Dr. John Rae by Stephen Pearce, 1858. - HBCA P-204

Dr. John Rae by Stephen Pearce, 1858.
HBCA P-204

One reason Hudson's Bay Company was granted its Charter was in order to explore the uncharted continent and help find the elusive Northwest Passage that would provide quicker access to China's riches.

Most of the explorers sent on the quest to find the Northwest Passage were sent by the British Royal Navy. HBC was more interested in doing business than sending people out exploring. Nonetheless, when pressured by the British government, it periodically did so. Dr. John Rae was the last of the explorers sent by the Company to chart northern lands.

John Rae was born in the Orkney Islands near Stromness, where the HBC ships stopped to draw fresh water and load up final supplies and crew before the long transatlantic journey. Having watched two of his older brothers join HBC and travel overseas, the draw was too much to resist: he joined HBC as a ship's doctor a mere 2 months after obtaining his medical certification. In 1833 he set sail for Hudson Bay; it would be another 14 years before he returned to Scotland.

Dr. Rae first served as the medical officer at Moose Factory, located on an island at the mouth of the Moose River, often visiting the surrounding First Nations who needed his help. Immediately upon his arrival, he was deemed one of the best hunters around, and after only a few years, the best snowshoer on the continent. Moreover, the cold did not seem to touch him. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Rae kept an open mind towards the various native cultures he encountered. As a result he adopted many of their habits in terms of clothing and travelling, each time improving his knowledge and well-being. In hindsight, he was a born Arctic explorer, seizing every opportunity and adapting every situation to his best advantage.

His qualities did not escape then Governor George Simpson, who visited Moose Factory on several occasions in the 10 years when John Rae was its doctor (Simpson even lost a race to Rae. The doctor had challenged Simpson to a race on water. Rae bet that a sailboat of his design could circle the island faster than Simpson's canoe manned by his best voyageurs). Rae spent the winter of 1844 with Simpson in Montreal and visiting some relatives in Hamilton. Upon his return to Moose Factory, Rae received a letter from Simpson promoting him in charge of the whole District. In a private missive, moreover, Simpson recognized that Rae was the most able Company man to undertake a survey of the Arctic coast of Rupert's Land.

Dr. John Rae at Repulse Bay, 1846 by Charles Fraser Comfort, 1932

Dr. Rae meets Eskimos/ Discovery of Franklin Expedition Relics by Charles Comfort, 1949

In the fall of 1846 John Rae set out to do what no other European had successfully done before: to winter in the Arctic without any provisions other than what his hunting and fishing skills could provide. Over the next ten years, Rae undertook four different expeditions in the Arctic. Chief among his accomplishments are the discovery of the last, missing link in the mapping of the Northwest Passage - which he managed by walking 1,000 km (650 miles) of unknown Arctic coast - and, at long last in 1854, learning the fate of the Franklin Expedition, lost in 1847.

Rae determined the fate of the Franklin expedition through intense questioning of Inuit hunters. He acquired from them physical remains of the expedition, such as spoons and buttons (depicted in this painting by Charles Comfort), and cross-examined them for two months to ensure the accuracy of his findings. He then had to make a tough choice that would haunt him the rest of his life. Winter was near, and although he could have made it to where the survivors had camped until their deaths, doing so would have meant spending another winter in the Arctic. On the other hand, there were already numerous ships looking for traces of the Franklin Expedition, all in the wrong corner of the Arctic. Knowing the dangers that he, his party, and all these unsuspecting sailors would face, he decided to travel to England as quickly as possible to communicate the grim news to Lady Franklin and the British public.

Thanks to Lady Franklin and her powerful lobby, John Rae has been negatively portrayed as an opportunist who relied on the testimony of the Inuit who couldn't be trusted, preferring to rush back to England for a reward (which he did not even know existed) rather than travelling further to verify his findings. Even 150 years after the fact, when the values and the influence of Lady Franklin and her friends has long vanished, it is not hard to find this assertion repeated - one which ignores the facts and instead perpetuates hearsay. It is also the chief reason that Rae and his accomplishments are so little known today.