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The Northern Approaches to Canada

The nature of the economy of the European northlands in the early mediaeval period, and the means by which man lived in the climate and on the land and water resources of the north, underlay the expansion of Norwegian Viking society from island to island across the North Atlantic. This expansion led to the pre-Columbian discovery of lands which were to become Canadian, and gave rise to a northern and maritime frontier which occupied and exploited the northlands from Norway to Greenland, and beyond Greenland to the eastern Canadian Arctic, Labrador, and possibly Newfoundland.

From the expansion of this northern economy came not only the discovery of Canada, but also – as the English, Portuguese, and French began to take over the old Norwegian maritime frontier – the extension in the 16th century of the frontier and the northern economy to Canada. As a result, the development of Canada had origins separate from those of the remainder of the Americas, and the economy and history of Canada from the beginning thus had a distinctive character which is still pronounced.

The characteristics of the northern economy were the extent of its spread and its dependence on metropolitan markets. Where agriculture was possible, the farmstead was the economic base; where not, the fishing village or the hunter’s camp. From these bases, flocks and herds grazed over the hills; the hunter and trapper ranged still farther; the fishermen sought the distant banks and currents where the fish fed. Traders voyaged after timber, or the rare goods of the south, offering in exchange the northern staples of fish and fur, or such arctic exotics as ivory and oil. Northland society, if it were not to decline to the nomadic self-sufficiency of the Inuit or the Lapp, required imports from the south to maintain the technology, the arts, and the religion derived, wholly or in part, from those more favoured regions.

The bringing of the north Atlantic and its islands into the orbit of Europe was the work of the Norwegians between a.d. 800 and 1000, in the period when they were greatly expanding their own maritime frontier. Not that they were the first to penetrate those northern seas – this had been done as early as the fourth century b.c. by Pytheas of Massilia and in the seventh and eighth centuries by the Irish. Pytheas may have visited Iceland and certainly Irish hermits were to be found there in the eighth and ninth centuries. But such ventures were without significant result and Europe was largely ignorant of the north Atlantic region until the Scandinavians – particularly the Norwegians – prompted possibly by over-population, launched on the stormy northern waters the seaworthy ships which they had developed over the centuries.

This expansive movement was only in part connected with the piratical and warlike descent of the Danes and Norwegians on the more culturally advanced British Isles and western Europe. Peacefully – because the lands were virtually uninhabited – the Norwegians worked their way north, establishing settlements as they progressed through the island clusters north of Scotland, the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faroes, to Iceland. Of these the most important was Iceland, which the Norwegians discovered between 850 and 870 and settled in the 60 years ending in 930. Here intermingled with the Irish settlers and slaves brought along with them, they were to form the Icelandic people and to create a brilliant culture. Beyond Iceland, too, at no great distance, lay the northern lands of the Western Hemisphere.

Just as the Norwegians brought the north Atlantic into the European orbit, the Icelanders introduced Greenland, the eastern Canadian Arctic, and the east coast of America (as far south as c. 35°N), thus opening the way to the discovery of North America. Although there had been earlier contacts with Greenland, the first enduring one was that of Eirikr Thorvaldsson (Eric the Red). Exiled for three years from Iceland for manslaughter in 982, he spent those years exploring the west coast of Greenland, and then, on his return to Iceland, organized a party to settle the country to which he had given such an attractive name. Two colonies were established on the west coast. They were known as the Eastern (in the vicinity of present-day Julianehaab) and the Western (in the region of the present-day Godthaab Fjords) Settlements. The latter lasted until about 1342 and the former until the 16th century. Christianity was accepted about 1000 and a bishopric established in 1124. There were at least 12 churches in the Eastern Settlement and 4 in the Western, and Christianity was practised in the latter until the 16th century.

With the colonization of Greenland the discovery of continental America became inevitable. Its shores were first sighted by the Icelanders as early as 986 and then first explored by Leifr heppni Eiriksson (Leif Ericsson or Leif the Lucky), the son of Eric the Red, about 1000. An attempt was made to found a colony in one of the three regions principally visited in the early years of the 11th century. This colony known as Vinland was, however, abandoned after two or three years, chiefly it seems because of the hostility of the aborigines of the region, and no further attempts at colonization south of the St. Lawrence were made. Contact, however, was maintained for centuries between the other two regions, Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador). The former supplied Europe through Greenland with the most prized bird for hawking, the white falcon, and the latter provided the Greenlanders with the wood which they needed to supplement the driftwood brought by the arctic current.

The location of Vinland has caused much heated discussion. Though claims have been made for a location as far south as New England, the name may have referred to a large tract of territory south of Labrador, including Newfoundland where remains of Norse buildings were reported to have been discovered in 1961. Further excavations of the buildings in 1962 revealed that they could be Norse but were not necessarily so. A smithy and quantities of iron and slag indicated that iron may have been worked here in the same manner as in mediaeval Iceland and Greenland, but definitive tests have not been completed. Few artifacts were found except for some nails. Carbon-14 datings of organic material from the site (L’Anse aux Meadows) have given a date about the year 1000. Archaeological evidence may thus throw further light on this thorny problem.

Much more important than the contacts with continental America were those with the islands of the Canadian Arctic. Here the attraction was principally economic – marine and land animals, fish, and birds. Whales and seals were important for the home economy and walrus, narwhal, and polar bears for export. Walrus ivory and ropes made from the hide of the walrus found a ready market in Europe and the best walrus-hunting was at the northern end of Baffin Bay. The long horn of the narwhal was prized in Europe for its supposed medicinal qualities. Polar bears were valued possessions of mediaeval kings, and the bear traps erected by the Greenlanders are to be found in northern Greenland, the islands of the arctic archipelago, and as far west as the Melville peninsula. Eider-duck nesting grounds, which provided an article of trade, testify to the presence of the Icelanders on Norman Lokyer Island (79°N). Shelters or stone nests in which the ducks could lay their eggs were built in the nesting grounds, as has been customary in Iceland for centuries, and evidence of them still exists. Thus via Greenland these products, as well as skins and furs, reached Europe from the Canadian Arctic throughout the later Middle Ages.

Through 500 years the Icelanders in Greenland maintained themselves on an economy of husbandry and hunting, but eventually their settlements lost contact with Iceland and Europe. Farming seems to have been more important in the early centuries but to have been increasingly superseded by hunting towards the end of this period. Almost certainly this process was hastened after 1266 when the Skrælings (as the Icelanders called the aborigines whom they met in the northern hunting regions – Disko Island and farther north) began to make their way into first the Western and then the Eastern Settlement. There is no evidence to show that relations between the Icelanders and the Skrælings were anything but friendly, and the disappearance of the European-Christian culture, in the Western Settlement about 1342, and some two hundred years later in the Eastern, can only be explained by increasing intermarriage between the two peoples and the adoption of what may be called an Inuit way of life on the part of the Greenlanders. We know from literary sources that from the time of the colonization of Greenland, numerous Icelanders left the districts in which husbandry was practised and took to hunting and fishing in the so-called “wastes” (óbygðir) of Greenland and America. There are good grounds for believing that these men are the Tunnits of the Inuit legends – a tribe of gigantic size found especially on Baffin Island and Labrador and said to have come from Greenland. In any case it is known that racial intermixture occurred early, but it is more difficult to say who the Skrælings were and what people resulted from the racial intermixture. However, the view may be advanced provisionally that the Skrælings are the bearers of the so-called Dorset culture and the mixed race are the bearers of the so-called Thule culture.

It is often stated that contact with Greenland was lost after 1410. This was not so. The play did not end; there was rather a change of characters. Whereas up to the 15th century the Scandinavians are the most important agents in relations between Europe, Greenland, and the Canadian Arctic, their place is now taken by southern Europeans, principally the English, the Portuguese, and the French. There were various reasons for the decline of the Scandinavians, among them the debilitating effect of the Black Death on Norway after 1349, the increasing control of Norwegian commerce by the Hanseatic League in the 14th century, and the inroads of the Bristol merchants in the 15th. In the 15th century the geographical knowledge of North America, possessed by the Scandinavians through their centuries-long contact with the northern land of Canada, begins to penetrate into southern Europe, although distorted by the mediaeval view (shared by both northern and southern Europe) that there were only the three continents – Asia, Africa, and Europe. This assumption had led to the belief that Greenland was a peninsula of Asia, a concept which must have meant that it extended south-eastward from the northwest corner of Asia. Its geographical features are fairly correctly represented on 15th-century maps, for example, those of Claudius Clavus. The arctic archipelago is referred to under various names, for example, the Falcon Islands; and the whole territory in America known to the Icelanders appears as Albania magna or superior. Relations between the courts of Denmark and Portugal (see, for example, S. K. Larsen, The discovery of North America twenty years before Columbus (London, 1924 [©1925]), and Carl V. Sølver, Imago mundi: skitser fra de store opdagelsers tid (København, 1951)) and even visits to Greenland by Portuguese envoys in the 1470’s and 1490’s, spread knowledge of the Canadian Arctic. Brisk trade between Iceland and England (Bristol in particular) may have played its part, although there is no direct evidence for a knowledge of Greenland as distinct from Iceland. The result was that, when, at the beginning of the 16th century, the Scandinavian link with the Canadian Arctic was finally snapped, the English and Portuguese were in a position to forge another through the Bristol-Portuguese voyages, 1480–1509.

What connection there may have been between the English interest in the Iceland fishery and the beginning of English maritime exploration for the islands in the north Atlantic is uncertain. There were connections with the Azores and with the Portuguese, who were interested in the northern route overseas. What is certain is that an unsuccessful voyage of exploration into the Atlantic was made by John Lloyd of Bristol in 1480 [see Thomas Croft and John Jay]. Other voyages from Bristol followed in 1481 and possibly in the two following years; there were perhaps others unrecorded. Still later voyages took place from 1491 to 1494. There is evidence, though not certain proof, that one of these voyages resulted in the discovery of North America by the English before 1492.

Again, what is certain is that these attempts of the Bristol men attracted the Italian navigator, John Cabot, who, after an unsuccessful voyage perhaps in 1496, traced the outer coastline possibly from a landfall in Maine or southern Nova Scotia to Cape Race [see John Cabot]. The next year Cabot apparently perished on a more ambitious voyage.

Other Bristol voyages were made down to 1505, perhaps in search of a northwest passage, but with no recorded result. A partner in these voyages was the Azorean João Fernandes, known as the Labrador, who had perhaps explored the west coast of Greenland and sailed with Cabot, somehow leaving his name to the continental coast. One of the captains of Terceira in the Azores, Gaspar Corte-Real, explored in the Greenland and Labrador region in 1500 and 1501. Gaspar perished on the latter voyage and his brother Miguel Corte-Real vanished searching for him in 1502.

Sometime after the last Bristol voyage of 1505 and before 1509 Sebastian Cabot, though some ascribe these details to the first voyage of his father John, sailed into the northwest up to, he claimed, latitude 67°30′N. He saw the opening of Hudson Strait and perhaps the bay beyond it. He believed it to be the open sea-way to Asia which he sought, but his men insisted on returning and Cabot was never to resume his voyage to the northwest. But the search for the northwest passage continued in the years up to 1585.

These voyages were probings for a sea route to Asia, but their immediate result was the establishment of the cod fishery of Newfoundland. Both the explorers and the fishermen used the brief spring period of comparatively favourable winds when the prevailing westerlies gave way to intermittent easterlies as the Iceland low shifted northwestward from its winter location south of Iceland. It was this phenomenon which explained the early and the continued use of the northern route to America.

After Sebastian Cabot’s voyage of 1508–9, it became apparent that a sea route to Asia could lie only around the land mass which was North America. While explorers under French auspices, Verrazzano and Cartier, continued to search for an isthmus or a river system which would afford a way to the Pacific, the idea of a sea-way to Asia continued to live on in England. The obscure voyages of the Englishmen John Rut and Richard Hore in 1527 and 1536 may, though it seems unlikely, have been intended to probe the northwest passage.

But nothing was done until 1553, when the search for the northeast, not the northwest, passage was taken up in London. It absorbed all English energy, although the year 1565 saw Humphrey Gilbert begin to petition for royal authority to undertake the quest for the route by the northwest. Gilbert did not obtain the terms he sought. Captain Martin Frobisher took up his concept and in 1575 with his supporters received permission to undertake the search. In 1576 Frobisher reached Resolution Island and entered Hudson Strait. Subsequent voyages in 1577 and 1578 had as their object not only the further exploration of Hudson Strait, but also the mining of some ore thought to be gold bearing on Baffin Island, which Frobisher had discovered in 1576. This attempt to combine the exploitation of northland resources with exploration failed when the ore proved worthless.

Meanwhile, Gilbert at last procured in 1578 letters patent which authorized him to found a colony overseas. It seems that he intended to found a colony “in the North parts of America about the river of Canada” to serve as a base from which to pursue the possibilities of a river passage to the Pacific as suggested by Verrazzano and Cartier. When Gilbert himself perished after a reconnaissance of Newfoundland in 1583, the English turned back to the search for a northwest passage by sea. The development of the northern economy on the St. Lawrence and the search for a passage westward by that river was to be attempted by the English between 1593 and 1597 but was then left to be effectively carried on by the French.

In 1585, then, Captain John Davis, one of the ablest of the Elizabethan navigators, explored northward from the strait Frobisher had entered. He discovered the strait which bears his own name, and reached 66°41′N. In a second voyage of 1586 Davis made no discovery, but in 1587 sailed to 72°12′N up the Greenland coast and returned convinced that there was a passage to the westward.

For 15 years no one had time or interest to follow up Davis’s work. Then in 1602 George Waymouth in the service of the East India Company repeated the expedition of Frobisher and Davis in search of a northwest passage, as did James Hall and John Knight in 1605 and 1606, in the service first of Denmark and then of the East India Company.

Their ineffectual voyages were a prelude to Henry Hudson’s expedition to Frobisher’s strait in 1610, which had an effect in spite of Hudson’s tragic death. Since it seemed that he had discovered a passage to Asia, Hudson’s backers organized themselves as the “Governor and Company of the Merchants of London, Discoverers of the North-West Passage,” and dispatched Captain Thomas Button with his ships to sail to Asia in 1612. Button encountered the west shore of Hudson Bay, wintered there and returned home, but still with the hope of a passage to the northwest. His discoveries and hardships were heroically and vainly repeated by the Danish navigator Jens Munk, in 1619, most of whose men perished in Churchill harbour.

The Discoverers in 1614 sent a third expedition under William Gibbons, a cousin of Thomas Button, and which also included Robert Bylot. They were unable to enter Hudson Strait and later were icebound on the Labrador coast. In 1615 Robert Bylot, with William Baffin as mate, sailed to investigate Button’s report of a tide from the northwest in Foxe Channel. They concluded that this was not the way to the passage.

Bylot and Baffin, still backed by the Discoverers, therefore sought in 1616 the passage through Davis Strait. Working north to Smith Sound in latitude 78°N, they discerned and named both Jones and Lancaster Sounds. But Baffin, greatest of the arctic navigators, concluded that there was no passage westward free of ice, and the Discoverers accepted his conclusion.

The search for a passage from Hudson Bay was not resumed until 1629 when Luke Fox was convinced that Button’s opening might yet be found. Captain Thomas James planned a similar expedition. Both sailed in 1631 to complete the examination of the west shore of Hudson Bay. Fox worked down as far as Cape Henrietta Maria, and then pushed north into the channel and basin which bear his name, as far as 66°47′N, but found no opening to the west before returning to England. James examined the same coastline as Fox, but wintered in the bay to which his name is attached. In the following spring he sought a passage to the northwest, but was greatly hampered by ice and returned to England. The joint failure discouraged any further search for the passage for over a century. No way to the east was opened, no minerals, no fisheries were found.

The prolonged English search for the northwest passage had, however, revealed the great inlet of Hudson Bay and the shoreline of the arctic archipelago on Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. But it did not reveal a passage to Asia or lead to any occupation or exploitation of the Canadian northlands above the St. Lawrence. What was to tie the search for the passage to the occupation of the Canadian north was the westward movement of the Canadian fur trade, itself the development by the French of one aspect of the northern economy in Canada.

By 1660 two French fur traders, Médard Chouart Des Groseilliers and Pierre-Esprit Radisson*, had come to the daring conclusion that the region from which the best furs came could be reached more easily by Hudson Bay than by the St. Lawrence, and hence their remarkable journeying to the Court of St. James’s, the voyage of the Nonsuch, and the granting in 1670 of the charter to the “Governor and Company of Adventurers of England tradeing into Hudson’s Bay.”

The charter of the Company gave it lordship of the soil and exclusive trade in all the lands draining into Hudson Bay, on condition of a yearly payment to the Crown of two elks and two black beaver whenever the monarch should visit those territories, and referred to the voyage which had been undertaken by the Nonsuch and Eaglet “for the discovery of a new Passage into the South Sea.” Thus the search for the passage was associated with the occupation and exploitation of the Canadian northlands, an association which continued until John Franklin’s* first voyage in 1818. The great resource proved, of course, to be the fur trade.

The trade was conducted by ships bringing supplies to posts at the river mouths where the furs were exchanged by the Indians who came down the rivers. The first posts were in James Bay; not until 1682–84 was a post, York Factory, established on the rivers coming down from the basin of Lake Winnipeg.

The creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company provoked the founding of the French “Compagnie du Nord” in 1682, under the direction of Charles Aubert* de La Chesnaye. From that date until the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 the two countries and their respective companies contested the control of Hudson Bay. Finally, by the treaty of 1713, the French relinquished their claims, but for a time in the years of warfare at the end of the century they established a definite superiority. From 1697, the year of the Treaty of Ryswick, until 1713, they held all the posts in the Bay except Fort Albany. Thus the 17th century ended with the fur trade of the Canadian northlands at issue between French and English, but still exploited by the northern route which had long connected Europe and the Canadian Arctic and might still lead to Asia.



Formerly Professor, Department of History, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba.



Professor of Canadian History and Provost, University College, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba.


T. J. Oleson and W. L. Morton, The Northern Approaches to Canada, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, revised edition, 1986, http://admin.biographi.ca/en/special.php?project_id=49&p=6.


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