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Samuel Hearne: Explorer And Naturalist

by Richard Glover

Manitoba Pageant, April 1959, Volume 4, Number 3

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Dr. Richard Glover of the University of Manitoba is the editor of a recently published book in the Macmillan Co. of Canada's Pioneer Series. It is entitled A Journey to the Northern Ocean by Samuel Hearne.

Samuel Hearne appears briefly in our textbooks as the Hudson's Bay Company man who discovered the Coppermine River in 1771 and surrendered Prince of Wale's Fort at Churchill, Manitoba, to a detachment of the French fleet in August, 1782. He has not always been thought well of. He claimed his journey to the Coppermine proved there was no North West Passage. But he was early found to have made a great mistake in calculating his latitude at the Coppermine, and much more exploration was to be done before people believed his denial of the North West Passage's existence. Those ignorant of war have blamed him whole heartedly for not defending Prince of Wale's Fort in fact, an impossible job. He has even been accused of downright lying in his attempt to defend his mistaken latitude. Add that he died in poverty before he was fifty, and he has every appearance of being just another of life's failures.

Samuel Hearne
Source: Richard Glover

But that is a faulty verdict. Hearne was at least a thoroughly honest man. The charge of falsehood is but evidence of his accusers' ignorance and carelessness. In 1757, at the age of twelve he had entered the Royal Navy as captain's servant to that great seaman, the future Admiral Lord Hood, and had served with him till the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763. He joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1766, and began his four long unsuccessful explorations in November, 1769. When all his errors are allowed for, he stands as one of the greatest of Canadian explorers. He did his exploring the hard way; not paddled by professional voyageurs over unknown waterways, like Mackenzie, but walking on foot over the most rugged parts of Canada's Northland and enduring hunger, cold, exposure and weariness, beyond anything Mackenzie suffered. All told his travels covered a period of thirty one months. His mapping was certainly poor; but his observation was first class.

And he observed almost everything. He is the first, and still one of the best, of really reliable Canadian naturalists. He discovered that strange Barren Ground beast, the Muskox. He was the first white man to see and hunt the Wood Buffalo in the country south of the Great Slave Lake. To the birdlover he is a joy: he knew so much and told it so well. It would be hard to write a better thumbnail sketch than his of the now so rare Whooping Crane; his records of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon nesting near Churchill and of the breeding range of the probably extinct Eskimo Curlew are most valuable because they can never be repeated.

He observed his Indian companions as shrewdly as anything else and few have described any primitive people better than he has described the Chipewyans. He knew the Eskimo, too, at the very start of their contact with the white man. What he has to tell of them is a most interesting early record of a now much altered primitive people. He had a great fund of human kindliness, that made him loathe the cruelty of the Indians. No rational person is likely, on mature consideration, to call him timid, because of his distress at the murder of a band of Eskimos by which his Indian companions marred his discovery of the Coppermine in July, 1771.

Above all, Hearne took the trouble to write an account of his travels. He did not always write grammatically. However, pains were taken to correct the worst of his solecisms before his book was published in 1795, three years after his death. Happily enough blunders remained to stamp the book as undoubtedly Hearne's own for even his authorship of it has been questioned by some; and his account of our Northland remains, in Professor Brebner's apt phrase, "one of the classics of the literature of exploration".

Hearne's "signature" carved in a rock near Churchill, Man.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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