Northwest Passage and Discovery Expeditions pre-1818

Northwest Passage and Discovery Expeditions pre-1818 (both real and imagined)

Date Leader Details
325bce Pytheas He set out from the Greek colony at Massilia (now Marseilles France). He wrote an account of his voyage called "O the Ocean" which is now lost. He was a noted astronomer who reached a place six days voyage north of Britain he called Thule (that some say was Iceland and others Norway.
565-572 St. Brendan the Navigator of Clonfert This is thought by many to have been a mythical voyage. But the details, at least, hint of other voyages by Irish monks to Iceland, Jan Mayen, perhaps Greenland and even on to North America.
580c Cormac This Irish monk sailed north for 14 summer days but was forced to turn back by large numbers of small creatures that covered the surface o the ocean.
825 Dicuil This Irish monk wrote a geographical description of all known lands at the court of Charlemagne. He wrote of islands north and west of Britain. He suggests that by the year 800 Irish monks were traveling to Iceland.
986 Bjarni Herjolfsson He was blown off course returning to Iceland from Greenland. Before finding his true course he saw lands to the west of Greenland.
1002 Thorfinnr Karlsefni A Norse Viking colony was established at what is now L'Anse aux Meadows Newfoundland. The first European baby born in North America, Snorri Thorfinnsson was born there in 1002/3.
1121 Bishop Eirik Gnupsson He set out in search of Vinland and disappeared.
1170 Prince Madoc This Welshman is said to have brought a Welsh colony to North America. It is generally felt that this was a mythical voyage.
1476c Johannes Scolvus This explorer (possibly a Swede, or a Dane, or a Pole or a Welshman) is supposed to have voyaged to Labrador, Baffin Island and Hudson Strait.
1480c Diddrik Pining & Hans Pothorst These German or Danish explorers may have been pirates who took one or more voyages to Greenland. They may have been involved in unrecorded trade with Greenlanders or pirate raiding.
1480c-96 Bristol Merchants They sent vessels west across the Atlantic to search for the "island of Brazil" and in the process may have explored parts of the east coast of Canada.
1492-94 Joao Fernandez & Pedro Barcellos As part of a Danish expedition they reached Greenland.
1492 Christopher Columbus Voyage of discovery and search for a passage to Asia reached the West Indies in the Caribbean Sea.
1497 John Cabot He left Bristol in 1497 attempting to reach Asia by sailing westward in the Mathew.  His landing place cannot be known exactly but it is generally thought that he landed on the southwest corner of Newfoundland on 24/06/1497. He reported large schools of fish which led to the development of the fishing grounds on the Grand Banks.
1498 John Cabot It is thought that he perished on this voyage. One vessel returned to England.
1500 Gaspar Corte-Real This Azorean explorer sailed north up the American coast and reached Greenland, calling it Terra Verde. He sailed with his brothers Miguel and Vasqueanes.
1501 Gaspar Corte-Real On his second voyage it is claimed that he landed on the coast of Labrador and regions to the south, that he captured First Nations people, and explored the Bonavista Peninsula and Cape Race. He sent two vessels back to Portugal and then himself disappeared.
1502 Miguel Corte-Real This brother of Gaspar Corte-Real, he led an expedition to search for Gaspar Corte-Real. He reached Newfoundland. He sent two vessels back to Portugal and then himself disappeared.
1503 Portuguese Expedition A search for both Miguel and Gaspar Corte-Real failed, resulting in a ban by King Manuel of Portugal on further expeditions.
1506 Jean Denys of Honfleur This French fisherman reached Newfoundland from Normandy. He explored the coast from Bonavista to the Strait of Belle Isle and drew charts of the coast. By 1520 more than 100 vessels a year were traveling to the new world.
1508 Sebastian Cabot claimed to have been a survivor of this voyage. He claimed to know of a north west passage and made a search voyage although this claim was actually discounted by the authorities of the time.
1508 Thomas Aubert He made a landfall and captured some First Nations people, exhibiting seven of them in Rouen France in 1509.
1524 Giovanni da Verranzzano In 1524 he sailed under a French commission. He made landfall on the Carolina coast and turned north. He followed the coast to Breton naming the country Francesca, New France. He established the new world was a continent.
1524-25 Esteban Gomez He sailed to what is now Cape Breton and south along the American coast.
1525c Basque Fishermen With the Portuguese the Basques were early arrivals on the Grand Banks. They established Basque fishing camps along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, from the Strait of Belle Isle to the Saguenay River. They had summer occupations until about 1625.
1527-28 John Rut He reached Labrador and Newfoundland. He returned to England via the West Indies.
1534 Jacques Cartier He passed through the Strait of Belle Isle and named harbours on the coast of Labrador. He crossed the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Magdalen Islands, Prince Edward Island and the mainland coast at the Bay of Chaleur. On the return voyage he sighted Anticosti Island.
1535 Jacques Cartier He passed through the Strait of Belle Isle and crossed over to the Gaspe Peninsula. He ascended the St. Lawrence River. He traveled with his men in long boats and proceeded up river to the village of Hochelaga. There he climbed and named Mount Royal. He returned to Stadacona and wintered there.
1536 Richard Hore He sailed to Newfoundland.
1558 Nicolo Zeno The Venetians Nicolo and Antonio Zeno, in company with a Prince Zichmni, were said to have travelled extensively in the North Atlantic discovering several large islands. Nicolo Zeno created a famous map, later revealed to be a fraud.
1576 Martin Frobisher He reached Greenland and Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island.
1577 Martin Frobisher He reached Greenland and Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island.
1578 Martin Frobisher He reached Greenland and Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island.
1579 Sir Francis Drake He sailed into the Pacific Ocean and may have reached the British Columbia coast sighted but no known landing.
1585 John Davis He made a landfall on the Cumberland Peninsula of Baffin Island. He explored the region around Davis Strait.
1586 John Davis He visited Greenland, Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland.
1587 John Davis He visited Greenland and Labrador.
1602 George Weymouth He sailed to Greenland and Labrador.
1605 John Cunningham, James Hall & John Knight This was a Danish expedition to Greenland
1606 John Knight He headed an English expedition to Labrador where he and three of his men disappeared.
1606 James Hall He headed an abortive Danish expedition.
1607 Henry Hudson Sailing on an English vessel he reached the east coast of Greenland, Spitzbergen and discovered Jan Mayen island.
1607 James Hall He attempted unsuccessfully to reach Greenland with two vessels.
1609 Henry Hudson While in Dutch service he discovered the Hudson River and Manhattan Island.
1610-11 Henry Hudson In English service he sailed through Hudson Strait and into Hudson Bay and James Bay. He wintered in James Bay and was set adrift by mutineers in and open boat and disappeared.
1612 James Hall & William Baffin James Hall was killed on the west coast of Greenland.
1612-13 Thomas Button He explored the western shore of Hudson Bay with his cousin William Gibbons.
1614 William Gibbons He was a cousin of Thomas Button. Sailing in the Discovery he tried to explore the Northwest Passage through Hudson Bay but was stopped by ice. He was caught by ice on the Labrador coast before returning to England.
1615 Robert Bylot & William Baffin In 1615 he commanded the Discovery in an expedition to the western end of Hudson Bay and they charted the south coast of Baffin Island and Foxe Channel.
1616 Robert Bylot & William Baffin In 1616 he was the master of the Discovery in the expedition to Lancaster Sound, Baffin Island, Lancaster Sound, Ellesmere Island and the Greenland coast.
1619-20 Jens Munk He commanded a Danish expedition and wintered at what is now Churchill MB.
1625 William Hawkridge He sailed through Hudson Strait.
1631 Luke Foxe He explored the western and southern shore of Hudson Bay and Foxe Channel on the southwest coast of Baffin Island.
1631-32 Thomas James He explored the west coast of Hudson Bay and James Bay.
1719(?)- 22 James Knight Sailing in the Albany and the Discovery they sailed into Hudson Bay where their vessels became damaged and it is thought the crews starved to death.
1728 Vitus Bering In 1725-28 he was in command of an expedition that crossed Russia by land to Kamchatka. There they sailed along the coast exploring the Bering Strait. He reached 67 degrees North on the Siberian coast. In 1741 he crossed the Bering Strait to the coast of Alaska and named Mount St. Elias. He died on he return voyage and was buried on the coast of Siberia.
1737 James Napper & Robert Crow They sailed in the Churchill on Hudson Bay to explore for the Northwest Passage.
1741-42 Christopher Middleton His expedition was sent at the urging of Arthur Dobbs. He sailed in HMS Furnace in an expedition to find a Northwest Passage. He surveyed Roes Welcome Sound, Wager Bay, Repulse Bay and Frozen Strait. His finding that Wager Bay was not a strait infuriated Dobbs who insisted that it was a cover up by the Hudson's Bay Co. through bribes of Admiralty officials. He wrote books and pamphlets to support his case. It was Dobbs who convince Parliament to offer a large monetary reward for anyone finding a Northwest Passage.
1746-47 William Moor & Francis Smith Financed by Arthur Dobbs they sailed and re-examined Wager Bay confirming Middleton's earlier findings. Smith appears to have commanded the California.
1753-54 Charles Swaine It is thought that under this name Theodore Swaine Drage attempted to finance two abortive expeditions to find a Northwest Passage in the vessel Argo. In 1753 they reached Resolution Island but were stopped by ice. He claimed to have explored the Labrador coast between % degrees and 56 degrees North latitude.
1769 & 1760 Samuel Hearne He was stationed at Fort Prince of Wales and was sent overland to find the source of the Coppermine River. He tried unsuccessfully at this task in 1769 and 1770. He studied the Barren Lands when he searched for copper deposits.
1770-72 Samuel Hearne He reached the Coppermine River during his expedition of 1771-72 becoming the first man to reach the Arctic Ocean Overland.
1773 Constantine Phipps He searched for the Northwest Passage by sailing north from Spitsbergen toward the North Pole.
1776 Richard Pickerskill He sailed in the Lion to protect British whalers working in the Davis Strait. He also intended, if possible, to find the Northwest Passage.
1777 Walter Young He sailed in the Lion to search for the Northwest Passage.
1789 Alexander Mackenzie He reached the Beaufort Sea after being guided down the Mackenzie River by First Nations guides.
1817 William Scoresby He was a whaler who explored the Arctic waters around Greenland. Because he was not from the Royal Navy his offers of service to the British Admiralty were ignored.


  • Sale, Richard (2002)
  • Vaughan, Richard (1994)
  • Oleson, Tryggvi J. (1963)
  • McGhee, Robert (1991)
  • Story, Norah (1967)

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) Northwest Passage and Discovery Expeditions pre-1818. 2012. Exploration pre1818.php

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