Who Discovered The Northwest Passage?

I’ve been strangely fascinated by the story of the discovery of the Northwest Passage. Not so much by the discovery in fact, but by the fact that people just went towards their icy death with the conviction they’ll find it as it was something that was just speculated. At that time, climate change was not on their side.

Anyway, I don’t know if you know the story of the Terror (I read Dan Simmons’ book and watch the great TV adaptation), but that was what led me here, you know, for the real story–and finding who ended up making the discovery.

Who Made the Discovery of The Northwest Passage?

Let’s begin with a bit of explanation. The Northwest Passage is a sea corridor that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago islands and along the northernmost coast of North America.

For over 400 years, explorers risked their lives to search the Arctic for this elusive route, hoping to establish a lucrative trading route between Europe and Asia and thereby shorten the time and cost of sailing to markets such as India and China.

The quest for the Northwest Passage was not without its challenges. The greatest obstacle explorers faced was the treacherous sea/ice, which blocked the channels between the islands during winter and remained frozen even in bad summers. Ships could be damaged or crushed by the ice, and explorers faced the risk of starvation if their vessels were stuck in ice for several years. Scurvy, consumption, and even cannibalism were among the perils faced by those embarking on this dangerous journey.

The First Expeditions

One of the earliest English explorers to search for the Northwest Passage was Martin Frobisher in 1576. Although he did not find the Passage, his voyage was marked by the kidnapping of five of his men, who were never seen again.

In 1609, Henry Hudson, an English explorer hired by the Dutch East India Company, embarked on a journey to find a more southern, ice-free route across North America to the Pacific Ocean. He explored the Hudson River, which bears his name, but did not discover the Passage.

In 1850, Robert McClure and his crew became the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, both by ship and over the ice on sled. Their expedition confirmed the existence of the route, but it would be over half a century before someone complete the entire passage by sea.

The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror trapped in ice in Victoria Strait during the doomed Northwest Passage expedition led by Sir John Franklin. (Courtesy Encyclopædia Britannica)

The Franklin Expedition

Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition is one of the most tragic stories in the quest for the Northwest Passage. The expedition, consisting of two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, disappeared without a trace.

Concern for the safety of Franklin and his crews was expressed by the Navy in the autumn of 1847, and plans for relief expeditions began to take shape. Over the course of the next decade, almost 40 expeditions were sent out to search for Franklin and his crew.

Among those leading these British expeditions were explorers like John Ross, his nephew James Clark Ross, Horatio Austin, Henry Kellett, John Richardson, Edward Inglefield, and Edward Belcher. The search for Franklin’s expedition led to a great expansion of knowledge about the Canadian Arctic, and several possible Northwest Passages were discovered, although none had been navigated entirely from sea to sea at that time.

The search for Franklin’s expedition

In 1853-54, John Rae was the one who finally discovered the fate of Franklin’s expedition. He gathered information from the Inuit, who had supplied important information about the lost expedition. The Inuit’s reports were later confirmed by Leopold McClintock during his expedition from 1857-59. McClintock brought back to England the only written documentation relating to Franklin’s voyage.

The discovery of Franklin’s fate revealed that his ships had been icebound off King William Island. Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, and his surviving crew perished while attempting to trek on foot across the ice to reach the Back River to the south of the icebound ships.

The Franklin searches not only shed light on the tragedy of Franklin’s expedition but also greatly expanded the knowledge of the Canadian Arctic. The expeditions added to the understanding of Arctic geography, and the information gained from these voyages was crucial in later successful attempts to cross the Northwest Passage.

In 1875, another British venture, led by Allen Young in the Pandora, attempted to navigate the Northwest Passage in one season. However, like many previous attempts, Young’s expedition was beset by ice, and he had to return home.

Ice dwarfs Gjøa on the voyage through the Northwest Passage. (Courtesy Fram Museum)

Finally Discovering the Northwest Passage

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen is recognized for successfully navigating the Northwest Passage, making him the first person to do it by boat.

Amundsen’s journey began in 1903 when he set sail from Oslo, Norway, aboard the Gjøa, a small fishing vessel that he had refitted for polar exploration. The Gjøa was a modest 70-foot-long ship, but it was sturdy and well-equipped for the challenging conditions of the Arctic.

The expedition faced numerous hardships as it ventured into the icy waters of the Canadian Arctic. They encountered treacherous ice floes, freezing temperatures, and harsh weather conditions. To survive the long, dark Arctic winters, Amundsen and his crew had to endure months of isolation and confinement on the ship.

During the expedition, Amundsen and his crew also established friendly relations with the local Inuit people, learning from their traditional knowledge of surviving in the Arctic. The Inuit’s skills in navigating and living in the harsh Arctic environment were invaluable to Amundsen’s expedition.

In August 1905, after almost two years of challenging navigation and several wintering periods, the Gjøa reached the Pacific Ocean via the Bering Strait, completing the Northwest Passage. The voyage covered approximately 3,000 miles and marked a historic achievement in polar exploration.

I recently started writing a bit more about this type of exploration, so you can now read about who discovered the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu, and Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamon.

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