The Northwest Passage | Polar Unbound

The discovery of America certainly inspired the search for the Northwest Passage, as Jacques Cartier, John Cabot, Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real all set off in search for the passage. English explorer Martin Frobisher was the first to voyage into the Arctic, however, in 1576 when he landed on Baffin Island. Despite Frobisher’s discoveries, interest in the Northwest Passage languished for several years until John Davis’ explorations of 1585-87. During these expeditions, Davis rediscovered Greenland, charted Baffin Island and Labrador, and explored Cumberland Sound. He also sighted, but did not explore, Hudson Strait and Frobisher Bay. 

The early 17th century saw various British expeditions into the Arctic, led by George Weymouth, Henry Hudson, Thomas Button, William Baffin and Luke Foxe. Significantly, Baffin explored Baffin Bay by 1616, though the import of his discovery was not perceived for 200 years as his map was never published, leaving the existence of the bay in doubt. Baffin had discovered the bay’s western region as well as three sounds. However, Baffin mistakenly believed the sounds were only bays and concluded there was no passage out of Baffin Bay.

The ensuing quiet after the Napoleonic Wars saw a resurgence in British interest in the Northwest Passage. A number of relatively unsuccessful ventures occurred throughout the early 19th century. Navigators found themselves blocked by ice and Captain John Ross even found himself repeating Baffin’s error in believing Baffin Bay’s sounds to be more bays. John Ross’ expedition of 1829-33 proved the most successful, largely through the efforts of James Clark Ross who established the location of the North Magnetic Pole. 

The English also made various attempts to breach the Northwest Passage from the west during the same timeframe. John Franklin led two expeditions from 1819-22 and 1825-27, during which he surveyed much of the coastline from Turnagain Point to Cape Beechey, Alaska. The uncharted gaps of the Alaskan coastline left by Franklin were filled in by Hudson’s Bay Company employees Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson. Their work was followed up by John Rae, another Hudson’s Bay Company employee, who further explored the Gulf of Boothia. Rae gains even more recognition for being a cunning traveler who adopted the Inuit methods of living off the land while traversing the harsh countryside. 

The Northwest Passage remained elusive despite these accomplishments. As such, the British commissioned Sir John Franklin with another attempt. Franklin sailed the HMS Erebus and Terror  from Lancaster Sound in 1845, only to be never heard from again despite a 12-year ensuing search. Over time, and assembling the evidence discovered by multiple search parties, Franklin’s story has  somewhat been pieced together. It appears that Franklin and his party had ventured up Wellington Channel and wintered at Beechey Island; in spring, Franklin sailed into the previously unnavigated Peel Sound into Victoria Strait, where he ultimately abandoned his ships. Though there were no survivors, the search parties themselves proved fruitful in furthering Arctic discovery. Robert McClure accidentally found himself the first person to traverse the Northwest Passage, though he traversed it in several ships (after he was rescued) and partly on foot. 

Official recognition for discovering the Northwest Passage went to Robert McClure, though the ill-fated Franklin had also discovered its existence. Norwegian Roald Amundsen followed up these attempts in 1903; during his 3-year excursion he not only amassed a quantity of scientific excursions but became the first to fully traverse the Northwest Passage. After this, the Northwest Passage has been traversed by icebreakers and commercial ships, though it’s not regularly used as a commercial route.