Samuel Hearne, Arctic Explorer
British explorer Samuel Hearne was sent North on the search for copper mines by his employer, the Hudson’s Bay Company. After months of travel, he arrived to find no ore
It must have been the picture of icy splendour. While searching for copper mines, Samuel Hearne and his guides reached the water’s edge of the still partly-frozen Arctic Ocean in 1771. While the trek to Canada’s north may still be difficult today, it is effortless compared to Hearne’s grueling, bitter task through all kinds of hurdles. Hearne had to walk.
Word spread through the trading posts of copper mines in the frozen North. The Hudson’s Bay Company wanted the ore to use as ballast in their ships transporting goods across the ocean. The young Samuel Hearne, a healthy, strapping young man of 25 years of age was given the mandate to locate the mines. His guide was his friend – a Chippewa chief by name of Matonabbee, familiar with the country and its various peoples. He was a caribou hunter and fur trader, known for his skills, and traveled with his own wives, numbering six, and several other men.
Lugged a heavy quadrant and stand
This was Hearne’s third attempt to find the copper mines; the first two trips failed. On December 7, 1770 the small excursion party set out from Prince of Wales Fort (now Churchill, Manitoba) for the North, in what was later to become the Northwest Territories. Hearne was not traveling light – he carried a pack on his back weighing 60 lbs, lugging a quadrant and stand for measuring and surveying. The canoes used by natives for travel throughout the country were not particularly useful on their northward trip, due to many rapids and falls in the river systems. Walking was the only option.
Obtaining food was a challenge for the British explorer and he was forced to choose some unusual sources or go very hungry. According to records on biographi.ca , Hearne “became accustomed to eating caribou stomachs and raw musk ox,” but he refused to eat “lice and warbles.” Following the lead of his experienced guide, he learned to stay with the herds of buffalo and caribou for a steady supply of food. Braving the elements was another test. Snowstorms in July, heavy rain, and no dry clothes or warm building in which to recuperate added to the misery. Hearne was also caught in a bloody battle between the Chippewa and the Inuit, a massacre that mentally scarred him for the rest of his life.
Viewed the frosty Arctic Ocean
The expedition arrived at the Coppermine River on July 14, 1771, more than seven months after leaving Prince of Wales Fort. Hearne’s search of the mines turned into disappointment, finding only one piece of copper weighing about four pounds. Their guide lead the group to the frosty Arctic Ocean, arriving three days later on July 17th; they then turned south and headed to the Point Lakes. Because Matonabbee was in a rush to get to the Lakes area, Hearne suffered the loss of his toenails in the process.
The trip back to Prince of Wales Fort took many more months. The group spent the winter at Great Slave Lake, hunting food and crafting canoes for the journey south east. Hearne returned to the Fort on June 30, 1772, a little worse for wear but alive and learned. He had walked approximately 1700 miles to the North and 1700 miles back, noted history.cbc.ca.
Samuel Hearne, first but not last
Samuel Hearne was the first, but by far not the last, European explorer to reach Canada’s north by land. He kept detailed journals of his travels which eventually became “A Journey From Prince of Wales Fort, in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean… in the years 1769, 1770, 1771 & 1772”, published in 1795 in London, England. Hearne concluded that there was no easy passage to the North West, something longed for by Hudson’s Bay Company and other fur traders.. His notes, geographical maps, and comprehensive description of native lives and ways, included his thoughts. Were the natives, he wondered, really benefiting by the fur trade?
After many more daring accomplishments and travels, Samuel Hearne died in London, England in November 1792. He became known as an early naturalist, his records providing a basis for future explorations in Canada’s great North.
This article was first published on Suite101.com. © Susanna McLeod