Quest for the Northwest Passage (19th century)
In 1806, William Scoresby set a record for Farthest North by
attaining the latitude 81°30'N on the whaling ship Resolution
east of Spitsbergen. But it wasn't until after the end of the
Napoleonic Wars in 1815 that the British Admiralty under John
Barrow renewed the search for a Northwest Passage. They desired
to prove a prominent theory of the time: the existence of an
'Open Polar Sea' beyond the boundaries of the pack ice (which
we now know is false). In 1818, a dual expedition attempted
to explore both objectives, but only the expedition led by John
Ross made pioneering voyages to the northwest. Ross' second-in-command,
Edward Parry, returned the following year to explore Lancaster
Sound and prove that Baffin Bay was not landlocked, as Ross
had suggested. Parry's expedition was also the first to winter
over in the Canadian Archipelago. Also in 1819, a young John
Franklin set out on a land expedition up the Coppermine River
to explore the north coast of America. Parry's second voyage
sought the passage through Hudson Strait from 1821 to 1822,
but to no avail. Franklin set out again in 1825, this time up
the Mackenzie River, exploring the north coast westward to Russian
Alaska, and eastward to Coppermine. By now, only the area between
Point Turnagain and Repulse Bay remained unexplored.
|Portrait of William Scoresby.
In 1829, John Ross returned to hunt for the passage, although
it was his nephew, James Clark Ross, who made the discoveries,
including locating the North Magnetic Pole in 1831. After being
trapped in the ice for several winters, Ross' ship eventually
had to be abandoned, and it was 4 years before the expedition
returned home. Searching for the Ross party, George Back explored
the Great Fish River in 1833-1834. Between 1837 and 1839, Peter
Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson connected the coastline from
Coppermine River to Great Fish River.
Since his second expedition, Franklin had always wanted to be
the first to find the passage, but it was not until 1845 that
he was entrusted to do so. Two ships and 129 men departed optimistic
that they would connect Lancaster Sound with the waterways west
of Point Turnagain, but none would return. Over the following
ten years a massive search operation ensued, including 40 ships.
This effort resulted in the mapping of most of the remainder
of the Canadian Archipelago.
Lady Jane Franklin was very persuasive in garnering the support
of the Admiralty, the President of the US, and the Czar of Russia
to search for her husband, even when all hope was lost. James
Clark Ross was dispatched in 1848, and nearly happened upon
Franklin's 3-year-old trail, but turned back. The season of
1850 saw a total of six expeditions to the north. Most notably,
Robert McClure rounded Point Barrow (the top of Alaska) and
headed eastward along the coast to the Beaufort Sea seeking
Franklin's assumed exit. Meanwhile, 21 sledge parties were sent
out in every direction in 1851, including one led by Francis
Leopold McClintock. Exploration of the north by the US was also
instigated, including Elisha Kent Kane's search of the northern
regions of Baffin Bay from 1853 to 1855.
|The discovery of Franklin's
party. Source: Morris, Charles: Finding the North
Pole by Cook and Peary, W. E. Scull, 1909, 288.
|Click to enlarge
McClintock was in charge of the 1859 expedition that finally
discovered in a cairn left by Franklin's expedition on King
William Island, which told of the death of Franklin and 24 others,
and of abandoning the ship. This cleared the Franklin mystery
at last, and attention turned away from the Northwest Passage
to attainment of the North Pole.
Berton, P., The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest
Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909, Viking Penguin, New
York, 672 pp., 1988.
Francis, D., Discovery of the North: The Exploration of Canada's
Arctic, Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, Canada, 224 pp., 1986.