Samuel Hearne was the first European to travel by land across the Arctic from the east coast to the Arctic Ocean. He took part in three expeditions to the Canadian Arctic to discover the Northwest Passage, greatly increasing European knowledge of the Arctic climate, and resident Inuit and Dene in the process. During his journeys he became one of the first Europeans to document conflict between the Inuit and Dene peoples. Hearne was a driven explorer who travelled farther north than any other European before him.
Samuel Hearne was born in 1745, in London, England to an established engineer. A mediocre student, by age 11 Hearne had left school and joined the British Royal Navy. He served under Captain Samuel Hood throughout the Seven Years’ War, most notably during the bombardment of Le Havre. He left the navy in 1763, joining the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1766. Hearne served for two years on several vessels based out of Prince of Wales Fort (in present-day Manitoba), during which time he and other crew members found the remains of James Knight’s lost expedition. In 1768, Hearne surveyed large areas of the Hudson Bay coasts.
The English settlers on the Hudson Bay were interested in locating the areas from which Inuit and Dene sourced copper. In 1768, after receiving pieces of copper from Aboriginal peoples in the region, the head of the Churchill Hudson’s Bay Company fort sent Samuel Hearne north in search of a potential copper mine. Hearne and his party of traders (Cree and Chipewyan peoples) left in late 1769, travelling north and west by snowshoe. The expedition ran into trouble when they were abandoned by their main guide and ran out of supplies. Rather than risk starvation, Hearne and his party returned to Churchill, arriving mid-December.
Samuel Hearne decided to launch a second expedition lead by Cree guides in exchange for European goods. Hearne left Churchill in late February 1770, and quickly ran into trouble. The party ran into food and resource shortages routinely, resorting at times to consuming raw game. At one point the expedition was, by some accounts, robbed by an unidentified group of Aboriginal peoples. In August Hearne accidentally destroyed his quadrant (navigational device), making his observations during this expedition vague. The second expedition would return to Churchill in the fall.
Third Expedition and the Bloody Falls Massacre
Samuel Hearne was the only European on his third expedition, which was guided by a Chipewyan group and their leader, Matonabbee. The expedition’s goal was to find a direct route to the Coppermine River, which was thought to be copper-rich. The party left in December 1770. Matonabbee kept the group on a strict schedule, and was able to reach the caribou crossing in time for the annual spring hunt. During the hunt, a number of Dene joined the expedition. The party reached the Coppermine River in July 1771, where the Dene, who were in the midst of a violent conflict with the Inuit, killed approximately 20 sleeping members of the northern people. The event, which would come to be known as the Massacre at Bloody Falls, greatly traumatised Hearne. During his travels, Hearne became the first European to see Great Slave Lake. While the third expedition was successful in its goals of reaching the Coppermine River, extensive surveys revealed the impracticality of mining the site.
Later Life and Legacy
In 1774, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent Samuel Hearne to northern Saskatchewan. There, he established Fort Cumberland, the HBC’s first inland trading post. Hearne was appointed governor of Prince of Wales Fort in January 1776, which he surrendered in 1782 to a vastly superior French force. Although he and his men were allowed to flee to England, the following year Hearne returned to find both the Aboriginal populations and the trade networks ravaged by disease and violence. In 1787, Hearne returned to England, where he spent the last decade of his life aiding friends and naturalists. He wrote A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean, which was released three years after his 1792 death and provided readers with one of the most accurate early-contact descriptions of northern Aboriginal life.