Samuel Hearne Is the First European to Reach the Arctic Ocean by Land Route

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Samuel Hearne Is the First European to Reach the Arctic Ocean by Land Route


In the late 1760s reports from Native American traders at the Hudson's Bay Company's Prince of Wales Fort told of a large river leading to the Arctic Ocean with a wealthy copper mine at its mouth. The Hudson's Bay Company was encouraged by the idea of a mine next to a navigable river that could be used to transport its riches into the country's interior. Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) was sent on three attempts to discover the river and its mine, and in the course of his travels he mapped a large portion of the Canadian interior and closely observed the lives of the tribes living there. Most of all he proved the difficulty of long-distance travel overland through the Arctic.


By the late 1760s the Hudson's Bay Company had established several forts along the bay's coast for trading and shipping furs and other goods extracted from northern Canada. An ultimate goal of the company was to explore the area for a Northwest Passage by which ships from England could sail to the trading ports of Asia. The company was one of two operating in Canada under exclusive royal charter to trade animal skins with the Native American tribes of Canada. The Hudson's Bay Company's presence consisted mostly of a string of forts along the shore of the bay that served as trading posts, where Native American trading parties could exchange their furs for manufactured goods from Europe. As of 1770 the company had not extended its presence into the interior of northern Canada.

In 1768 a group from the Chipewyan tribe of western Canada arrived at Prince of Wales Fort at the site of present-day Churchill, Manitoba, with samples of copper they claimed had come from a large and productive mine by a great river to the northwest. The commander of the fort assembled an expedition of three Englishmen led by Samuel Hearne to find the mine. The expedition was to travel with a group from the Chipewyan tribe.

On this first attempt in the winter of 1768, the two Englishmen under Hearne were unable to stand the rigors of traveling with the Chipewyan, and Hearne was forced to turn back and join another group of Chipewyan traveling to Prince of Wales Fort. Hearne was barely able to get the two men back to the fort alive, but through the experience he began to learn how to plan for and survive the extended trip required to reach the elusive mine. On his next attempt Hearne took no other Europeans and greatly reduced the load he had to carry on the journey. During his first attempt to reach the Coppermine River, more Chipewyan had arrived at Prince of Wales Fort, and Hearne retained them as guides for his next attempt.

Hearne made his second attempt only three months after the first and traveled alone with another party of Chipewyan guides. After six months he lost his equipment, including the sextant he needed to map the route to the river, when a high wind blew down his tent. He was thus forced again to return to the Prince of Wales Fort. On his return to the Fort he was taken in by a Chipewyan leader named Matonabbee who offered to guide him to the Coppermine River on his next attempt. Despite the protests of the company's chief agent at Prince of Wales Fort, who preferred that Hearne travel with members of the tribe already familiar with the Company, Hearne set out again for the Coppermine River with Matonabbee and his party in early December of 1770, with winter approaching.

The party left Prince of Wales heading west to avoid traveling through harsher terrain during the first winter months of the journey, dragging their sleds behind them. In early February of 1771 the group crossed the Kazan River and walked over the frozen surface of Lake Kasba 300 miles (483 km) from Prince of Wales Fort and just north of what is now the border between Manitoba and Alberta. In April they reached Lake Clowey, an eastern arm of Great Slave Lake, from which they proceeded north towards the coast of the Arctic Ocean.

Along the route more Chipewyan traveling to the mouth of the Coppermine River continually joined the group. In this ever-expanding group Hearne was given the opportunity to observe the tribe's life from within. Hearne noted the habit of going completely without food for days at a time when it was not available and gorging themselves until they could not walk when it was. On the trail the party hunted for food including swans, geese, caribou, and musk oxen, all of which were eaten raw when wood was not available to build a fire for cooking. Hearne also witnessed the heavy workload given to the women of the tribe. Matonabbee attributed the failure of his two previous attempts to reach the river to the fact that he did not bring any women along to share the heavy work of the expedition. He explained the Chipewyan tradition of having the women of the group carry the vast majority of the load on the trail and making them the first to go hungry when food became scarce.

The cycles of feast and famine continued as the group traveled north. In June Hearne discovered that the Chipewyan were traveling as a war party planning a massacre of the Inuit settlement at the mouth of the river. Hearne objected to the plan and declared that he would not participate in the massacre except to defend himself if he were attacked. Leaders of the party were offended by his unwillingness to fight on their behalf and threatened to eject him from the traveling group, but Matonabbee intervened on Hearne's behalf and he was allowed to stay with the group. Later that month the group camped on Lake Peshew, where the women and children were to stay while the men formed an attack party and raided the Inuit settlement. On July 14, 1771, they reached the Coppermine River, and Hearne saw that the accounts given by the Chipewyan that came to Prince of Wales Fort exaggerated the size of the river. The Coppermine proved to be too shallow for boats to travel upstream for shipping to the Canadian interior as the Hudson's Bay Company had hoped.

The Chipewyan painted their shields and bodies in preparation for their attack on the Inuit. Hearne was still determined not to fight and was given a shield and weapon for his own protection. In the early morning hours of July 17, when the Arctic sun was at its lowest point sitting just on the horizon, the Chipewyan attacked the settlement and killed all but a few Inuit, who were barely able to escape from a nearby encampment. In the aftermath of the attack Hearne observed scattered whalebones and sealskins in the Inuit camp and concluded that they had reached the mouth of the Coppermine River at the Arctic Ocean. He then took possession of the coastline for the Hudson's Bay Company.

The search then began for the copper mine that the Chipewyan had described to the agents at Prince of Wales Fort years before. Like the story of the wide, navigable river, the rich copper mine also turned out to be an exaggeration. After hours of searching Hearne only found one large lump of copper ore among the rocks along the river. Meanwhile the Chipewyan ransacked the Inuit settlement, destroying tents and pottery and collecting all the copper items for themselves. The group turned south to rejoin the main encampment and return to Prince of Wales Fort. At Great Slave Lake Hearne again lost his sextant, as he had on his second attempt to reach the Coppermine River, and was unable to map the rest of the return to Hudson's Bay.


Hearne returned to the fort on June 29, 1772. After a year and a half traveling through hostile environment he found neither large deposits of copper nor a new waterway to transport goods through Canada. But while he found no new resources in the extreme northwest of Canada, the trip did demonstrate to the Hudson's Bay Company that it would not be able to depend on having just a presence on the shores of Hudson's Bay. The company would have to build trading posts in the interior of Canada in order to extend its trade with the tribes there. Hearne himself was sent to command such a post when he was appointed to Cumberland House in what is now Saskatchewan. He remained there until 1775 when he was made governor of Prince of Wales Fort. At the end of the American Revolution the French invaded Hudson's Bay and threatened to attack the fort. Hearne surrendered and was taken prisoner by the French until the end of the war, when he returned to Prince of Wales Fort.

Hearne's overland trip through Canada was the last of its kind in which a lone European explorer would travel alone among a group of Native Americans overland through the Arctic. In the next 20 years Alexander Mackenzie (1755?-1820), working for the competing Northwest Company, would use the same strategy as Hearne in relying on the geographical expertise of the Native Americans to travel through the country and build a business network among the tribes of the interior. Mackenzie was able to use that method to build a vast trading network that stretched from Montreal to the Arctic Coast to the Pacific Ocean.


Further Reading

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

"The Journeys of Samuel Hearne"

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Samuel Hearne Is the First European to Reach the Arctic Ocean by Land Route

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