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A Button Symposium: Prologue

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.

Admiral Sir Thomas Button, after an original oil in possession of G. M. Traheren, Glamorganshire, Wales.

Duffryn House, Glamorganshire, Wales in the countryside where Thomas Button was born.

Manitoba was discovered by accident! Late in the autumn of 1612, a company of British mariners who were seeking a Passage to the Orient through the western lowland of Hudson Bay, paused in their quest as winter set suddenly upon them. At a point about midway down the coast, where a great river came in from the southwest, they turned upstream and searched for a good place to anchor. They found it in a sheltered cove in the mouth of a small stream about five miles inland. Here they quickly trimmed their ships and made them ready for winter occupancy.

The leader of this expedition, Captain Thomas Button, later to be Admiral Sir Thomas Button, claimed the land for his sovereign, James the First of England, by raising a cross which bore the date of his landfall and his claim to the territory. This simple act was currently accepted by all Christian kings, princes, and governors as proof of title to hitherto unclaimed lands.

Button and his men were the first Europeans to make a habitation on the west coast of Hudson Bay in territory which is today the Province of Manitoba. The great river up which they sailed to their wintering place, which held high their hopes of a way to the Western Sea, is still called Nelson River, the name Button gave it in memory of his Sailing Master, Francis Nelson, who perished there. New Wales, the name Button gave the new land in honour of his homeland, has vanished from the map of Manitoba, and his own name, which was once fixed to all of Hudson Bay, now marks but a small inlet north of Prince of Wales Fort and a group of tiny islands at the entrance to Hudson Strait. Other landmarks which Button plotted and named on both his outward and homeward voyages Resolution Island, Cary's Swan's Nest, Mansel Island, Hopes Checked, Hopes Advance, and Hubbart's Hope remain firmly fixed to the map of Canada. Some of these points are still used by ships' captains in plotting their courses to and from Port Churchill.

Button's discovery raised great interest in England and on the Continent of Europe. Among the merchant adventurers in London, hopes ran high that a way to the Orient might be found through Nelson River. Seven years were to pass, however, before the quest was taken up again. This time a Dane, Jens Munck, reached the River of Strangers (Churchill River) in the autumn of 1619. Twelve years later Captain Luke Foxe and Captain Thomas James, each commanding separate expeditions which were looking for a North West Passage, met off Nelson River. Foxe found Button's wintering place on Root Creek and raised again his cross which had fallen to the ground.

For more than half a century after Foxe and James met off Nelson River, Englishmen showed little interest in the exploration of New Wales (Manitoba) or in the search for the North West Passage. They had other things on their minds. It was not until after the civil war had run its course and the monarchy had been restored that Englishmen once again turned their eyes westward to Hudson Bay and the circumjacent land.

Then "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading Into Hudson's Bay" came to Manitoba to trade ... and to explore, but it was the Welshman, Thomas Button, who started it all ...

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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