Samuel Hearne

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Samuel Hearne
Samuel Hearne - Project Gutenberg etext 20110.jpg
Samuel Hearne
BornFebruary 1745
DiedNovember 1792 (aged 47)
London, England
Occupation(s)Explorer, Author, Governor
Known forExploring

Samuel Hearne (February 1745 – November 1792) was an English explorer, fur-trader, author, and naturalist. He was the first European to make an overland excursion across northern Canada to the Arctic Ocean, actually Coronation Gulf, via the Coppermine River. In 1774, Hearne built Cumberland House for the Hudson's Bay Company, its second interior trading post after Henley House[1] and the first permanent settlement in present Saskatchewan.


Samuel Hearne was born in February 1745 in London. Hearne's father was Secretary of the Waterworks of London Bridge, who died in 1748.[2] His mother's name was Diana, and his sister's name was Sarah, three years younger than Samuel. Samuel Hearne joined the British Royal Navy in 1756 at the age of 11 as midshipman under the fighting captain Samuel Hood. He remained with Hood during the Seven Years' War, seeing considerable action during the conflict, including the bombardment of Le Havre. At the end of the Seven Years' War, having served in the English Channel and then the Mediterranean, he left the Navy in 1763.

In February 1766, he joined the Hudson's Bay Company as a mate on the sloop Churchill, which was then engaged in the Inuit trade out of Prince of Wales Fort, Churchill, Manitoba. Two years later he became mate on the Brigantine Charlotte and participated in the company's short-lived black whale fishery. In 1767, he found the remains of James Knight's expedition. In 1768, he examined portions of the Hudson Bay coasts with a view to improving the cod fishery. During this time he gained a reputation for snowshoeing.

Hearne was able to improve his navigational skills by observing William Wales who was at Hudson Bay during 1768–1769 after being commissioned by the Royal Society to observe the Transit of Venus with Joseph Dymond.


Map of Samuel Hearne's second and third expeditions (red)
A 1969 rendering of a map that Samuel Hearne had created of the track of his third expedition.

The English on Hudson Bay had long known that the First Nations to the northwest used native copper, as indicated by such words as Yellowknife. When, in 1768, a northern First Nation (some say it was Matonabbee) brought lumps of copper to Churchill, the governor, Moses Norton, decided to send Hearne in search of a possible copper mine. The basic theme of Hearne's three journeys is the Englishmen's ignorance of the methods of travel through this very difficult country and their dependence on First Nations who knew the land and how to live off of it.[citation needed]

First Journey: Since there was no canoe route to the northwest, the plan was to go on foot over the frozen winter ground. Without canoes, they would have to carry as much food as possible and then live off the land. Hearne planned to join a group of northern First Nations that had come to trade at Churchill and somehow induce them to lead him to the copper mine. He left Churchill on 6 November 1769 along with two company employees, two Cree hunters and a band of Chipewyans and went north across the Seal River, an east–west river north of Churchill. By 19 November their European provisions gave out and their hunters had found little game (Hearne had left too late in the season and the caribou had already left the Barren Grounds for the shelter of the forested country further south). They headed west and north, finding only a few ptarmigan, fish and three stray caribou. The Indigenous people, who knew the country, had better sense than to risk starvation in this way and began deserting. When the last First Nations left, Hearne and his European companions returned to the sheltered valley of the Seal River, where he was able to find venison, and reached Churchill on 11 December.

Second Journey: Since he could not control the northern First Nations, Hearne proposed to try again using 'home guards', that is, Cree who lived around the post and hunted in exchange for European supplies. He left Churchill on 23 February. Reaching the Seal River, he found good hunting and followed it west until he reached a large lake, probably Sethnanei Lake. Here he decided to wait for better weather and live by fishing. In April the fish began to give out. On 24 April a large body of Indigenous people, mostly women, arrived from the south for the annual goose hunt. On 19 May the geese arrived and there was now plenty to eat. They headed north and east past Baralzone Lake. By June the geese had flown further north and they were again threatened with famine. At one point they killed three muskoxen and had to eat them raw because it was too wet to light a fire. They crossed the Kazan River above Yathkyed Lake where they found good hunting and fishing and then went west to Lake Dubawnt which is about 720 km (450 mi) northwest of Churchill. On 14 August his quadrant was destroyed, which accounts for the inaccuracy of latitudes on the remainder to this and the next journey. At this point the sources become vague, but Hearne returned to Churchill in the autumn. On his return journey he met Matonabbee who was to be his guide on the next journey. Matonabbee may well have saved him from freezing or starving to death. Most of the land Hearne crossed on his second journey is very desolate and was not properly explored again until Joseph Tyrrell in 1893.

Third Journey: Hearne contrived to travel as the only European with a group of Chipewyan guides led by Matonabbee.[3] The group also included eight of Matonabbee's wives to act as beasts of burden in the sledge traces, camp servants, and cooks. This third expedition set out in December 1770, to reach the Coppermine River in summer, by which he could descend to the Arctic in canoes.

Matonabbee kept a fast pace, so fast they reached the great caribou traverse before provisions dwindled and in time for the spring hunt. Here Northern First Nations (Dene) hunters gathered to hunt the vast herds of caribou migrating north for the summer. A store of meat was laid up for Hearne's voyage and a band of "Yellowknife" Dene joined the expedition. Matonabbee ordered his women to wait for his return in the Athabasca country to the west.

The Dene were generally a mild and peaceful people,[4] however, they were in a state of conflict with the Inuit. A great number of Yellowknife First Nations joined Hearne's party to accompany them to the Copper-mine River with intent to kill Inuit, who were understood to frequent that river in considerable numbers.[5]

On 14 July 1771, they reached the Copper-mine River, a small stream flowing over a rocky bed in the "Barren Lands of the Little Sticks". A few miles down the river, just above a cataract, were the domed wigwams of an Eskimo camp. At 1 am on 17 July 1771 Matonabbee and the other Indigenous peoples fell upon the sleeping "Esquimaux" in a ruthless massacre. Approximately twenty men, women, and children were killed; this would be known as the Massacre at Bloody Falls.

... a young girl, seemingly about eighteen years of age, [was] killed so near me, that when the first spear was stuck into her side she fell down at my feet, and twisted round my legs, so that it was with difficulty that I could disengage myself from her dying grasps. As two Indian men pursued this unfortunate victim, I solicited very hard for her life; but the murderers made no reply till they had stuck both their spears through her body ... even at this hour I cannot reflect on the transactions of that horrid day without shedding tears.[6]

A few days later Hearne was the first European to reach the shore of the Arctic Ocean by an overland route. By tracing the Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean he had established there was no Northwest Passage through the continent at lower latitudes.

This expedition also proved successful in its primary goal by discovering copper in the Coppermine River basin; however, an intensive search of the area yielded only one four-pound lump of copper and commercial mining was not considered viable.[7]

Matonabbee led Hearne back to Churchill by a wide westward circle past Bear Lake in Athabasca Country. In midwinter he became the first European to see and cross Great Slave Lake. Hearne returned to Fort Prince of Wales on 30 June 1772 having walked some 8,000 km (5,000 mi) and explored more than 650,000 km2 (250,000 sq mi).

Later life[edit]

Hearne was sent to Saskatchewan to establish Cumberland House, the second inland trading post for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1774 (the first being Henley House, established in 1743, 200 km or 120 mi up the Albany River). Having learned to live off the land, he took minimal provisions for the eight Europeans and two Home Guard Crees who accompanied him.

After consulting some local chiefs, Hearne chose a strategic site on Pine Island Lake in the Saskatchewan River, 97 km (60 mi) above Fort Paskoya. The site was linked to both the Saskatchewan River trade route and the Churchill system.

He became governor of Fort Prince of Wales on 22 January 1776. On 8 August 1782 Hearne and his complement of 38 civilians were confronted by a French force under the comte de La Pérouse composed of three ships, including one of 74 guns, and 290 soldiers. As a veteran Hearne recognised hopeless odds and surrendered without a shot. Hearne and some of the other prisoners were allowed to sail back to England from Hudson Strait in a small sloop.

Hearne returned the next year but found trade had deteriorated. The First Nations population had been decimated by European introduced diseases such as measles and smallpox, as well as starvation due to the lack of normal hunting supplies of powder and shot. Matonabbee had committed suicide and the rest of Churchill's leading First Nations had moved to other posts. Hearne's health began to fail and he delivered up command at Churchill on 16 August 1787 and returned to England.

In the last decade of his life he used his experiences on the barrens, on the northern coast, and in the interior to help naturalists like Thomas Pennant in their researches. His friend William Wales was a teacher at Christ's Hospital and he assisted Hearne to write A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean. This was published in 1795, three years after Hearne's death of dropsy in November 1792 at the age of 47.[8]


Illustration of canoe building at Lake Clowey (today McArthur Lake) from A Journey From Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean

On 1 July 1767 he chiselled his name on smooth, glaciated stone at Sloop's Cove near Fort Prince of Wales where it remains today.

One of Wales's pupils, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, made a brief notebook entry where he mentioned Hearne's book. Hearne may have been one of the inspirations for the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Hearne's journals and maps were proven correct by Sir John Franklin when he verified the discovery of the Bloody Falls massacre during his own Coppermine Expedition of 1819-1822. He wrote:

Several human skulls which bore the marks of violence, and many bones were strewed about the encampment, and as the spot exactly answers the description, given by Mr Hearne, of the place...[9]

Hearne is mentioned by Charles Darwin in the sixth chapter of The Origin of Species:

In North America the black bear was seen by Hearne swimming for hours with widely open mouth, thus catching, like a whale, insects in the water.[10]

Samuel Hearne's account of his exploration of the north, A Journey from Prince of Wales' Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean, originally published in 1795, was edited by Joseph Tyrell and reprinted as part of the General Series of the Champlain Society.[11]

There was a junior/senior high school named after him in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, between 1969 and 2013.[12] A school in Toronto, Ontario, was also built in his name in 1973.


  1. ^ Brown, Stephen (2020). The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson's Bay Empire. Toronto: Doubleday Canada. p. 161. ISBN 9780385694087.
  2. ^ A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean, Project Gutenberg
  3. ^ Hearne, Samuel. (1745–1792) A Journey to the Northern Ocean: The Adventures of Samuel Hearne. Surrey, BC:TouchWood Editions.
  4. ^ "History – DENE NATION". Retrieved 12 July 2022.
  5. ^ Laut, Agnes C. (1909), Canada: the Empire of the North (1st ed.), Boston and London: Ginn and Company, retrieved 9 November 2009
  6. ^ Hearne, Samuel (1795), A journey from Prince of Wales's Fort, in Hudson's Bay, to the northern ocean ... in the years 1769, 1770, 1771 & 1772, London: Strahan & Cadell, archived from the original on 12 June 2011, retrieved 9 November 2009
  7. ^ Douglas, George Mellis (1914). Lands Forlorn: A Story of an Expedition to Hearne's Coppermine River. p. 3. Retrieved 10 March 2020.
  8. ^ Canadian Association of Aboriginal Entrepreneurship, Samuel Hearne 1745–1792, archived from the original on 11 November 2009
  9. ^ Franklin, John (1824), Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819-20-21-2 (3rd ed.), London: John Murray, retrieved 9 November 2009
  10. ^ Darwin, Charles (1859), On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1st ed.), London: John Murray, retrieved 9 November 2009
  11. ^ Tyrell, Joseph (1912). Walker, Edmund (ed.). A Journey from Price of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, and 1772. Champlain Society. doi:10.3138/9781442617995. ISBN 978-1-4426-1799-5.
  12. ^ "Demolition of Samuel Hearne Secondary School in Inuvik". CBC News. 11 June 2013.

Further reading[edit]

  • A Journey to the Northern Ocean: The Adventures of Samuel Hearne by Samuel Hearne. Foreword by Ken McGoogan. Published by TouchWood Editions, 2007.
  • Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Inspired Coleridge's Masterpiece by Ken McGoogan. Published by Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.
  • Coppermine Journey: An Account of Great Adventure Selected from the Journals of Samuel Hearne by Farley Mowat. Published by McClelland & Stewart, 1958.
  • Samuel Hearne and the North West Passage by Gordon Speck. Published by Caxton Printers, Ltd, 1963.
  • Northern Wilderness by Ray Mears. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, 2009, Chapters 4–6.
  • Hearne, Samuel. A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean. Edited by Joseph Tyrell. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1912.
  • Mackinnon, C. S. (1979). "Hearne, Samuel". In Halpenny, Francess G (ed.). Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. IV (1771–1800) (online ed.). University of Toronto Press.

External links[edit]