John Rae (1813-1893)


  • C. Stuart Houston



Biographies, Canoeing, Expeditions, Explorers, History, Hudson's Bay Company, Mapping, Physical fitness, Rae, John, 1813-1893, Search for Franklin, Snowshoeing, Subsistence, Survival, Boothia Peninsula, Nunavut, Dolphin and Union Strait, N.W.T./Nunavut, King William Island, Lord Mayor Bay, Melville Peninsula, Kugaaruk region, Quoich River, Repulse Bay (Hamlet) region, Simpson Peninsula, Victoria Island


Dr. John Rae, who spent 22 years in British North America, accurately mapped more miles of North America's unknown northern coastline - excluding Hudson Bay - than did any other explorer. ... Unusually adaptable and a crack shot, he learned native methods of living off the land. Remarkably fit, he set records that have never been surpassed for speed and endurance on snowshoes. John Rae was born on 30 September 1813 in the Hall of Clestrain, near Stromness in the Orkney Islands. At age 16, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine and qualified as Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in 1833. His first medical job was as a surgeon on the Prince of Wales, the Hudson's Bay Company supply ship. A sailing ship of 400 tons, it carried 31 Orkneymen bound for employment at distant fur-trading posts. After loading the season's furs at Moose Factory, the Prince of Wales was turned back by heavy ice in the Hudson Strait and was forced to winter at Charlton Island in James Bay. There, Rae successfully treated his scurvy-afflicted men with cranberries and tender sprouts of the wild pea. Instead of returning to England, Rae accepted an offer from the Hudson's Bay Company of five years' employment as "clerk and surgeon." ... In 1844, Hudson's Bay Company Governor Sir George Simpson proposed that Rae complete the survey of the northern coastline of North America. After studying surveying in Toronto, Rae left York Factory in June 1846 with ten men and two 22-foot boats. In April 1847 the expedition crossed Rae Isthmus to reach Lord Mayor's Bay, mapping the shore of Simpson Peninsula on the return journey. They then explored the west coast of Melville Peninsula, the two legs adding up to 1,050 km of new coastline mapped. For the most part they lived off the land; Rae shot nearly as much game as the other 12 men together. Soon after Rae's return, Dr. John Richardson offered him the position of second-in-command on the first search expedition for the missing John Franklin. ... In 1851, Rae set out on his third expedition with two men, two sledges, and five dogs. After crossing Dolphin and Union Strait, they explored 270 new km of Victoria Island coastline on foot. They next used two boats to complete the 740 km of exploration of the southern and eastern shorelines of Victoria Island. When Rae turned back, Franklin's ships Erebus and Terror, were trapped in the ice only about 80 km to the east, although he did not know it. ... Rae's fourth and final expedition in 1853 was designed to complete the survey of the continental coastline for the Hudson's Bay Company. He explored the Quoich River for 335 km, wintered at Repulse Bay, and set out in March 1854. At Pelly Bay the Eskimos gave him second-hand news of the fate of the Franklin expedition - other Eskimos had seen dead and dying men about four years earlier. Rae mapped 430 new km of coastline along the west side of Boothia Peninsula, leaving 240 km south of Bellot Strait unexplored. He proved that King William Island was indeed an island, separated from Boothia Peninsula by what is now called Rae Strait. Back at Repulse Bay, Eskimos brought him a silver plate, a medal, and several forks and spoons with names or initials of Franklin and his officers. Rae did not risk his men in searching further for the bodies of Franklin's men, but instead rushed back to England to recall the other search parties, which were widely scattered in the wrong areas of the Arctic. When Rae presented his report and his Franklin relics to the Admiralty on 22 October 1854, he forthrightly told of the Eskimo account of cannibalism practised by the British sailors. In spite of strong opposition from Lady Franklin, Rae and his men received the 10,000 Pounds Sterling for ascertaining the fate of Franklin's party. ...






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