Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Discovery and Exploration of Canada



[This text was written 1949. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


The discovery and exploration of Canada has been an involved process, in which sailors, fur-traders, scientists, and adventurers of many different nationalities have played a part, and in which the attack has been from several different angles. For this reason the most convenient method of dealing with the subject is a regional treatment, by means of which the story of the exploration of the chief features of the geography of Canada may be told in turn, and in some sort of chronological sequence.


The Atlantic Seaboard.


So far as we know, the first white men to discover the Atlantic seaboard of North America were the Norsemen from Greenland. About 1,000 A.D. they undoubtedly visited the shores of north-eastern America, but their exact landfall is a matter of controversy [1]; and in any case their visits produced no tangible results, for in the fourteenth century the Norse colony from Greenland was wiped out, and the very memory of the Norse discovery of America died. For practical purposes, the discoverer of the mainland of North America was John Cabot, who in an attempt to reach Asia by the western route reached what was probably Cape Breton island in 1497, and coasted down the Atlantic seaboard from Labrador to Chesapeake bay in 1498. Cabot was followed almost immediately by Norman, Basque, Breton, and west of England fishermen, who visited the banks of Newfoundland, and by adventurers such as the Cortereals, Juan Verrazano, and Stephen Gomez, who extended Cabot's discoveries. It was not, however, until Jacques Cartier visited Canadian shores in 1534, in the service of the French king, that the insular character of Newfoundland was demonstrated; and it was not until Cartier's second visit in 1535 that the existence of that great waterway, the St. Lawrence river , became known. Cartier explored this river as far west as Montreal .


The North West Passage .


For many years after Cartier's voyages, the disturbed state of Europe prevented further exploration of the seaboard of north-eastern America ; and when exploration was resumed, it was by the English, who attempted to discover a "north-west passage" by way of Hudson strait and Hudson bay . From early in the sixteenth century there had been rumours of a sea lying to the north of Labrador . The entrance to such a sea is clearly marked on a Portuguese map of 1570. In 1576 Martin Frobisher discovered the strait that bears his name; and in 1585 John Davis  discovered Davis strait . It was not until 1602, however, that Hudson strait was discovered by George Weymouth, who penetrated one hundred leagues into the strait; and it was not until 1610 that Henry Hudson sailed through Hudson strait into Hudson bay , and explored part of that vast inland sea. Hudson was cast away by mutineers after spending the winter on the shore of James bay ; but he was followed by others who carried on the work he had begun. Sir Thomas Button visited Hudson bay in 1612, Jens Munk (a Dane) in 1619, and Luke Foxe and Thomas James in 1631. William Baffin made five voyages to the Arctic between 1612 and 1616, and in 1616 reached in Baffin bay the latitude of 77° 30', the farthest north reached by any navigator for two hundred years afterwards. These voyages made it clear that "the north-west passage" did not lie through Hudson strait and Hudson bay , and discouraged for the time any further attempts to find it.


Not, indeed, until the nineteenth century was the attempt resumed in earnest. Sir John Ross carried out explorations in the Arctic archipelago in 1818 and in 1829-33, Sir William Edward Parry between 1819 and 1825, and Sir James Clark Ross in 1836. Especial interest attaches to the attempt made in 1845 by Sir John Franklin, who lost his life and the lives of all his men when hemmed in by the ice on King William island . In 1848 and in the subsequent years numerous expeditions were sent out to search for Franklin and his men; and in the course of this grim search, the whole of the Arctic coast of Canada was charted. Ships sailing west from the Atlantic met ships sailing east from the Pacific; and thus the existence of a north-west passage was at last demonstrated. The actual navigation of the north-west passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific was achieved by the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, in 1906. Further explorations in the Arctic archipelago have been carried out by a number of American explorers, such as Robert E. Peary, by a Danish explorer, Otto Sverdrup, and by a series of expeditions sent out by the Canadian government.


The St. Lawrence Basin.


Meanwhile, the exploration of the interior of Canada had been proceeding apace. Jacques Cartier, being a sailor, and fearful of leaving his ship, did not penetrate the St. Lawrence valley above Montreal; but Samuel de Champlain, who followed him after the lapse of two-thirds of a century, pushed boldly into the interior, and laid bare the geography of a good part of the Great lakes region. In 1615 he made his way up the Ottawa river, and reached the Georgian bay of lake Huron, via lake Nipissing and the French river; and thence he went with the Indians south-west to lake Ontario via lake Simcoe and the Trent river . His subordinate, Etienne Brul/ , was probably the first white man to cross lake Erie, and later he penetrated to lake Superior. Another of Champlain's subordinates, Jean Nicolet, explored part of lake Michigan, and ascended Fox river to the Wisconsin portage in 1634. Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette reached in 1673 the Mississippi, and in 1682 Cavelier de la Salle explored the Mississippi to its mouth in the gulf of Mexico. In 1672 Father Albanel reached Hudson bay from the St. Lawrence valley, going by way of the Saguenay; and in 1685 the Chevalier de Troyes led an expedition to Hudson bay by way of the Ottawa river and lake Abitibi. It is possible that about 1662 Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, two coureurs-de-bois who had traded on the upper Mississippi and perhaps on the Missouri, made their way from lake Superior to Hudson bay; but the evidence for this journey is open to doubt.


The Great Plains.


The prairies of the West were reached by two routes. The first white man to reach them was a servant of the Hudson's Bay Company, named Henry Kelsey, who left Fort Nelson on Hudson bay in 1691, and went inland with the Indians until he saw the buffalo on the prairies of what is now northern Saskatchewan. But nothing came of Kelsey's journey, since the policy of the Hudson's Bay Company was to sit tight on the shores of Hudson bay. The western plains were, so far as we know, not visited again by white men until Pierre de la Vérendrye and his sons pushed north-westward from lake Superior, and established a chain of posts reaching to the prairies. In 1743 two of his sons appear to have reached the foothills of the Rocky mountains. These two streams of exploration joined when in 1754 Anthony Henday, a servant of the Hudson's Bay Company, visited a post on the Saskatchewan river maintained by one of La Vérendrye's successors in the West. This meeting presaged half-a-century of struggle between the Hudson's Bay Company and the traders from Montreal, in the course of which the map of the Canadian North-West was laid bare in its essential features.


In this struggle the Hudson's Bay Company made the first great contribution to geographical knowledge. In 1770-71 Samuel Hearne, an officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, made a famous journey from York Factory to the mouth of the Coppermine river, which empties into the Arctic ocean, and after visiting Great Slave lake, returned to York Factory. But after the conquest of Canada by the British in 1763, the French fur-trade in the West was taken over by a group of daring adventurers from Montreal, who formed about 1779 the North West Company. The Nor'Westers, as they were called, explored the whole of the Great North West, and were followed in a halfhearted manner by the servants of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1789 Sir Alexander Mackenzie, a partner of the North West Company, explored the Mackenzie river to its mouth; and in 1793 went up the Peace river, down the Fraser, and across country, until he reached the Pacific ocean.


The Pacific Slope.


The discovery of the north-west coast of North America is wrapped in some obscurity. It is possible that the Spaniards from central America may have visited it in the seventeenth century; but there is no proof of this. Certainly, Vitus Bering sighted the coast of Alaska in 1741. But the real discoverer of British Columbia, so far as we know, was a Spaniard, Juan Perez, who visited Vancouver island and the Queen Charlotte islands in 1774. He was followed by others; but the first actual knowledge of the north-west coast resulted from the last voyage of Captain James Cook, who visited the coast in 1778. A number of American, Spanish, and British trading vessels explored the coast in subsequent years; and in 1792-4 Captain George Vancouver  made a painstaking survey of the coast. It was these voyages that gave Sir Alexander Mackenzie the knowledge which enabled him to make his overland dash to the Pacific in 1793.


For some time after Mackenzie's epoch-making journey, no white man followed him. In 1806, however, Simon Fraser, a partner of the North West Company, succeeded in exploring the Fraser river to its mouth; and in 1807 David Thompson, another partner of the North West Company, crossed the Rocky mountains, and reached the Columbia. Thompson, who had spent his life mapping the Great West, surveyed in 1811 the Columbia river from its source to its mouth; and thus completed his life work by laying bare another feature of the geography of the Pacific slope. Other servants of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company filled in the remaining outlines of the map.


Later explorations.


During the past century numerous explorers added to the achievements of the great pathfinders of earlier days. Notable among these have been John McLean, a chief trader of the Hudson's Bay Company, who made in 1838 the first journey across the interior of the Labrador peninsula, and in 1839 discovered the Grand Falls of Labrador; Robert Campbell, another officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, who explored the Yukon between 1834 and 1852; J. B. Tyrrell and his brother, J. W. Tyrrell, who made in 1893 a famous journey across the Barren lands; V. Stefansson, who has made notable contributions to the explorations of the Arctic; and (last, but not least) the officers of the Canadian Geological Survey, who have been engaged for three-quarters of a century in tracing the details of the map of Canada, in all sorts of out-of-the-way places.




The literature relating to the exploration of Canada is voluminous; but the chief general authorities are S. E. Dawson, The St. Lawrence basin (London, 1905), L. J. Burpee, The search for the western sea (Toronto, 1908), N. M. Crouse, In quest of the western ocean (New York, 1928), and In search of the north-west passage (New York, 1934), J. Mirsky, To the north! The story of Arctic exploration (New York, 1934), A. C. Laut, Pathfinders of the west (Toronto, 1904), and The conquest of the great north west (2 vols., New York, 1908), and W. S. Wallace, By star and compass (Toronto, 1922).


[It is now well established that the Vikings landed at l'Anse aux Meadows in the St. Anthony peninsula of Newfoundland.]


Source : W. S. WALLACE, "Exploration", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 307-310.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College