This Week in History


John Rae: Intrepid Northern Surgeon and Surveyor

This story was initially published in 2003

On March 31, 1854, John Rae, backed by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), left Repulse Bay, Nunavut, to survey the Arctic shores in the area. A few weeks later, Rae met an Inuk at Pelly Bay who gave him valuable information about the fate of Franklin and his crew, a missing explorer actively sought by the British.

Explorations of John Rae 1846-1854
© Parks Canada / Émilie Paquin

Born in 1813, John Rae spent his childhood on the Orkney Islands in Scotland, where his father was an HBC representative. As a young man, he spent his free time learning about nature, knowledge that would later prove to be very useful. When he was 20, Rae earned his surgeon’s degree in Edinburgh and left on board the Prince of Wales, an HBC ship that carried him as far as Moose Factory, Ontario. For 10 years, Rae worked as a surgeon and ran a trading post there. An outstanding snowshoer, he gained the Aboriginal's acceptance, and they taught him hunting and survival skills.

In 1844, the HBC assigned Rae the mission of completing the survey of Canada’s northern shoreline, as only a few sections were known to Europeans. During four Arctic expeditions, from 1846 to 1854, he covered more than 16 000 kilometres on foot or in small boats, recording his observations of Arctic geology, wildlife and vegetation. On his last expedition, the Inuit told him that some white men had starved to death a few years before. The information and objects gathered led Rae to believe that it was Sir John Franklin’s crew, and he was able to find the site of the tragedy.

Upon his return, John Rae informed the authorities of his discovery. His statements were not very well received, particularly because he reported that the Inuit, after examining the bodies, concluded that the crew must have resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The Royal Navy already disapproved of Rae using Aboriginal techniques when travelling to the Arctic, and this statement about the officers and crew only added to the controversy. Rae’s credibility was questioned, and he was accused of returning to England too eagerly to claim the reward promised by the government for discovery of Franklin's whereabouts. However, later expeditions confirmed Rae’s claims.

John Rae showing map and Arctic relics of the Sir John Franklin Expedition (1845) Byrne & Co.
© Library and Archives Canada / 147990


John Rae died in 1893 in London, England. John Rae was designated a National Historic Person in 1973 for his significant contribution to the knowledge of the Arctic.

To learn more about Arctic exploration, explore our archives: John Ross Explores the Arctic, "...It was not distances that meant anything to us,", Lost in the Arctic, Explorer Maps Unknown Lands, Dreams of Arctic Riches and Happy Birthday Henry!

For more information on the Hudson’s Bay Company, visit our archives: Prince Rupert Heads New Fur Company.

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