John Rae (explorer)

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John Rae
John Rae by Stephen Pearce.jpg
Portrait by Stephen Pearce, 1862
Born(1813-09-30)30 September 1813
Died22 July 1893(1893-07-22) (aged 79)
Resting placeSt Magnus Cathedral
Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland
58°58′56″N 2°57′32″W / 58.98222°N 2.95889°W / 58.98222; -2.95889 (St Magnus Cathedral graveyard)
MonumentsMarble statue and plaque
St Magnus Cathedral
Blue plaque
Lower Addison Gardens, Red sandstone plaque in chapel of St. John the Evangelist, Westminster Abbey, London, 30 September 2014
EducationRoyal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
OccupationPhysician, explorer, surveyor, chief factor of Mackenzie River District for Hudson's Bay Company, York Factory
Years active1833–1864
EmployerHudson's Bay Company
Known forExplored much of northern Canada
Reported fate of Franklin's lost expedition
Notable work
  • Narrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847 (1850 )
  • John Rae’s Correspondence with The Hudson’s Bay Company on Arctic Exploration, 1844–1855 (1953 )
  • Autobiography of Dr John Rae (1813–1893): A Preliminary Note (unpublished )
Spouse(s)Catherine Jane Alicia Thompson
Parent(s)John Rae and Margaret Glen Campbell
AwardsRoyal Geographical Society Founder's Gold Medal (1852)
£10,000 reward (2018 GBP: £861,384)[1] for solving the Franklin mystery.
John rae signature.png

John Rae (InuktitutAglookaᐊᒡᓘᑲEnglish: "long strider") (30 September 1813 – 22 July 1893) was a Scottish surgeon who explored parts of northern Canada, found the final portion of the Northwest Passage (Rae Strait, named after him) and reported the fate of Franklin's lost expedition. In 1846–47 he explored the Gulf of Boothia northwest of Hudson Bay. In 1848–51 he explored the Arctic coast near Victoria Island. In 1854 he went from Boothia to the Arctic coast and learned the fate of Franklin. He was noted for physical stamina, skill at hunting and boat handling, use of native methods and the ability to travel long distances with little equipment while living off the land.

Early life and career[edit]

Hall of Clestrain, birthplace of John Rae

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in the parish of Orphir in Orkney, Scotland. After studying medicine in Edinburgh, he graduated with a degree from the University of Edinburgh and was licensed by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh – he went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company as a surgeon, accepting a post at Moose Factory, Ontario, where he remained for ten years.

Whilst working for the company, treating both European and indigenous employees of the company, Rae became known for his prodigious stamina and skilled use of snowshoes. He learned to live off the land like a native and working with the local craftsmen, designed his own snowshoes. This knowledge allowed him to travel great distances with little equipment and few followers, unlike many other explorers of the Victorian Age.[2]


Gulf of Boothia 1846–47[edit]

In 1846 and 1847 Rae explored the Gulf of Boothia between the Melville Peninsula and the Boothia Peninsula. Repulse Bay at the northwest end of Hudson Bay is south of the Melville Peninsula. The west and north sides of the Melville Peninsula were explored by Parry in 1822. Simpson's furthest east was south of the Boothia Peninsula. The northern inlet leading to the Gulf of Boothia had been partly penetrated. The rest of the area was unknown.

In 1836–39 Thomas Simpson sailed along much of the north coast of Canada. Sir George Simpson proposed to link Thomas Simpson's furthest east by sending an overland expedition from Hudson Bay. Rae was chosen because of his well-known skill in overland travel. Rae first had to travel to the Red River Colony to learn the art of surveying. On 20 August 1844 Rae left Moose Factory, went up the Missinaibi River and took the usual voyageur route west. When he reached the Red River Colony on 9 October he found his instructor seriously ill. After the man died he headed for Sault Ste. Marie to find another instructor. The two-month, 1,200 mi (1,900 km) winter journey was by dog sled along the north shore of Lake Superior. From there Sir George told him to go to Toronto to study under John Henry Lefroy at the Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory. Returning from Toronto, he received final instructions at Sault Ste. Marie. He left on 5 August 1845 and took the usual voyageur route via Lake Winnipeg and reached York Factory on 8 October, where he wintered. On 12 June 1846 he headed north in two 22 ft (6.7 m) boats and reached Repulse Bay in July. The local Inuit told him that there was salt water to the northwest, so he chose this as his base.

On his first journey, which began on 26 July, he dragged one of his boats 40 mi (64 km) northwest to the Committee Bay of the Gulf of Boothia. Here he learned from the Inuit that the Gulf of Boothia was a bay and that he would have to cross land to reach Simpson's furthest east. In 1830 John Ross had also been told that Boothia was a bay[3]. He sailed part way up the east coast of the Bay, but soon turned back because he needed to make preparations for winter. That winter he became one of the first Europeans to winter in the high Arctic without the aid of a depot ship. By December he had learned how to build igloos which he later found warmer than European tents. His second journey began on 5 April 1847. He crossed to Committee Bay, went up its west coast for four days and then headed west across the base of the Simpson Peninsula to Pelly Bay. He went north and from a hill thought he could see Lord Mayor Bay where John Ross had been frozen in from 1829 to 1833. He circled much of the coast of the Simpson Peninsula and returned to Repulse Bay. His third journey began on 13 May 1847. He crossed from Repulse Bay to Committee Bay and went up the east coast hoping to reach Fury and Hecla Strait which William Edward Parry's men had seen in 1822. The weather was bad and they began to run short of food. On 28 May he turned back at a place he called Cape Crozier which he thought was about 25 mi (40 km) south of the strait. He left Repulse Bay on 12 August when the ice broke up and reached York Factory on 6 September 1847 and soon left for England and Scotland. Although he had not reached Simpson's furthest east he had reduced the gap to less than 100 mi (160 km).[4]

Arctic Coast 1848–51[edit]

1848: Victoria Island is the large island north of Coronation Gulf. Great Bear Lake is the large lake between Coronation Gulf and the Mackenzie River. This map incorrectly shows the Coppermine River rising at Yellowknife on the Great Slave Lake rather than Lac de Gras.

In 1848–51 Rae made three journeys along the Arctic coast. The first took him from the Mackenzie River to the Coppermine River, which had been done before. On the second he tried to cross to Victoria Island and was blocked by ice. On the third he explored the whole south coast of Victoria Island.[5]

By 1848 it was clear that Sir John Franklin was lost in the Arctic. Three expeditions were sent to find him, one from the east, one through Bering Strait and the Richardson expedition overland to the Arctic coast. Most of the Arctic coast had been traced by Thomas Simpson. North of the coast were two coastlines called Wollaston Land and Victoria Land (Victoria Island). Franklin was thought to be somewhere in the unknown area north of that. The 61-year-old Richardson chose Rae as his second in command.

First journey (1848)[edit]

The Rae–Richardson Arctic Expedition left Liverpool in March, reached New York and took the usual voyageur route and on 15 July 1848 reached Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake. John Bell was sent downriver to establish winter quarters at Fort Confidence on the east arm of Great Bear Lake. Richardson and Rae went down the Mackenzie River and turned east along the coast. They hoped to cross north to Wollaston Land, as southern Victoria Island was then known, but ice conditions made this impossible. Through worsening ice, they rounded Cape Krusenstern at the west end of Coronation Gulf and turned south. By the first of September it was clear that they had run out of time, so they abandoned their boats and headed overland. They crossed the Rae River and Richardson River and on 15 September reached their winter quarters at Fort Confidence at the northeast end of the Great Bear Lake.

Second journey (1849)[edit]

In December and January Rae made two trips northeast to find a better route to Coronation Gulf. On 7 May Richardson and Bell left with most of the men. Rae left on 9 June with seven men. Hauling a boat overland they reached the Kendall River on 21 June. The next day they reached the Coppermine River and waited a week for the ice to break up. They descended the Coppermine and waited again for the ice to clear on Coronation Gulf. It was 30 July before they reached Cape Krusenstern. From here they hoped to cross the Dolphin and Union Strait to Wollaston Land. On 19 August they made the attempt, but after 8 mi (13 km) they were caught in fog and moving ice and spent three hours rowing back to their starting point. Rae waited as long as he could and turned back, reaching Fort Confidence on the first of September. On the return journey their boat was lost at Bloody Falls and Albert One-Eye, the Inuk interpreter, was killed.

Third journey (1851)[edit]

He reached Fort Simpson in late September. A week later William Pullen showed up, having sailed from the Bering Strait and up the Mackenzie River. In June 1850 he and Pullen went east up the Mackenzie with that year's furs. On 25 June, just short of Great Slave Lake, he was met by an express canoe. Pullen was promoted to captain and told to go north and try again. Rae received three letters from Sir George Simpson, Francis Beaufort and Lady Franklin all telling him to return to the Arctic. Simpson promised supplies and left the route to Rae's discretion. Pullen left immediately with most of the equipment. Rae escorted the furs as far as Methye Portage and returned to Fort Simpson in August. En route he wrote Sir George a letter outlining his complex but ultimately successful plan. That winter he would go to Fort Confidence and build two boats and collect supplies. Next spring he would use dog sleds to cross to Wollaston Land and go as far as he could before the ice melt made it impossible to recross the Strait. Meanwhile his men would have hauled the boats overland to Coronation Gulf. When the ice melted he would follow the coast by boat as long as there was open water. He reached Fort Confidence in September and spent the winter.

On foot in spring: On 25 April 1851, he left the fort. On 2 May he crossed the frozen strait via Douglas Island to Lady Franklin Point, the southwestern most point on Victoria Island. Heading east he passed and named the Richardson Islands and passed what he thought was the westernmost point reached by Thomas Simpson on his return journey in 1839. He turned back somewhere near 68°36′0″N 110°00′0″W / 68.60000°N 110.00000°W / 68.60000; -110.00000 (Rae's easternmost).[6] Heading west he passed Lady Franklin Point and followed the coast north and west around Simpson Bay, which he named. The coast swung north but it was getting late. He made a final push, the coast swung to the northeast and on 24 May he stopped at about 70°11′0″N 116°15′0″W / 70.18333°N 116.25000°W / 70.18333; -116.25000 (Rae's west).[7] From here he could look north across Prince Albert Sound. Unknown to Rae, just 10 days before a sledge party from Robert McClure's expedition had been on the north side of the sound. He turned south, crossed Dolphin and Union Strait safely and on 5 June turned inland. The journey to camp on the Kendall River was the least pleasant part of the journey since he had to travel over melting snow and through meltwater.

By boat in summer: On 15 June 1851, two days after the boat arrived, he set off down the Kendall River and Coppermine River with 10 men. He waited several times for the ice to clear and in early July he started east along the south coast of Coronation Gulf. In late July he crossed the mouth of Bathurst Inlet and reached Cape Flinders at the western end of the Kent Peninsula. He reached Cape Alexander at its east end on 24 July and on 27 July crossed the strait to Victoria Island. He explored Cambridge Bay which he found to be a better harbour than Dease and Simpson had reported. He left the bay and went east along an unknown coast. The coast swung north and the weather got worse. By August he was in Albert Edward Bay. Blocked by ice, he went north on foot and reached his furthest on 13 August near 70°03′0″N 100°55′0″W / 70.05000°N 100.91667°W / 70.05000; -100.91667 (13 August 1851).[8] Returning, he left a cairn which was found by Richard Collinson's men two years later. He then made three unsuccessful attempts to cross Victoria Strait east to King William Island. (Victoria Strait is nearly always impassable.) On 21 August he found two pieces of wood that had clearly come from a European ship. (These were probably from Franklin's ship, but Rae chose not to guess.) On 29 August he reached Lady Franklin Point and crossed to the mainland. He worked his way up the swollen Coppermine and reached Fort Confidence on 10 September. He had travelled 1,080 mi (1,740 km) on land, 1,390 mi (2,240 km) by boat, charted 630 mi (1,010 km) of unknown coast, followed the whole south coast of Victoria Island, proved that Wollaston Land and Victoria Land were part of the same island and had not found Franklin.[9]

By 1849 Rae was in charge of the Mackenzie River district at Fort Simpson. While exploring the Boothia Peninsula in 1854 Rae made contact with local Inuit, from whom he obtained much information about the fate of the lost naval expedition.[10][11] His report to the British Admiralty carried shocking and unwelcome evidence that cannibalism had been a last resort for some of the survivors. When it was leaked to the Press, Franklin's widow Lady Jane Franklin was outraged and recruited many important supporters, among them Charles Dickens who wrote several pamphlets condemning Rae for daring to suggest Royal Navy sailors would have resorted to cannibalism.

Closing the gap and the fate of Franklin 1854[edit]

He went south to Fort Chipewyan, waited for a hard freeze, and walked on snowshoes to Fort Garry (17 November–10 January), took the Crow Wing Trail to Saint Paul, Minnesota, and then went to Chicago, Hamilton, Ontario, New York and London, which he reached in late March 1852. In England he proposed to return to Boothia and complete his attempt to link Hudson Bay to the Arctic coast by dragging a boat to the Back River. He went to New York, Montreal, Sault Ste. Marie by steamer, Fort William, Ontario by canoe and reached York Factory on 18 June 1853 where he picked up his two boats. He left on 24 June and reached Chesterfield Inlet on 17 July. Finding a previously unknown river, he followed it for 210 mi (340 km) before it became too small to use. Judging that it was too late to drag the boat north to the Back River, he turned back and wintered at his old camp on Repulse Bay.

He left Repulse Bay on 31 March 1854. Near Pelly Bay he met some Inuit, one of whom had a gold cap-band. Asked where he got it, he replied that it came from a place 10–12 days away where 35 or so kabloonat (non-Inuit) had starved to death. Rae bought the hat-band and said he would buy anything similar. On 27 April he reached frozen salt water south of what is now called Rae Strait. A few miles west, on the south side of the bay, he reached what he believed was the Castor and Pollux River (68°28′45″N 93°53′35″W / 68.47917°N 93.89306°W / 68.47917; -93.89306 (Castor and Pollux River)), which Simpson had reached from the west in 1839. He then turned north along the western portion of the Boothia Peninsula, the last uncharted coast of North America, hoping to reach Bellot Strait and so close the last gap in the line from Bering Strait to Hudson Bay. The coast continued north instead of swinging west to form the south shore of King William Land.

On 6 May he reached his furthest north at about 68°57′27″N 94°35′24″W / 68.95750°N 94.59000°W / 68.95750; -94.59000 (6 May 1854).[12][13] which he named Point de la Guiche after an obscure French traveller he had met in New York. It appeared that King William Land was an island and the coast to the north was the same as had been seen by James Clark Ross in 1831. Author Ken McGoogan has claimed[14] that Rae here effectively discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage as followed in the following century by Amundsen, although Arctic historian William Barr has refuted that claim[15] citing the uncharted 240 km (150 mi) between Ross' discoveries and Bellot Strait.

With only two men fit for heavy travel, Rae turned back. Reaching Repulse Bay on 26 May he found several Inuit families who had come to trade relics. They said that four winters ago some other Inuit had met at least 40 kabloonat who were dragging a boat south. Their leader was a tall, stout man with a telescope. They communicated by gestures that their ships had been crushed by ice and that they were going south to hunt deer. When the Inuit returned the following spring they found about 30 corpses and signs of cannibalism. One of the artifacts Rae bought was a small silver plate. Engraved on the back was "Sir John Franklin, K.C.H". With this important information, Rae chose not to continue exploring. He left Repulse Bay on 4 August 1854 as soon as the ice cleared.

Hamilton, Canada West 1857-1860[edit]

Historical plaque commemorating Dr. John Rae's time in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. At corner of Hunter and Bay Streets, Hamilton. Unveiled 1994.

With the prize money awarded for finding evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition, Rae commissioned the construction of a ship intended for polar exploration, the Iceberg. The ship was built at Kingston, Canada West. Rae moved to Hamilton, Canada West, also on Lake Ontario, in 1857, where his two brothers lived and operated a shipping firm on the Great Lakes. The Iceberg was launched in 1857. Rae intended to sail her to England the following year to be outfitted for polar voyages. In the mean time, she was put to use as a cargo ship. Tragically she was lost with all seven men on board in 1857 on her first commercial trip, hauling coal from Cleveland, Ohio to Kingston. The wreck, somewhere in Lake Ontario, has never been located. While in Hamilton Rae was a founding member of the Hamilton Scientific Association, which became the Hamilton Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art, one of Canada's oldest scientific and cultural organizations. In 1994, to commemorate the centenary of Rae's death, the City of Hamilton unveiled a plaque close to site of the home of his brother Thomas. The Hamilton Association still meets monthly.[16]

Later career and death[edit]

Blue plaque, 4 Lower Addison Gardens, Holland Park, London

In 1860 Rae worked on the telegraph line to America, visiting Iceland and Greenland. In 1864 he made a further telegraph survey in the west of Canada. In 1884 at age 71 he was again working for the Hudson's Bay Company, this time as an explorer of the Red River for a proposed telegraph line from the United States to Russia.

John Rae memorial, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney, Scotland

John Rae died from an aneurysm in Kensington, London on 22 July 1893. A week later his body arrived in Orkney. He was buried in the kirkyard of St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. A memorial to him, lying as in sleep upon the ground, is inside the cathedral. The memorial by North Ronaldsay sculptor, sculptor Ian Scott, which was unveiled at Stromness pierhead in 2013, is a statue of Rae standing erect,[17] with an inscription describing him as "the discoverer of the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage."

The grave of John Rae in the graveyard of St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney


Rae Strait (between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula), Rae Isthmus, Rae River, Mount Rae,[18] Fort Rae and the village of Rae-Edzo (now Behchokǫ̀ but the name survives in Rae/Edzo Airport), Northwest Territories were all named for him.[19] In the Antarctic, Point Rae was named for him.

The outcome of Lady Franklin's efforts to glorify the dead of the Franklin expedition meant Rae was shunned somewhat by the British establishment. Although he found the first clue to the fate of Franklin, Rae was never awarded a knighthood, nor was he remembered at the time of his death, dying quietly in London. In comparison fellow Scot and contemporary explorer David Livingstone was buried with full imperial honours in Westminster Abbey.

Historians have since studied Rae's expeditions and his roles in finding the Northwest Passage and learning the fate of Franklin's crews. Authors such as Ken McGoogan have noted Rae was willing to adopt and learn the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples, which made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. Rae also respected Inuit customs, traditions and skills, which went against the beliefs of many 19th century Europeans that most native peoples were primitive and of little educational value.[20]

In July 2004, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced into the UK Parliament a motion proposing, inter alia, that the House "regrets that Dr Rae was never awarded the public recognition that was his due".[21] In March 2009 he introduced a further motion urging Parliament to formally state it "regrets that memorials to Sir John Franklin outside the Admiralty headquarters and inside Westminster Abbey still inaccurately describe Franklin as the first to discover the [North West] passage, and calls on the Ministry of Defence and the Abbey authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify the true position."[22] In June 2014, it was announced that a plaque dedicated to Rae would be installed at Westminster Abbey.[23]

In June 2011, a blue plaque was installed by English Heritage on the house where John Rae spent the last years of his life, No. 4 Lower Addison Gardens, Kensington.[24]

In 2013, the process of establishing a group to promote the achievements of John Rae commenced. This group, calling itself 'In John Rae's Company'[25] was first virtually established as a Facebook group on 5 January 2013. A petition calling for the issuing of a commemorative postage stamp was launched by Orkney International Science Festival.

After a conference in Stromness, Orkney to celebrate John Rae's 200th Anniversary, in September 2013, a statue was erected to Rae at the pierhead. In December 2013, The John Rae Society was formed in Orkney to promote Rae's achievements.[26]

In popular culture[edit]

Notes and references[edit]


  • McGoogan, Ken.Fatal Passage : The Story of John Rae – the Arctic hero time forgot. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002. ISBN 9780786709939
  • Richards, Robert L. Dr. John Rae. Whitby, North Yorkshire: Caedmon of Whitby Publishers, c.1985. ISBN 9780905355290
  • Richards, R. L. (1990). "Rae, John (1813-93)". In Halpenny, Francess G. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XII (1891–1900) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.



  1. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 6 November 2017.
  2. ^ Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin Toronto:HarperFlamingo Canada, 2001.
  3. ^ McGoogan missed this. See Derek Hayes, "Historical Atlas of the Arctic, Map 129
  4. ^ This section summarizes Ken McGoogan,"Fatal Passage, The Story of John Rae", Chapters 3 and 4
  5. ^ Ken McGoogan,"Fatal Passage", Chapters 7 and 8
  6. ^ Rae's map in Derek Hayes,"Historical Atlas of the Arctic", Map 152, Ken McGoogan, "Fatal Passage" page 87 sketch map
  7. ^ Rae's map in Derek Hayes,"Historical Atlas of the Arctic", Map 152 does not quite match GoogleEarth, Ken McGoogan, "Fatal Passage" page 87 sketch map
  8. ^ Hayes, map 152
  9. ^ Coleman, Ernest (2006). The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration from Franklin to Scott. Tempus Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7524-3660-9.
  10. ^ Rae, John (30 December 1854). "Dr Rae's report". Household Words: A Weekly Journal. 10 (249): 457–458. Retrieved 16 August 2008.
  11. ^ Stamp, Tom; Wilson, Jackie (7 February 1985). "Following in Franklin's footsteps". New Scientist. 105 (1422): 37.
  12. ^ on page 189 McGoogan prints this as 68°57'72"(sic),94°32'58". On page 311 he has 68°57'52",94°32'58". Longitude above adjusted to Google Earth. See also Hayes, map 168
  13. ^ McGoogan erected an aluminum plaque here about the year 2000, see McGoogan, page 303-312
  14. ^ McGoogan, Chapter 16
  15. ^ William Barr, John Rae to be honoured in Westminster Abbey–but not for discovering the northwest passage Polar Record, March 2015, pp 219-220.
  16. ^ "Dr. John Rae, the City of Hamilton and the Hamilton Association". HAALSA. June 2007. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  17. ^ John Rae statue unveiled at Stromness Pierhead Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine.
  18. ^ Birrell, Dave (2000). 50 Roadside Panoramas in the Canadian Rockies (Google Books search). Rocky Mountain Books Ltd. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-921102-65-6.
  19. ^ "Dr. John Rae". Manitoba Pageant, September 1958, Volume 4, Number 1. Retrieved 25 August 2008.
  20. ^ Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin Toronto: HarperFlamingo Canada, 2001.
  21. ^ EDM1459 - Dr John Rae And The Restoration Of The Hall Of Clestrain
  22. ^ "Carmichael campaigns for Orcadian John Rae to receive credit he deserves". Houses of Parliament. 18 March 2009. Archived from the original on 2018-05-23. Retrieved 18 April 2009.
  23. ^ Arctic explorer John Rae set for memorial
  24. ^ "John Rae(1813-1893)". English Heritage. 24 June 2011. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  25. ^ In John Rae's Company
  26. ^ John Rae Society
  27. ^ Ray Mears' Northern Wilderness Retrieved 18 November 2009

External links[edit]

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