Skip navigation links (access key: Z)Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives CanadaSymbol of the Government of Canada
Français - Version française de ce siteHome - The main page of the Institution's websiteContact Us - Institutional contact informationHelp - Information about using the institutional websiteSearch - Search the institutional - Government of Canada website

Banner: PATHFINDERS AND PASSAGEWAYS: The Exploration of Canada About This Site
The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
Graphical element


John Ross (1777 - 1856)

The explorer John Ross was only nine years old when he entered the Royal Navy in November 1786. The son of a Protestant minister, there was nothing in his background that foretold his long career in the navy or his future exploits. His first experiences were on the Mediterranean and then on merchant ships where he apprenticed in navigation on the high seas before returning to the navy to serve throughout the Napoleonic wars.

In 1818, England was regaining interest in the search for a passage in the northwest of North America following reports brought by whalers from the North Atlantic. They told of having seen unusual quantities of ice blocks coming from eastern Greenland. These masses of ice, of exceptional size, as well as an unusual number of icebergs, had drifted south. Their observations gave rise to the hypothesis that the ice barrier in the Arctic had been reduced, which led the Admiralty and the Royal Society to organize an expedition into Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. They entrusted this expedition to John Ross, with William Edward Parry as first mate. Their mission consisted of going around the extreme northeast coast of America and of sailing to Bering Strait. They were also asked to note the currents, tides, and the state of ice and magnetism and to collect specimens relating to the natural sciences.

In April 1818, Ross left London with two ships and entered Smith and Davis straits and, on August 31, Lancaster Sound. He re-examined the observations made by Baffin two centuries earlier. Thanks to the interpreter John Sacheuse, an Inuk of southern Greenland who had learned English during a voyage to England on a whaling ship, the crew had many contacts with the Inuit along the west coast of Greenland.

Image: "North Hendon: Snow cottages of the Boothians"

Unfortunately, John Ross suffered from mirages of the Far North, and could only see mountains at the far ends of straits. The mountains that he saw on the horizon in Lancaster Sound he named "Crocker Hills". He decided not to go any further, in spite of advice to the contrary given by his subordinates, including William Parry and Edward Sabine. The account of his voyage, published the following year, brought to light Ross's disagreements with his officers, and with the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, John Barrow, over the existence of the Crocker Hills. This controversy discredited Ross in the eyes of the Admiralty.

In 1829, Ross admitted to having drawn hasty conclusions during this expedition and convinced one of his friends, Felix Booth, the distiller of Booth gin, to finance another expedition to the Arctic, this time on a steam ship. Ross brought along his nephew, James Clark Ross, and they and their crew left the harbour in May 1829. Beyond Lancaster Sound, they sailed south into Prince Regent Inlet and went beyond the place where Parry had stopped in 1825. At this point, the Victory became caught in the ice, forcing the crew to spend the next four years in the Arctic. They were the first explorers to survive there for such a long time. Only three men died. During these years, with the help of Inuit who settled close to the ship, they explored the regions to the west and north. During one of these explorations, on June 1, 1831, James Clark Ross identified the magnetic north pole on the west coast of the Boothia Peninsula.

"It must be hereafter remembered in history, and will be so recorded, that it was the ship Victory, under the command of Captain John Ross, which assigned the north-west Magnetic Pole, in the year 1831, and that this vessel was fitted out by him whom [571] I can now call Sir Felix Booth; [...]."

(Ross 1835, 570)

In the spring of 1832, Ross decided to abandon the Victory, and he and his crew walked to the beach where Parry's ship, the Fury, lay shipwrecked. The men built a shelter, which they named "Somerset House." They repaired the Fury's longboats and took off to try to reach a fleet of whalers. Unable to reach Lancaster Sound because of ice, they returned to the Fury. Finally, on August 14, 1833, seeing a break in the ice to the north, they got in their boats and sailed east. On the way, to their great surprise, they spotted the flagship that Ross had been piloting during his first Arctic journey of 1818, the whaler Isabella, now under another captain. In October 1833, Ross finally landed in England.

This impressive experience, as well as the scientific and ethnological information gathered by Ross's team, brought him the renown that he had long sought. Ross and his nephew were received by King William IV, and John Ross became a celebrity in London's salons. He received more than 4 000 letters of congratulations and he was named an honorary citizen of London, Liverpool, Bristol and other cities. Ross also received several other prizes and medals from other European countries. Surpassing all this, he was knighted on December 24, 1834 and became a Companion of the Order of Bath.

All these signs of recognition, however, did not put an end to the controversies that he had aroused. He was reproached for taking credit for his nephew's scientific discoveries. His criticisms regarding the motor of the Victory shocked the manufacturer, who responded in public. John Barrow published further offensive, and somewhat excessive, comments, leading to a war of words. However, these controversies tended rather to make Ross's expedition better known than to harm him.

John Ross gave up exploration to become Great Britain's consul in Stockholm, Sweden, from 1839 to 1846. Back in England, he was one of the first to be publicly concerned with the fate of Sir John Franklin's expedition to the Arctic. The Admiralty refused his offer to go looking for him but, in 1850, the Hudson's Bay Company asked him to head a private expedition that they sponsored to find the explorer. At the age of 72, he undertook a third voyage to the Arctic. Like the other men who had left with the same goal, Ross returned empty-handed in September 1851. The explorer settled in Scotland but spent much time in London, where he died during a visit in 1856.

Image: "First Communication With the Natives of Boothia Felix"

John Ross's 1829-1833 expedition was beneficial in two ways to Arctic exploration. First, it led to the discovery of the magnetic pole; and second, it demonstrated that it was possible to survive in the Far North. The role of the Inuit, who taught Ross and his team about this harsh environment, was crucial to the explorer's achievements, though it has not been much mentioned historically.

Proactive Disclosure