Later he became head of the post at Churchill, and in this capacity was charged with defending it during the American Revolution. The post was attacked by French allies of the Americans in August 1782, and Hearne was forced to surrender to the superior forces.

In the following year, Hearne rebuilt the fort at Churchill, and continued at his post until he retired to England in 1787. He later recounted his historic travels in A Journey from Prince of Wales' Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean. This book and his journals were published in 1795, three years after his death at the age of 47.


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Samuel Hearne (hûrn), 1745–92, British fur trader, explorer in N Canada. He entered the British navy at the age of 11 and saw service in the naval battles of the Seven Years War. In 1766 he was hired by the Hudson's Bay Company, and he was mate of the sloop Churchill, serving at and about Fort Prince of Wales (now Fort Churchill) until 1768, when he became mate of the brigantine Charlotte. In 1769 he was chosen to head a land expedition to the north to investigate native reports of a great river and large copper mines. His first two attempts met with failure, but finally in Dec., 1770, guided by a Chipewyan, he set off on the third and successful expedition, which took him across the barren grounds to the Coppermine River and down to its mouth. He came back by Great Slave Lake and arrived at Fort Prince of Wales on June 30, 1772. Although the copper mines proved disappointing, the trip was of great importance. In spite of his inaccurate geographical data, Hearne opened up an unknown territory. He gave an accurate and valuable account of the Chipewyan, and he proved that there was no short Northwest Passage. In June, 1774, Hearne set out from York Factory and established Cumberland House for the Saskatchewan trade, the first inland post of the Hudson's Bay Company. He returned in 1775 and set off immediately again for the west but was recalled to Fort Prince of Wales, where he was put in charge until the French captured the fort in 1782. Hearne made his way to England, but returned to Canada in 1783, where he remained until 1787. His Journey from Prince of Wales Fort on Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean appeared in 1795.

See the Champlain Society editions of that work (ed. by J. B. Tyrrell, 1911) and of his later journals (ed. by J. B. Tyrrell, 1934, repr. 1968). See also selections from his Journey (ed. by F. Mowat, 1958, repr. 1968); A. Laut, Pathfinders of the West (1904, repr. 1969); G. Speck, Samuel Hearne and the Northwest Passage (1963).