American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE. Beginning in 1497, the search for a practical water route to the Orient through North America spawned numerous European exploratory expeditions. John Cabot was the first to seek the Northwest Passage when in 1497 England commissioned him to chart a route to the Pacific that bypassed Spanish possessions in North America. His limited exploration of the Newfoundland coast inspired the voyages of Martin Frobisher in 1576, Henry Hudson in 1610-1611, and Edward Parry in 1819-1820, among those of countless other explorers, many of whom never returned. Not all searches were confined to the Arctic* region. James Cook discovered the Sandwich Islands (modern-day Hawaiian Islands) en route to search for a western entrance to the Northwest Passage in three voyages from 1776 to 1779. Other explorers, including Rene Robert Cavelier, de la Salle, Major Robert Rogers, and the team Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, sought a freshwater route through America, traveling over networks of rivers led by native guides. Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean in 1806, culminating a two-year journey chronicled in the eight- volume The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (19041905), edited by R. G. Thwaites, which ended thoughts of a commercially viable Northwest Passage through the continental United States. Finally, in 1905 Roald Amundsen became the first man to navigate a ship safely through the ice-clogged waters of the Arctic Ocean. In his two-volume work The North West Passage (1908), Amundsen concluded that his route was impractical for both commercial and military passage.

Early publications of significance on the Northwest Passage include Arthur Dobbs’ An Account of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson’s Bay (1744), on an expedition captained by John Middleton (1741-1742), which contributed to further expeditions into the northern waters as well as to further literature on the topic. Major Robert Rogers, leader of Rogers Rangers, a team of guerrilla fighters during the colonial era, sent expeditions through Lake Michigan and Lake Superior into the western rivers in search of the Northwest Passage shortly after Dobbs’ expedition. Rogers published a book chronicling these journeys in A Concise Account of North America (1765), as well as in a play, Ponteach: or the Savages of America (1766) to capitalize financially on his experiences. Herman Melville* mentions the Northwest Passage in the “Extracts” section opening Moby-Dick* (1851), as well in Chapter 24, where reference is made to Cook and George Vancouver’s searches for the passage in the Pacific Northwest.

The Northwest Passage, like Moby-Dick, evokes a sense of mystery and exploration and the relentless search for the truth. Inspired by the accounts of Dobbs and Rogers, Kenneth Roberts’* historical novel Northwest Passage (1936) is the story of the legendary Major Rogers’ raids on French/Indian outposts in Canada and his subsequent search for the Northwest Passage. Roberts’ novel inspired the MGM film Northwest Passage (1940), directed by King Vidor, which, along with the novel, rekindled interest in the legendary route. A recent study, Ann Savours’ illustrated The Search for the North West Passage (1999), is a gripping chronicle charting the search for the Northwest Passage from the Elizabethan age to the middle of the twentieth century.

The mythic lure of the Northwest Passage continues to manifest itself in modern explorers, as on 22 July 1958, when the U.S. submarine Nautilus led a voyage navigating beneath the ice in the Arctic region. On 25 August 1969, the commercial oil tanker Manhattan (1961), aided by Canadian* icebreakers, completed its journey through the Arctic waters, leading its owners to exclaim that the Northwest Passage had been conquered. The Manhattan’s hull was breached by an iceberg at one point and was icebound at another, yet her mission was touted as a success despite its obvious commercial impracticality. The expeditions of the Nautilus and the Manhattan are testament to the enduring interest in the Northwest Passage and its mystical intrigue to contemporary explorers.

An illustrated contemporary account is James P. Delgado's Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage (1999).

Nathaniel T. Mott