In 1616 Robert BYLOT and William BAFFIN explored Baffin Bay, sighting the westward-leading channels of Jones and Lancaster sounds. Owing to ice-covered seas and mirage, they mistakenly judged them to be closed bays, a common error among arctic explorers. The arctic littoral of North America remained unexplored for the next 2 centuries. Samuel HEARNE (1771) by the Coppermine River, and Alexander MACKENZIE (1789) by the Mackenzie River, barely reached arctic tidewater and learned nothing of adjoining coasts. Of the vast ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO to the north, only isolated stretches of Baffin Island's east shore had come to light.
In 1818 the British ADMIRALTY renewed its search for the NW Passage. That year John ROSS rounded Baffin Bay but, like Baffin, believed that Lancaster Sound was just a bay. In 1819-20 W.E. PARRY proved the sound to be the gateway to unknown western seas. Hampered by ice, he sailed 800 km along Parry Channel (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait and Viscount Melville Sound) to Melville Island, where he wintered. Across the ice-choked Viscount Melville Sound he obtained a distant view of Banks Island. On a later voyage he entered Prince Regent Inlet, where he lost a ship in the ice. The summers were very short, and it was found that a sailing ship could stay at sea for barely 2 months before being immobilized by ice.
To the south, between 1819 and 1839, canoe and boat parties under John FRANKLIN and later Thomas Simpson explored a channel along the continental shore from Bering Strait to Boothia Isthmus. In 1845 Franklin sailed from England to link this channel with Parry Channel, intending thus to complete the NW Passage. His 2 ships never returned, and were for several years unreported. Numerous rescue parties were sent (1848-54) by Britain and the US. The search for the missing crews could not be done thoroughly by ships icebound for most of the year. Small parties hauling equipment and supplies on sledges sought evidence. Although unsuccessful in their assigned task, these parties mapped much of the Canadian archipelago.
John RAE and Richard Collinson explored and mapped the island coasts nearest the continental shore, while 4 crews of Captain Horatio Austin's squadron (1850-51) did the same on both sides of Parry Channel. Other expeditions mapped parts of Somerset and Victoria islands, and gave shape to the south coasts of Devon, Bathurst and Melville islands. Sir Edward BELCHER explored (1852-54) the north shores of the latter 3. The great sledge traveller Leopold MCCLINTOCK, helped by G.F. Mecham, discovered Eglinton and Prince Patrick islands in a return journey of over 2100 km.
The most dramatic voyage in polar history was made by the rescue ship Investigator. Having sailed from Plymouth, England, on 20 January 1850, it rounded Sout America and entered the Arctic Ocean by way of Bering Strait. Its captain, Robert MCCLURE, discovered Prince of Wales Strait and travelled through it to the northeast angle of Parry's Banks Island - thus completing the NW Passage. McClure had, by an alternate route, accomplished what Franklin had died attempting: he had connected Parry's voyage of penetration from the east with Franklin's coastal survey from the west. However, he rashly put his ship into the heavy ice pack, which had stopped Parry. His ship was repeatedly thrown over on its side by gale-driven ice masses. In September 1851 he found refuge in the Bay of Mercy on Banks Island's north shore, where the Investigator was frozen in for 18 months. Its crew was reduced to extreme want, and would have perished but for the timely arrival of a detachment of Belcher's squadron under Captain Henry KELLETT.
This and other strenuous endeavours continued the search for Franklin. Rae (1851) and Collinson (1853) had come near success but had turned back at the approach of winter. In 1854 Rae learned from Inuit that years previously many Europeans had died on western King William Island and on the adjacent mainland. In 1859 McClintock reached the island by ship and sledge and ascertained that Franklin's vessels had been frozen in in that region. The crews had perished of hunger and scurvy while trekking for the mainland. McClintock also filled in certain gaps in his predecessors' maps, tracing almost completely the coasts in the archipelago up to 77° N.
Discovery farther north was largely the work of Americans and Scandinavians. Englishman E.A. Inglefield and Americans E.K. KANE, I. Hayes and C.F. HALL opened up the channel between Greenland and Ellesmere I, and the survey of Ellesmere's east shore was completed by the 1875-76 British polar expedition under G.S. NARES. In 1876 P. Aldrich rounded the top of Ellesmere and named the northernmost point of what is now Canadian territory Cape Columbia. Norwegian Otto SVERDRUP explored the W shore of Ellesmere Island (1898-1902) except for a gap filled in by American Robert Peary in 1906. Norwegians in separate groups also surveyed the entire coast of Axel Heiberg Island, and to the west discovered and mapped the 2 Ringnes islands and King Christian Island, the latter a promising source of natural gas in the 1980s.
Sverdrup had accomplished a vast amount with a minimum of mishap or danger. The Norwegians' use of skis and their familiarity with the northern climate gave them a great advantage over their British predecessors. This was illustrated in the 1913-18 journeys of Vilhjalmur STEFANSSON, which opened to Europeans the last lands in the Canadian North previously unknown to them. In the employ of the Canadian government he took his ship through Bering Strait, where it was crushed in the ice. With ready adaptability he organized a foot party and crossed the hazardous moving ice of the Beaufort Sea to Banks Island. Taking to the ice again he put the finishing touch to McClintock's survey of Prince Patrick Island, and went northeast to discover Brock and Borden islands. The latter was afterwards found to be 2 islands: Borden and Mackenzie King. With the discovery of Meighen Island in 1916 Stefansson made the last substantial addition to Canadian territory.
The NW Passage had been traced but its navigation was long deferred, as no sailing ship could hope to get through, nor could a steamer stow enough coal to wrestle its way through the ice pack that was certain to be encountered. From 1903 to 1906 the Norwegian explorer Roald AMUNDSEN, when engaged in a magnetic survey, made use of the internal combustion engine to propel his 80-ton Gjoa from ocean to ocean. The voyage of US tanker Manhattan in 1969 made it plain that the most nearly usable NW Passage is by way of Parry Channel and Prince of Wales Strait.
These explorations have done more for general science than for material interests. There has been little success in extracting seemingly abundant fossil fuels from the northern islands, but the attraction of petroleum and mineral deposits has provided a fresh impetus, and aerial photographs and more detailed maps improved tools, for a new phase of exploration on this Canadian frontier.
See also EXPLORATION.
Author LESLIE H. NEATBY
A. Cooke and C. Holland, The Exploration of Northern Canada 500-1920 (1978); D. Francis, Discovery of the North (1985); S. Milligan and W. Kupsch, Living Explorers of the Canadian Arctic (1985); Leslie H. Neatby, In Quest of the North West Passage (1958), Conquest of the Last Frontier (1966) and The Search for Franklin (1970).
Links to Other Sites
Exploration of the Northwest Passage
An overview of European expeditions to Canada’s northern Arctic region from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. Brief bios, illustrations, maps, and other reference material. An Industry Canada website.
Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea
The website for the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Covers navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, and more. Search this site for data related to Canadian sovereignty issues.
Maps of provinces and territories from "The Atlas of Canada," Natural Resources Canada.
Search the extensive "Images Canada" site for historical images depicting the people and landscape of Canada’s Arctic.
The Helluland Archaeology Project
This project is aimed at investigating relationships between the aboriginal peoples and early Europeans who met in the eastern Arctic around A.D. 1000. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Explorers and Northern Exploration
This site chronicles the exploration of Canada's North. Illustrated with photographs and related archival material. From the Northern Research Portal, Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists.
This University of Guelph website offers a geological description and detailed map of the Boothia Peninusula in Canada’s Arctic region.
John Ross: The Discovery Of The Magnetic Pole
Profiles of John Ross, early explorer of the Canadian Arctic and James Clark Ross, who discovered the location of the North Magnetic Pole. Includes images of related artifacts. From Library and Archives Canada.
A brief description and detailed map of Ellesmere Island. A University of Guelph website.
Find out about Nunavut's territorial parks, heritage rivers, and other special places. A Government of Nunavut website.
North Circumpolar Region
View a map of the Arctic region from a vantage point above the North Pole. From the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas.
Major Northwest Passage Exeditions and Explorers
This site offers brief accounts of various European expeditions to North America in search of the Northwest Passage. From the website "Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage," Princeton University.
Search The Champlain Society digital collection for full text documents about Canadian history. Features first-hand accounts of Samuel de Champlain's voyages in New France and much more.
Northern People, Northern Knowledge
An exceptional collection of rare film clips, photographs and documents from the controversial Canadian Arctic Expedition of 1913-1918, the first multi-disciplinary scientific expedition to the Canadian Arctic. From the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Discovering “everything of value” in Canada’s North
This article chronicles the centuries-old search for the Northwest Passage. Scroll down to page 39 for the article. From “Diplomat & International Canada.” A PDF file.
Join this virtual voyage through the legendary Northwest Passage for an up close view of the effects of global warming in the Canadian Arctic. Discover 26 video clips, 789 photos, 21 scientific articles, 150 entries in the mission leader's and SEDNA's logs, and 27 360-degree panoramic images. An NFB website.
The Muskox Patrol: High Arctic Sovereignty Revisited
A 2003 article about the role of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the Canadian government’s quest to secure international recognition of its claims to sovereignty over the High Arctic islands. Includes photos of the ship “Beothic,” the Dundas Harbour RCMP Detachment, and more. From the Arctic Institute of North America.
Terra Incognita: Exploration of the Canadian Arctic
A multimedia historical retrospective of 19th and early 20th century expeditions to the Canadian Arctic. From the McCord Museum of Canadian History.
A superb online exhibit about the search for the Northwest Passage. Historic maps and images from books show how the Inuit assisted foreign led expeditions into the Canadian Arctic and how European explorers gradually accepted Inuit techniques of travel and survival. Contemporary maps show the lasting achievement of the expeditions: the mapping of the Canadian Arctic. From the Toronto Public Library.
A photograph of Inuit guide Ebierbin, who assisted Charles Francis Hall and other Arctic explorers. From the Arctic Institute of North America's journal "Arctic." A University of Calgary website.
Canadian Arctic Expedition - Survival
An overview of life-threatening hazards facing Arctic explorers. From the website for the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Arctic Blue Books
The website for the Arctic Blue Books online, a searchable, online version of Andrew Taylor's unique index to the 19th Century British Parliamentary Papers concerned with the Canadian Arctic. Also offers links to related reference sources. From the University of Manitoba.
Maritime jurisdiction and boundaries in the Arctic region
This map depicts possible boundaries of maritime jurisdiction in the Arctic region. From International Boundaries Research Unit, Durham University in the UK.
In this website you will find several animations designed and produced by the International Polar Foundation on different topics linked to the polar regions, the way our planet's climate functions, climate change and energy.
Bernier Of The North
A profile of explorer Joseph-Elzéar Bernier, whose vogages helped establish Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic region. From the Legion Magazine.
Video: A look at HMS Investigator
View close up underwater videos of the wreckage of the HMS Investigator located in the Canadian Arctic. From the National Post website.
A profile of British naval officer Henry Kellett. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to see images of the British naval vessels in the Canadian Arctic.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...