Article | Northwest Passage

Part 2: Gory, Glorious, Uproarious—Early Europeans and the Search for the Northwest Passage

Why was the Northwest Passage such a captivating conquest for Europeans? Early explorers’ attempts to find and sail the fabled waterway proved unsuccessful, and often ended in remarkable tragedy. Learn more in the second installment of this four-part series.
1743 C Middleton map of Hudson Bay Davis Straight

© Library and Archives Canada

A 1743 hand-coloured map of Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the Labrador coast, created by C. Middleton

For Europeans, the “discovery” of the Americas was, in some ways, a bummer. It revealed a continent-sized impediment between the Old World and Asia. Almost immediately, sailors sought a way around, including by venturing north and west. Some returned from these forays boasting geographical achievements—but never a passage. Just five years after Columbus landed at Hispañola, John Cabot failed to find a way west through what is now Atlantic Canada. Jacques Cartier was similarly rebuffed, as was Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

Then, in 1576, Martin Frobisher tried. Reaching Cathay, he proclaimed, was “the only thing left undone whereby a notable mind might be made famous and remarkable.” Instead, in a polar cul-de-sac now called Frobisher Bay, he found what was purported to be gold. Returning there for two subsequent summers, he oversaw the first attempt at English settlement in the New World, the first mining stock scam, and the first skirmish with Inuit, who shot him in the buttocks with an arrow.

1963 a canadian postage stamp released honouring martin frobisher

© Library and Archives Canada / Canada Post Corporation / Isobel M. Assad

In 1963 a Canadian postage stamp was released honouring Martin Frobisher.

Other explorers, even less fortunate than Frobisher, came to grief in the unmapped Arctic. In 1610-11, Henry Hudson and his crew were the first whites to overwinter in Canada’s North, in what is now Hudson Bay. They didn’t like it, and infamously cast Hudson and his son adrift, never to be seen again. Then, in 1619, Jens Munk set out with sixty-five men. They too wintered in Hudson Bay. Come spring, just three were alive. Somehow, they limped their ship back home.

Oil painting last voyage of henry hudson john collier 1881

This 1881 oil painting by John Collier is titled “The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson.”

And exactly a century later, trader James Knight went seeking the passage, accompanied by forty men. Years later, beside Marble Island near today’s community of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Knight’s vessels were found grounded in shallow water. Ashore were cannons, bricks, coal, and a grim tale. Inuit reported having encountered stranded qallunaat (white people). They spent two winters peering south, praying for rescue. The last one died while digging a grave for his friend.

Meanwhile, a few of the explorers who sought the Northwest Passage achieved something like glory. In the 1580s John Davis mapped Davis Strait; then William Bylot circumnavigated Baffin Bay. By the 1630s, Thomas Button, Thomas James, and Luke Foxe had thoroughly charted Hudson Bay, determining there was no passage south of the Arctic Circle. In 1771, Samuel Hearne, guided overland by Dene, descended the Coppermine River and encountered an icy ocean. Alexander Mackenzie confirmed the same at the mouth of the Mackenzie.

Alexander mackenzie engraving 1801

© Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-3034 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana

The Mackenzie River's English name recognizes Alexander Mackenzie; it is known as Deh Cho ("big river") to Dene people and as Kuukpak ("great river") to Inuvialuit.

So, by the dawn on the 1800s, two things were clear. First, there were indeed saltwater channels atop Canada, perhaps even linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. Second, they were terribly remote, desperately cold, and almost always frozen. Navigating them would be a heroic feat.

Northwest passage sea ice

© Scott Forsyth

Sea ice near Coningham Bay, Nunavut

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.