Skip to main content
 Previous Next
  • Zoom In (+)
  • Zoom Out (-)
  • Rotate CW (r)
  • Rotate CCW (R)
  • Overview (h)
Samuel Hearne: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Samuel Hearne

(J. Tuzo Wilson)


Samuel Hearne (1745-1792), fur trader of the Hudson's Bay Company, was
the first explorer to visit the arctic coastof North America. Comparatively
little is known about his youth except that he was born in London and spent
the first three years of his life there until his father, who had been secre–
tary of the city water works, died. After that he was brought up in Dorset–
shire. Since he had no fondness for school he went to sea at the age of eleven
and served throughout the Seven Years' War as midshipman under Lord Hood. Soon
after the close of the war he joined the Hudson's Bay Company as mate on one
of their sloops, trading along the west coast out of Churchill.
At that time the Company's posts were limited to the shores of Hudson and
James bays but it was under pressure to expand its activities into the interior,
both because of competition from other fur traders to the south and because of
renewed interest in the possibility that there might be an undiscovered easy
Northwest Passage through Hudson Bay from Europe to the Pacific. An additional
incentive was reports from the Indians of mines of native copper near the shores
of this passage. Hearne, at his own request and because of his nautical exper–
ience in navigation and surveying and the acquaintance which he had gained of
the natives, was selected by Governor Moses Norton of Churchill to make an over–
land journey of discovery into the unknown country lying west of Hudson Bay.
On the 6th of November 1769, with four servants, he left Fort Prince of
Wales at the mouth of the Churchill River guided by a band of Chipewyan Indians.

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne

These soon deserted him so that he was forced to return, but he set out again
on the 23rd of February 1770 in company of another band. During the following
spring and summer the party made good progress, passing along the west coast
of Yath-Kyed Lake and reaching the northwest shore of Dubawnt Lake. Here Hearne's
quadrant for navigation was broken and he was again despoiled by the Indians so
that he decided to return to Fort Prince of Wales by a more westerly route after
making a journey of about 1,200 miles. Few details of the journey have come down
to us, but some of the places described by Hearne have been identified on the
ground by Dr. J. B. Tyrrell and there is no reason to doubt their authenticity.
On the 7th of December 1770 Hearne set out upon his third trip, destined
to be successful, partly because of the experience he had gained but chiefly
because he was attached to a more reliable body of Indians. These natives evi–
dently traveled the barrens regularly, acting as middlemen between the traders
at Hudson Bay and the Athapaska Indians of the Mackenzie River valley, to which
no white men had yet penetrated from the south. Their leader Matonabbee was a
man of his word, resourceful and intelligent. He took Hearne to the mouth of
the Coppermine River on the 17th of July 1771 and returned with him to Churchill
on the 30th on June 1772, after having walked 3,000 miles. Much of the journey
was perhaps a routine one for Matonabbee for he seems to have traveled most of
the way by familiar routes. The northern extension to the Coppermine must have
been added partly to please Governor Norton and Hearne and partly to satisfy a
traditional lust for killing a few unfortunate Eskimos whome he found, as he had
expected, fishing near the mouth of the Coppermine River.
The route by which Matonabbee led Hearne has been the subject of some con–
troversy but it can now be followed upon the new maps made from air photographs,
if the peculiarities of Hearne's narrative are taken into account. Parts of it

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne

are still in use locally today.
From Churchill the way lay generally a little north of west, as Tyrrell
has shown, across Nueltin, Wholdiah, and other lakes and rivers, to a small
lake called Theleweyazayeth by Hearne. Comparison of Hearne's earlier maps
with modern ones shows that the only lake which lies in a corresponding posi–
tion between the two forks of a river is called Alcantara Lake. The probability
that this lake is really Hearne's Theleweyazayeth Lake is much strengthened by
Hearne's statement that the name means "Little Fish Hill: probably so-called from a
high hill which stands on a long point near the west end of the lake." The Hill
Island Lake sheet of the National Topographical Series on a scale of 4 miles to
1 inch shows an esker at the west end of Alcantara Lake which on the ground would
no doubt appear as a prominent hill.
Thence the party turned north, crossing Eileen, Partridge, Alymer, and
Contwoyto lakes before following down the lower reaches of the Coppermine River
at least as far as Bloody Falls, where some Eskimos were slaughtered within
sight of the Arctic Sea. On the return journey the band struck southwest from
Contwoyto Lake across Lac du Gras, Mackay Lake, and down Hearne River to cross
Great Slave Lake and travel a little way up the Slave River before starting east
across the Tethul River and Hill Island Lake which has been identified by Camsell.
Their outward route was rejoined at Alcantara Lake, thence they followed a paral–
lel but slightly more northern route back to Fort Prince of Wales.
Arriving there in good health after two and a half years of labor, Hearne
sums up his achievement thus: "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 the 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." Thus ended his great adventure, but

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne

his name might still be remembered for two other episodes.
During his journey the competition by traders from Montreal had so much
increased that a year after his return Hearne was selected to build the first
interior post of the Hudson's Bay Company, and thus start to take the trade
to the Indians since they would no longer come to the Bay. Since most of the
traffic to Montreal passed by the Saskatchewan River he chose a site close to
that river on Pine Island Lake where another route turns off to the north. He
was engaged on this work for two years.
On the 17th of January 1776 he assumed command of Fort Prince of Wales,
where it has been recorded that he was successful in increasing trade with the
interior. In August 1782 Admiral La P e é rouse sailed up to the fort with a strong
fleet. Although Hearne had a fine stone fort and 42 cannon he had only 38 men,
so he promptly surrendered. The fort buildings were burnt and Hearne and his
men were taken as prisoners to France, but he was well treated and allowed to
keep his private papers. The next year, on conclusion of the war, he returned
safely to England and immediately went out again to re-establish the factory
at Churchill on an older site 5 miles up the river from the fort.
By 1786 his health had started to fail so he asked and received permission
to return to England, and retired in the following year. He died in London in
November 1792.
The great importance of Hearne's life attaches to his two great journeys
into the interior and the detailed and fascinating account which was published
posthumously of these travels. So barren and little-known are the territories
through which he traveled that his journeys have never been repeated. In these
journeys he was the first white man to penetrate the northern interior of Canada
and the record he left of natives and natural history is of great value. Nor is

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne

this their only interest, for the accounts themselves have a curious history.
On his return from these journeys Hearne received a gratuity, while copies
of his journals and map [: ] were apparently given to the Admiralty and taken by
Captain Cook on his voyage to the northwest coast of America in 1776-1779.
Hearne's republished map was first published in the account of that voyage in
1784 and soon afterward republished by Pennant, Meares, La P e é rouse, Dalrymple,
and others. His travels were thus well-known and when his narrative was post–
humously edited and published by John Douglas, Bishop of Salisbury, in 1795 it
created great interest and editions were quickly published in at least seven
The first confirmations of Hearne's journey were made by Mackenzie and
Franklin, who recorded meeting Indians who had seen Hearne near Great Slave and
Contwoyto lakes; nevertheless these men were very critical of Hearne's account
of his journey and his mapping. His reputation suffered a fall from which it
has never yet recovered.
Interest in Hearne' lapsed and only Richardson, Tyrrell, and Camsell have
made further attempts to explore in detail where Hearne went or why he was so
much criticized. Tyrrell was able to give a satisfactory account of the eastern
part of Hearne's journeys but most details of the western and northern parts have
remained in a state of uncertainty until aerial photography made it possible to
trace his route.
The explanation of the criticism seems to lie within the account of Hearne's
journey which was published after his death. As he himself points out in the
introduction, the map used differs from those previously published, but an examin–
ation of its shows, contrary to Hearne's statement, that this later copy is much
inferior. Whereas the earlier copies published by Cook, Pennant, and others are

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne

reasonable maps containing not only Hearne's observations, but also other valid
information from the Indians, the maps published in editing of his book have
many fanciful rivers pursuing quite impossible courses. So long as only the
earlier copies were in existence Hearne's reputation was good, but when the
editions in his own name became available and were manifestly imaginative the
value of his explorations were hidden. Mackenzie and Franklin, using the fanci–
ful copies, could not make sense out of them and criticized Hearne.
While it is tempting to blame Hearne's editor for this misfortune, there
is no evidence to support such an idea; rather, the key to the curious situation
seems to lie in an obscure pamphlet published in 1789 by Alexander Dalrymple,
then Hydrographer to the Admiralty. Using manuscript copies of Hearne's narra–
tive, he says that he replotted the daily logs and showed that Hearne had ex–
aggerated the length of his journey in both latitude and longitude on his manu–
script map. He also made the serious mistake of comparing Turnor's observations
for latitude made on Lake Athabasca with Hearne's positions made on Great Slave
Lake. These two large lakes are shown as one on Dalrymple's map and the name
Athapuscow Lake, which Hearne gave to Great Slave Lake, seems to have been trans–
ferred to the more southern lake. Hearne of course never saw Lake Athabasca nor
Turnor Great Slave Lake, and it did not occur to Dalrymple that there might be
two such large lakes similarly situated on the same river.
In 1789 poor Hearne was in retirement, engaged in preparing his book for
publication. He wished to defend himself but his position was weak, for he must
have known that he had exaggerated his distances, and he had no means of knowing
that the lakes he and Turnor had seen were different ones. Nevertheless, he felt
that he had been more harshly dealt with than he deserved, and so he had. By this
time he is known to have been befuddled and unwell so the simplest explanation

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne

seems to be that he endeavored to hide his route by deliberately making the
new edition of his map obscure. He also altered the journal, for although
in some parts the courses and distances are precisely given, in other parts
there is no means of telling how far he had gone. It is impossible now to
plot his journey from his book as Dalrymple had done from the manuscript.
This was not the limit of confusion, for Franklin, who had a poor opinion
of Hearne, paid so little attention to his narrative and map that he clearly
gave Hearne's name Point Lake to the wrong body of water, to another lake that
Hearne had never seen. This came about in the following way. A large lake 70
miles long at the head of Back River was called Cogead Lake by Hearne and cor–
rectly identified but renamed Contwoyto Lake by Franklin. In their journeys
Franklin and Hearne both traveled directly south from this lake until they
reached the Coppermine River, but from opposite ends of the lake. Franklin fail–
ed to observe this and called the enlargement of the Coppermine River where he
struck it Point Lake, whereas Hearne must have crossed that river at least 50
miles upstream, probably at what is now known as Lac du Gras.
But these vagaries have not destroyed the value of Hearne's great discover–
ies. There has never been serious doubt that he did reach the mouth of the
Coppermine River and the Arctic coast. He was the first white man to cross Great
Slave Lake and see the Slave River section of the great Mackenzie. His narrative
will ever remain a classic description of Chipewyan Indians and their mode of life.
It seems fitting that he, the first visitor to the Arctic interior of Canada,
should combine experience in the two professions that were later to explore the
whole of that country — British naval officer and Hudson's Bay fur trader.

EA-Biography. Wilson: Samuel Hearne


Back, Capt. George Narrative of the Arctic Land Expedition, etc . (especially
Chap. V, Digression concerning Hearne's Route by Dr. Richard–
son) London, 1836.

Camsell, Charles "An Exploration of the Tazin and Taltzon Rivers, North West
Territories," Geological Survey of Canada, Memoir 84 ,
Ottawa, 1916.

Dalrymple, Alexander Memoir of a map of the Lands around the North Pole .
George Brigg, London, 1789.

----. Plan for Promoting the Fur-Trade and securing it to this
country by uniting the operations of the East-India and
Hudson's Bay Companies
. George Brigg, London, 1789.

Hearne, Samuel A journey from Prince of Wales Fort, in Hudson's Bay, to
the Northern Ocean undertaken by order of the Hudson's
Bay Company for the discovery of Copper mines, a North
West Passage, etc. in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771 and 1772
London 1795.

----. A journey from Prince of Wales's Fort, etc ., new edition
with introduction notes and illustrations, by J. B. Tyrrell.
The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1911.

Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor , edited with
introduction and notes by J. B. Tyrrell. The Champlain Society,
Toronto, 1934.

J. Tuzo Wilson
HomeSamuel Hearne : Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
 Text Only
 Text & Inline Image
 Text & Image Viewer
 Image Viewer Only