SMITH, FRANCIS, HBC sloopmaster, explorer; fl. 1737–47.
Francis Smith first appears in the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company as a second mate on its ship Seahorse, which sailed to Hudson Bay in 1737. The next year he became master of the Churchill sloop, a position he held at the bay until his return to England in the autumn of 1744. During these years he had made five trading voyages north from Churchill (Man.) in a series of relatively ineffectual attempts to establish trade with the Eskimos of the west coast of Hudson Bay. The only one of his sloop journals that survives gives no indication of any interest in exploration. On his return to England Smith was probably approached by Arthur Dobbs or one of his associates, for in 1746 he was appointed captain of the discovery vessel California, which was to accompany William Moor in the Dobbs Galley on a voyage to Hudson Bay in search of the northwest passage.
A feature of the venture was to be the continual quarrels between Moor and Smith. Soon after the ships arrived in Hudson Bay in August 1746 Smith refused to explore the uncharted waters of Rankin Inlet, and the expedition instead headed for York Factory (Man.) to winter at Ten Shilling Creek, about five miles from the HBC post. Here the two captains indulged in acrimonious bickering with each other and with the factor, James Isham, who commented ironically on the disunity evident among members of the expedition, “which I imagingd. to be one family.” By December Moor and Smith were no longer on speaking terms. In January Smith left the expedition’s scurvy-stricken quarters at Ten Shilling Creek to stay at York Factory, and was soon followed by his wife Kitty (the first white woman to winter in Hudson Bay in the 18th century).
On 24 June 1747 the two vessels sailed from York northwards towards the hoped-for passage. Moor and Smith explored independently of each other for much of the time. While Smith remained offshore in the California his longboat discovered that Rankin Inlet was a closed body of water (in contrast to its representation on John Wigate’s map of 1746) and that the expedition’s new discovery, Chesterfield Inlet, became shallower as the boats followed it inland. At the end of July the ships reached the Wager, where Dobbs had insisted a passage would be found. Moor and Smith, commanding their longboats in person, found that the Wager was a closed bay. As the California sailed out of the Wager so many of her crew were ill with scurvy that Smith himself had to take the helm, and when the vessel reached the Orkneys he had to borrow men from a naval ship to help her reach the Thames.
Although the expedition had carried out some useful surveys, particularly in Chesterfield Inlet and the Wager, the strained relations between the two captains resulted in a diffusion of effort, overlapping explorations, and disagreement on the nomenclature of several inlets on the west coast of the bay. The voyage had neither found a northwest passage nor proved conclusively that one did not exist, and the organizing North West Committee expressed grave dissatisfaction with the conduct of both Smith and Moor on the expedition. Unlike Moor, Smith was not called upon to give evidence before the investigating parliamentary committee of 1749, and no trace of his later career has been found.
[The only extant journal of the Churchill sloop under Smith’s command is that for 1743–44 in HBC Arch. B.42/a/26; it is not an illuminating document. For the discovery voyage of 1746–47 Smith’s manuscript log of the California gives a terse, seaman’s account of events; the original is in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (Belfast), D.162/44, and a contemporary copy is in HBC Arch. E.18/2. There are printed accounts of the voyage in Henry Ellis, A voyage to Hudson’s-Bay, by the Dobbs Galley and California, in the years 1746 and 1747, for discovering a north west passage . . . (London, 1748), and in the pseudonymous account by Smith’s own clerk, “The Clerk of the California” [Charles Swaine (T. S. Drage)], An account of a voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage . . . (2v., London, 1748–49). Isham kept copies of the letters exchanged between himself, Moor, and Smith during the wintering at York, and these have been printed in HBRS, XII (Rich and Johnson), 241–308; pages 336–37 contain a brief biographical sketch of Smith. A modern description of the discovery voyage will be found in Williams, British search for the northwest passage. g.w.]