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The Quest for a Northwest Passage

The explorers who followed Christopher Columbus soon found that North America was not a part of Asia, as they had believed at first. At this time, British, French, and Dutch adventurers were more interested in finding an easy route to Asia than they were in exploring and settling North America, so they began to look for a "Northwest Passage," or waterway, that would take them around or through the continent.

routes of four major Northwest Passage expeditions
routes of four major Northwest Passage expeditions

Chronology of Major Expeditions

1524 Giovanni Verrazano, sailing under the French flag, made it as far north as Maine.

1535 Jacques Cartier, exploring for France, found the St. Lawrence River.

1576 Sir Martin Frobisher began a series of English expeditions, and discovered the bay which now bears his name.

1583 Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the territory of Newfoundland for the English Crown.

1585 English explorer John Davis reached Cumberland Sound, Baffin Island.

1609 Henry Hudson, working for the Dutch East India Company, sailed into New York Bay and up the Hudson River.

1610-1611 Henry Hudson explored the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay.

1616 William Baffin and Robert Bylot sailed up Davis Strait and around Baffin Bay.

1791-1795 The Vancouver Expedition surveyed in detail all the passages from the Northwest Coast and confirmed that there was no such passage south of the Bering Strait.

1818 Commander John Ross, a Scottish explorer, began a series of expeditions.

1845-1848 Ships commanded by Sir John Franklin, a British explorer, reached a point not far from waters that lead directly to the Asiatic shore. Franklin died during the expedition.

1850 Sir Robert McClure forced a passage northward to the northern shore of Banks Island. He anchored his ship in a bay which he named God's Mercy, and tried to continue his trip by foot. His attempt did not succeed, however.

1903-1906 Roald Amundsen's ship, the Gjoa, completed the first successful east-to-west trip through the Northwest Passage.

1942 The Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, St. Roch, completed the first west-to-east voyage through the Northwest Passage.

1954 McClure Strait was conquered by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard icebreakers.

1960 The U.S. atomic submarine Seadragon made the first underwater crossing of the Northwest Passage.

1969 The U.S. icebreaker-tanker Manhattan became the first commercial ship to complete the passage.

satellite view of the current Northwest Passage
satellite view of the current Northwest Passage

Although a Northwest Passage has indeed been mapped, it is ice-packed most of the year and has never proven to be a viable route for shipping.

The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979

Christopher Columbus
Giovanni Verrazano
Jacques Cartier
Sir Martin Frobisher
Henry Hudson
Sir John Franklin
Roald Amundsen

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This page was last updated on 10/24/2017.