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Button Bay

by Edward John Button

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1970, Volume 15, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

One week before leaving England for Canada (14 February 1914) I paid a farewell visit to my paternal grandmother, Emma Button, who was 80 years of age at the time. When I told her I was going to Canada, she said: "Good boy, you are following in the footsteps of your illustrious ancestor, Admiral Sir Thomas Button, and the only request I have to make is, when you arrive in Canada, go to Hudson Bay and see Button Bay where your ancestor planted the flag of Britain. Then send me full details of it and the surrounding country."

When I arrived in Winnipeg, having this commission uppermost in mind, I went directly to the Canadian Pacific Railway office to enquire as to how I could get to Button Bay. I was shown an isolated dot on the map which gave the location of Button Bay (northwest of Churchill). Then the clerk told me that there was no road or railroad by which I could get there, and, if I was still set on going, it would have to be by canoe, with lots of heavy arm-work paddling and lots of heavy leg-work portaging. Futhermore, the clerk told me that I would need a guide to see me there and back, also, that I would need to take sufficient food along to last both ways.

I knew without doubt that it would be impossible at that time to make the trip. So I wrote to my grandmother telling her about the great distance which lay between Winnipeg and Button Bay and the difficulty of getting from one place to the other. I mentioned that there was no road or railroad between Winnipeg and Churchill. I told her about the difficulties of the route and of travel by canoe, and concluded with a sincere note of regret that I was unable to fulfill her request. She wrote an understanding letter in reply, saying how disappointed she was that I was not able to make the trip, but hoping, nonetheless, that sometime in the future I would get to Button Bay and give her a first-hand account of it.

It was not until fifty-three years later that I got to Hudson Bay on the centennial trip of the Manitoba Historical Society. There at Churchill, as I stood on Cape Merry and looked beyond Eskimo Point to Button Bay, I could not help but recall my grandmother's request of so many years ago. Now I was there a number of things came to mind. I recalled that at one time all of Hudson Bay bore the name of my ancestor, that some old maps show the Nelson-Hayes estuary as Button Bay, and that others had Button's name fixed to the northwestern extremity of the great inland sea.

It was of course Button Bay at the Nelson-Hayes estuary that my grandmother had in mind when she asked me to be sure to visit the place where Sir Thomas claimed the land for Britain. This place no longer carries Button's name, but one small bay northwest of Churchill, a group of islands at the entrance to Hudson Strait, and an isolated station on the Hudson Bay Railway at mile 114.61 from The Pas recall his epic voyage.

A few other places remind us of Sir Thomas. He named Resolution Island, at the northeastern entrance to Hudson Strait, after his ship which he had to abandon at Nelson River when it was badly crushed in the spring break-up. He sailed back to England in the Discovery, the same ship in which Henry Hudson made his tragic voyage. He named Mansel Island, at the southwestern extremity of Hudson Strait, after his great kinsman, Admiral Sir Robert Mansel, under whom he served as a Rear-Admiral.

In the territory which was to become Manitoba, Captain Thomas Button fixed the first two names given by a European. He called the land New Wales after his homeland, a name no longer on current maps. How-ever, his name for the river on which he wintered - Nelson River - which commemorates his Sailing Master, Francis Nelson, still identifies Manitoba's great river of trade and discovery, now a great river of hydro power as well.

On 12 May 1966, it was my privilege to assist in the official raising of Manitoba's provincial flag. So almost three and a half centuries after Captain Thomas Button raised his claim to New Wales at Nelson another Button was to help in raising the new flag in the capital city of the province in recognition of the old (and original) title.

12 May 1966: Edward John Button and Chief Cornelius Bignell (The Pas) raise the Manitoba flag in Memorial Park, Winnipeg. Inset photo: Mr. and Mrs. Edward John Button display the George III medal which is passed on in their family from father to eldest son.

Page revised: 20 July 2011

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