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Hearne, Samuel (1745–92)

Samuel Hearne.
Library and Archives Canada C-020053

Samuel Hearne joined the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in February 1766 at the age of 21. He began his exploration of what is now northern Saskatchewan in 1768 in search of a Northwest Passage to the copper mines of the arctic regions. Hearne was the first European to view and cross Great Slave Lake. Although unintentionally, Hearne proved that a Northwest Passage via Hudson Bay did not exist. He also became the first European to formally document the overland travel routes north of Hudson Bay. In 1770, Hearne met and traveled with Denesuline leader Motonabbee; although he was skilled at snowshoeing, it was Montonabbee who taught him the life-saving skills that enabled him to survive in the vast north. Hearne set up the HBC’s first western inland post in 1774; following the advice of the local chiefs, he chose a site that connected to the Saskatchewan River trade route and the Churchill River system and established Cumberland House, the first permanent settlement in Saskatchewan’s history.

Recognizing Hearne’s vast experience with exploration and his positive relationship with local Native people, the London Committee encouraged him to initiate more sophisticated trading practices. Hearne developed an early model of the York boat so that the HBC would extend inland trade; he became chief factor at the Churchill River’s Prince of Wale’s Fort in 1776. By 1782, the fur trade had fallen off drastically and smallpox and starvation had decimated local First Nations communities. Out of favour with the London Committee and the HBC, Hearne wrote and published chronicles about the local Denesuline and the northern environment, describing their hunting methods, kinship systems, and the roles of women in the communities. His book became the standard text across Canada and Europe: unlike the majority of HBC journals, missionary accounts and official government sources, Samuel Hearne’s pragmatic historical analysis questioned whether Saskatchewan First Nations people actually benefited from the fur trade. He died in November 1792 at the age of 47.

Elizabeth Mooney

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Further Reading

McGoogan, K. 2003. Ancient Mariner: The Amazing Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Walked to the Arctic Ocean. Toronto: Harper Flamingo Canada.
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