Exploration | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Exploration of Canada by Europeans began with the Norse in the late 10th century on the country’s East Coast. Following Jacques Cartier’s arrival in 1534, over the course of the next three centuries British and French explorers gradually moved further west. Commercial, resource-based interests often drove exploration; for example, a westward route to Asia and later, the fur trade. By the mid-19th century most of the main geographical features of Canada had been mapped by European colonists. (See also Arctic Exploration.)
Simon Fraser, explorer, fur trader
Fraser was the first to descend the river that bears his name, and founded the earliest settlements in central BC (courtesy PABC).
Henry Hudson, explorer
Hudson's discovery of a route to the continent's interior proved of inestimable value to England, woodcut (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-17727).
Sir John Franklin.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada/C-1352.

10th–11th Century

Until well into the 16th century, Europe's knowledge of the nearest part of America, its eastern extremity at Newfoundland, was misty and uncertain. Claims have been made for the sighting of some part of Canada's Atlantic coastline by the Irish monk St Brendan in the sixth century. However, archaeological excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland suggest Norsemen were the first Europeans to see Canada in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. These remains show that the earliest sighting was probably made by Bjarni Herjolfesson in 985 or 986; and that in about 1000, Leif Ericsson landed in the first of a series of expeditions culminating in the establishment of a short-lived Norse settlement.

Despite these Norse settlements, when Europeans again approached northeastern America in the late 15th century, they were likely unaware of the routes and discoveries of their predecessors.

15th–16th Century

Some speculate that seamen from Bristol reached Newfoundland, or thereabouts, as early as the 1480s, predating Columbus's voyage of 1492. However, the only hard evidence points to John Cabot’s English expedition of 1497 as the first known voyage to mainland North America in the new era of overseas discovery. Explorers at this time were seeking a westward route to Asia.

Explorations, Atlantic Coast

Cabot probably coasted the shores of Maine, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador; certainly he saw enough to organize a more ambitious, but totally disastrous, venture the next year. Equally difficult to pinpoint is the activity of the Portuguese Corte-Real family in that area between 1500 and 1503. In addition, a rumoured expedition in about 1508–09 by John Cabot's son, Sebastian, may simply have been a hoax.

Maps of the period show the rudimentary and hesitant outline of a coast stretching from the Spanish discoveries around the Carolinas northeast to the cod fisheries; however, there was still no understanding that Newfoundland was an island, nor any clear idea as to the nature of the coastline between the area of Spanish knowledge and the fishing banks 3,000 km north where the English, Portuguese and Bretons were active.

Although Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed from North Carolina to Newfoundland in 1524 in French service, he stayed too far from shore to sight the strait separating Cape Breton from Newfoundland, and so remained ignorant of the Gulf of St Lawrence.

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier made three voyages to Canada in 1534, 1535–36 and 1541–42. On his first voyage he entered and explored the Gulf of St Lawrence by way of the Strait of Belle Isle. On his second, he followed the St Lawrence to the Iroquoian townships of Stadacona (Québec) and Hochelaga (Montréal). At the latter spot, 1,600 km into the continent, the Iroquois insisted that the river, now broken by rapids, stretched three months' travel to the west. For the first time, Europeans were given some idea of the vastness of the country.

On his return voyage Cartier passed through Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland. He had now navigated both northern and southern entrances into the gulf, and had shown Newfoundland to be insular. The St Lawrence would, with its tributaries, enable the French to explore and dominate much of the northeast of the continent in the 17th century. He also discovered the Canadian winter, for in 1535–36, frozen in at Stadacona, he lost almost a quarter of his men to the cold and scurvy.

Cartier's explorations show a close, if increasingly uneasy, relationship with the First Nations of the St Lawrence Valley. Around this time, the Iroquoians, so important in Canada's history, entered the journals and the consciousness of the French. While Cartier had not found the "great quantity of gold, and other precious things" mentioned in his instructions, he did locate the gulf's teeming fisheries and the mainland's furs, tempting Europe's commercial interests. Similarly, like Cabot and Verrazzano, he did not reach the Pacific, but did find a route pointing straight west.

For the remainder of the century the French and other Europeans continued to exploit the fisheries and the fur trade, but after Cartier the limits of French enterprise stopped at Tadoussac.

Arctic Exploration and the Northwest Passage

New explorations, which began in the 1570s, were far to the north (see Arctic Exploration), where the English, in particular, made repeated attempts along the icebound shores of the eastern Arctic to find a water route to the Pacific.

Arctic Exploration, Map

Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin and Henry Hudson were among the long list of explorers who sought a Northwest Passage in vain. One effect of the search was that it opened up to European view, and eventual English domination, the great inland sea of Hudson Bay, which was explored by a series of expeditions culminating in those of Luke Fox (1631) and Thomas James (1631–32).

17th Century

An alternative entry into the continent was essential if the English were to challenge the French because in the early 17th century the activities of Samuel de Champlain confirmed and extended Cartier's claims. The century began with a new departure — in 1600 the first European trading post in Canada was established at Tadoussac. In 1603, Champlain followed Cartier's old route to Hochelaga, and also explored more of the Saguenay and Richelieu rivers. The next year he landed in Acadia, where he explored the Bay of Fundy, and in 1605 he established Port-Royal.

Champlain Vol2-73
Samuel de CHAMPLAIN's 1604 map of Saint John harbor

By 1607, the French had mapped the Atlantic coastline from Cape Breton to Cape Cod. Champlain's writings and his last map of 1632 show the extent of his explorations: a route north of the St Lawrence by way of the Saguenay and St Maurice rivers; a route from the St Lawrence to the Hudson River by way of Lake Champlain; the exploration of much of the Acadian coastline, as well as suggestion of the Great Lakes — all this based on European exploration and First Nations knowledge.

Jesuit Missionaries

For the explorations of the 40 years following Champlain's death in 1635, the Jesuit Relations, i.e., documents compiled by Jesuit missionaries in Québec, provide a unique source. The missionaries' first concern was to record the life and, they hoped, the conversion of Aboriginal peoples, but their travels brought them a close knowledge of the land as well; and in the Relations there is telling detail of its rivers and forests, swamps and portages, its harsh winters and brief, insect-ridden summers. For the first time, perhaps, the Canadian environment took shape and form for European readers.

From their mission stations in Huronia, the Jesuits in the 1640s reached as far west as Sault Ste Marie, while back on the St Lawrence they helped found a post at Ville-Marie, where the Ottawa River offered a new route to the west. Dominating the Jesuit reports were Aboriginal and missionary descriptions of Lake Superior, thought by some to be the gateway to the Pacific. Other French groups prospected new portage routes that linked Lake Superior, Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario, reached the Niagara River from Lake Ontario and wintered (in 1669–70) on Lake Erie.

The information from these scattered sources was brought together and given graphic form in the 1672 Jesuit map of the Great Lakes. Jesuit Relations also talk of the Coureurs de Bois, the rough outriders of French expansion and discovery, pushing westward in search of furs. The importance of Aboriginal peoples as guides and helpers emerges clearly in the French accounts.

Fur Trade

Aboriginal peoples’ knowledge of the land, its inhabitants and animal life, as well as the ability to act as interpreters and mediators, was invaluable to French explorers. Europeans also observed and imitated Aboriginal methods of travel, such as the birchbark canoe in summer and the snowshoe in winter.

One of the most authentic and vivid accounts of life among the Huron and Mohawk in the mid-17th century comes from the narrative of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, whose explorations with Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, if often obscure in location and direction, were to have profound commercial significance. In their wanderings, which took them as far as Lake Superior, they learned that many prime furs brought down to the French came from the Cree, who lived near "the Bay of the North Sea" (Hudson Bay). Groseilliers and Radisson were convinced that the most direct route for these furs was not the long canoe journey to the St Lawrence and Montréal, but the shorter way north to Hudson Bay, and then to Europe by ship.

By 1670 this idea resulted, not in French exploitation of the scheme, but in the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company by the British. It marked the beginning of a 150-year rivalry between the St Lawrence and the Hudson Bay approaches to the fur country, which in the end would take the competing traders, and with them the course of exploration, to the Pacific coast.

Although the French in the 1670s finally managed to cross the height of land from the St Lawrence to James Bay by way of the Saguenay River and Lake Mistassini, that tortuous route could never compete with Hudson Strait. By the 1690s the new company not only had posts on the shores of James Bay, but had established York Factory at the mouths of the Nelson and Hayes rivers — waterways which led deep into the western interior.

Henry Kelsey

As yet the Hudson Bay Company showed little interest in inland exploration, but from 1690 to 1692 one of its servants, Henry Kelsey, made a remarkable journey. Travelling with the Cree, he reached the Saskatchewan River, a busy waterway of Aboriginal trade, and from there the great plains, thick with herds of buffalo and populated by Aboriginal peoples, including Siouxan-speaking Assiniboine and Algonquian-speaking Blackfoot. To the north the prairie broke into wooded areas where moose, deer and beaver were plentiful — a lush region compared to the immediate hinterland of York Factory.

The key to Kelsey's achievement was his ability to speak Cree, and to live and travel with Aboriginal peoples. He was the first European to reach the Saskatchewan River and the Canadian prairies, the first to leave a description of the grizzly bear and bison. The Kelsey Papers, which detailed his journeys, were not discovered by historians until 1926. Aside from Kelsey, the only English interior explorations of any note from Hudson Bay were the ventures of William Stuart (1715–16) and Richard Norton (1717–18) northwestward among the Chipewyan.

18th Century

In terms of exploring west of Lake Superior, in the latter half of the 17th century the French took the lead. In 1688, Jacques de Noyon reached Rainy Lake, and the next year possibly Lake of the Woods; on these journeys he heard garbled reports of the Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg. Here the westward movement halted until the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) ended the prolonged Anglo-French wars in North America.

The French were convinced that not far to the west lay the Mer de l’Ouest, believed to be a North American Mediterranean, connected to the Pacific by a strait (perhaps that which had been allegedly discovered on the Pacific coast by Juan de Fuca in 1592), and linked on its other shore with the rivers and lakes along which the French were advancing. The belief distorted all views of western Canada's geography because it could not coexist with a range of mountains running north–south — the Rockies did not appear on maps until late in the 18th century.

To search for this western sea and to find new fur areas was the task of the last great French explorers, the La Vérendrye family. Much of their exploration took place in what is now the US, but toward the end of the father's life he turned back to the north. In 1739 one son, Louis-Joseph, reached the Saskatchewan River. As there was no knowledge of Kelsey’s route, Louis-Joseph is often seen as the first European to encounter the river.

Communications with Aboriginal peoples told him of "very lofty mountains" to the west, but geographers obsessed by inland seas, westward-flowing rivers and a nearby Pacific could not make sense of these assertions. More important was that French posts were being built in a steady westward progression — on or near Rainy Lake, Lake Winnipeg, Cedar Lake and finally, in 1753, Fort St-Louis near the Forks.

Anthony Henday

Even though the French seemed poised to capture the northwestern fur trade, the Hudson Bay Company was slow to react. Attempts by the Admiralty, by private groups and, rather unenthusiastically, by the company, to find a strait on the west coast of Hudson Bay to the South Sea — the traditional English concept of the Northwest Passage — had petered out by the late 1740s, but in the following decade the company began to move in different directions.

Efforts were made to survey the bleak shores of the Labrador-Québec peninsula with coastal expeditions along the "East Main" of Hudson Bay. Of more significance, however, were probes deep inland from York Factory, of which Anthony Henday's in 1754–55 was the most successful. His method of travelling and his objectives were much the same as Kelsey's. Living with a Cree woman, Henday followed the Cree along their canoe route from York Factory to the lower Saskatchewan River, across its south and north branches, to the great buffalo herds of the plains and the Blackfoot people.

At his farthest west, somewhere near modern Innisfail, Alberta, Henday should have been within sight of the Rocky Mountains. It is a puzzle that his journals do not specifically mention the great mountain range; as with the La Vérendryes' slightly earlier ventures, conclusive evidence of the first European sighting of the Canadian Rockies is missing.

The Western Interior

In 1760, James Cook and other naval surveyors published a chart of the St Lawrence. This work, combined with Cook's subsequent hydrographic surveys around Newfoundland, set a new standard, and brought a new precision to Europe's knowledge of the region.

Exploration, Western Interior

Far to the west the Conquest led to the French abandoning interior posts, but the pause was brief. Within 10 years the posts had been reoccupied by traders from Montréal, supported by British and American capital, and using many French canoemen and interpreters. Once more the Hudson Bay Company reacted, if slowly, by sending its servants to and beyond the Saskatchewan River, notably Matthew Cocking in 1772–73. In 1774, the company established its first inland post at Cumberland House, 100 km beyond The Pas, Manitoba.

In command was Samuel Hearne. He had just returned from a journey with a Chipewyan band, having travelled from Fort Churchill down the Coppermine River to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, becoming the first European to sight the continent's northern coastline on 17 July 1771. Although Hearne's single observation of latitude (71°54´N) was almost 4° too far north, it established approximately the continent's northern extent, and pushed future searches for a saltwater passage into the icy maze of the Arctic Archipelago.

Apart from Hearne, North West Company traders carried out the most extensive explorations. The commercial struggle had begun, and would take the rival companies westward into Athabasca, across the Rockies and finally to the Pacific. As the traders battled westward, naval expeditions from Europe were also heading for the unknown Northwest Coast. Vitus Bering's Russian expedition of 1741 had made several landfalls along the Alaskan coast, but there was no southern approach until the 1770s.

Peter Pond

In 1774 and 1775 Spanish expeditions from Mexico coasted northwards towards Alaska (see Spanish Exploration); and in 1778, Cook made his more comprehensive, but still incomplete, survey northward from Nootka Sound to Bering Strait. The approximate outline and location of the coast were at last established, in the same decade as Hearne had reached the polar shore, but neither the British nor their predecessors had determined whether the stretches of coastline glimpsed through mist and rain were islands or mainland. And on the major problem of how far north the Rockies extended, these seaborne expeditions provided no help.

Also in 1778, Peter Pond of the North West Company, moved decisively westward. Using Grand Portage at the western end of Lake Superior rather than Montréal as a supply base, Pond tracked northwest across the height of land at the Methye Portage and into the Athabasca region. He had crossed the watershed separating the Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean drainage basins, opened a magnificent new fur-producing region, and taken European enterprises nearer the mountains and the Pacific.

By placing Lake Athabasca 1,100 km too far west, Pond greatly underestimated its distance from the Pacific, and he made the same error when he came upon Great Slave Lake, from where he suggested a river ran into Cook's River (i.e., Cook Inlet, Alaska) on the northwest Coast. Lacking formal surveying skills, Pond was one of the last of the old explorers, men tough in body and mind, but often unable to represent accurately in map form where they had been or what they had seen.

Alexander Mackenzie and George Vancouver

In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie followed Pond's river out of Great Slave Lake, only to discover that it led to the Arctic Ocean, not the Pacific. He reinforced the foreboding lesson of Hearne's Arctic journey, pointing out that permanent ice virtually ended all hopes of a navigable northwest passage. In 1793, Mackenzie again sought a route to the Pacific. From Lake Athabasca he followed the Peace River into the Rockies, crossed the Continental Divide, followed the turbulent Fraser River down the western slopes, and finally reached the coast by way of the Bella Coola River.

With this magnificent journey Mackenzie became the first European to cross the Canadian Rockies, but the difficulty of his route meant it had little commercial importance. Coastal and overland exploration were now working together to define the features of the Northwest, for the spot where Mackenzie reached the Pacific coast in July 1793 had been mapped seven weeks earlier by George Vancouver's British naval expedition, in the middle season of a three-year survey of the coast.

Spanish survey expeditions were also on the coast, as were a number of trading vessels. However, it was Vancouver's meticulous survey, published in 1798, which formed the definitive record of that intricate shoreline. For the first time the outline of modern Canada was emerging on the maps — most notably on those of Aaron Arrowsmith, who had access to the surveys of the British Admiralty, the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company, and whose maps of North America from 1795 onwards traced the accelerating pace of exploration across the continent.

19th Century

The overland expeditions had spun thin lines of knowledge across the plains, through the mountains and down to the Pacific and Arctic oceans. After Mackenzie, Duncan Mcgillivray organized an expedition that crossed the Rockies by White Man's Pass in 1801, but it stopped well short of the sea. In 1808, Simon Fraser followed the river which was to bear his name down to tidal waters; and in 1811, David Thompson made a crucial commercial discovery when he traced the Columbia River down to its Pacific outlet (by then, he found, in American hands).

Explorations, Northwest Coast

But away from these trails, all was uncertainty, ignorance and rumour; and on both sides of the mountains serious (if sporadic) exploration continued. While North West Company men made the more dramatic journeys, since the late 1770s the Hudson Bay Company had trained and used explorers of considerable technical ability — Philip Turnor, Thompson, Peter Fidler — who with the aid of Aboriginal guides mapped the fur-country waterways with a care and accuracy previously unknown.

Thompson, in particular, was a remarkable traveller; switching to the North West Company, by the turn of the century, he had carried out extensive surveys along both the North and South Saskatchewan rivers, in Athabasca, along the Churchill River and around Lesser Slave Lake. It was estimated that he travelled 80,000 km on his surveys, on foot, on horseback and by canoe.

After the union of the rival companies in 1821, the enlarged Hudson Bay Company continued filling in the blank spaces on the maps. With settlement confined to the Atlantic colonies, the St Lawrence Valley, Upper Canada and Red River, the fur trade still provided the main motivation and resources for exploration, opening up new fur regions, or finding better routes in existing areas of exploitation. In the frontier areas of the fur trade such as the Mackenzie Valley and, across the mountains, New Caledonia, exploration of the waterways continued.

Samuel Black, John McLeod and Robert Campbell followed rivers on both sides of the northern Rockies — the upper reaches of the Peace, the Liard flowing into the Mackenzie, the Pelly and Lewes rivers leading into the Yukon, and the Stikine, which reached the sea in Alaska. In the east, similar commercial motives led James Clouston, William Hendry and John McLean to make the first European crossings of the Labrador-Québec peninsula.

The Polar Shores

Far to the north the British government and the Hudson Bay Company joined forces in tracing the polar shoreline. The Admiralty sent seaborne expeditions into the Arctic after the Napoleonic Wars in search of the Northwest Passage, while fur traders helped John Franklin's land journeys across the barrens to Hearne's Coppermine River, from which he explored east and west along the coast in 1819–22 and 1825–27. In 1837–39 the Hudson Bay Company's Peter Warren Dease and Thomas Simpson made long sweeps along the polar shoreline from Point Barrow in the west to Rae Strait in the east.

From 1846 onwards John Rae, one of the most self-sufficient explorers of the North, whose techniques for travel and survival owed much to the Inuit, crisscrossed the huge area bounded by Great Bear Lake, the Boothia Peninsula and the northwest coast of Hudson Bay in a series of arduous journeys that soon became directed towards the search for the missing Franklin Expedition. Between 1903 and 1906, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first European to successfully navigate a Northwest Passage.

These explorations were for the most part taking place on or even beyond the margins of profitable fur-trading areas, but slowly the trade was losing its predominance. In the south, interest in settlement overtook the claims of the fur trade, and for this different sorts of surveys were needed. The prospects for agriculture, settlement, telegraph lines and railways became major concerns. S. J. Dawson, H. Y. Hind and Captain John Palliser conducted their mid-century surveys in this context.

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