John Rae (Inuktitut Aglooka ᐊᒡᓘᑲ English: “long strider”) (30 September 1813 – 22 July 1893) was a Scottish doctor who explored Northern Canada, surveyed parts of the Northwest Passage and reported the fate of the Franklin Expedition. In 1846–47 he explored the Gulf of Boothia northwest of Hudson Bay. In 1848–51 he explored the Arctic coast near Victoria Island. In 1854 he went from Boothia to the Arctic coast and learned the fate of Franklin. He was noted for physical stamina, skill at hunting and boat handling, use of native methods and the ability to travel long distances with little equipment while living off the land.
Early life and career
Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in the parish of Orphir in Orkney. After studying medicine in Edinburgh, he graduated with an Edinburgh University degree and was licenced by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh – he went to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company as a doctor, accepting a post as surgeon at Moose Factory, Ontario, where he remained for ten years.
Whilst working for the company, treating both European and indigenous employees of the company, Rae became known for his prodigious stamina and skilled use of snow shoes. He learned to live off the land like a native and working with the local craftsmen, designed his own snow shoes. This knowledge allowed him to travel great distances with little equipment and few followers, unlike many other explorers of the Victorian Age.
Gulf of Boothia 1846–47
In 1846 and 1847 Rae explored the Gulf of Boothia between the Melville Peninsula and the Boothia Peninsula. Repulse Bay at the northwest end of Hudson Bay is south of the Melville Peninsula. The west and north sides of the Melville Peninsula were explored by Parry in 1822. Simpson’s furthest east was south of the Boothia Peninsula. The northern inlet leading to the Gulf of Boothia had been partly penetrated. The rest of the area was unknown.
In 1836–39 Thomas Simpson sailed along much of the north coast of Canada. Sir George Simpson proposed to link Thomas Simpson’s furthest east by sending an overland expedition from Hudson Bay. Rae was chosen because of his well-known skill in overland travel. Rae first had to travel to the Red River Colony to learn the art of surveying. On 20 August 1844 Rae left Moose Factory, went up the Missinaibi River and took the usual voyageur route west. When he reached the Red River Colony on 9 October he found his instructor seriously ill. After the man died he headed for Sault Saint Marie to find another instructor. The two-month, 1,200 mile winter journey was by dog sled along the north shore of Lake Superior. From there Sir George told him to go to Toronto to study under J. H. LeFroy at the Magnetic Observatory. Returning from Toronto, he received final instructions at Sault Sainte Marie. He left on 5 August 1845 and took the usual voyageur route via Lake Winnipeg and reached York Factory on 8 October, where he wintered. On 12 June 1846 he headed north in two 22-foot boats and reached Repulse Bay in July. The local Inuit told him that there was salt water to the northwest, so he chose this as his base.
On his first journey, which began on 26 July, he dragged one of his boats forty miles northwest to the Committee Bay of the Gulf of Boothia. Here he learned from the Inuit that the Gulf of Boothia was a bay and that he would have to cross land to reach Simpson’s furthest east. (In 1830 John Ross had also been told that Boothia was a bay). He sailed part way up the east coast of the Bay, but soon turned back because he needed to make preparations for winter. That winter he became one of the first Europeans to winter in the high Arctic without the aid of a depot ship. By December he had learned how to build igloos which he later found warmer than European tents. His second journey began on 5 April 1847. He crossed to Committee Bay, went up its west coast for four days and then headed west across the base of the Simpson Peninsula to Pelly Bay. He went north and from a hill thought he could see Lord Mayor Bay where John Ross had been frozen in from 1829 to 1833. He circled much of the coast of the Simpson Peninsula and returned to Repulse Bay. His third journey began on 13 May 1847. He crossed from Repulse Bay to Committee Bay and went up the east coast hoping to reach Fury and Hecla Strait which William Edward Parry’s men had seen in 1822. The weather was bad and they began to run short of food. On 28 May he turned back at a place he called Cape Crozier which he thought was about 25 miles south of the strait. He left Repulse Bay on 12 August when the ice broke up and reached York Factory on 6 September 1847 and soon left for England and Scotland. Although he had not reached Simpson’s furthest east he had reduced the gap to less than 100 miles.
Arctic Coast 1848–51.
In 1848–51 Rae made three journeys along the Arctic coast. The first took him from the Mackenzie River to the Coppermine River, which had been done before. On the second he tried to cross to Victoria Island and was blocked by ice. On the third he explored the whole south coast of Victoria Island.
By 1848 it was clear that Sir John Franklin was lost in the Arctic. Three expeditions were sent to find him, one from the east, one through Bering Strait and the Richardson expedition overland to the Arctic coast. Most of the Arctic coast had been traced by Thomas Simpson (explorer). North of the coast were two coastlines called “Wollaston Land” and “Victoria Land”. Franklin was thought to be somewhere in the unknown area north of that. The 61-year-old Richardson chose Rae as his second in command.
First journey (1848) Rae and Richardson left Liverpool in March, reached New York and took the usual voyageur route and on 15 July 1848 reached Fort Resolution on the Great Slave Lake. John Bell was sent downriver to establish winter quarters at Fort Confidence on the east arm to the Great Bear Lake. Richardson and Rae went down the Mackenzie River and turned east along the coast. They hoped to cross north to “Wollaston Land”, as southern Victoria Island was then known, but ice conditions made this impossible. Through worsening ice, they rounded Cape Krusenstern at the west end of Coronation Gulf and turned south. By the first of September it was clear that they had run out of time, so they abandoned their boats and headed overland. They crossed the Rae River and Richardson River and on 15 September reached their winter quarters at Fort Confidence at the northeast end of the Great Bear Lake. For a fuller account see Rae–Richardson Arctic Expedition.
Second journey (1849) In December and January Rae made two trips northeast to find a better route to Coronation Gulf. On 7 May Richardson and Bell left with most of the men. Rae left on 9 June with seven men. Hauling a boat overland they reached the Kendall River on 21 June. The next day they reached the Coppermine River and waited a week for the ice to break up. They descended the Coppermine and waited again for the ice to clear on Coronation Gulf. It was 30 July before they reached Cape Krusenstern. From here they hoped to cross the Dolphin and Union Strait to “Wollaston Land”. On 19 August they made the attempt, but after 8 miles they were caught in fog and moving ice and spent three hours rowing back to their starting point. Rae waited as long as he could and turned back, reaching Fort Confidence on the first of September. On the return journey their boat was lost at Bloody Falls and Albert One-Eye, the Inuk interpreter, was killed.
Third journey (1851) He reached Fort Simpson in late September. A week later William Pullen showed up, having sailed from the Bering Strait and up the Mackenzie River. In June 1850 he and Pullen went east up the Mackenzie with that year’s furs. On 25 June, just short of the Great Slave Lake, he was met by an express canoe. Pullen was promoted to captain and told to go north and try again. Rae received three letters from Sir George Simpson, Francis Beaufort and Lady Franklin all telling him to return to the Arctic. Simpson promised supplies and left the route to Rae’s discretion. Pullen left immediately with most of the equipment. Rae escorted the furs as far as Methye Portage and returned to Fort Simpson in August. En route he wrote Sir George a letter outlining his complex but ultimately successful plan. That winter he would go to Fort Confidence and build two boats and collect supplies. Next spring he would use dogsleds to cross to Wollaston Land and go as far as he could before the ice melt made it impossible to recross the Strait. Meanwhile his men would have hauled the boats overland to Coronation Gulf. When the ice melted he would follow the coast by boat as long as there was open water. He reached Fort Confidence in September and spent the winter.
On foot in spring: On 25 April 1851, he left the fort. On 2 May he crossed the frozen strait via Douglas Island to Cape Lady Franklin, the southernmost point on Victoria Island. Heading east he passed and named the Richardson Islands and passed what he thought was the westernmost point reached by Thomas Simpson on his return journey in 1839. He turned back somewhere near 68°36′0″N 110°00′0″W. Heading west he passed Cape Lady Franklin and followed the coast north and west around Simpson Bay, which he named. The coast swung north but it was getting late. He made a final push, the coast swung to the northeast and on 24 May he stopped at about 70°11′0″N 116°15′0″W. From here he could look north across Prince Albert Sound. Unknown to Rae, just 10 days before a sledge party from Robert McClure’s expedition had been on the north side of the sound. He turned south, crossed Dolphin and Union Strait safely and on 5 June turned inland. The journey to camp on the Kendall River was the least pleasant part of the journey since he had to travel over melting snow and through melt water.
By boat in summer: On 15 June 1851, two days after the boat arrived, he set off down the Kendall River and Coppermine River with 10 men. He waited several times for the ice to clear and in early July he started east along the south coast of Coronation Gulf. In late July he crossed the mouth of Bathurst Inlet and reached Cape Flinders at the western end of the Kent Peninsula. He reached Cape Alexander at its east end on 24 July and on 27 July crossed the strait to Victoria Island. He explored Cambridge Bay which he found to be a better harbour than Dease and Simpson had reported. He left the bay and went east along an unknown coast. The coast swung north and the weather got worse. By August he was in Albert Edward Bay. Blocked by ice, he went north on foot and reached his furthest on 13 August near 70°03′0″N 100°55′0″W. Returning, he left a cairn which was found by Richard Collinson’s men two years later. He then made three unsuccessful attempts to cross Victoria Strait east to King William Island. (Victoria Strait is nearly always impassable.) On 21 August he found two pieces of wood that had clearly come from a European ship. (These were probably from Franklin’s ship, but Rae chose not to guess.) On 29 August he reached Cape Lady Franklin and crossed to the mainland. He worked his way up the swollen Coppermine and reached Fort Confidence on 10 September. He had travelled 1,080 miles on land, 1,390 miles by boat, charted 630 miles of unknown coast, followed the whole south coast of Victoria Island, proved that Wollaston Land and Victoria Land were part of the same island and had not found Franklin.
By 1849 Rae was in charge of the Mackenzie River district at Fort Simpson. While exploring the Boothia Peninsula in 1854 Rae made contact with local Inuit, from whom he obtained much information about the fate of the lost naval expedition. His report to the British Admiralty carried shocking and unwelcome evidence that cannibalism had been a last resort for some of the survivors. When it was leaked to the Press, Franklin’s widow Lady Jane Franklin was outraged and recruited many important supporters, among them Charles Dickens who wrote several pamphlets condemning Rae for daring to suggest British Naval sailors would have resorted to cannibalism.
Closing the Gap and the Fate of Franklin 1854
He went south to Fort Chipewyan, waited for a hard freeze, and walked on snowshoes to Fort Garry (17 November–10 January), took the Crow Wing Trail to St Paul, and then went to Chicago, Hamilton, Ontario, New York and London, which he reached in late March 1852. In England he proposed to return to Boothia and complete his attempt to link Hudson Bay to the Arctic coast by dragging a boat to the Back River. He went to New York, Montreal, Sault Sainte Marie by steamer, Fort William, Ontario by canoe and reached York Factory on 18 June 1853 where he picked up his two boats. He left on 24 June and reached Chesterfield Inlet on 17 July. Finding a previously unknown river, he followed it for 210 miles before it became too small to use. Judging that it was too late to drag the boat north to the Back River, he turned back and wintered at his old camp on Repulse Bay.
He left Repulse Bay on 31 March 1854. Near Pelly Bay he met some Inuit, one of whom had a gold cap-band. Asked where he got it, he replied that it came from a place 10–12 days away where 35 or so Kabloonas (white men) had starved to death. Rae bought the hat-band and said he would buy anything similar. On 27 April he reached frozen salt water south of what is now called Rae Strait. A few miles west, on the south side of the bay, he reached what he believed was the Castor and Pollux River (68°28′45″N 93°53′35″W), which Simpson had reached from the west in 1839. (This closed the last gap in the line from Bering Strait to Hudson Bay.) He then turned north along the western portion of the Boothia Peninsula, the last uncharted coast of North America, hoping to reach Bellot Strait which had been found in 1852. The coast continued north instead of swinging west to form the south shore of “King William Land”.
Still 200 miles south of Bellot Strait, on 6 May he reached his furthest north at about 68°57′27″N 94°35′24″W. He named it Point de la Guiche after an obscure French traveler he had met in New York. It appeared that King William Land was an island and the coast to the north was the same as had been seen by James Clark Ross in 1831. The ice to the west appeared to be “young ice”, that is, ice that freezes and thaws annually. Incidentally it has been claimed that Rae here effectively discovered the Northwest Passage (certainly what proved to be the remaining unexplored part, as followed in the following century by Amundsen) on the grounds that Rae Strait is the only relatively ice-free connection between the (all relatively ice-free) Lancaster Sound/eastern Parry Channel (via Peel Sound) from the East and the mainland coast on to the West.
With only two men fit for heavy travel, Rae turned back. Reaching Repulse Bay on 26 May he found several Inuit families who had come to trade relics. They said that four winters ago some other Inuit had met at least 40 Kabloonas who were dragging a boat south. Their leader was a tall, stout man with a telescope. They communicated by gestures that their ships had been crushed by ice and that they were going south to hunt deer. When the Inuit returned the following spring they found about 30 corpses and signs of cannibalism. One of the artifacts Rae bought was a small silver plate. Engraved on the back was “Sir John Franklin, K.C.H”. With this important information, Rae chose not to continue exploring. He left Repulse Bay on 4 August 1854 as soon as the ice cleared.
Later career and death
In 1860 Rae worked on the telegraph line to America, visiting Iceland and Greenland. In 1864 he made a further telegraph survey in the west of Canada. In 1884 at age 71 he was again working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, this time as an explorer of the Red River for a proposed telegraph line from the United States to Russia.
John Rae died from an aneurysm in Kensington, London on 22 July 1893. A week later his body arrived in Orkney. He was buried in the kirkyard of St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall. A memorial to him, lying as in sleep upon the ground, is inside the cathedral. The memorial by North Ronaldsay sculptor, Ian Scott, which was unveiled at Stromness Pierhead in 2013, is a statue of Rae standing erect, with an inscription describing him as “the discoverer of the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.”
Rae Strait (between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula), Rae Isthmus, Rae River, Mount Rae, Fort Rae and the village of Rae-Edzo (now Behchoko), Northwest Territories were all named for him.
The outcome of Lady Franklin’s efforts to glorify the dead of the Franklin expedition meant Rae was shunned somewhat by the British establishment. Although he found the first clue to the fate of Franklin, Rae was never awarded a knighthood, nor was he remembered at the time of his death, dying quietly in London. In comparison fellow Scot and contemporary explorer David Livingstone was buried with full imperial honours in Westminster Abbey.
Historians have since studied Rae’s expeditions and his roles in finding the Northwest Passage and learning the fate of Franklin’s crews. Authors such as Ken McGoogan have noted Rae was willing to adopt and learn the ways of indigenous Arctic peoples, which made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. Rae also respected Inuit customs, traditions and skills, which went against the beliefs of many 19th century Europeans that most native peoples were primitive and of little educational value.
In July 2004, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced into the UK Parliament a motion proposing, inter alia, that the House “regrets that Dr Rae was never awarded the public recognition that was his due”. In March 2009 he introduced a further motion urging Parliament to formally state it “regrets that memorials to Sir John Franklin outside the Admiralty headquarters and inside Westminster Abbey still inaccurately describe Franklin as the first to discover the [North West] passage, and calls on the Ministry of Defence and the Abbey authorities to take the necessary steps to clarify the true position.” In June 2014, it was announced that a plaque dedicated to Rae would be installed at Westminster Abbey.
In June 2011, a blue plaque was installed by English Heritage on the house where John Rae spent the last years of his life, No. 4 Lower Addison Gardens, Kensington.
In 2013, the process of establishing a group to promote the achievements of John Rae commenced. This group, calling itself ‘In John Rae’s Company’ was first virtually established as a Facebook group on 5 January 2013. A petition calling for the issuing of a commemorative postage stamp was launched by Orkney International Science Festival.
After a conference in Stromness, Orkney to celebrate John Rae’s 200th Anniversary, in September 2013, a statue was erected to Rae at the pierhead. In December 2013, The John Rae Society was formed in Orkney to promote Rae’s achievements.