Knight's Canadian Info Collection
Knight's Canadian Info Collection


Early Explorers of Canada

Canada's National Flag

The search for new territory and for ways around or through the North American continent, took explorers and traders farther and farther inland as the New World revealed its vast riches. Some of these early explorers from France, England and Italy looked for a safe passage to the Orient, and by failing in this task, they discovered bays, rivers, and lakes and some established settlements in the new land called Canada.

These are only very short descriptions of the Explorers and what they did for Canada. For more details it is suggested you Google the explorer's name and that will bring up many pages for additional study.

Explorers of Canada

James Cook
(b.1728 - d. 1779) He joined the British Navy in 1755, at age 27. In 1768, the Navy appointed him leader of a scientific expedition to Tahiti. He set out on his first voyage round the world in the ship Endeavour. In October of 1769 Cook was the first European to visit New Zealand. In April 1770 he claimed the entire eastern coast of Australia for Great Britain.
On Cook's second journey he sailed farther south than any other European. He circled Antarctica in his famous ship Resolution, but the ice surrounding the continent prevented the sighting of land. The existence of the Antarctica remained unproved until 1840. He returned to England in 1775 and was promoted to Captain.
In July of 1776 Cook set sail on his third voyage, again in Resolution, to look for a possible northern sea route between Europe and Asia. In 1778 he became the first know European to reach the Hawaiian Islands. Later in 1778 Cook sailed up the northwest coast of North America, and was the first European to land on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. He continued up the coast through the Bering strait, and entered the Arctic Ocean. Great walls of ice blocked the expedition, so Cook headed back for the Hawaiian Islands. On February 14, 1779 Cook was stabbed to death by Hawaiian natives while investigating a theft of a boat by an islander. The expedition arrived back in England in October of 1780.
Captain Cook's voyages lead to the establishment of colonies throughout the Pacific by several European countries. He is considered one of the world's greatest explorers.
John Cabot
(b. 1450? - d. 1499), Italian navigator and explorer, who attempted to find a direct route to Asia. Although Cabot was probably born in Genoa, as a youth he moved to Venice, where his seafaring career probably began. He became a naturalized Venetian in 1476, but about eight years later settled in Bristol, England. Cabot had developed a theory that Asia might be reached by sailing westward. His theory appealed to several wealthy merchants of Bristol, who agreed to give him financial support. In 1493, Cabot and his supporters began to make plans for a direct crossing to the Orient. The proposed expedition was authorized on March 5, 1496, by King Henry VII of England.
With a crew of 18 men, Cabot sailed from Bristol on May 2, 1497, on the Matthew. He steered a generally northwestward course, and on June 24, after a rough voyage, he made land. Historians have advanced a number of theories concerning his landfall: some say that Cabot landed in Newfoundland; others say it was in Nova Scotia; still others support a landing on present-day Cape Breton Island. He subsequently did sail along the Labrador, Newfoundland, and New England coasts. Believing that he had reached northeastern Asia, he formally claimed the region for Henry VII. Cabot returned to England in August and was granted a pension. Assured of royal support, he immediately planned a second exploratory voyage that he hoped would bring him to Cipangu (Japan).
The expedition, consisting of four or five ships and 300 men, left Bristol in May 1498. The fate of this expedition is uncertain. It is believed that in June, Cabot reached the eastern coast of Greenland and sailed northward along the coast until his crews mutinied because of the severe cold and forced him to turn southward. He may have cruised along the coast of North America to Chesapeake Bay at latitude 38° North. He was forced to return to England because of a lack of supplies, and he died soon afterward.
Jacques Cartier
(b. 1491 - d. 1557) French explorer and mariner, discoverer of the St. Lawrence River, was born in Saint-Malo. Selected by King Francis I of France to lead an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage to China, he departed from St.-Malo with two ships in April 1534. VIEW MAP OF THIS VOYAGE. He sighted Newfoundland after 20 days, and sailing through the Strait of Belle Isle, between Newfoundland and Labrador, he proceeded southward along the western coast of Newfoundland and rounded the entire Gulf of St. Lawrence. On this voyage he saw Prince Edward Island and the New Brunswick mainland, sailed into Chaleur Bay (Baie des Chaleurs), which he named, landed on the Gaspé Peninsula, and crossed the St. Lawrence River estuary. Much of the French claim to Canada is based on Cartier's explorations.
Again sailing on orders from King Francis in 1535, VIEW MAP OF THIS VOYAGE. Cartier crossed Belle Isle for the second time and then sailed up the St. Lawrence River, which he named on this occasion, as far as the indigenous village of Stadacona, where modern Québec stands. He later proceeded up the river to the indigenous village of Hochelaga and climbed the hill behind the village to observe the Ottawa River and Lachine Rapids. Cartier called the hill Mont Réal (Mount Royal), from which the name of the city of Montréal is derived. After spending the winter in Stadacona, Cartier sailed for France on a course south of Newfoundland, and for the first time passed through what is now called Cabot Strait.
Beginning his third voyage in 1541, Cartier again sailed up the St. Lawrence, this time as far as Lachine Rapids. His purpose was to establish a colony in Canada, but the mission was not successful. He returned to France the following year. He settled in St.-Malo and wrote an account of his expeditions that was published in 1545. Source of the Cartier Maps - The Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation.
Samuel de Champlain
(b. 1567? - d. 1635) was a French explorer and navigator who mapped much of northeastern North America and started a settlement in Quebec. Champlain also discovered the lake named for him (Lake Champlain) and was important in establishing and administering the French colonies in the New World. In 1603, Champlain sailed to France on Francois Grave Du Pont's expedition. They sailed up the St. Lawrence River and the Saguenay River; they also explored the Gaspe Peninsula. He returned to France in 1603, and decided to search for a Northwest Passage and to settle the Gaspe Peninsula.
He returned to Canada in 1604 on Pierre de Mont's expedition. From 1604-1607, he sailed around and charted most of the coast of Nova Scotia (to the Bay of Fundy) and down the coast to Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard (Massachusetts), and later to Rhode Island. After a short time in France, Champlain returned to Canada and helped found a colony in Port Royal, Nova Scotia (1608).
In 1608, Champlain led 32 colonists to settle Quebec in order to establish it as a fur-trading center. Only nine colonists survived the first bitter winter in Quebec, but more settlers arrived the following summer. In 1609, Champlain befriended the Huron Indians and helped them fight the Iroquois (this battle led to 150 years of bitterness and hostility between the Iroquois and the French). It was during this venture that he discovered Lake Champlain. In 1613, he again sailed up the St. Lawrence, and explored the Ottawa River. Two years later, after returning from France, he retraced this route and ventured into what is now northern New York state and the eastern Great Lakes (Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, and Lake Ontario).
Champlain headed the Quebec settlement for years, until the English attacked and took the Fort at Quebec in July, 1629. Champlain once again returned to France. After a French-British peace treaty in 1632, Quebec was once again French, and Champlain returned in 1633 as its governor. He died from a stroke on Dec. 25, 1635.
Sir John Franklin
(b. 1786 - d. 1847) was an English explorer and Admiral who proved the existence of a Northwest Passage (a water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through Canada). From 1819 to 1822, Franklin surveyed part of the northwestern Canadian coast east of the Coppermine River. On a second expedition, from 1825 to 1827, Franklin explored the North American coast from the mouth of the Mackenzie River, in northwestern Canada, westward to Point Beechey (Alaska). Franklin was knighted and then served as the governor of Tasmania from 1836 to 1843. In 1845, Franklin sailed from England with an expedition of 128 men to Canada in search of Northwest Passage. The ship became trapped in ice, and the desperate, freezing and starving survivors resorted to cannibalism. A small contingent of the expedition (without Franklin) may have reached Simpson Strait, the final part of the Northwest Passage. Scottish explorer John Rae determined that Franklin and his expedition had died of starvation and exposure in the Arctic; Eskimos at Pelly Bay told Rae of Franklin's fate. Lead poisoning from poorly-canned food may have also hastened their death.
Martin Frobisher
(b. 1535 - d. 1594) Sir Martin Frobisher was an English privateer (a pirate licensed by the British government), navigator, explorer, and naval officer. After years of sailing to northwestern Africa, and looting French ships in the English Channel, Frobisher sailed to North America to search for a Northwest Passage. This was believed to be a sea route across northern Canada from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, making the trip to Asia easier.
In 1576, Frobisher began a series of three trips to what is now Canada, and found some ore on Baffin Island that he thought was gold . He claimed Baffin Island for England. He also discovered Resolution Island and Frobisher Bay. On his third trip, in 1578, Frobisher sailed 15 ships up the Hudson Strait, and set up a temporary mining settlement near Frobisher Bay and formed a mining company called the Cathay Company. The mining venture was a failure because there was no gold to be found.
Frobisher's stone house was discovered in 1862 by the American explorer Charles Francis Hall. Frobisher is said to have held the first Canadian Thanksgiving feast in what is now known as Newfoundland. Frobisher was one of the first people to explore this area of Canada, although he failed to find either a Northwest Passage or gold. In 1585, Frobisher was a vice admiral on Sir Francis Drake's expedition to the West Indies. Frobisher died on November 22, 1594, from wounds he received fighting the Spanish.
Sir Humphrey Gilbert
(c. 1539-83)English navigator, of Compton, near Dartmouth, was a half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh. In early life he followed a military career, soldiering in France, in Ireland where he was knighted for his services, and in the Netherlands.
He had a lifelong ambition to voyage in search of the North-West Passage to Cathay, and in 1576 published a famous discourse on the subject. He was eventually granted a charter in 1578 by Elizabeth I, for such a voyage, as well as to plant a colony in Newfoundland of which he was to be the governor. His first expedition, which set off that year, got no farther than Cape Verde where it met disaster at the hands of the Spaniards.
Money and credit exhausted, Gilbert returned to soldiering until 1583 when he was able with Raleigh's help, to raise enough money to get another expedition together. He sailed in June 1583 from Plymouth in the Delight, with the Ark Raleigh furnished by Sir Walter and the biggest vessel in the flotilla, the Golden Hinde (not the same ship), the Swallow, and the little 10-ton Squirrel. The Ark Raleigh soon deserted the expedition and returned on the pretext of sickness on board. The remainder continued and reached St. John's, Newfoundland where, having taken possession of the territory in the queen's name, Gilbert set up the first English colony in North America on 5 August 1583.
Having dispatched the Swallow, carrying the sick and disaffected, to England, he embarked in the Squirrel and led the remainder southwards to explore the coast. The Delight ran aground and was lost on 29 August. Two days later the Golden Hinde and the Squirrel shaped course for home. Fierce storms were met off the Azores. Squirrel was lost during the night an there were no survivors.
Samuel Hearne
(b. 1745 - d. 1792) He only attended school until he was eleven years old. He chose to leave school to join the British Navy. After spending his teenage years as a sailor, he joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1765. He was responsible for establishing the first Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in Saskatchewan. In 1769 Hearne headed north to find the copper ore samples the HBC had heard about from the natives. He is the first European to cross the Barren Lands of Northern Canada. In 1771 Hearne discovered Great Slave Lake. Also, the river they followed north to the copper mine was later called the Coppermine River. Samuel Hearne set up the first inland trading post called Cumberland House in 1774. This allowed the HBC to have access to more beaver pelts sooner than the Northwest Company as the fur traders would not have to go as far north.
Henry Hudson
(b.? - d. 1611) English navigator and explorer who set sail on four voyages in his lifetime. He looked for a Northwest Passage, discovered the Hudson Bay and Hudson River. His efforts led to the eventual establishment of New Amsterdam (later called New York). During his last voyage in 1610, rebellious mutineers seized Hudson, his son, and seven others and set them adrift in a small boat without provisions. They were never heard from again.
Alexander Mackenzie
(b. 1755? - d. 1820) was a Scottish-born fur trader and explorer who charted the Mackenzie River in Canada and also traveled to the Pacific Ocean. Mackenzie emigrated to Canada in 1779. From 1788 to 1796, he commanded the trading post Fort Chipewyan, on Lake Athabasca in Alberta. In 1789, Mackenzie went on an expedition to chart the 1,100-mile Mackenzie River, travelling from the Great Slave Lake to the mouth of the Mackenzie in the Arctic Ocean. In 1793, on his second expedition, Mackenzie went from Ft. Chipewyan across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast to what is now British Columbia, going via the Peace, Parsnip, McGregor and Fraser Rivers and overland. He was the first European to cross the North American continent north of Mexico. Mackenzie later retired to his native Scotland.
David Thompson
David Thompson was born in Westminster, England, April 30, 1770. His Welch father died when he was two years old. At the age of seven, his mother enrolled him in the charitable Grey Coat School near Westminster Abbey. At the age of fourteen, he apprenticed to the Hudson's Bay Company as a clerk, arriving at Churchill Factory on Hudson Bay in September of 1784. His first two years were spent on the shores of Hudson Bay at the Churchill and York factories before being stationed at several posts on the Saskatchewan River. David Thompson ranks as the premier surveyor, map maker and one of the leading explorers of North America. From 1792 to 1812, David Thompson mapped most of the country west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior, across the Rocky Mountains to the source of the Columbia River, and the length of the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. For the Hudson's Bay Company, and then as a wintering partner for the North West Company, David Thompson traveled fifty-five thousand miles. The map prepared by David Thompson filled in the blank spaces on one million, nine hundred thousand square miles of northwest Canada. But this was not his only contribution to our historical heritage. David Thompson and his men erected the first establishments west of the Continental Divide in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. He opened the first trade with the northwestern Indian tribes of the United States and Lower Canada. David Thompson made the first recorded information on Northern Plains Indian warfare, guns, and horses. And it should be added that he accomplished all of this, much to the chagrin of several North West partners, without trading whiskey to the Indians. The North West Company map prepared by David Thompson covered an area of two million three hundred and forty thousand square miles from Lake Superior and Hudson Bay to the mouth of the Columbia River. The David Thompson map was placed in the Great Hall of the North West Company headquarters at Fort William, which was located on Thunder Bay of Lake Superior. In 1814, he revised all of his surveys into a second great map that measured six and a half by ten feet long. The revised David Thompson map showed an accurate location of all the North West Company posts. In 1846, at age 76, his vision became so bad that he could no longer work. The following year, he began to write his Narrative. Over the remaining years, he was forced to sell all of his possessions, including his navigation and surveyor instruments, to support his family. David Thompson died on February 10, 1857, two months before his eighty-seventh birthday. Charlotte, his faithful companion for most of her life, followed three months later. They are buried side by side in Montreal's Mount Royal cemetery.
George Vancouver
(b. 1757 - d. May 12, 1798) After joining the the Royal Navy in 1771, Vancouver served as a midshipman in the service of Captain James Cook during Cook's second and third voyages. In 1790, he was promoted to commander of the ship Discovery. He led an expedition to Australia, New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands from 1791-1792 and then came to the Pacific coast of North America, where he explored the coast from San Fransisco to Southern Alaska. Capt. Vancouver circumnavigated the coast of Vancouver Island, and then mapped the Pacific coast of B.C. between 1792 and 1794. He kept a very detailed account of all his expeditions, but it was not published before his death.

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