Samuel Hearne North-West Passage expedition 1770–72

Samuel Hearne journeyed overland to search for the North-West Passage in 1770. He was the first man to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean.

The Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company commissioned Samuel Hearne to go on an overland journey in search of the North-West Passage – the seaway through the Arctic, linking the Pacific and Arctic Oceans – in 1772. There was compelling evidence of commercial opportunities to be had and the company was keen to capitalize.

A recent Indian expedition had returned with a map of an open strait of water far to the north-west of Hudson Bay. This suggested there was a river and three copper mines. Interestingly, the map did not show Repulse Bay, which explorer Christopher Middleton had discovered but concluded that it blocked any westward passage in that area. Instead, the map suggested that a ship could sail from the north-west of the bay to the mines.

Hearne was tasked with locating the copper mines and finding out if there was a passage from Hudson Bay through to the Pacific. At 25, Hearne was young, fit and experienced in snowshoeing. He chose an Indian guide, Mantonabbee – a leader among the Chipewyan Indians. Hearne joined Mantonabbee’s tribe and the expedition left in December 1770.

Massacre at Bloody Falls

After a long and difficult journey following the seasonal movements of buffalo and caribou, the tribe’s only source of food, they reached the so-called Coppermine River in July 1771. It became clear to Hearne early on that the river could not form any navigable part of the North-West Passage. Fifteen kilometres above the mouth of the river Hearne witnessed the bloody massacre of over 20 Inuit by Mantonabbee’s tribe, which greatly traumatised him and led him to name the site Bloody Falls.

Reaching the Arctic

Hearne continued his survey of the river until he arrived at the Arctic Ocean, becoming the first European to do so overland. On their way back Mantonabbee took Hearne to a copper mine, which yielded little of value.

While Hearne’s journey provided almost nothing in the way of commercial opportunities, its significance to the search for the North-West Passage was profound. During the 32 months of his expedition, Hearne had walked from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean and back, and not crossed or seen any body of water that might form part of the passage. He concluded that if the North-West Passage did it exist it must lie much further north.

Find out about the next search for the North-West Passage

Read an introduction to North-West Passage exploration