Samuel Hearne, Arctic Pioneer

Samuel Hearne was born to a British engineer, Samuel, and his wife Diana, in London, in 1745. Upon the death of his father in 1748, Samuel’s mother moved him and his sister to Dorset. At age 15, Samuel enlisted in the British navy , serving under the command of Captain Alexander Hood . His time in the navy was not an escorted holiday. Samuel saw battle during the Seven Years War as Britain, France and Prussia once again battled for dominance in Europe.

After leaving naval service, Hearne signed up as a mate aboard a Hudson’s Bay Company ship docking at Prince of Wales Fort, Canada, trading with the Inuit Indians . It was while in the service of the Hudson Bay Company that the 25 year old Hearne received the commission that would rank him among the annals of famous explorers. Herne was to become the first European to explore the Arctic North of Canada and to reach the Arctic Circle.

He was commissioned by Governor Moses Norton , on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to travel overland to locate and trace the Coppermine River in the hopes of discovering the rumored copper mines and to determine if the Coppermine River would provide the much sought after Northwest Passage . The Northwest Passage was an inland river route which would connect the Hudson River to Arctic Circle. Governor Norton oversaw the planning of the first two expeditions. Both failed due to the governor’s poor choice of native guides.

Hearne took control of all planning for the third expedition attempt. He chose as his guide one of the Chiefs of the Chipewyan people , named Matonabbee . Rather than trying to direct the expedition, Hearne traveled with the Chipewyan as one of the tribe. Matonabbee lead his people (included in this group were his 6 wives and their children) on the 1500 mile trek to the Coppermine River.

This was no easy tour. Hearne and Matonabbee and their party traveled through a vast mapped territory. They had to live off the land, so there were times when food was plentiful and times when it was scarce. The division of labor among the expedition was simple and effective. The men hunted, the women handled everything else from food preparation to setting up and breaking down the camp. There was a surprise snow storm in July that caught Hearne unprepared. Through the whole of his journey, Hearne kept detailed notes, observations and drawings of the flora and fauna he observed. His journals were published after his death in a book entitled A Journey From Prince of Wales in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean that became a bestseller both in England and on the European continent.

Hearne, with Matonabbee’s aid, did find the Coppermine River in July 1771. The river was determined to be too treacherous to be used as a shipping channel. The rumor of copper mines in the North was proven false. He returned to Price Wales’ Fort in 1772.

Hearne spent the remainder of his career with the Hudson’s Bay Company establishing trading forts in Cumberland and Churchill. He was involved in no more expeditions. He was named Governor of Fort Prince of Wales. He returned to England in 1876, due to failing health. In November of 1792, Samuel Hearne, sailor, explorer, adventurer and author died of dropsy .

Other Resources:

Suite 101 Information about and pictures of the area of exploration.

Exploration at the Poles Overview of Arctic exploration.

The Pertinence of Arctic Exploration Literature: Samuel Hearne's "Journey" Examines the significance of Hearne’s journey.

Samuel Hearne’s Overland Expedition Summary of Hearne’s expedition.