Manitoba Historical Society
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Early Visitors

by Irene Craig

Manitoba Pageant, September 1957, Volume 3, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Captain Thomas Button, a distant relative of Cromwell, was the first white man known to come to Manitoba. Earlier, about 1589, he entered the Royal Navy, and "after intervals of wild and even lawless frolic" served with distinction in the West Indies and in Ireland.

When news of Henry Hudson's plight reached England an expedition with Captain Button in command set out at once in search of the explorer. They sailed from the Thames in April, 1612, in two ships (one of them was the "Discovery" in which the mutineers had returned).

As well as searching for the Hudsons, Captain Button was commissioned to try to find the North West Passage that had baffled the earlier explorer. In his second ship, the "Resolution", he scouted along the west coast of Hudson Bay but instead of a passage, he found a wall of uninviting coast and changed his course. Between Cape Eskimo and Driftwood Point he named a place, "Hopes Chekt."

Continuing southward about 125 miles he passed the mouth of the Churchill River, making his winter headquarters at Port Nelson; named after his Sailing-Master. An admiralty chart discovered later in the British Museum, marks his encampment on a small creek on the northern side of the Nelson estuary; this chart calls it Root Creek.

Captain Button wintered in his ship, the "Resolution", keeping three fires going all the time. To relieve the monotony, Captain Button invented guessing games having to do with their exploring and the officers and men wrote the answers. The ships' companies were poorly provided for, and in spite of an abundance of game, they passed a wretched winter with much sickness among the crew. Several died.

When Spring came in 1613, the "Resolution", crushed by the break-up, had to be abandoned. The survivors sailed north again in the "Discovery", exploring Chesterfield Inlet and thereabouts. Though his search for Hudson and the passage proved fruitless Captain Button was knighted August 30, 1616, as a reward for his explorations.

His next task was patrolling Bristol Channel, suppressing pirates, particularly French and Turkish marauders. Twice married, he had a large family. After many disputes with the Admiralty he died April 1634. In the northern area of Manitoba we find a place named after him.

Captain Jens Munck, son of a Danish nobleman, born June 3, 1579 may be considered the discoverer of the mouth of the Churchill River. When 32, Jens became a Captain in the Danish Navy. In 1616, the East India Company was formed under the patronage of King Christian IV of Denmark. Three years later he sent Munck, one of his ablest mariners, to seek a shorter passage. With two ships, the "Unicorn" (48 men) and the "Lamprey" (16 men), Munck set out from Copenhagen May 9 and reached Hudson Strait July 11. On September 17, 1619 while exploring Hudson Bay, he by accident, discovered Churchill Harbour. He called it "Munck's Haven". Stores were brought ashore and a house was built to protect them.

The winter was not severe but after Christmas scurvy defeated them. In his Journal, May 6, 1620, Munck said "the bodies of the dead lie uncovered because none of us has the strength to bury them." Eating sorrel grass which sprouted in the Spring, saved the lives of the 40 year old Captain and the last two of his men. In June when the ice broke up, with the two sailors left of the original 65 men, Munck sailed for home and reached the coast of Norway September, 1620.

Before leaving, they sank the "Unicorn" in Churchill harbour, intending to come back and rescue the ship and its cargo, but Munck never returned to Canada. Indians plundered the sunken ship and attempted to dry the cargo causing an explosion which destroyed the ship and the looters. Other Indians terrified by the sound of exploding gun powder turned in vengeance on the white man's house and burned it. Only nails and pieces of iron remained in the ashes.

Years after a brass cannon stamped with the Danish Royal Mark was found in the tidal flats nearby. Today at Battery Point at Churchill, near an old ammunition magazine that looks like a bake-oven, is a cairn built of beach stones in memory of Jens Munck.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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