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Colour engraving of Samuel Hearne, 1796 - HBCA P-167

Colour engraving of Samuel Hearne, 1796
HBCA P-167

Although best known for his overland explorations in what is now the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Samuel Hearne (1745 -1792) is also one of the most significant figures in the development of Hudson's Bay Company. Samuel Hearne grew up in London, England, where his father was secretary of the London Bridge Water Works Company. Hearne was an ambitious young man and enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1757 at the age of 12. Nine years later, in 1766, he joined HBC as a mate on the little sloop Churchill, spending his winters at Fort Prince of Wales on the western shore of Hudson Bay.

The following year Hearne sailed with the expedition which discovered the ill-fated ships of James Knight off the coast of Marble Island. Knight had been searching for the North West Passage, a much sought-after direct water route to Asia, in the northwestern region of Hudson Bay. Interestingly enough, Hearne himself would later prove the fruitlessness of Knight's quest. In the late 1760s the Company began to hear rumours of vast mineral deposits in the north. Hearne was chosen to lead an expedition in search of these minerals as well as to look for the North West Passage. In all, Hearne would make three great journeys into the "barren lands" west of Hudson Bay.

The first journey, in 1769, ended inauspiciously when Hearne's native travelling companions stole his supplies, forcing him to return home. However, it was this misadventure that turned him into a resourceful "man of the land", a skill which would prove to be invaluable to his subsequent career. Now an experienced woodsman, Hearne set off again in 1770 with a native guide named Conne-e-quese, who claimed to have seen great copper deposits in the far north. When they reached Yathkyed Lake far to the west of Hudson Bay, their group was joined by several hundred nomadic Chipewyans. By this time, Conne-e-quese had proven himself an incompetent guide: he couldn't pinpoint his own location, let alone that of the copper deposits. So when the guide decided to winter with the Chipewyans, Hearne had little choice but to agree. Shortly thereafter, Hearne fell victim to treachery. With the chill of winter in the air, his native companions once again stole his belongings and left him to starve. Lost and alone, with no tent or warm clothes, Hearne wandered across the Arctic for three days before being rescued by the great Chipewyan chief, Matonabbee. In the years that followed the two men would grow to become great friends. After his rescue by Matonabbee the two men journeyed back to Fort Prince of Wales together. There they decided once again to search for the copper deposits in the north.

Samuel Hearne on his Journey to the Coppermine, 1770 Charles William Jefferys/Library and Archives Canada/C-070250

Samuel Hearne on his Journey to the Coppermine, 1770
Charles William Jefferys/Library and Archives Canada/C-070250

This third and final expedition began in 1771. It would last 19 months and take Hearne farther north than any white man before him. During this journey, Hearne adopted to the ways of the nomadic natives. Several months into the expedition, Hearne's party was joined by a band of rather evasive Chipewyans who refused to explain their intentions. However, as the group pushed farther north it became clear that the newcomers planned to attack the Inuit who were known to frequent the Coppermine River north of Great Slave Lake. At that time the two groups were almost constantly at war.

When the party finally reached the shores of the Arctic Ocean Hearne was utterly disappointed at what he saw. This was not the fabled North West Passage. It was a horrible, icy waterway blocked by impassable shoals. It would never accommodate Company ships. Although overcome with disappointment he nevertheless drove a stake into the ground claiming the shore for Hudson's Bay Company. Soon afterwards Hearne became an unhappy witness to the inevitable massacre of the Inuit carried out by the Chipewyans, and subsequently named the place where it occurred "Bloody Falls". The dream of the Passage gone, the men tried to salvage their mission by searching for mineral deposits. Finding only one sizeable chunk of copper with any value, Hearne decided to head for home. With only ten miles (16 kilometers) to go before reaching Fort Prince of Wales Hearne sat down to record one last entry in his travel journal:

Though my discoveries are not likely to prove of any material advantage to the Nation at large, or indeed to the Hudson's Bay Company, yet I have pleasure to think that I have fully complied with the orders of my Masters and that it has put a final end to all disputes concerning a North West Passage through Hudson's Bay.

Hearne returned from his third journey in the late summer of 1772. He was then twenty-seven years old and had already been in service with the Company for half a dozen years. Reaching Hudson Bay before the departure of the annual ship for England, he ensured that his journal of his travels was back in London by the fall of that year.

At that time the London Committee was focused on one major business concern: how to maintain market share in the face of increasing competition from the Canadian traders, or "pedlars", based out of Montreal. These rivals were successfully choking off the flow of furs from the interior lands down to the Bay. The native trappers increasingly saw little value in travelling hundreds of miles down to the bayside posts when they could just as easily trade for goods much closer to home. By 1773 the reports of HBC men sent inland to encourage the natives to trade could no longer be ignored: after over 100 years the Company was going to have to move inland to stay in business. Instructions sent overseas the following year were explicit. A "trading house" was to be established inland as far up as the Pas, or thereabouts, wherever suitable; a log hut was to be built; and trading with the natives was to commence forthwith. Samuel Hearne was chosen to lead this venture.

Hearne Builds Cumberland House, 1774-1775 by Franklin Arbuckle, 1951

Hearne Builds Cumberland House, 1774-1775 by Franklin Arbuckle, 1951

Problems with transportation meant that it was the summer of 1774 before Hearne set out. By September 3rd he could report that he had chosen a site on Pine Island Lake, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of the Pas, and was clearing it. The site was strategically placed at the intersection of three major river networks: via the Saskatchewan west to the Rockies and north to the Athabaska and Peace areas, eastwards to the Bay via the Hayes and Nelson Rivers, and to the southeast via Lake Winnipeg and the Red. The post built there, named Cumberland House, was the very first of that what was destined to become a vast inland network of settlements that carried HBC across the continent. The following spring Hearne led a flotilla of thirty-two fur-laden canoes down to York Factory thus proving the wisdom of the new inland policy.

That same year, 1775, Hearne was promoted, and given command of Fort Prince of Wales, largest and strongest of the Company's outposts. In 1782, as part of ongoing hostilities with the French in and around Hudson Bay, the Fort was attacked. Threatened by the French army and woefully undermanned, Hearne surrendered to the French admiral de la Pérouse without firing a shot, and he and his men were taken into custody. The victorious French spiked the guns and blew up the magazines, after which HBC abandoned the fort forever. Hearne returned to Hudson's Bay a year later to resume his activities, but retired in 1787, in declining health. Back in England he worked on the memoir of his great trip - A Journey to the Northern Ocean - and tried to find a publisher, but died three years before the book was actually published.

Hearne's odyssey remains one of the most amazing overland journeys in North American history and has rarely, if ever, been matched. His round trip totaled over 5,600 kilometres (3,500 miles). He was the first white man to reach the Arctic Ocean by land. Hearne is also credited with discovering Great Slave Lake and the Mackenzie River system. He was also the first explorer to adopt a native lifestyle - a strategy that, over time, would prove its worth and inspire others, such as Dr. John Rae.That said his legacy includes his memoir, a single portrait and a single graffito: his own name, beautifully engraved on a large stone at the mouth of the Churchill River, carved while he awaited his first transport after a long winter at the fort.

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