Excerpt from Tales From the Bay, 1995
James Knight (1640 - 1719) spent an eventful 40 years in the service of Hudson's Bay Company. Joining the Company in 1676 as a staff carpenter, he proved himself so intelligent and capable that within six years he was named Chief Factor at Fort Albany on the western shore of James Bay. Through hard work and business savvy Knight continued to rise through the Company's ranks. He also became wealthy enough to eventually purchase HBC stock in 1697. In 1711, he became the only overseas man to be granted a seat on the London Committee, the Company's Board of Directors
The most intriguing story surrounding James Knight involves a Chipewyan woman named Thanadelthur. Captured by the Cree as a young girl, Thanadelthur escaped some time later and found her way into Knight's service as a translator. She befriended him and often told alluring tales of rich mineral deposits in her home region, promising to take him there someday. This promise however, would never be fulfilled.
Before her death, Thanadelthur told Knight about a broad strait of water in the north where tides ebbed and flowed. To Knight this description sounded like the elusive North West Passage, the lure of every contemporary explorer. Knight was also curious about the tales of "yellow mettle" and "black pitch", early references to gold and the Athabasca tar sands. Because of Thanadelthur's stories, Knight, now in his seventies, excitedly rushed to England in 1718 to organize an expedition to discover these treasures. He was given two vessels, the Albany and the Discovery and in 1719 set sail in search of the North West Passage and gold. The expedition and James Knight never returned.
Forty-eight years later explorers Joseph Stephens and Samuel Hearne discovered the wreckage of Knight's two ships off the coast of Marble Island near Rankin Inlet on the northwest shore of Hudson Bay. Area natives confirmed that Knight and his men had been driven ashore and stranded by a winter storm. There they made camp for the winter, fully expecting rescue come spring. But it was not to be.
After the second winter on this island, illness had reduced the number of survivors to only two. The natives recorded that each day the two men would go down to the shore, look off in the distance and wait for rescue. At length, one of the men died and the second was so exhausted that he died while digging his friend's grave.
Knight's disappearance still remains one of the Arctic's most enduring mysteries. Marble Island is well within sight of the mainland. Why then, did Knight and his men not try to reach the shore? Didn't Knight know that the HBC post at Churchill was only a four day's sail away? Why were no efforts made to rescue the men?
Whatever the reasons, Knight's disastrous expedition only served to reinforce HBC's decision to do nothing to expand its holdings around Hudson Bay. This policy would remain in effect until 1774, when the Company finally expanded inland, with the building of Cumberland House by Samuel Hearne.