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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Samuel Hearne (1745 - 1792)

Born in London in 1745, and losing his father at the age of three, Samuel Hearne joined the Royal Navy as captain's batman at age eleven. After leaving the navy, he joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1766 as first mate of the Churchill, and later the Charlotte.

In 1762, Moses Norton, chief trader at Fort Prince of Wales (Churchill) asked two Native people to search for mines and they returned, in 1767, with a piece of copper which, they said, came from a river flowing between three copper mines in an area that was very rich in furs. Norton went to England to persuade the Hudson's Bay Company, which had not conducted any explorations since James Knight's disappearance in 1719, to send a European to examine the deposits and to see if the river was navigable.

Portrait: Samuel Hearne

Samuel Hearne was charged with this expedition. He left in November 1769 but returned a few days later after his Native guide abandoned him. The following February, Hearne left again with two Hudson Bay Cree. This time, Conneequese, the guide, got lost and they had to make a difficult journey in the tundra region of the Dubawnt River (Northwest Territories). As all their things were stolen and, worse, Hearne's octant was broken, they returned to Hudson Bay at the end of November 1770.

Hearne left again 12 days later. This time, he was accompanied by Matonabbee, a Chipewyan chief, who enjoyed great prestige within his tribe and among the Cree tribes of Athabasca. Matonabbee had already been to the Coppermine River and he established a communication network between the coastal trading posts and the interior. Moreover, the two men were friends. Hearne left with Matonabbee's band and six wives. On this voyage, Hearne learned that he had to adapt to the Native people's way of life and get used to their food if he was going to survive. After making many mistakes, Hearne understood that he had to trust his friend's experience to get them through.

Image: Title page of Hearne's account   Image: Page from Hearne's account

"... On the first of November we again proceeded on our journey toward the Factory; and on the sixth, came up with Matonabbee and his gang: after which we proceeded on together several days; when I found my new acquaintance, on all occasions, the most sociable, kind, and sensible Indian I had ever met with. He was a man well known and, as an Indian, of universal knowledge, and generally respected."

(Hearne 1795, 56)

In July, Hearne finally arrived at the Coppermine River, which was shallow and interspersed with falls. Near one of these, which he would call "Bloody Falls," he was witness to a horrible massacre of Inuit by Matonabbee's men, which would haunt him the rest of his life. On July 17, 1771, a rainy, foggy day, Hearne reached the Arctic Ocean and took possession of the area for the Hudson's Bay Company. Matonabbee then led him some 45 kilometres south to the copper deposits, about which he had heard so much. He found a small piece of copper weighing only two kilos. Disappointed, he followed his Native companions to winter at Great Slave Lake. He was the first European to reach the Arctic from the interior and to see this enormous lake. He got back to Fort Prince of Wales on June 30, 1772.

Image: Page from Hearne's account

'[...] when all the men are heavy laden, they can neither hunt nor travel to any considerable distance; and in case they meet with success in hunting, who is to carry the produce of their labour? Women, added he, were made for labour; one of them can carry, or haul, as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night; and in fact, there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance, or for any length of time, in this country, without their assistance. Women, said he again, though they do every thing, are maintained at a trifling expence; for as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers in scarce times, is sufficient for their subsistence'. [Matonabbee]

"[...] This, however odd it may appear, is but too true a description of the situation of women in this country:" [Hearne]

(Hearne 1795, 55)

Hearne found that no river in the regions he visited flowed west and that there was definitely not a passage to Asia through Hudson Bay. He also found that the small deposit of copper was unworkable and that the Coppermine River was not navigable. Based on this information, the British Admiralty advised Captain James Cook not to attempt any serious search for a passage from the Pacific side below 65º north latitude.

In 1774, Hearne built the first Hudson's Bay Company trading post in the interior of the continent. Fort Cumberland, built on the lake of the same name, aimed at competing with the numerous Montreal trading posts around it. The following year, Hearne was named chief trader at Fort Prince of Wales. He was imprisoned in August 1782 when Lapérouse's French forces took over the defenceless fort. In September 1783, he built a house near the ruined fort and called it "Fort Churchill". He lived there until his resignation on August 16, 1787.

Drawing: Prince of Wales Fort, by Samuel Hearne

Hearne kept busy in retirement by writing about his explorations. This manuscript, and its accompanying maps and drawings, interested the Admiralty and the scientists of the time and even Lapérouse insisted that his manuscript be published, but it would only be three years after Hearne's death that A Journey From Prince of Wales's Fort, in Hudson's Bay, to the Northern Ocean was seen. Shortly before his death, Hearne added two chapters on the Chipewyan people and on the fauna of northern regions. In addition to his descriptions of geographical places, events and personalities, Hearne's narrative contains a wealth of information on the treatment of women, hunting methods and made-objects among the Inuit. Like several people at the end of the 18th century, Hearne wondered about the impact of the fur trade on Native communities. His physical endurance as well as his instinct for observation, intellectual curiosity, and critical abilities make Samuel Hearne one of the most interesting explorers in the Hudson's Bay Company's history. His writing style brings his story alive.

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