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Other Explorers on the Bay

Little Denmark, whose conquering Vikings on their 'sea horses' had scoured the coasts of Europe, now comes on the scene. Hudson, an Englishman, had discovered the Bay, but the port of Churchill, later to become an important post of the fur trade, was discovered by Jens Munck, the Dane. In the autumn of 1619 Munck came across the Bay with two vessels—the Unicorn, a warship with sea horses on its carved prow, and the Lamprey, a companion sloop—scudding before an equinoctial squall. Through a hurricane of sleet he saw what appeared to be an inlet between breakers lashing against the rocky west shore. Steering the Unicorn for the opening, he found himself in a land-locked haven, protected from the tidal bore by a ridge of sunken rock. The Lamprey had fallen behind, but fires of driftwood built on the shore guided her into the harbor, and Munck constructed an ice-break round the keels of his ships. Piles of rocks sunk as a coffer-dam protected the boats from the indrive of tidal ice; and the Danes prepared to winter in the new harbor. To-day there are no forests within miles of Churchill, but at that time pine woods crowded to the water's edge, and the crews laid up a great store of firewood. With rocks, they built fireplaces on the decks—a paltry protection against the northern cold. Later explorers wintering at Churchill boarded up their decks completely and against the boarding banked snow, but this method of preparation against an Arctic winter was evidently unknown to the Danes.

By November every glass vessel on the ships had been broken to splinters by the frost. In the lurid mock suns and mock moons of the frost fog the superstitious sailors fancied that they saw the ominous sign of the Cross, portending disaster. One of the surgeons died of exposure, and within a month all the crew were prostrate with scurvy. With the exception, perhaps, of Bering's voyage a hundred years later, the record of Munck's wintering is one of the most lamentable in all American exploration. 'Died this day my Nephew, Eric Munck,' wrote the captain on April 1 of 1620, 'and was buried in the same grave as my second mate. Great difficulty to get coffins made. May 6—The bodies of the dead lie uncovered because none of us has strength to bury them.'

By June the ships had become charnel-houses. Two men only, besides Munck, had survived the winter. When the ice went out with a rush and a grinding, and the ebb tide left the flats bare, wolves came nightly, sniffing the air and prowling round the ships' exposed keels. 'As I have no more hope of life in this world,' wrote Jens Munck, 'herewith good-night to all the world and my soul to God.' His two companions had managed to crawl down the ship's ladder and across the flats, where they fell ravenously on the green sprouting sorrel grass and sea nettles. As all northerners know, they could have eaten nothing better for scurvy. Forthwith their malady was allayed. In a few days they came back for their commander. By June 26 all three had recovered.

The putrid dead were thrown into the river. Ballast and cargo were then cast out. It thus happened that when the tide came in, the little sloop Lamprey lifted and floated out to sea. Munck had drilled holes in the hull of the Unicorn and sunk her with all her freight till he could come back with an adequate crew; but he never returned. War broke out in Europe, and Munck went to his place in the Danish Navy.

Meanwhile Indians had come down to what they henceforth called the River of the Strangers. When the tide went out they mounted the Unicorn and plundered her of all the water-soaked cargo. In the cargo were quantities of powder. A fire was kindled to dry the booty. At once a consuming flame shot into the air, followed by a terrific explosion; and when the smoke cleared neither plunder nor plunderers nor ship remained. Eighty years afterwards the fur traders dug from these river flats a sunken cannon stamped C 4—Christian IV—and thus established the identity of Munck's winter quarters as Churchill harbor.

Munck was not the last soldier of fortune to essay passage to China through the ice-bound North Sea. Captain Fox of Hull and Captain James of Bristol came out in 1631 on separate expeditions, 'itching,' as Fox expressed it, to find the North-West Passage. Private individuals had fitted out both expeditions. Fox claimed the immediate patronage of the king; James came out under the auspices of the city of Bristol. Sailing the same week, they did not again meet till they were south of Port Nelson in the autumn, when Fox dined with James and chaffed him about his hopes to 'meet the Emperor of Japan.' But there was no need of rivalry; both went back disappointed men. James wintered on Charlton Island, and towards the end of 1632, after a summer's futile cruising, returned to England with a terrible tale of bootless suffering.

While England sought a short route to China by Hudson Bay, and the Spaniards were still hoping to find a way to the orient by the Gulf of Mexico and California, New France had been founded, and, as we may learn from other narratives in this series, her explorers had not been idle.

In the year 1660 two French pathfinders and fur traders, Medard Chouart des Groseilliers and Pierre Esprit Radisson, men of Three Rivers, came back from the region west of Lake Superior telling wondrous tales of a tribe of Indians they had met—a Cree nation that passed each summer on the salt waters of the Sea of the North. The two fur traders were related, Radisson's sister having married Groseilliers, who was a veteran of one of the Jesuit missions on Lake Huron. Radisson himself, although the hero of many exploits, was not yet twenty-six years of age. Did that Sea of the North of which they had heard find western outlet by the long-sought passage? So ran rumor and conjecture concerning the two explorers in Three Rivers and Quebec; but Radisson himself writes: 'We considered whether to reveal what we had learned, for we had not yet been to the Bay of the North, knowing only what the Crees told us. We wished to discover it ourselves before revealing anything.'

In the execution of their bold design to journey to the North Sea, Radisson and Groseilliers had to meet the opposition of the Jesuits and the governor—the two most powerful influences in New France. The Jesuits were themselves preparing for an expedition overland to Hudson Bay and had invited Radisson to join their company going by way of the Saguenay; but he declined, and they left without him. In June 1661 the Jesuits—Fathers Dreuilletes and Dablon—ascended the Saguenay, but they penetrated no farther than a short distance north of Lake St John, where they established a mission.

The fur trade of New France was strictly regulated, and severe punishments were meted out to those who traded without a license. Radisson and Groseilliers made formal application to the governor for permission to trade on the Sea of the North. The governor's answer was that he would give the explorers a license if they would take with them two of his servants and give them half the profits of the undertaking. The two explorers were not content with this proposal and were forbidden to depart; but in defiance of the governor's orders they slipped out from the gates of Three Rivers by night and joined a band of Indians bound for the northern wilds.

The two Frenchmen spent the summer and winter of 1661-62 in hunting with the Crees west of Lake Superior, where they met another tribe of Indians—the Stone Boilers, or Assiniboines—who also told them of the great salt water, or Sea of the North. In the spring of 1662, with some Crees of the hinterland, they set out in canoes down one of the rivers—Moose or Abitibi—leading to Hudson Bay. Radisson had sprained his ankle; and the long portages by the banks of the ice-laden, rain-swollen rivers were terrible. The rocks were slippery as glass with ice and moss. The forests of this region are full of dank heavy windfall that obstructs the streams and causes an endless succession of swamps. In these the paddlers had to wade to mid-waist, 'tracking' their canoes through perilous passage-way, where the rip of an upturned branch might tear the birch from the bottom of the canoe. When the swamps finally narrowed to swift rivers, blankets were hoisted as sails, and the brigade of canoes swept out to the sandy sea of Hudson Bay. 'We were in danger to perish a thousand times from the ice,' Radisson writes, 'but at last we came full sail from a deep bay to the seaside, where we found an old house all demolished and battered with bullets. The Crees told us about Europeans. We went from isle to isle all that summer in the Bay of the North. We passed the summer coasting the seaside.'

Had Radisson found Hudson Bay? Some historians dispute his claims; but even if his assertion that he sailed 'from isle to isle' during the summer of 1662 be challenged, the fact that his companion, Groseilliers, knew enough of the Bay to enable him six years later to guide a ship round by sea to 'a rendezvous' on the Rupert river must be accepted.

The only immediate results of the discovery to Radisson and Groseilliers were condign punishment, disgrace, and almost utter ruin. When they came back to the St Lawrence in the summer of 1663 with several hundred Indians and a flotilla of canoes swarming over the surface of the river below the heights of Quebec, and conveying a great cargo of beaver skins, the avaricious old governor affected furious rage because the two traders had broken the law by going to the woods without his permission. The explorers were heavily fined, and a large quantity of their beaver was seized to satisfy the revenue tax. Of the immense cargo brought down, Radisson and Groseilliers were permitted to keep only a small remainder.

Groseilliers sailed for France to appeal to the home authorities for redress, but the friends of the governor at the French court proved too strong for him and nothing was done. He then tried to interest merchants of Rochelle in an expedition to Hudson Bay by sea, and from one of them he obtained a vague promise of a ship for the following year. It was agreed that in the following spring Radisson and Groseilliers should join this ship at Isle Percé at the mouth of the St Lawrence. So it happened that, in the spring of 1664, the two explorers, having returned to Three Rivers, secretly took passage in a fishing schooner bound for Anticosti, whence they went south to Isle Percé to meet the ship they expected from Rochelle. But again they were to be disappointed; a Jesuit just out from France informed them that no ship would come. What now should the explorers do? They could not go back to Three Rivers, for their attempt to make another journey without a license rendered them liable to punishment. They went to Cape Breton, and from there to the English at Port Royal in Nova Scotia.

At Port Royal they found a Boston captain, Zachariah Gillam, who plied in vessels to and fro from the American Plantations to England. Gillam offered his vessel for a voyage to Hudson Bay; but the season was late, and when the vessel reached the rocky walls of Labrador the captain lost heart and refused to enter the driving straits. The ship returned and landed the explorers in Boston. They then clubbed the last of their fortunes together and entered into an agreement with ship owners of Boston to take two ships to Hudson Bay on their own account in the following spring. But, while fishing to obtain provisions for the voyage, one of the vessels was wrecked, and, instead of sailing for the North Sea, Radisson and Groseilliers found themselves in Boston involved in a lawsuit for the value of the lost ship. When they emerged from this they were destitute.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, The Adventurers Of England On Hudson Bay, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade in the North, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914


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