Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) was an English explorer who surveyed the Coppermine River, discovered the "Northern Ocean," and searched for the Northwest Passage.

Samuel Hearne was born in London, the son of Samuel and Diana Hearne. Upon his father's death in 1750 the family moved to Beaminster in Dorsetshire. The attempts of Samuel's mother to educate him seem to have failed: his spelling and grammar left much to be desired, although his mathematics was surprisingly reliable.

Soon after the commencement of the Seven Years War, Hearne joined the Royal Navy at age 11 or 12. He went to sea as servant to Capt. Samuel Hood, who had lived in Beaminster. Hearne's years at sea gave him useful experience for his future travels in Canada: he fought the French in 1759 and took part in bombarding the French coast. Thus, he grew hardened by the life and weather at sea. Perhaps, also, he gained some insight into the importance of navigation and the attendant sciences of geography and astronomy.

In 1766 Hearne joined the Hudson's Bay Company as a seaman, sailed from Churchill on summer whaling expeditions, gained a knowledge of Eskimo life, and sought a future as a master in one of the company's ships. But after 1769 the incompetent Moses Norton, the governor of Prince of Wales Fort at Churchill, sent him on three fruitless voyages in search of copper over what became known, after Hearne's discoveries, as the "Barren Lands."

Hearne's Three Arctic Expeditions

Hearne's first Arctic journey originated from Prince of Wales Fort and lasted from Nov. 6 to Dec. 11, 1769. It was poorly organized by Norton. Without knowledgeable guides, Hearne could not go into the vast spaces—Hudson Bay and Great Slave Lake. From this expedition Hearne learned that Indians could not be pushed and that he would not travel with other Europeans, for he had found them unable to take the hardships of travel in the Canadian sub-arctic.

Norton sent Hearne on his second expedition in February 1770. Again Hearne had a poor Indian guide, both in the sense of geographical knowledge and influence among his fellow natives. In August the party was plundered, and in latitude 70 ° N they became totally lost. The accidental breaking of Hearne's quadrant forced their return on November 25, for without this instrument he would have been unable to fix the exact positions of the Coppermine River according to instructions.

In December 1770 Hearne began his third and most important journey. In this he had a good guide, Matonabbee, and did his own planning. On July 15, 1771, Hearne reached the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Coppermine River, traveling en route via Artillery, Aylmer, and Contwoyto lakes. He was thus the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean overland from Hudson Bay. On this expedition he exhibited no great abilities as an astronomer, and the accuracy of his readings was justifiably questioned by contemporaries such as Alexander Dalrymple. Yet his principal objective—the examination of the practicability of exploiting the copper ore deposits near the river—was completed, even if the findings were negative. He returned to Hudson Bay on June 30, 1772, via Great Slave Lake and thereby proved the nonexistence of a Northwest Passage in the territory that he had traversed.

Hearne's later service in the company included founding Cumberland House in 1774, being in charge of Prince of Wales Fort after 1776, and defending it unsuccessfully against the French under La Pérouse in 1782. He died in England in November 1792 of dropsy.

Further Reading on Samuel Hearne

The best work on Hearne's life and travels is his A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean, which appeared in 1795 and was subsequently edited by J. B. Tyrrell (1911) and Richard Glover (1958). His experiences at Cumberland House are recorded in Journals of Samuel Hearne and Philip Turnor, edited by J. B. Tyrrell (1934). See also A. C. Laut, Pathfinders of the West (1904), and Gordon Speck, Samuel Hearne and the Northwest Passage (1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Lambert, Richard Stanton, North for adventure: Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1952.

Laut, Agnes C. (Agnes Christina), Pathfinders of the West; being the thrilling story of the adventures of the men who discovered the great Northwest, Radisson, La Verendrye, Lewis, and Clar, Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969.

Speck, Gordon, Samuel Hearne and the Northwest Passage: Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1963.

Syme, Ronald, On foot to the Arctic; the story of Samuel Hearn, New York; W. Morrow, 1959.