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The Remarkable History of the Hudson's Bay Company

Map of the Far North

The North-West Passage again—Lieut. John Franklin's land expedition —Two lonely winters—Hearne's mistake corrected—Franklin's second journey—Arctic sea coast explored—Franklin knighted— Captain John Ross by sea—Discovers magnetic pole—Magnetic needle nearly perpendicular—Back seeks for Ross—Dease and Simpson sent by Hudson's Bay Company to explore—Sir John in Erebus and Terror—The Paleocrystic Sea—Franklin never returns—Lady Franklin's devotion—The historic search—Dr. Rae secures relics—Captain McClintock finds the cairn and written record—Advantages of the search.

The British people were ever on the alert to have their famous sea captains explore new seas, especially in the line of the discovery of the North-West Passage. From the time of Dobbs, the discomfiture of that bitter enemy of the Hudson's Bay Company had checked the advance in following up the explorations of Davis and Baffin, whose names had become fixed on the icy sea channels of the North.

Captain Phipps, afterwards Lord Mulgrave, had been the last of the great captains who had taken part in the spasm of north-west interest set agoing by Dobbs. Two generations of men had passed when, in 1817, the quest for the North-West Passage was taken up by Captain William Scoresby. Scoresby advanced a fresh argument in favour of a new effort to attain this long-harboured dream of the English captains. He maintained that a change had taken place in the seasons, and the position of the ice was such as probably to allow a successful voyage to be made from Baffin's Bay to Behring Strait.

Sir John Barrow with great energy advocated the project of a new expedition, and Captain John Ross and Edward Parry were despatched to the northern seas. Parry's second expedition enabled him to discover Fury and Hecla Strait, to pass through Lancaster Strait, and to name the continuation of it Barrow Strait, after the great patron of northern exploration.


Meanwhile John Franklin was despatched to cross the plains of Rupert's Land to forward Arctic enterprise. This notable man has left us an heritage of undying interest in connection with this movement. A native of Lincolnshire, a capable and trusted naval officer, who had fought with Nelson at Copenhagen, who had gone on an Arctic voyage to Spitzbergen, and had seen much service elsewhere, he was appointed to command the overland expedition through Rupert's Land to the Arctic Sea, while Lieutenant Parry sought, as we have seen, the passage with two vessels by way of Lancaster Sound.

Accompanied by a surgeon—Dr. Richardson—two midshipmen, Back and Hood, and a few Orkneymen, Lieutenant Franklin embarked from England for Hudson Bay in June, 1819. Wintering for the first season on the Saskatchewan, the party were indebted to the Hudson's Bay Company for supplies, and reached Fort Chipewyan in about a year from the time of their departure from England. The second winter was spent by the expedition on the famous barren grounds of the Arctic slope. Their fort was called Fort Enterprise, and the party obtained a living chiefly from the game and fish of the region. In the following summer the Franklin party descended the Coppermine River to the Arctic Sea. Here Hearne's mistake of four degrees in the latitude was corrected and the latitude of the mouth of the Coppermine River fixed at 67° 48' N. Having explored the coast of the Arctic Sea eastward for six degrees to Cape Turnagain and suffered great hardships, the survivors of the party made their return Journey, and reached Britain after three years' absence. Franklin was given the rank of captain and covered with social and literary honours.

Three years after his return to England, Captain Franklin and his old companions went upon their second journey through Rupert's Land. Having reached Fort Chipewyan, they continued the journey northward, and the winter was spent at their erection known as Fort Franklin, on Great Bear Lake. Here the party divided, one portion under Franklin going down the Mackenzie to the sea, and coasting westward to Return Reef, hoping to reach Captain Cook's icy cape of 1778. In this they failed. Dr. Richardson led the other party down the Mackenzie River to its mouth, and then, going eastward, reached the mouth of the Coppermine, which he ascended. By September both parties had gained their rendezvous, Fort Franklin, and it was found that unitedly they had traced the coast line of the Arctic Sea through thirty-seven degrees of longitude. On the return of the successful adventurer, after an absence of two years, to England, he was knighted and received the highest scientific honours.


When the British people become roused upon a subject, failure seems but to whet the public mind for new enterprise and greater effort. The North-West Passage was now regarded as a possibility. After the coast of the Arctic Ocean had been traced by the Franklin-Richardson expedition, to reach this shore by a passage from Parry's Fury and Hecla Strait seemed feasible.

Two years after the return of Franklin from his second overland journey, an expedition was fitted out by a wealthy distiller, Sheriff Felix Booth, and the ship, the Victory, provided by him, was placed under the command of Captain John Ross, who had already gained reputation in exploring Baffin's Bay. Captain Ross was ably seconded in his expedition by his nephew, Captain James Ross. Going by Baffin's Bay and through Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent's Inlet led Ross southward between Cockburn Island and Somerset North, into an open sea called after his patron, Gulf of Boothia, on the west side of which he named the newly-discovered land Boothia Felix. He even discovered the land to the west of Boothia, calling it King William Land. His ship became embedded in the ice. After four winters in the Arctic regions he was rescued by a whaler in Barrow Strait.

One of the most notable events in this voyage of Ross's was his discovery of the North Magnetic Pole on the west side of Boothia Felix. During his second winter (1831) Captain Ross determined to gratify his ambition to be the discoverer of the point where the magnetic needle stands vertically, as showing the centre of terrestrial magnetism for the northern hemisphere.

After four or five days' overland journey, with a trying headwind from the north-west, he reached the sought-for point on June 1st. We deem it only just to state the discovery in the words of the veteran explorer himself :—

"The land at this place is very low near the coast, but it rises into ridges of fifty or sixty feet high about a mile inland. We could have wished that a place so important had possessed more of mark or note. It was scarcely censurable to regret that there was not a mountain to indicate a spot to which so much interest must ever be attached ; and I could even have pardoned any one among us who had been so romantic or absurd as to expect that the magnetic pole was an object as conspicuous and mysterious as the fabled mountain of Sinbad, that it was even a mountain of iron, or a magnet as large as Mont Blanc. But Nature had here erected no monument to denote the spot which she had chosen as the centre of one of her great and dark powers; and where we could do little ourselves towards this end, it was our business to submit, and to be content in noting in mathematical numbers and signs, as with things of far more importance in the terrestrial system, what we could ill distinguish in any other manner.

"The necessary observations were immediately commenced, and they were continued throughout this and the greater part of the following day. . . . The amount of the dip, as indicated by my dipping-needle, was 89° 59', being thus within one minute of the vertical; while the proximity at least of this pole, if not its actual existence where we stood, was further confirmed by the action, or rather by the total inaction, of several horizontal needles then in my possession. ... There was not one which showed the slightest effort to move from the position in which it was placed.

"As soon as I had satisfied my own mind on this subject, I made known to the party this gratifying result of all our joint labours; and it was then that, amidst mutual congratulations, we fixed the British flag on the spot, and took possession of the North Magnetic Pole and its adjoining territory, in the name of Great Britain and King William the Fourth. We had abundance of material for building in the fragments of limestone that covered the beach ; and we therefore erected a cairn of some magnitude, under which we buried a canister containing a record of the interesting fact, only regretting that we had not the means of constructing a pyramid of more importance and of strength sufficient to withstand the assaults of time and of the Esquimaux. Had it been a pyramid as large as that of Cheops I am not quite sure that it would have done more than satisfy our ambition under the feelings of that exciting day. The latitude of this spot is 70° 5' 17" and its longitude 96° 46' 45"."

Thus much for the magnetic pole. This pole is almost directly north of the city of Winnipeg, and within less than twenty degrees of it. One of Lady Franklin's captains— Captain Kennedy, who resided at Red River—elaborated a great scheme for tapping the central supply of electricity of the magnetic pole, and developing it from Winnipeg as a source of power.


In the third year of Captain Ross's expedition his protracted absence became a matter of public discussion in Britain. Dr. Richardson, who had been one of Franklin's followers, offered to take charge of an overland expedition in search of Ross, but his proposition was not accepted. Mr. Ross, a brother of Sir John and father of Captain James Ross, was anxious to find an officer who would take charge of a relief expedition, and the British Government favoured the enterprise. Captain George Back, one of the midshipmen who had accompanied Franklin, was favourably regarded for the important position.

The Hudson's Bay Company was in sympathy with the exploration of its Arctic possessions and gave every assistance to the project. Nicholas Garry, the Deputy-Governor of the Company, ably supported it; and the British Government at last gave its consent to grant two thousand pounds, provided the Hudson's Bay Company would furnish, according to its promise, the supplies and canoes free of charge, and that Captain Ross's friends would contribute three thousand pounds.

Captain Back cordially accepted the offer to command the expedition, and his orders from the Government were to find Captain Ross, or any survivors or survivor of his party; and, "subordinate to this, to direct his attention to mapping what remains unknown of the coasts which he was to visit, and make such other scientific observations as his leisure would admit."

In 1833 Captain Back crossed the Atlantic, accompanied by a surgeon, Dr. Richard King, and at Montreal obtained a party of four regulars of the Royal Artillery. Pushing on by the usual route, he reached Lake Winnipeg, and thence by light canoe arrived at Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake in August. He wintered at Fort Reliance, near the east end of Great Slave Lake, which was established by Roderick McLeod, a Hudson's Bay Company officer, who had received orders to assist the expedition. Before leaving this point a message arrived from England that Captain Ross was safe. Notwithstanding this news, in June of the following year Back and his party crossed the country to Artillery Lake, and drew their boats and baggage in a most toilsome manner over the ice of this and three other lakes, till the Great Fish River was reached and its difficult descent begun.

On July 30th the party encamped at Cape Beaufort, a prominent point of the inlet of the Arctic Ocean into which the Great Fish River empties. The expedition again descended the river and returned to England, where it was well received, and Captain Back was knighted for his pluck and perseverance. An expedition under Back in the next year, to go by ship to Wager Bay and then to cross by portage the narrow strip of land to the Gulf of Boothia, was a failure, and the party with difficulty reached Britain again.

Sir John Franklin and Lady Franklin, Sir George Back, Sir John Richardson


Dr. Richard King, who had been Back's assistant and surgeon, now endeavoured to organize an expedition to the Arctic Ocean by way of Lake Athabasca and through a chain of lakes leading to the Great Fish River. This project received no backing from the British Government or from the Hudson's Bay Company. The Company now undertook to carry out an expedition of its own. The reasons of this are stated to have been—(1) The interest of the British public in the effort to connect the discoveries of Captains Back and Ross; (2) They are said to have desired a renewal of their expiring lease for twenty-one years of the trade of the Indian territories ; (3) The fact was being pointed out, as in former years, that their charter required the Company to carry on exploration.

In 1836 the Hudson's Bay Company in London decided to carrying out the expedition, and gave instructions to Governor Simpson to organize and despatch it. At Norway House, at the meeting of the Governor and officers of that year, steps were taken to explore the Arctic Coast. An experienced Hudson's Bay Company officer, Peter Warren Dease, and with him an ardent young man, Thomas Simpson, a relation of the Governor, was placed in charge.

The party, after various preparations, including a course of mathematics and astronomy received by Thomas Simpson at Red River, made its departure, and Fort Chipewyan was reached in February, where the remainder of the winter was spent. As soon as navigation opened, the descent of the Mackenzie River was made to the mouth. The party then coasting westward on the Arctic Ocean, passed Franklin's "Return Reef," reached Boat Extreme, and Simpson made a foot journey thence to Cape Barrow.

Having returned to the mouth of the Mackenzie River, the Great Bear Lake, where Fort Confidence had been erected by the advance guard of the party, was reached.

The winter was passed at this point, and in the following spring the expedition descended the Copper-mine River, and coasting eastward along the Polar Sea, reached Cape Turnagain in August. Returning and ascending the Coppermine for a distance, the party halted, and Simpson made a land journey eastward to new territory which he called Victoria Land, and erected a pillar of stones, taking possession of the country, "in the name of the Honourable Company, and for the Queen of Great Britain." Their painful course was then retraced to Fort Confidence, where the second winter was spent.
On the opening of spring, the Company descended to the coast to carry on their work. Going eastward, they, after much difficulty, reached new ground, passed Dease's Strait, and discovered Cape Britannia.
Taking two years to return, Simpson arrived at Fort Garry, and disappointed at not receiving further instructions, he joined a freight party about to cross the plains to St. Paul, Minnesota. While on the way he was killed, either by his half-breed companions or by his own hand. His body was brought back to Fort Garry, and is buried at St. John's cemetery.

The Hudson's Bay Company thus made an earnest effort to explore the coast, and through its agents, Dease and Simpson, may be said to have been reasonably successful.


After the return of Sir John Franklin from his second overland expedition in Rupert's Land, Sir John was given the honourable position of Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, and on his coming again to England, was asked by the Admiralty to undertake a sea voyage for the purpose of finding his way from Lancaster Sound to Behring's Strait.

Sir John accepted the trust, and his popularity led to the offer of numerous volunteers, who were willing to undertake the hazards of the journey. Two excellent vessels, the Erebus and Terror, well fitted out for the journey, were provided, and his expedition started with the most glowing hopes of success, on May 19th, 1845. Many people in Britain were quite convinced that the expectation of a north-west passage was now to be realized.

We know now only too well the barrier which lay in Franklin's way. Almost directly north-east of the mouth of Fish River, which Back and Simpson had both found, there lies a vast mass of ice, which can neither move toward Behring's Strait on account of the shallow opening there, or to Baffin's Bay on account of the narrow and tortuous winding of the channels. This, called by Sir George Nares the Paleocrystic Sea, we are now aware bars the progress of any ship. Franklin had gone down on the west side of North Somerset and Boothia, and coming against the vast barrier of the Paleo-crystic Sea, had been able to go no further.

Two years after the departure of the expedition from which so much was expected, there were still no tidings. Preparations were made for an expedition to rescue the adventurers, and in 1848 the first party of relief sailed.

For the next eleven years the energy and spirit and liberality of the British public were something unexampled in the annals of public sympathy. Regardless of cost or hazard, not less than fifteen expeditions were sent out by England and the United States on their sad quest. Lady Franklin, with a heroism and skill past all praise, kept the eye of the nation steadily on her loss, and sacrificed her private fortune in the work of rescue. We are not called upon to give the details of these expeditions, but may refer to a few notable points.

The Hudson's Bay Company at once undertook a journey by land in quest of the unfortunate navigator. Dr. Richardson, who had gone on Franklin's first expedition, along with a well-known Hudson's Bay Company officer, Dr. Rae, scoured the coast of the Arctic Sea, from the mouth of the Mackenzie to that of the Coppermine River. For two years more, Dr. Rae continued the search, and in the fourth year (1851) this facile traveller, by a long sledge journey in spring and boat voyage in summer, examined the shores of Wollaston and Victoria Land.

A notable expedition took place in the sending out by Lady Franklin herself of the Prince Albert schooner, under Captain Kennedy, who afterwards made his home in the Red River settlement. His second in command was Lieutenant Bellot, of the French Navy, who was a plucky and shrewd explorer, and who, on a long sledge journey, discovered the Strait which bears his name between North Somerset and Boothia.

The names of McClure, Austin, Collinson, Sir Edmund Belcher, and Kellett stand out in bold relief in the efforts— fruitless in this case—made to recover traces of the unfortunate expedition.

The first to come upon remains of the Franklin expedition was Dr. John Rae, who, we have seen, had thoroughly examined the coast along the Arctic Ocean. The writer well remembers meeting Dr. Rae many years after in the city of Winnipeg and hearing his story.

Rae was a lithe, active, enterprising man. In 1853, he announced that the drawback in former expeditions had been the custom of carrying a great stock of provisions and useless impedimenta, and so under Hudson's Bay Company auspices he undertook to go with gun and fishing tackle up the west coast of Hudson Bay. This he did, ascended Chesterfield Inlet, and wintered with eight men at Repulse Bay.

In the next season he made a remarkable journey of fifty-six days, and succeeded in connecting the discoveries of Captain James Ross with those of Dease and Simpson, proving King William Land to be an island. Rae discovered on this Journey plate and silver decorations among the Eskimos, which they admitted had belonged to the Franklin party. Dr. Rae was awarded a part of the twenty thousand pounds reward offered by the Imperial Government.

The British people could not, however, be satisfied until something more was done, and Lady Franklin, with marvellous self-devotion, gave the last of her available means to add to the public subscription for the purchase and fitting out of the little yacht Fox, which, under Captain Leopold McClintock, sailed from Aberdeen in 1857. Having in less than two years reached Bellot Strait, McClintock's party was divided into three sledging expeditions. One of them, under Captain McClintock, was very successful, obtaining relics of the lost Franklin and his party and finding a cairn which contained an authoritative record of the fortunes of the company for three years. Sir John had died a year before this record was written. Captain McClintock was knighted for his successful effort and the worst was now at last known.

The attempt of Sir John and the efforts to find him reflect the highest honour on the British people. And not only sentiment, but reason was satisfied. As had been said, "the catastrophe of Sir John Franklin's expedition led to seven thousand miles of coast line being discovered, and to a vast extent of unknown country being explored, securing very considerable additions to geographical knowledge. Much attention was also given to the collection of information, and the scientific results of the various search expeditions were considerable."

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