Search for the Northwest Passage Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the Crimean War, Great Britain’s Royal Navy searched for the elusive Northwest Passage through the North American continent to the Pacific Ocean. The British hoped that the discovery of such a navigational shortcut would prove Britain’s scientific and maritime superiority.

Summary of Event

After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, the leaders of Great Britain’s Royal Navy were not eager to reduce their navy’s size to reflect the budgetary restrictions of peacetime. Instead, Second Secretary of the Admiralty John Barrow (1804-1845) rekindled national interest in the discovery of a northwest passage to find employment for idle officers and their men, and to offer them chances for promotion. Icebergs, scurvy, and the challenges of survival in the Arctic became the navy’s new enemies, and British officers and sailors went north in an attempt to claim the government’s £20,000 reward for discovery of a passage between the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Northwest Passage Exploration;Northwest Passage Arctic exploration Royal Navy;and polar exploration[Polar exploration] Franklin, Sir John Ross, Sir James Clark Rae, John Canada;and Northwest Passage[Northwest passage] Exploration;polar [kw]Search for the Northwest Passage (1818-1854) [kw]Northwest Passage, Search for the (1818-1854) [kw]Passage, Search for the Northwest (1818-1854) Northwest Passage Exploration;Northwest Passage Arctic exploration Royal Navy;and polar exploration[Polar exploration] Franklin, Sir John Ross, Sir James Clark Rae, John Canada;and Northwest Passage[Northwest passage] Exploration;polar [g]Canada;1818-1854: Search for the Northwest Passage[0950] [g]Arctic;1818-1854: Search for the Northwest Passage[0950] [c]Exploration and discovery;1818-1854: Search for the Northwest Passage[0950] [c]Science and technology;1818-1854: Search for the Northwest Passage[0950] McClure, Sir Robert John Le Mesurier

In 1818, Lieutenant William Edward Parry, who would become England’s favorite Arctic hero during the nineteenth century, sailed as second-in-command of a two-ship expedition under Commander John Ross. When the Isabella and Alexander set sail for Davis Strait, Ross’s nephew, Midshipman James Clark Ross, was also aboard; he would be ranked with Parry as another eminent polar explorer of the period. Although the expedition lasted only one summer, the elder Ross considered the expedition a success because he had determined that Lancaster Sound, which the ships were to sail through on their way to the Pacific, was blocked by an impressive mountain range. This mountain range, on which Ross staked his reputation, turned out to be a mirage, which Parry—who disagreed with Ross’s “discovery”—later proved by sailing through it during his first command in 1819. Parry thus became the new Admiralty favorite; John Ross was never again offered a navy appointment.

Although Parry no doubt sailed during fortuitous seasons of open water, he also distinguished himself as a leader on his four expeditions. In 1819-1820, Parry commanded the first overwintering expedition in the Arctic, during which he kept his crews entertained by daily exercises, reading classes, and theatrical performances. Parry’s first command established his reputation as an exemplary captain: Not only did he disprove his former superior’s discovery of a mountain range but he also went on to chart the principal routes into the Arctic from the Atlantic—Barrow Strait, Wellington Channel, Prince Regent Inlet, and Viscount Melville Sound.

During his second command (1821-1823), Parry made great advancements in overland exploration technology, experimenting with person- and dog-hauled sledges for island surveying. As Parry’s northern experience increased, however, his success diminished: His second voyage was unable to push its way through the ice and into the network of Arctic islands; his third voyage, of 1824-1825, ended with the abandonment of one of his two ships. His fourth voyage, in 1827, attempted to reach the North Pole North Pole but ended almost before it began, as the ice was too thick for Parry’s bluff ships to sail through.

On each of Parry’s expeditions was James Clark Ross, who had accompanied his uncle to the Arctic in 1818. Refusing to choose sides over the dispute of the fictional mountain range, the younger Ross continued to sail with both Parry and his uncle, thereby becoming the century’s most experienced Arctic explorer. With Parry, Ross distinguished himself as a surveyor and a sledder, and this experience paid off when, in 1831, he became the first to record the location of the magnetic North Pole. Ironically, Ross made this remarkable discovery when second-in-command of a private expedition, commanded by his ostracized uncle, John Ross. Although the younger Ross received a reward for his discovery, his uncle remained outside the Admiralty circle of favored explorers.

The Northwest Passage





John Franklin was the third explorer whose career began with the first expeditions, though his beginnings were less impressive than those of Parry. Franklin, second-in-command of another 1818 expedition, never even reached North America: He and Commander David Buchan were forced to return to England after encountering violent weather off the Greenland Greenland coast. Despite this early failure, Franklin, like Parry, became an Admiralty favorite and accepted command of a small overland expedition to explore the Arctic coast adjacent to the mouth of the Coppermine River. This expedition was a failure on a much grander scale.

Taking the five English explorers and fifteen Canadian voyagers over more than 5,500 miles of territory—much of which had already been charted—from 1819 to 1822, the expedition met with disaster in the fall of 1821. Nine members of the party died from starvation, and two died from violent encounters. Undeterred, Franklin set out in 1825 in command of his second overland expedition, which lasted until 1827. Although less dramatic, this survey was more successful. Franklin and his men charted the Arctic coastline east and west of the Mackenzie River delta, solving a large and important piece of the puzzle of the northern mainland coast.

The British Admiralty was not the only institution interested in charting the passage at the time; the Hudson’s Bay Company Hudson’s Bay Company[Hudsons Bay Company];surveyors of also sent surveyors north to discover possible routes through the Arctic. Its best explorer was John Rae, who surveyed the northern mainland coast. Rae’s unparalleled success was, in no small part, due to his respect for, and adoption of, indigenous practices. He traveled with small parties, lived off the land, wore fur, walked great distances, and even gained weight in the land where Franklin’s men had starved. Although his opinions about routes were sought by members of the navy, Rae remained on the periphery of the Admiralty community, preferring his own style of travel to the navy’s more cumbersome methods. His skill as a surveyor, however, would figure prominently in the mystery that was to instigate the second wave of searches in the 1840’s and 1850’s—the disappearance of Franklin’s third expedition.

Commanding the Erebus and Terror in 1845, Franklin and his 128 officers and crew intended to sail through the remaining blank space on the map and solve the puzzle of the passage. They were never heard from again. In the decade that followed, more than thirty ships went in search of the missing sailors. The search parties were sponsored by the British and American governments, and by private and public subscription. Ironically, many of the most impressive geographical discoveries in the Arctic were made during the search for Franklin and his crew—concern for their fellow adventurers took them down passages and through archipelagos they might not otherwise have explored.

Indeed, one such explorer was Captain Robert John Le Mesurier McClure, who, in his efforts to search for Franklin from the west, was the first to chart the Northwest Passage. Separated from McClure’s ship before he entered the western Arctic, McClure’s McClure, Sir Robert John Le Mesurier superior officer, Captain Richard Collinson, also discovered the Northwest Passage, but he arrived in England too late to claim the prize.

Although the passage was officially discovered in 1854, the search for Franklin continued until 1859. The perceived connection between rewards dispensed for geographical discovery and those available for discovery of Franklin was disturbing to many, most notably Franklin’s widow, Jane, Lady Franklin Franklin, Lady Jane . She rightly noted the dwindling enthusiasm for the search as money, intended for expeditions that discovered news of the missing sailors, was dispensed instead for new geographical discoveries. Forced to fund her own expedition to discover the truth of her husband’s fate, Lady Franklin sent her own ship, the Fox, under the command of Captain Francis Leopold McClintock McClintock, Francis Leopold , to the one area left not searched (identified by Rae in 1854).

In 1859 members of the Fox, sledging across King William Island, discovered that Franklin, too, had discovered a passage in 1847, though no sailor from the expedition had lived to tell the tale. In 1859, when the Fox returned to England, the saga of British Arctic exploration was over.


The search for the Northwest Passage was and continues to be significant as a testament to human curiosity and scientific endeavor. Even in 1818 the passage was acknowledged to have no commercial value, but its “objective” exploration over the next forty years helped shape the way in which the growing fields of science and geography defined the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atwood, Margaret. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. Includes a twentieth century perspective on Sir John Franklin, acknowledging the continued fascination with his disappearance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berton, Pierre. The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988. A popular account of Arctic expeditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Alan, and Clive Holland. The Exploration of Northern Canada, 500-1920: A Chronology. Toronto: Arctic History Press, 1978. A comprehensive list of all attempts to explore and chart the Canadian Arctic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">David, Robert G. The Arctic in the British Imagination, 1818-1914. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2000. A historical look at the Arctic’s definition as a place of imperial interest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ross, M. J. Polar Pioneers: John Ross and James Clark Ross. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. A detailed overview of the Rosses’ personalities and their expeditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savours, Ann. The Search for the North West Passage. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A compendious chronicle of Arctic exploration from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, containing several contemporary maps and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spufford, Francis. I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination. London: Faber & Faber, 1996. An examination of the Arctic’s popularity in nineteenth century British culture, and the establishment of the Arctic explorer as a new brand of hero.

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