Andrew Rader is a mission manager at SpaceX and author of the new book Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take us to the Stars.
Canadians aren’t particularly good at remembering their history or celebrating their achievements, but Americans sure are. In the first 20 years of this century alone, more than 15 books have been written about Lewis and Clark, the pair who marched across the continental United States in 1804. Yet, few have heard of the equivalent Canadian expedition of Alexander Mackenzie, which succeeded in accomplishing precisely the same feat of tracing a river route through the continent to the Pacific: the main differences being that Mackenzie followed a longer, more difficult route, 12 years before Lewis and Clark, and crossed the continent twice.
In 1789, Mackenzie traced a large river to its mouth in the Arctic (he dubbed it “Disappointment River” because it didn’t lead to the Pacific, but perhaps to his posthumous dismay, it was later renamed in his honour). Not willing to give up, three years later, he set out accompanied by two Indigenous guides, six French Canadian voyageurs, his Scottish cousin and a dog who seems not to have had a name (referred to in journals simply as “our dog”). This time, the group eventually found a trail that wound up into the Rocky Mountains, and then down a stream flowing west. Descending the Bella Coola River, Mackenzie and his party became the first explorers to traverse the North American continent to the Pacific.
This story isn’t unique. The history of exploration is filled with examples of Canada’s prominent role, frequently in cases in which Americans have done a better job celebrating similar but less impressive accomplishments. This trend actually starts at the very beginning. As you probably learned in history class, the Americas were settled around 15,000 years ago by people crossing into Alaska from Siberia. These early inhabitants eventually diverged into all the indigenous peoples of today. But who were the first Eurasian explorers to arrive following its initial settlement? No, not the Vikings, and certainly not Columbus. The answer is the Inuit, who descend from a people who arrived thousands of years after North America’s initial settlement, crossing from Asia by sea.
Arriving in the Canadian Arctic a mere thousand years ago, the Inuit spread from the Yukon all the way to Greenland. They brought far more advanced technology than earlier northern inhabitants, including kayaks and umiaks, and highly effective knives, spear tips and harpoons that kept a sharper edge. Their arsenal included copper and iron harpoons and lances used to hunt giant bowhead whales weighing up to a hundred tonnes (the metal was collected from meteorites that has fallen from space). The Inuit also had another huge advantage over earlier inhabitants of the region – dogs, who are widely used by the Inuit to pull sleds, guard homes and track prey.
Canada also witnessed the arrival of the first European explorers (outside Greenland, which is technically part of North America). Vikings led by Erik the Red had settled in Greenland around the year 985. But from the start, there were hints of lands farther west. A sailor named Bjarni Herjolfsson was probably first to sight the mainland in Labrador, when he became lost on his way to Greenland. Erik the Red’s son, Leif Erikson, led an expedition to follow up on the report a few years later. They made their way from a desolate place they called Helluland “Rock Land” (probably Baffin Island), a wooded region they called Markland “Forest Land” (probably Labrador) and then came to a verdant paradise of green meadows, rivers full of salmon and plentiful grapes or berries (we don’t know which because they used the same word for both). They called this place “Vinland.”
In 1960, archaeologists Helge and Anne Ingstad discovered the remains of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows near the northern tip of Newfoundland. This settlement was large, supporting a population of up to a hundred. It consisted of almost a dozen sod-covered wooden framed buildings, with a main hall 29 metres long by 16 metres wide (the size of an NBA basketball court). Remains of butternuts at the site imply that the settlers ventured at least as far as the northern tip of the tree’s range in New Brunswick, a thousand kilometres south. Other Viking expeditions are recorded in the sagas, and some may have sailed to New England or beyond, but no definitive archaeological evidence has ever been found of Vikings beyond the Canadian border.
Canada was also home to the first European settlement north of Mexico. In 1541, Jacques Cartier built the fort of Charlesbourg-Royal near Quebec City, 24 years before the Spanish founded St. Augustine, the celebrated “oldest city in America.” Charlesbourg-Royal only lasted a couple of years, but the next French settlement (Tadoussac, 1599) came eight years before the first English colony in the United States. Speaking of which, what was the first English settlement in North America? It wasn’t Jamestown (1607), nor was it the Pilgrim settlement at Plymouth Rock (1620). It was St. John’s, established under Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1583. In fact, St. John’s has a reasonable claim to be the oldest European settlement outside the Caribbean, since by the time it was founded, Basque fishermen had been building temporary encampments in the area for most of a century.
Canada became a nexus in the hunt for a shorter route to Asia. This could be a “Northwest Passage” over the Arctic, or possibly a river route through the continent. Cartier’s 1535 expedition up the Saint Lawrence was motivated by such a search – and he supposed the “Lachine” rapids at Montreal to be the only thing barring his way to China. In 1611, Henry Hudson probed for a way through the ice of the Northwest Passage. After being frozen in for the winter, his crew mutinied in the spring of 1612 and cast him adrift in a small boat with his son and a few loyal followers. Although Hudson disastrously failed to reach Asia, he did explore a vast area of the Canadian Arctic. The bay named in his honour soon became an important route into the continent. In 1670, North America’s oldest corporation, Hudson’s Bay Co., was established to pursue the fur trade. (The oldest American corporation is a fragrance company founded in Rhode Island 82 years later.)
Not only did the exploration of Canada come earlier, but voyageurs from Canada surveyed vast tracts of the United States. In a series of voyages, Samuel de Champlain (founder of Quebec in 1608) sailed along the New England coast, trekked through New York and Vermont, and paddled up the Ottawa River to discover the Great Lakes. A French Canadian named Louis Jolliet was perhaps the first prominent explorer actually born on the continent. Along with a priest named Marquette, he crossed Lake Michigan in 1673 and canoed down the Mississippi through Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri as far as Arkansas. In 1682, La Salle would trace the same route all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, claiming the entire Mississippi for France (hence “St. Louis” Missouri and the French culture of New Orleans).
Even the West was opened by Canadians. In the 1730s, a French Canadian explorer named Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de la Vérendrye and his three sons paddled thousands of kilometres through the Saskatchewan River system, past the sites of modern Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Edmonton, all the way to its headwaters near British Columbia. On later journeys, two of the sons trekked through the Dakotas and Wyoming, becoming the first people of European ancestry to sight the Rockies north of New Mexico – 70 years before Lewis and Clark would do the same. Long before Americans would leave the confines of their 13 Atlantic colonies, Canadians were leading extraordinary voyages of endurance. These are just a few examples of the central role Canada played in the history of exploration. It’s a history worth remembering.
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