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A Condensation, Not Ripe For His Sickle
The Attempt of Captain Thomas Button to Discover the Northwest Passage - A.D. 1612-1613

by Blanche Parker

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.

Thomas Button was a gentleman, enlightened, talented and noted for his knowledge of seamanship. As officer in charge of the expedition which consisted of two ships he was known as the general and sailed in the lead ship, the Resolution. The second ship, which had the responsibility for keeping a lookout astern, was the fifty-five ton Discovery under the command of Captain Ingram. Two highly regarded navigators also accompanied the expedition as volunteers. One was a relative of Thomas Button, named Gibbons, the other was a friend, named Hawkridge. Subsequently, Gibbons and Hawkridge made separate, unsuccessful attempts to locate the passage in 1614 and 1619 respectively. The Resolution and Discovery were fitted, manned and victualed for a voyage of eighteen months.

The expedition, following the Thames down-stream, sailed from England about the beginning of May 1612. After clearing Land's End, the ships, though hindered by adverse winds, made all haste across the ocean and passing well south of Greenland and south of Resolution Island entered the passage of Hudson's Strait. Often trapped in thick ice fields after entering the Strait, the ships' progress was delayed but at length they arrived at Digges Island. Here the voyagers had a welcome respite of eight days. They were able to take on fresh water and also vary their diet with deer meat from the animals they killed on the island. Here, too, the general ordered the assembling of a pinnance which he had carried from England in pieces.

On leaving Digges Island, the ships sailed westward and the explorers discovered land, probably on the west side of Southampton Island, one hundred and seventy-four miles from Cape Comfort. This land, the general called Cary's Swans' Nest. The ships, proceeding south-westward, again reached land at about latitude 60° 40'. This was on August 13th, almost one hundred days since the expedition had sailed from England. Here, disillusionment overcame Captain Button, and he named this place Hopes Checked. Here, too, the ships had been lashed by a severe storm and the general had need of a harbour in order to repair some losses.

Beset by stormy weather, after sailing southward for two days, the general realized that winter had descended. On August 15th he decided to put up for the winter in the vicinity of 50° 10'. The haven he chose was a small creek or rill on the north side of a river. This river he named Port Nelson after the master of the Resolution whom he buried there. The adjacent land he called New Wales and the bight at the mouth of the river, Button's Bay. The river was full of stones and of varying depths, from seven fathoms to six feet. Stunted trees formed small woods which bordered both sides of the river. On the north side, at the base of a clay cliff, there was a valley which offered a natural campsite. First, the small vessel was run into the shelter of the creek, followed by the larger ship; a barricade of fir and earth was then thrown around both as a protection against winter storms of snow and rain and the ice and floods which might follow.

Captain Button wintered in his ship and found it necessary to keep three fires going all the time. Illness was rife among the crew and many died, not, however, from lack of food, for the men bagged countless white partridges and other fowl as well as many bears and wolves. They also killed three deer which were sighted swimming across the river. Although the explorers often found it piercing cold, the winter of 1612 was not severe and they encountered many warm days. It was not until February 16, 1613 that the river froze over; it then remained frozen until April 21st, after which the men were able to net larges catches of mackerel-like fish.

The captain, who had been sick the whole winter, began to mend on January 24th. Throughout the winter, he had given much thought to the course to be followed when the ships could be taken into the Bay. He had steadfastly observed the orders of his young Patron and, in an endeavour to forestall discontent which might arise from inactivity necessitated by the long sojourn, he demanded certain answers from the most intelligent of his men - the most skilful and discreet persons - as to their opinions of the progress already made and their suggestions as to the future course of the expedition.

Winter's break-up occurred in early April but more than two months passed before the explorers left the shelter of the creek. They all sailed in the Discovery, the Resolution having been abandoned after being crushed in the ice. The officers and crew, weakened in strength and reduced in numbers by sickness and death until about only eight were in sound health, could easily be accommodated in one ship. As the Discovery moved off, the men had a last look at the lonely shore which had been their refuge for many months. Visible on shore were the debris and relics from the smashed ship - hogsheads, ironbound pipestaves, a main-top, a top gallant mast and chests. Further evidence of the encampment included broken anchors, bits of cable, broken gun, lead and iron shot, a grapnel and an old tent. Nearby, a cross had been erected, naming the land New Wales.

The general's respectful attention had been gained by Josias Hubart's suggestion that a north-westerly course be followed. This was the course he set on July 15th and from then until July 23rd the expedition, dogged by contrary winds and fog, ran up the coast. Upon arriving in 60° [Manitoba's northern boundary] they found a strong tide running sometimes eastward and sometimes westward. This place, Josias Hobart optimistically called "Hubbart's Hope."

The name Hudson Bay is gone from this map (1633) by Captain Thomas Button. Button Bay has been relegated to the extreme northwest corner; Port Nelson is marked, but Button's New Wales has been subdivided, becoming New North Wales and New South Wales.

Possessed of the patience of an experienced navigator, Captain Button, throughout the first week in August, was teased by a succession of flat calm, fog so thick that he couldn't see the distance of a pistol shot; stiff winds; gales and heavy seas; all of which led to violent storms and demanded the utmost of his knowledge of seamanship. Yet, following his instructions, the general made reckonings and observations at every opportunity. He coasted along the shoreline, at one time edging into 7 fathoms. However, stiff, contrary winds, the dangerous proximity of the rocky shoreline, the hazard of treacherous shoals and reefs and the nearness of unknown islands forced the Discovery south-south-east where, in latitude 61 ° 38', the general saw and named Mansel's Island.

On August 12th, after riding out a small gale, the general observed the latitude to be 62° 38'. All the way up the coast and through the islands the men had noted that, with the exception of forty-five miles north of Port Nelson where the terrain was treed, the land was bare and rocky and the shore difficult to sail along. The morning of August 14th was calm but the men had been disturbed throughout the night by a display of the aurora whose rays streamed across the sky like flames shooting from the mouth of a hot oven. These strange harbingers, with their brilliant colours dipping and mounting in the sky, warned the seamen to expect a magnetic storm. Within twenty-four hours the weather changed and a storm broke.

After having explored the coastline for more than a month since leaving Port Nelson, Thomas Button acknowledged his own frailties. He was physically exhausted and greatly discouraged. Both he and his men were weakened from privation and the severity of the northern climate. Not-withstanding his failure, Button stated his hope that God, who best knew the extent of his endeavours in the search for the Northwest Passage, would give a blessing to those who might follow him and continue the search with honest striving and faith, in order that they might accomplish the work which God did not propose to let him finish. He found consolation for his failure in Revelation, Chapter 14, Verses 14 to 18, from which he concluded that the satisfaction of discovering the passage had been denied him as the time was "not ripe for his sickle." He prayed that he receive God's blessing inasmuch as he had been sincere in his endeavour to follow the instructions and directions of his Patrons and the others who had supported the expedition.

Captain Button now sailed for home with his officers and the remnants of his crew. He had an easy voyage, meeting only a little ice in Hudson's Strait. Passing through the almost uncharted Strait, the voyagers had some argument about the channel through which they were sailing to the ocean. Land to the north they all (with the exception of Josias Hubart) thought to be Resolution Island, but they were far south of Resolution and passing between Cape Chidley and some small islands to which the general's name was given - Button Islands.

Before reaching England in September 1613, Captain Button collected all journals from his men. Item four of Prince Henry's instructions requiring him to submit a complete journal perfected from notes kept by officers and crew members had read:

Let there be faithful and true registering every day of all the memorable happenings of the voyage and that by as many as shall be willing especially, by the most skilful and discreet persons, whom we would have once every ten or twelve days to confer their notes for the better perfecting of a journal, which we expect at your return.

It seemed logical then to Captain Button that he should gather up all plottings and journals in order that the required written report might be handed to his Patron, rather than an opportunity be given to other actively interested persons to get hold of the findings.

On arriving in England, Thomas Button learned that he would not be able to submit the journal of his voyage to his Patron. The young, delicate prince had died on November 5th, 1612, seven months after he had signed the document containing the captain's instructions. Unable to fulfil this last important duty, the saddened and disappointed captain guarded closely all information relating to his voyage. His journals, proceedings and findings were never made freely available to contemporary scholars and explorers. Luke Foxe, a navigator who made a subsequent voyage to Hudson's Bay, anxiously desired the details of Thomas Button's journals. On finding the information withheld from him, he industriously enquired as to the success of the voyage from all available sources, including Habakkuk Prickett and Button's cousin, Gibbons, both of whom had been on the voyage; and also from Sir Thomas Roe.

Prickett and another seaman named Bylot of the crew of the Button expedition were survivors of the ill-fated Hudson voyage of 1610. Sir Thomas Roe provided Foxe with the manuscript of an abstract from Captain Button's own journal which covered the return journey from the point Button called Hopes Checked, which he left in July 1613, until he decided to turn homeward on the following August 20th. How did Sir Thomas Roe gain possession of an abstract of part of Button's own journal? Roe had been popular with the young Prince of Wales. He was noted for solid judgment, penetration and sagacity; in knowledge of foreign affairs and in a practical acquaintance with the details of British commerce he probably had no living equal.

Prince Henry had sent him on a mission to the West Indies in 1610, two years before Thomas Button had set forth on his search for the Northwest Passage under the same distinguished patronage. Did common interests and loyalties - for Button, too, had sailed to the West Indies at the turn of the century - and high personal characteristics attract these men to each other, so that the information denied to some by Button was placed at the disposal of Sir Thomas Roe?

The suppression of the principal information contained in the journals and charts kept faithfully throughout the voyage may have been at the discretion of Thomas Button whose ambition perhaps led him to hope for another chance to make a further search to discover the passage through the channel between Nottingham and Salisbury islands, sailing north-north-west above latitude 65 °. Or, it may have been on instructions from the noblemen and gentlemen who had organized the expedition, the in-conclusive results of which had proved costly both in men and equipment. Perhaps those gentlemen thought it prudent to keep confidential the information as to the coastline, islands, tides, winds and weather to be encountered on the west side of Hudson's Bay, for, almost three months after Captain Button had left England on his voyage, James I had granted a Royal Charter, dated July 26th, 1612, to the promoters who had supported both Hudson and Button, incorporating them as the "Governor and Company of Merchants of London, Discoverers of the North-West Passage," the name of Captain Thomas Button being included in the Charter.

While the motive for concealing the wealth of information gathered on the voyage remained obscure, contemporaries and later explorers could only deplore the fact that its non-availability was a great loss to the nation. Yet, credit was given to Captain Button for the spirit which enabled him to lead his men into uncharted waters and to secure for his country first claim to the lands bounding the west coast of Hudson's Bay. Three hundred years later, on May 15, 1912, Port Nelson, the haven in which the expedition spent the winter of 1612-1613, was included in the territory given to the Province of Manitoba on the extension of its boundaries. Thus, it may be claimed for Thomas Button that, accompanied by his officers and crew, he was the first white man to visit this area which now belongs to Manitoba.

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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