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Sir John Richardson: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Sir John Richardson

EA-Biography
(R.N. Rudmose Brown)

SIR JOHN RICHARDSON

Sir John Richardson (1787 - 1865), naval surgeon and naturalist, was
born on November 5th, 1787, at Nith Place, Dumfries, Scotland, the eldest
of the twelve sons of Gabriel Richardson, J.P., a friend of Robert Burns.
He is said to have been so precocious that he could read at the age of
four. He attended Dumfries Grammar School and at the age of thirteen was
apprenticed to his uncle, a surgeon, in Dumfries. In 1801 he began attend–
ing the University of Edinburgh and in 1807 qualified as a member of the
Royal College of Surgeons and was appointed assistant surgeon in the Nymph
in which he was in action at the battle of Copenhagen. In 1808 he took
part in the blockade of the Russian fleet in the Tagus, and during the next
few years served on several ships in West African and Spanish waters and in
the East Indies until he went on half pay in 1815 and returned to the Univer–
sity of Edinburgh particularly for the study of botany and natural history.
In 1818 Richardson took his M.D. degree and started a general practice in
Leith, an occupation that he soon found irksome and readily abandoned in 1819
when he was appointed medical officer to an expedition led by Lieut. J. Frank–
lin, and including also midshipmen G. Back and R. Hood and seaman J. Hepburn,
sent by the Admiralty to define the northern coast of North America which was
little known except at the mouths of the Coppermine and Mackenzie rivers.
The party left England on May 23rd, 1819, in the Hudson's Bay Company

EA-Biog. Brown: Sir John Richardson

ship Prince of Wales , and after a somewhat exciting and protracted voyage
reached York Factory on Hudson Bay on August 8th. Difficulties of transport,
especially in rapids and on portages, caused delays and it was not until
October 22nd that they arrived at Cumberland House on Pine Island Lake.
Franklin decided to push on, late in the year as it was. With Back and
Hepburn he went ahead in the depth of winter and reached Fort Chipewyan on
Lake Athabaska on March 20th where Richardson and Hood joined them in July.
On July 18th the whole party, including 18 Canadian voyageurs , set out for
the Coppermine but were forced to go into winter quarters in lat. 64° 28′ N.,
long. 113° 6′ W. on Lake Winter 550 miles from Fort Chipewyan. This was
called Fort Enterprise. The locality provided many caribou but insufficient
to feed the expedition and its many Indian followers. Back led a party to
Fort Providence for more stores. This was an arduous journey but resulted
in supplies arriving on January 15th.
In June 1821 the expedition moved down the Coppermine River, having made
an arrangement with the Copper Indians for further supplies. After a hazard–
ous voyage through rapids and shoals, they reached the river mouth on July 18th
and in two bark canoes set out for an eastern coastal voyage of discovery. A
tortuous coast line took a long time to trace; wind and fog and ice also de–
layed them. After 650 miles they halted and turned at Cape Turnagain.
To shorten the return route and perhaps find more game, Franklin decided
to cut across by Hood River, but he little knew how arduous this new route
was to prove. Progress up the river was hindered by falls and rapids, inade–
quate canoes, snowstorms, and lack of cooperation from the Canadian voyageurs .
For three weeks the party subsisted mainly on lichens ( tripe de roche ) till
at the Coppermine River they killed a few small deer. The crossing of the

EA-Biog. Brown: Sir John Richardson

river presented a problem which Richardson proposed to solve by swimming
across with a line. He failed and nearly lost his life. After several days
of acute starvation they managed to cross in a canoe patched with willows
and canvas. Back and a small party went ahead; the rest followed on October
5th, Franklin and eight others pushing on; Richardson, Hood and Hepburn
brought up the rear guard of the weak and lame, a rear guard that had several
additions from the advance party as the days went on. On October 11th Frank–
lin's party reached Fort Enterprise only to find it deserted. There was no
food, starvation stalked in the camp. On October 29th Richardson and Hepburn
arrived bringing news of the murder of Hood by Michel, an Iroquois Indian,
and the subsequent execution of Michel by Richardson. On November 7th
relief reached the starving survivors in the form of three Indians sent by
Back who had gone ahead to find help. Eventually the party reached safety,
and Richardson returned to England.
He was surgeon to the Chatham Division of Royal Marines when, in 1825,
he was given leave to accompany Franklin on another expedition and to take
with him his assistant, T. Drummond. Back and E. N. Kendall were also with
them. The aim was to trace the coast westward and, if time allowed, eastward
also from the Mackenzie Delta. This time the travelers were not to depend on
frail birchbark canoes but had stout ones of ash and mahogany which, however,
added much to the labor on portages. Winter quarters were built at Fort Frank–
lin on Great Bear Lake in lat. 65° 12′ N., long. 123° 13′ W., but the main
stores were left at Fort Norman on the Mackenzie River, seventy miles away.
Before winter finally set in, Franklin prospected a route by the Mackenzie to
the north and Richardson made a geological survey of the shores of the Great
Bear Lake.
Next summer, on July 3rd, 1826, the expedition divided at Point Separation

EA-Biog. Brown: Sir John Richardson

in the delta, Franklin with sixteen men, all told, going west and Richardson
and Kendall, with two boats and the same number of men, going east in the
hope of reaching the Coppermine. In the delta Richardson met Eskimos who
appeared to be friendly until the grounding of the boats suggested loot.
Then they had to be warned off. On July 18th the party rounded Cape Bathurst,
then they crossed Franklin Bay and reached Cape Parry on July 23rd. From
Cape Hope, in a clearance from much fog, they saw land, some 12 miles away
to the north across Dolphin and Union Strait. They named this Wollaston
Land; it is part of Victoria Island. As they went eastward and entered
Coronation Gulf, Wollaston Land appeared to extend continuously eastward.
On August 8th the party reached the mouth of the Coppermine. Richardson not
only mapped a long line of coast, but reported on its geological structure
and plant life.
On the return, Richardson and his party ascended the Coppermine and then
struck across country for Great Bear Lake and Fort Franklin, which they
reached on September 1st. Franklin and his party returned three weeks later.
There they all remained until February 20th, 1827, when they left for the
south. It was an expedition in the old-time tradition but strangely free from
suffering and want.
On his return to England, Richardson resumed his duties at Chatham and
became chief Medical Officer at Melville Hospital. In those years he was
busy writing and editing his Fauna Borealis Americana (4 vols. 1829-37).
In 1838 he was appointed physician to the Royal Hospital, Haslar, and during
his tenure of that office did much for mental cases. One of his pupils at
Haslar was T. H. Huxley, and a frequent visitor was Dr. (later Sir Joseph)
Hooker. In 1840 Richardson was made Inspector of Hospitals.

EA-Biog. Brown: Sir John Richardson

By 1848 the British Admiralty was beginning to feel concern over the
Franklin expedition in the Erebus and Terror and organized several search
expeditions. One of these was to be directed by Richardson, now Sir John
Richardson, for he had been knighted in 1846. He was to descend the
Mackenzie and examine the northern coasts to the east as well as the south–
ern coast of Wollaston Land, a task for which from past experience he was
eminently suited. He was associated with one of the most widely traveled
of the Hudson's Bay factors, Dr. J. Rae. They had with them a few hand-picked
Canadian voyageurs and the personnel of the expedition was of a high calibre.
While there was no disaster or even loss of life, the technique of Rae with
his active personal hunting was the outstanding feature.
Richardson and Rae left England on March 28th, 1848, and a fortnight
later arrived at New York. Thence they went to Montreal where 16 Canadian
voyageurs provided by Sir G. Simpson, Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company,
joined them. On June 15th they reached Cumberland House, on Pine Island Lake,
and, going on by Churchill River and Methy Lakes, they met trader Bell of the
Hudson's Bay Company, who had been sent ahead with stores, at Methy portage
at the head of the Churchill River. On July 15th they reached the last
portage on the Slave River and arranged the three boats for the long river and
sea voyage with full loads of pemmican and crews of six men each. Bell, with
the remainder of the party and two boats containing winter stores was to
make his way to Great Bear Lake and to establish a station near the site of
Fort Franklin on which the sea party could, if necessary, fall back up the
Mackenzie. He was also to make a station with fishery near the influx of
the Dease River.
On August 4th Richardson and Rae reached the sea at the Mackenzie mouth

EA-Biog. Brown: Sir John Richardson

and met a large concourse of Eskimos at Point Encounter. These, and later
parties to the eastward, all appeared friendly and even helpful. None of
them had seen any ships pass along the coast. The boats were rowed as near
the shore as practicable. Landings were made at least twice a day to cook
and, at night, for sleep. The numerous bands of Eskimos were assembled near
headlands to seek and hunt whales and also caribou. Whales would not be
numerous if pack ice were abundant. On Cape Bathurst and Cape Farry signal
posts were erected and stocks of pemmican were cached. In Dolphin and Union
Strait ice became abundant and more so in Coronation Gulf. One boat with
its cargo of pemmican was left at Cape Krusenstern and the others, no longer
seaworthy, were left near Cape Kendall with some pemmican and ammunition.
On September 2nd the party set out on foot for Great Bear Lake and Fort
Confidence. They were ferried across the Rae River by Eskimos and crossed
the Richardson River in their own portable boat. By way of the Coppermine,
the Kendall, and the Dease, they reached Fort Confidence. Though they had
found a good deal of ice in Dolphin and Union Strait, it was insufficient
to allow them to cross to Wollaston Land and examine its coasts. This task
Richardson entrusted next spring to Rae, while in May 1845 with the remainder
of the expedition, he retraced his steps of the previous year and returned
via Methy Portage and Norway House to Montreal.
Rae with a boat's crew left Fort Confidence in June 1849, descended the
Dease and Coppermine, the latter much obstructed by ice, and reached the
boats left at Cape Kendall. They had been much damaged by Eskimos but tents,
sails, and provisions were untouched. Heavy ice prevented any crossing and on
August 22nd Rae deemed it prudent to return. The local Eskimos insisted that
no ships had passed that way and they reported that the Wollaston Land people
said the same.

EA-Biog. Brown: Sir John Richardson

At the age of 48, Richardson retired from the Navy to settle at Lanrigg,
Grasmere, in the English Lake District, the property of his mother-in-law
and later his wife, there to devote his time to scientific writing. Among
other work was an article on polar regions for the Encyclopedia Britannica ,
which later he expanded into a volume (1859). He also edited the second
edition of Yarrel's British Fishes (1860). His last travel book was his
Arctic Searching Expedition 2 vols., 1851. Besides his knighthood, Richardson
received many honors. He was elected F.R.S. in 1825, made a Companion of the
Bath in 1850, and received the honorary degree of L.L.D. from Trinity College,
Dublin, in 1857.
He was married three times: (1) In 1818 to Mary, daughter of W. Stiven
of Leith, who died in 1831; (2) In 1833 to Mary, daughter of John Booth of
Stickney, Lincolnshire, by whom he had four sons and two daughters. She died
in 1845; In 1847 to Mary, daughter of Archibald Fletcher of Edinburgh.
Richardson died at Lanrigg on June 5th, 1865. There is a Life of Sir
John Richardson
by J. McIlraith, 1868.
R. N. Rudmose Brown
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