Article | Northwest Passage

Part 1: Gory, Glorious, Uproarious—Introducing the Search for the Fabled Northwest Passage

Who was really the first person to travel the famed Northwest Passage? The answer might surprise you! Learn more about the long history of Inuit navigating the world’s most legendary waterway in the first of this four-part series.
Inuit qamutik sled dogs crossing ice crack 1931 coronation gulf

© Richard S. Finnie

Ancestral Inuit traversed the Northwest Passage with technological innovations such as qamutiit (sleds) and qajait (kayaks), which—as this image taken in 1931 at Coronation Gulf, Nunavut attests—remained in regular use well into the 1900s and continue to be used by Inuit today. (Photo courtesy of Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds / Library and Archives Canada / a101126-v6)*

For centuries it was a mystery that transfixed the European imagination, mesmerizing royals and commoners, Venetians and Danes, mercantilists and mariners. Rather than sailing east around Africa, or south through the Straits of Magellan, was “the Orient” accessible by way of the top of the world?

This mystery was not simply geographic. Unlike reaching the source of the Nile, or laying eyes on the fabled Himalayas, exploring the unmapped Arctic promised more than just bragging rights. Whoever found a shortcut over the Americas would blaze a superhighway to the glittering ports of Asia. They would be rich and forever famous, the superstar of the Age of Discovery.

If they failed, however, they would vanish—not just from the public eye, but off the charts. And thereby, the mystery of the passage would deepen.

Here then, told in four parts, is a history of the world’s most fabled waterway.

Part 1: The Inuit Quest

Long before Europeans began poking north and west through the slush of the North Atlantic, other peoples journeyed from the opposite direction. First, around 4,000 years ago, came the so-called Paleo-Eskimos. Later came the Inuit, for whom the Arctic channels would be a corridor to their own New World, likely facilitating an epic expedition that led to one of the most remarkable expansions in human history.

1962 dog sled team victoria island

© John Olson / Library and Archives Canada / e011185660-v8

An Inuit family travels by qamutik on Victoria Island, Nunavut, 1962.*

Inuit culture originated beside the whale-rich waters of the Bering Strait, where Siberia and Alaska nearly touch. According to rich oral history, and corroborated by geneticists, archaeologists, and linguists, some Inuit pushed east, encountering and ultimately taking the place of Paleo-Eskimos, whom they called the Tuniit. In this manner, Inuit came to dominate an unparalleled swath of the North American coastline—from Russia to eastern Greenland, and clear down Labrador to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

Map of the inuit circumpolar region

© Makivik Corporation

It was long assumed by Western theorists that Inuit achieved this expansion gradually, almost unconsciously. The trigger was thought to be the Medieval Warm Period. Starting a millennium ago, ice cover diminished in the Northwest Passage. Bowhead whales stretched their range east, and it seems logical that Inuit hunters followed. In this manner, the thinking went, day by day over generations, Inuit came to span the Arctic.

Inuit man in kayak 1929 killiniq port burwell

© Richard S. Finnie / Library and Archives Canada / e002342722

Qajaq is a mode of travel used across Inuit homelands into today. This photo was taken in 1929 in Killiniq (Port Burwell), Nunavut.*

The latest science suggests a different, more remarkable theory. According to the renowned archaeologist Robert McGhee, Inuit migration was more recent—perhaps just 750 years ago. It was also dramatically faster and more purposeful. According to new evidence, one or more groups of Alaskan Inuit made an epic quest, setting out through the Northwest Passage by dogsled and skin boat, reaching Greenland in just a few years. Hence the mutual intelligibility of the Inuit language, and the presence of Alaskan artifacts, thousands of kilometres east.

Traditional and modern kayaks and frames sisimiut greenland

© Dennis Minty

Qajait made today often use the same innovative building techniques that Inuit used centuries ago, as seen here in Sisimiut, Greenland.

What spurred this expedition? Probably iron, a substance that could be crafted into invaluable implements. Cape York, in northwest Greenland, was home to massive iron meteorites, which the local Tuniit mined and traded. There was also iron in southern Greenland, traded by the Norse. Samples of this metal, or at least rumours of it, had almost certainly filtered to Alaska. Perhaps Inuit, keen for the stuff, decided to cut out the middleman and head straight to the source. For Inuit, too, the Northwest Passage was the way to untold riches.

Line drawing leaflet cape york meteorite ahnighito fragment 1933

© T. Voter / American Museum of Natural History

The cover of a leaflet titled "Comets, Meteors, and Meteorites" by Chester A. Reeds, published by the American Museum of Natural History, depicts two Inuit men and their sled dogs beside the Cape York meteorite in Greenland.

*A Note about Photo Captions in this Series

It is an unfortunate reality of Canadian living history that visitors to the North have typically not properly identified the peoples and places they have photographed. Project Naming is an initiative between Library and Archives Canada and Nunavut Sivuniksavut to properly identify the individuals, activities, and locations of historical photos of Inuit. We have chosen not to include the original captions of historical photos used in this series if they have not yet been revised through Project Naming or otherwise do not show the type of respectful language we strive for on the Mindful Explorer. To learn more about this topic, be sure to read "How to Overcome the Erasure of Inuit Identity in Archival Photos" by Natan Obed in Inuit Art Quarterly.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.