James Knight (explorer)

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James Knight (ca. 1640 – ca. 1720) was a director of the Hudson's Bay Company and an explorer who died in an expedition to the Northwest Passage.

Knight was born in England and joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1676 as a carpenter. In 1682, he became Chief Factor of the trading post of Fort Albany in James Bay where he became rich. In 1697, he bought stock in the HBC, and in 1711, he gained a seat on the board of directors.

The long wars of the Grand Alliance and the Spanish Succession between England and France had spread to North America and battered the Hudson's Bay Company financially and logistically. Four of the company's five trading posts were lost to the French; Knight led an expedition in 1693 that successfully recaptured Fort Albany, the only one retained by the English. However, among the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 was the restoration of the captured posts. In 1714, Knight was sent out to take possession of York Factory and restore the company's fortunes. Despite the damage to the fort from the French occupation, and the hardships of the climate, he succeeded in rebuilding the company's business, and in 1719, it paid its first dividend in 20 years.

The Northwest Passage expedition[edit]

Knight was determined to find the Northwest Passage, a then-hypothetical route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Canadian North. A Chipewyan interpreter, working for Knight, told him of a possible, mineral-rich route across the north. Knight outfitted two ships, the Albany with Capt. George Berley and the Discovery with Capt David Vaughan, to search for this route, setting off in 1719. They never returned.[1]

In 1721, Captain Knight and his crew were on Marble Island, located 32 km from today's Rankin Inlet.[2] It is possible the ships encountered the shallows of the local waters and were wrecked, although they were able to successfully offload large quantities of coal, several cannons and provisions. There is evidence of interaction with the local Inuit, but by 1722 Knight and his crew were reported to have perished from sickness and famine. Apparently, the Hudson's Bay Company post at Churchill, Manitoba was completely unaware of the shipwreck, as no search or rescue expedition was ever sent. The ruins of Knight's settlement on Marble Island was discovered in 1768 by company explorer Samuel Hearne.[3]

Evidence of Knight's fate[edit]

1719: Knight last seen.

1720: Henry Kelsey' log at York Factory notes that Knight wintered on the coast and spoiled the Eskimo trade by taking up the eskimos land.

1721: Kelsey sails north to trade but is turned back by headwinds before reaching the probable wreck site.

1722: John Scroggs goes north and finds an Inuit camp on Marble Island with things that probably came from Knight's ship. He returns and reports that 'Every Man was Killed by the Eskemoes.'

1724: Knight's will executed in England.

1725: Northern Indians at Churchill report finding a ship's boat. There is no record of a Company sloop losing its boat.

1767: Sloop from Churchill or York Factory finds a previously unnoticed harbor near the eastern end of Marble Island which has a ruined building, an anvil, cannon, shot, a heap of bricks and coal and other debris. (Note that the coal heap implies that they did not stay for more than one winter.) Inuit interpreters say some Englishmen spent a winter there but their fate is unknown. Later Samuel Hearne found a 'great Number of graves' and the hulks of two ships in five fathoms (sic) of water. Items were sent to London and identified as belonging to the Albany and Discovery.

1769: Hearne hears from an elderly Inuk that only 5 men were alive by the second summer and the last man died while digging a grave for his companion.

1970: Investigators estimate that the entrance to the cove was so shallow that it would have damaged the Albany going in or out.

1989-92: Researchers Owen Beattie and John G. Geiger find many small artifacts, fragmentary human remains on the surface, and Inuit but no European graves. They also find evidence of successful hunting, which together with the large coal stores and substantial winter structure suggest the crew would have successfully overwintered 1719-20. The two ships were found, but there was no detailed survey of the wrecks to see if they were damaged. Williams guesses the men spent one winter on Marble Island, were unable to use their ships and left southward in ship's boats to an unknown fate.[4]


Further reading[edit]

  • Geiger, John and Owen Beattie. Dead Silence: The Greatest Mystery in Arctic Discovery. Toronto: Viking, 1993. ISBN 978-0-7475-1185-4
  • Hearne, Samuel. Journey to the Northern Ocean: The Adventures of Samuel Hearne. Victoria: Horsdal & Schubart Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-1-894898-60-7