Robert McClure Discovers the Elusive Northwest Passage

views updated

Robert McClure Discovers the Elusive Northwest Passage


The Northwest Passage was the persistent vision of many early explorers. They traveled across the ocean and up rivers and lakes searching for a waterway to the Orient and into the New World. The explorers were lured westward with hopes of finding immediate tangible wealth. The fastest mode of travel at that time was by waterways, so they followed all they could find. The search for the Northwest Passage, a route extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean by way of the Arctic Archipelago (now Canada), required centuries of effort and inspired one of the world's most competitive maritime challenges. Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure (1807-1873), an Irish naval officer, was the first explorer to complete the crossing of the Northwest Passage, doing so in 1850. For 450 years a history described by self-sacrifice, tireless curiosity, the wealth of the fur trade, and personal tragedy lured men to find what some had called the mythical waterway. This is the history of the Northwest Passage.


The actual route of the Northwest Passage is located fewer than 1,200 miles (1,900 km) from the North Pole and 500 miles (800 km) north of the Arctic Circle. The route extends approximately 900 miles (1,400 km) east to west, from north of Baffin Island to the Beaufort Sea (above Alaska) and consists of a series of deep channels that cut through Canada's Arctic Islands. (It is amazing to think how early exploration crews must have felt as they sailed through the hazards of giant icebergs. Imagine a stream of approximately 50,000 icebergs up to 300 feet (90 m)in height constantly drifting by the sailing vessels that searched for something that might not be there.) The Northwest Passage is equally difficult to cross when returning. Much of year, as the polar ice cap presses down on the shallow northern coast of Alaska, it funnels masses of ice between Alaska and Siberia and into the Bering Strait. Most of the attempts to find the passage followed one of two hypotheses: first, a waterway around North America or, second, a waterway through the continent.

The personal and political desires to find the elusive Northwest Passage were numerous. The British Navy was relatively unemployed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The British government became excited by the enthusiasm of Sir John Barrow to the potential of discovering the passage. As second secretary to the admiralty, he put together a large naval expedition for the project.

Supported by Spain, Christopher Columbus's (1451-1506) voyages had provided maps of the coasts of Central and South America. Even with this information, however, people still had little knowledge of the unvisited North. Some thought that the continents of North America and Asia leaned together. Theoretical geographers reasoned, then, that the coast of Newfoundland was simply the edges of a peninsula that extended eastward from the Orient. With the lucrative trade in furs and other natural resources in mind, a faster passage to the Orient would give English merchants the opportunity to locate trade routes and markets not yet dominated by Spain or Portugal.

The impact of opening the Northwest Passage would be enormous. Not only would it allow regular commercial ocean traffic, proving to be of worldwide economic significance as it pertained to trade relations among nations, modes of transportation would also dramatically change. It was thought that the passage would permit the use of much larger vessels and shorten travel time. If the passage existed, the distance between Tokyo and London would be shortened to under 8,000 miles (12,800 km). At the time, the primary route was around the tip of Africa. This route was 14,670 (23,470 km) miles long.

Unfortunately, the many different attempts to discover the Northwest Passage lured opportunists of questionable character. It seems that in the excitement of discovery, some people always found "evidence" for believing what they wished to believe. The intensity of the search was so great that some travelers claimed to have discovered the strait when in fact they had not. Juan de Fuca was the most notable of these opportunists. Fuca was from Greece, adopting a Spanish pseudonym to please the government of Mexico. In reality, he only sailed the northern waterways through the passage for 20 days, giving standard reports that described very fruitful land rich in gold, silver, pearl, and many other natural resources. History has given him much credit, however, naming a famous strait of water after him.

Tragedy and failure are among the realities of exploration. Sometimes tragedy, however, provides the opportunity to learn. Of all the recorded histories of the Northwest Passage, the worst tragedy came in 1845. Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) and his crew of 128 men vanished. The result of this loss was a 12-year search that, in turn, contributed greatly to geographic knowledge. At the search's peak in 1850, as many as 14 ships were looking for this unlucky crew at the same time and a further expedition was at work from the mainland. The mystery of Franklin and his party was finally pieced together. Franklin and his crew had wintered at the western end of Lancaster Sound. He turned south in the spring of 1846 to Peel Sound, a stretch of water that had not been navigated, and then to Victoria Strait, off the northern tip of King William Island, in 1859. It is here that his beleaguered ships eventually were abandoned. There were no survivors.

Sir Robert John Le Mesurier McClure was born in Ireland and became an explorer for the British. In 1848 McClure entered the navy and accompanied Sir James Clark Ross (1800-1862) to the Arctic. In 1850 McClure took command of the ship, the Investigator. This was one of two ships sent to search for Sir John Franklin in the western part of the Arctic Archipelago. Captain Richard Collinson was the commander of the other ship, the Enterprise. They became separated in the Pacific and later discovered that Collinson had spent three years in Victoria Island and reached the Victoria Strait. This was a short distance from where Franklin's ships had been abandoned. Collinson found no additional clues with which to continue his search so he eventually returned home.

McClure's search for the passage was from the West. He discovered two entrances to the Northwest Passage. From the Pacific he entered the Bering Strait. (The U.S.-Russian boundary extends through the strait). McClure sailed along the Alaskan and Canadian coasts and discovered the Prince of Wales Strait. The strait is an arm of the Arctic Ocean and extends 170 miles north-eastward from Amundsen Gulf to Viscount Melville Sound. It separates Banks and Victoria islands and now is part of the Northwest Territories of Canada. The Strait was named after Albert Edward, then the Prince of Wales. While wintering here, McClure continued his exploration by sledge (a strong heavy sled) along the shore, reaching Barrow Strait. Here he discovered McClure Strait, also known as M'Clure Strait. Approximately 60 miles (96 km) wide and 170 miles (270 km) long, this strait is an eastern arm of the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort Sea. West of Viscount Melville Sound, it lies between Melville Sound Banks Island (to the south) and Eglinton Islands (to the north). The sounds and straits of the Northwest Passage are navigable only under favorable weather conditions.

The Investigator became icebound for nearly two years near Banks Island in Mercy Bay. McClure finally abandoned his ship to travel over land by sledge. Captain Henry Kellett rescued McClure and his crew at Melville Island. Kellett was also making the expedition from the West. Soon Kellett's ship also became icebound, in this case for a year or so, and both crews abandoned their ships, moving on to a third ship. McClure and Kellett together managed to proceed on foot to Beechey Island to become the first men to cross the Northwest Passage. McClure is credited with completing the entire journey and proving the existence of the Passage. Eventually both parties were rescued by Sir Edward Belcher's (1799-1877) expedition, which brought the men home. McClure was censured for returning without the Investigator. Nevertheless, he was highly commended for his discoveries and knighted in 1854.

The story continues as it was not until 1906 that the Northwest Passage was conquered completely by sea. Roald Amundsen (1872-1928?), a Norwegian explorer, completed the three-year voyage on a boat named Gjoa, which had been converted from a 47-ton herring boat. Interestingly, Amundsen's excursion began secretly as he sailed to escape creditors who wanted the expedition stopped.


The Northwest Passage captured the imagination of many famous explorers. The prestigious list includes Captain James Cook (1728-1779), Sir Francis Drake (1540?-1596), Henry Hudson (1565?-1611), Sir Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594), Sir John Ross, and Jacques Cartier (1491-1557). Many met with disaster and all but one met with failure. Today, the Northwest Passage serves not only as a highway for commerce but also functions as a means to protect the North American continent.

One of the great long-term results of the discovery of the Northwest Passage was the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line. The DEW began in 1954 as a primary line of air defense, its role being to warn of an "over the Pole" invasion of the North American continent. (It is remarkable to think that the Northwest Passage made possible the gigantic task of bringing the weighty and vast supplies for the DEW Line and its later equipment.) The early explorers had established that the Northwest Passage existed. It took, however, an air reconnaissance mission headed by Vice-Admiral Will, U.S.N, to establish that the Bellot Strait was a possible passage for cargo ships and tankers. The DEW Line is, notably, near the spot where Sir John Franklin and his men perished in the icy—and still unconquered—Arctic.


Further Reading

Delgado, James P. Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage. New York: Checkmark Books, 1999.

Graf, Miller. Arctic Journeys: A History of Exploration for the Northwest Passage. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Savours, Ann. The Search for the North West Passage. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

About this article

Robert McClure Discovers the Elusive Northwest Passage

Updated About content Print Article