Archaeological excavations at L'ANSE AUX MEADOWS near the northern tip of Newfoundland have lent substance to the ambiguous evidence in the sagas. These show that the earliest sighting was probably made by BJARNI HERJOLFSSON in 985 or 986, and that in about 1000 LEIF ERICSSON landed in the first of a series of expeditions culminating in the establishment of a short-lived Norse settlement. But the sagas are far from clear as to precise locations, and the crucial question of the identity of the Norse seafarers' "Vinland" has never been definitely resolved.
Further, if we judge exploration to involve not only discovery but also recording and placing for posterity lands hitherto unknown, then it should be noted that the Norse saga evidence was lost to sight until the end of the 16th century. When Europeans again approached northeastern America in the late 15th century, they were likely unaware of the routes and discoveries of their predecessors.
A leap forward of 500 years might be expected to produce firmer evidence of voyages attempted and discoveries made. On the contrary, such documents as exist for the half century before the 1520s are fragmentary and obscure. There has been speculation that seamen from Bristol reached Newfoundland, or thereabouts, as early as the 1480s, thus predating Columbus's voyage of 1492. But the only hard evidence points to John CABOT's English expedition of 1497 as the first known voyage to mainland North America in the new era of overseas discovery.
Cabot probably coasted the shores of Maine, NS, Newfoundland and Labrador; certainly he saw enough to organize a more ambitious but totally disastrous venture the next year. Equally difficult to pinpoint is the activity in that area of the Portuguese CORTE-REAL family 1500-03; and a rumoured expedition in about 1508-09 by John Cabot's son, Sebastian, may simply have been a hoax.
Maps of the period show the rudimentary and hesitant outline of a coast stretching from the Spanish discoveries around the Carolinas northeast to the cod fisheries; but there was as yet no realization that Newfoundland was an island, nor any clear idea as to the nature of the coastline between the area of Spanish knowledge and the fishing banks 3000 km north where the English, Portuguese and Bretons were active.
Although Giovanni da VERRAZZANO sailed from North Carolina to Newfoundland in 1524 in French service, he stayed too far from shore to sight the strait separating Cape Breton from Newfoundland, and so remained ignorant of the Gulf of St Lawrence.
Cartier Discovers the St Lawrence
This major discovery fell to the Breton, Jacques CARTIER, who in 3 voyages in 1534, 1535-36 and 1541-42 (this last for colonization, rather than discovery) began to give recognizable shape to eastern Canada. On his first voyage he entered and explored the Gulf of St Lawrence by way of the Strait of Belle Isle. On his second he followed the St Lawrence to the aboriginal townships of Stadacona [Québec] and Hochelaga [Montréal]. At the latter spot, 1600 km into the continent, Cartier's native informants insisted that the river, now broken by rapids, stretched 3 months' travel to the west. For the first time, Europeans were given some idea of the vastness of the continent in northern latitudes.
On his return voyage Cartier discovered Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland: he had now navigated both northern and southern entrances into the gulf, and had shown Newfoundland to be insular. The achievement was remarkable. Cartier had discovered the great river which, with its tributaries, was to enable the French to explore and dominate much of the northeast of the continent in the 17th century. He also discovered the Canadian winter, for in 1535-36, frozen in at Stadacona, he lost almost a quarter of his men through cold and scurvy.
The very extent of Cartier's explorations showed a close, if increasingly uneasy, relationship with the native inhabitants of the St Lawrence Valley. The Iroquoians, so important in Canada's history, now enter the journals and the consciousness of the French. Cartier had not found the "great quantity of gold, and other precious things" mentioned in his instructions; but to the gulf's teeming fisheries he added the mainland's furs to tempt Europe's commercial acquisitiveness; and if he had not reached the Pacific and so, like Cabot and Verrazzano, failed in that obsessive quest, he had at least found a route pointing straight west.
For the remainder of the century there was no significant advance. The French and other Europeans continued to exploit the FISHERIES and the FUR TRADE, but after Cartier the limits of French enterprise stopped at TADOUSSAC. New explorations, which began in the 1570s, were far to the north (see ARCTIC EXPLORATION), where the English, in particular, made repeated attempts along the icebound shores of the eastern Arctic to find a water route to the Pacific.
Martin FROBISHER, John DAVIS, William BAFFIN and Henry HUDSON were among the long list of explorers who sought a NORTHWEST PASSAGE in vain. One effect of the search was that it opened up to European view, and eventual English domination, the great inland sea of Hudson Bay, which was explored by a series of expeditions culminating in those of Luke FOX (1631) and Thomas JAMES (1631-32).
Champlain and the Opening of the Great Lakes
An alternative entry into the continent was essential if the English were to challenge the French, for in the early 17th century the activities of Samuel de CHAMPLAIN confirmed and extended Cartier's claims. The century began with a new departure: in 1600 the first European trading post in Canada was established at Tadoussac. In 1603 Champlain followed Cartier's old route to Hochelaga, and also explored more of the Saguenay and Richelieu rivers. The next year he landed in ACADIA, where he explored the Bay of Fundy, and in 1605 he established PORT-ROYAL Habitation [Annapolis Royal].
By 1607 the French had mapped the Atlantic coastline from Cape Breton to Cape Cod (Cap Blanc). Champlain's writings and his last great map of 1632 show the extent of his achievement: the opening up of the difficult country north of the St Lawrence by way of the Saguenay and St Maurice rivers, the crucial discovery of the route from the St Lawrence to the Hudson River by way of Lake Champlain, the exploration of much of the Acadian coastline, and above all the indications of the Great Lakes, based on European exploration and native accounts.
For the explorations of the 40 years following Champlain's death in 1635, the JESUIT RELATIONS provide a unique source. The missionaries' first concern was to record the life and, they hoped, the conversion of the aboriginal peoples, but their travels brought them a close knowledge of the land itself; and in the Relations there is telling detail of its rivers and forests, swamps and portages, its harsh winters and brief, insect-ridden summers. For the first time, perhaps, the Canadian environment took shape and form for European readers.
From their mission stations in HURONIA, the JESUITS in the 1640s reached as far west as Sault Ste Marie, while back on the St Lawrence they helped found a post at VILLE-MARIE [Montréal], where the Ottawa River offered a new route to the west. Dominating the Jesuit reports now were native and then missionary descriptions of Lake Superior, thought by some to be the gateway to the Pacific. Other French groups prospected new portage routes that linked Lake Superior, Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, reached the Niagara River from Lake Ontario and wintered (in 1669-70) on Lake Erie.
The information from these scattered sources was brought together and given graphic form in the impressive 1672 Jesuit map of the Great Lakes. In the Relations we catch glimpses of the COUREURS DE BOIS, the rough outriders of French expansion and discovery, pushing westward in search of furs. The importance of the aboriginals as guides and helpers emerges clearly in the French accounts.
Fur Trade Rivalries
Although the aboriginals lacked European surveying techniques (see CARTOGRAPHY, HISTORY OF), it was aboriginal knowledge of the terrain ahead, its peoples and animal life, and the ability to act as interpreters and mediators, that opened the way to the French advance. At least as valuable as direct native assistance to the European was observing and imitating aboriginal methods of travel, such as the birchbark canoe in summer and the snowshoe in winter.
One of the most authentic and vivid accounts of life among the HURON and Mohawk in the mid-17th century comes from the narrative of Pierre-Esprit RADISSON, whose explorations with Médard Chouart DES GROSEILLIERS, if often obscure in location and direction, were to have profound commercial significance. In their wanderings, which took them as far as Lake Superior, they learned that many prime furs brought down to the French came from the CREE, who lived near "the Bay of the North Sea" (Hudson Bay). Groseilliers and Radisson were convinced that the most direct route for these furs was not the long canoe journey to the St Lawrence and Montréal, but the shorter way north to Hudson Bay, and then to Europe by ship.
By 1670 this idea resulted, not in French exploitation of the scheme, but in the establishment of the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY. It marked the beginning of a 150-year rivalry between the St Lawrence and the Hudson Bay approaches to the fur country, which in the end would take the competing traders, and with them the course of exploration, to the Pacific coast.
Although the French in the 1670s finally managed to cross the height of land from the St Lawrence to James Bay by way of the Saguenay River and Lake MISTASSINI, that tortuous route could never compete with Hudson Strait. By the 1690s the new company not only had posts on the shores of James Bay, but had established YORK FACTORY at the mouths of the Nelson and Hayes rivers - waterways which led deep into the western interior.
As yet the HBC showed little interest in inland exploration, but from 1690 to 1692 one of its servants, Henry KELSEY, made a remarkable journey. Travelling with the Cree, he reached the Saskatchewan River, a busy waterway of the aboriginal trade, and from there the great plains, thick with herds of buffalo, and with an aboriginal population that included Siouan-speaking Assiniboine and Algonquian-speaking BLACKFOOT. To the north the prairie broke into wooded areas where moose, deer and beaver were plentiful - a lush region compared to the immediate hinterland of York Factory.
The key to Kelsey's achievement was his ability to speak Cree, and to live and travel with the aboriginals. He was the first European to reach the Saskatchewan River and the Canadian prairies, the first to leave a description of the grizzly bear and bison. His journey disappeared into an obscurity from which it was not rescued until the 20th century, and long afterwards the only English interior explorations of any note from Hudson Bay were the ventures of William Stuart (1715-16) and Richard Norton (1717-18) northwestward among the CHIPEWYAN.
On the canoe routes west from Superior, the French took the lead. In 1688 Jacques de Noyon reached Rainy Lake, and the next year possibly Lake of the Woods; on these journeys he heard garbled reports of the Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg. Here the westward movement halted until the Treaty of UTRECHT (1713) ended the prolonged Anglo-French wars in North America.
Dominating French concepts of the "upper country" was the conviction that not far to the west lay the MER DE L'OUEST, envisaged as a North American Mediterranean, connected to the Pacific by a strait (perhaps that alleged to have been discovered on the Pacific coast by Juan de FUCA in 1592), and linked on its other shore with the rivers and lakes along which the French were advancing. The belief distorted all views of western Canada's geography because it could not coexist with a range of mountains running north-south; no indication of the Rockies appears on maps until late in the 18th century.
To search for this western sea and to find new fur areas was the task of the last great French explorers, the LA VÉRENDRYE family. Much of their exploration took place in what is now the US, but toward the end of the father's life he turned back to the north. In 1739 one son, Louis-Joseph, reached the Saskatchewan River, and in the absence of contemporary knowledge of Kelsey's route must be accounted the effective European discoverer of the river.
Aboriginals told him of "very lofty mountains" to the west, but geographers obsessed by inland seas, westward-flowing rivers and a nearby Pacific could not assimilate them. More important was that French posts were being built in a steady westward progression - on or near Rainy Lake, Lake Winnipeg, Cedar Lake, and finally, in 1753, Fort St-Louis near the Forks.
Even though the French seemed poised to capture the northwestern fur trade, the HBC was slow to react. Attempts by the ADMIRALTY, by private groups and, rather unenthusiastically, by the company, to find a strait on the west coast of Hudson Bay to the South Sea - the traditional English concept of the northwest Passage - had petered out by the late 1740s, but in the following decade the company began to move in different directions.
Efforts were made to survey the bleak shores of the Labrador-Québec peninsula with coastal expeditions along the "East Main" of Hudson Bay, and of more far-reaching significance were probes deep inland from York Factory, of which Anthony HENDAY's in 1754-55 was the most spectacular. His method of travelling and his objectives were much the same as Kelsey's. Living with an aboriginal woman, Henday followed the Cree along their canoe route from York Factory to the lower Saskatchewan River, across the South Branch and the North Branch, to the great buffalo herds of the plains and the horsed Blackfoot.
At his farthest west, somewhere near modern Innisfail, Alberta, Henday should have been within sight of the Rocky Mountains. It is a puzzle that his journals nowhere specifically mention the great mountain range; as with the La Vérendryes' slightly earlier ventures, conclusive evidence of the first European sighting of the Canadian Rockies is missing.
The Western Interior
The SEVEN YEARS' WAR and the CONQUEST affected expansion and exploration. The campaign against Québec in 1759 produced the next year a superb published chart of the St Lawrence by James COOK and other naval surveyors. This work, combined with Cook's subsequent hydrographic surveys around Newfoundland, set a new standard, and brought a new precision to Europe's knowledge of the region.
Far to the west the Conquest led to the abandonment by the French of the interior posts; but the pause was brief. Within 10 years the posts had been reoccupied by "pedlars" from Montréal, thrustful, energetic traders supported by British and American capital, and using many of the French canoemen and interpreters. Once more the HBC reacted, if slowly, by sending its servants to and beyond the Saskatchewan River, notably Matthew Cocking in 1772-73, and in 1774 the company established its first inland post at CUMBERLAND HOUSE, 100 km beyond The Pas (Man).
In command was Samuel HEARNE, newly returned from an impressive overland journey from Fort Churchill down the Coppermine River with a Chipewyan band to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, becoming on 17 July 1771 the first European to sight the continent's northern coastline. Although Hearne's single observation of latitude (71° 54´ N) was almost 4° too far north, it established approximately the continent's northern extent, and pushed future searches for a saltwater passage into the icy maze of the ARCTIC ARCHIPELAGO.
Hearne apart, the most extensive explorations were being carried out by NORTH WEST COMPANY traders. The commercial struggle had begun which was to take the rival companies westward into Athabasca, across the Rockies and finally to the Pacific. As the traders battled westward, naval expeditions from Europe were also heading for the unknown NORTHWEST COAST. Vitus Bering's Russian expedition of 1741 had made several landfalls along the Alaskan coast, but there was no southern approach until the 1770s.
In 1774 and 1775 Spanish expeditions from Mexico coasted northwards towards Alaska (see SPANISH EXPLORATION), and in 1778 Cook made his more comprehensive, but still incomplete, survey northward from NOOTKA SOUND to Bering Strait. The approximate outline and location of the coast were at last established, in the same decade as Hearne had reached the polar shore, but neither the British nor their predecessors had determined whether the stretches of coastline glimpsed through mist and rain were islands or mainland. And on the major problem of how far north the Rockies extended, these seaborne expeditions provided no help.
Also in 1778, the NWC, in the person of Peter POND, moved decisively westward. Using Grand Portage at the western end of Lake Superior rather than Montréal as a supply base, Pond tracked northwest across the height of land at the Methye Portage and into the Athabasca region. He had crossed the watershed separating the Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean drainage basins, opened a magnificent new fur-producing region, and taken European enterprises nearer the mountains and the Pacific.
By placing Lake Athabasca 1100 km too far west, Pond greatly underestimated its distance from the Pacific, and he made the same error when he discovered Great Slave Lake, from where he suggested a river ran into Cook's River [Cook Inlet, Alaska] on the northwest Coast. Lacking formal surveying skills, Pond was one of the last of the old explorers, men tough in body and mind, but often unable to represent accurately in map form where they had been or what they had seen.
In 1789 Alexander MACKENZIE followed Pond's river out of Great Slave Lake, only to discover that it led to the Arctic Ocean, not the Pacific. He reinforced the foreboding lesson of Hearne's arctic journey, pointing out that permanent ice virtually ended all hopes of a navigable northwest passage. In 1793 Mackenzie again sought a route to the Pacific. From Lake Athabasca he followed the Peace River into the Rockies, crossed the Continental Divide, followed the turbulent Fraser River down the western slopes, and finally reached the coast by way of the Bella Coola River.
With this magnificent journey Mackenzie became the first European to cross the Canadian Rockies, but the difficulty of his route meant that the discovery had little commercial importance. Coastal and overland exploration were now working together to define the features of the Northwest, for the spot where Mackenzie reached the Pacific coast in July 1793 had been mapped 7 weeks earlier by George VANCOUVER's British naval expedition, in its middle season of a 3-year survey of the coast.
Spanish survey expeditions were also on the coast, as were a number of trading vessels; but it was Vancouver's meticulous survey, published in 1798, which formed the definitive record of that intricate shoreline. For the first time the outline of modern Canada was emerging on the maps - most notably on those of Aaron Arrowsmith, who had access to the surveys of the British Admiralty, the HBC and the NWC, and whose maps of North America from 1795 onwards traced the accelerating pace of exploration across the continent.
The overland expeditions had spun thin lines of knowledge across the plains, through the mountains and down to the Pacific and Arctic oceans. After Mackenzie, Duncan MCGILLIVRAY organized an expedition which crossed the Rockies by White Man's Pass in 1801, although it stopped well short of the sea; in 1808 Simon FRASER followed the river which was to bear his name down to tidal waters; and in 1811 David THOMPSON made the crucial commercial discovery when he traced the Columbia River down to its Pacific outlet (by then, he found, in American hands).
But away from these trails, all was uncertainty, ignorance and rumour; and on both sides of the mountains serious if sporadic exploration continued. While NWC men made the more dramatic journeys, the HBC had since the late 1770s trained and used explorers of considerable technical ability - Philip TURNOR, Thompson, Peter FIDLER - who with the aid of native guides mapped the fur-country waterways with a care and accuracy previously unknown.
Thompson, in particular, was a prodigious traveller; switching to the NWC, he had by the turn of the century carried out extensive surveys along both the North and South Saskatchewan rivers, in Athabasca, along the Churchill River and around Lesser Slave Lake. It was estimated that he travelled 80 000 km on his surveys, on foot, on horseback and by canoe.
After the union of the rival companies in 1821, the enlarged HBC continued filling in the blank spaces on the maps. With settlement confined to the Atlantic colonies, the St Lawrence Valley, Upper Canada and RED RIVER, the fur trade still provided the main motivation and resources for exploration, opening up new fur regions, or finding better routes in existing areas of exploitation. In the frontier areas of the fur trade such as the Mackenzie Valley and, across the mountains, NEW CALEDONIA, exploration of the waterways continued.
Across terrain rugged even by the rigorous standards of the fur trade, Samuel BLACK, John McLeod and Robert Campbell followed rivers on both flanks of the northern Rockies - the upper reaches of the Peace, the Liard flowing into the Mackenzie, the Pelly and Lewes rivers leading into the Yukon, and the Stikine, which reached the sea in Alaska. In the east, similar commercial motives led James Clouston, William Hendry and John MCLEAN to make the first crossings of the inhospitable Labrador-Québec peninsula, until then inviolate.
The Polar Shores
Far to the north the British government and the HBC joined forces in tracing the polar shoreline. The Admiralty sent seaborne expeditions into the Arctic after the Napoleonic Wars in search of the Northwest Passage, while fur traders helped John FRANKLIN's land journeys across the barrens to Hearne's Coppermine River, from which he explored east and west along the coast in 1819-22 and 1825-27. In 1837-39 the HBC's Peter Warren DEASE and Thomas Simpson made long sweeps along the polar shoreline from Point Barrow in the west to Rae Strait in the east.
From 1846 onwards John RAE, one of the most self-sufficient explorers of the North, whose techniques for travel and survival owed much to the INUIT, crisscrossed the huge area bounded by Great Bear Lake, the Boothia Peninsula and the northwest coast of Hudson Bay in a series of arduous journeys that soon became directed towards the search for the missing Franklin Expedition.
These explorations were for the most part taking place on or even beyond the margins of profitable fur-trading areas, but slowly the trade was losing its predominance. In the south, interest in settlement overtook the claims of the fur trade, and for this different sorts of surveys were needed. The prospects for agriculture, settlement, telegraph lines and railways became major concerns. It is in this context that the midcentury surveys of S.J. DAWSON, H.Y. HIND and, above all, Captain John PALLISER must be seen.
They were less explorations of wholly unknown territory than efforts to determine the productive resources of a land previously viewed through the narrow vision of the fur traders. Exploration in the conventional sense remained to be done, particularly in the Arctic; but by the mid-19th century most of the main geographical features of Canada were known and mapped.
Author GLYNDWR WILLIAMS
J.B. Brebner, The Exploration of North America 1492-1806 (1964); W.P. Cumming et al,The Discovery of North America (1971) and The Exploration of North America 1630-1776 (1974); S. Milligan and W. Kupsch, Living Explorers of the Canadian Arctic (1987); S.E. Morison, The European Discovery of America (1971); D.B. Quinn, England and the Discovery of America (1973).
Links to Other Sites
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
Explore the history, culture, and ecology of Canada's North at the website for the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Check out "Inuvialuit Place Names" for interactive maps and interesting historical details about numerous sites throughout this vast region.
Watch the Heritage Minute about French explorer Jacques Cartier from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Watch the Heritage Minute about explorer John Cabot from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Maps of provinces and territories from "The Atlas of Canada," Natural Resources Canada.
This extensive Canadian Museum of Civilization resource details the exploits of Canada’s early explorers from the 16th to the 18th century. With many maps and illustrations.
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.
Exploration, the Fur Trade and Hudson's Bay Company
This nicely illustrated website chronicles the turbulent early years of Canada’s fledgling fur trade. Features stories about European explorers, Aboriginal communities, the North West Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Also includes online maps, teacher materials, and links to primary sources in the Early Canadiana Online database.
Living in Canada in the Time of Champlain
This website documents Samuel de Champlain’s role in the exploration and development of New France. Includes maps, artifacts, and related notes about Pierre Du Gua de Monts. Part of the Virtual Museum of New France.
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.
Peter Skene Ogden
A biography of Peter Skene Ogden. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada
The Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Site of Canada commemorates the period in 1535-1536 when Jacques Cartier and his shipmates wintered near the Iroquoian village of Stadacona. This National Historic Site also recalls the establishment of the first residence of the Jesuit missionaries in Québec, in 1625-1626.
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.
Galaup, Jean-François De, Comte de Lapérouse
A biography of the noteworthy French naval commander Jean-François de Galaup. From the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.”
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
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 biography of David Thompson, fur trader, explorer, surveyor, justice of the peace, businessman, and author. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Scurvy and Canadian Exploration
An article about various historical remedies for the prevention and treatment of scurvy and the impact of scurvy on various exploratory expeditions in North America. From the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History (Wilfrid Laurier University Press).
Letters Patents of King Henry the Seventh
Read the text of the "Letters Patents of King Henry the Seventh Granted unto Iohn Cabot and his Three Sonnes, Lewis, Sebastian and Sancius for the Discouerie of New and Unknowen Lands." From the Yale Law School website.
The lost voyage: First English-led expedition to North America
An article about recently revealed research concerning a 1499 English exploratory voyage to North America. From the website for the University of Bristol.
The Cabot Project
The website for an international investigation into the Bristol discovery voyages of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries – in particular, those undertaken by the Venetian adventurer John Cabot. Scroll down the page for links to full text copies of key research documents that relate to John Cabot and his contemporaries. From the University of Bristol.
The Strait of Anian and British Northwest America: Cook's Third Voyage in Perspective
An article about James Cook's voyages of exploration along the West Coast of North America. From "BC Studies," a University of British Columbia website.
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...