Voices from the Wilderness

Very different portrayals of two Canadian explorers.

On a blustery January day in 1757, a young widow and her son set out by stagecoach from their Dorset village—a trip prompted by twelve-year-old Samuel Hearne’s wish to join the Royal Navy.His mother had used family connections to arrange an interview at Portsmouth’s admiralty offices. Luckily, the captain who interviewed them was impressed enough to hire the boy on the spot.

Within days, Hearne was aboard this captain’s ship as one of his protégés, a newly minted “young gentleman.” According to his biographer, Ken McGoogan, he “enjoyed donning his tarpaulin hat and parading around the quarterdeck with a dirk in his belt.” In Ancient Mariner: The Amazing Adventures of Samuel Hearne, The Sailor Who Walked to the Arctic Ocean, McGoogan recreates naval life as Hearne would have known it during the Seven Years War. The young sailor seems to have been adept not just at the ceremonial tasks that fell to a presentable midshipman, but also at keeping a cool head in times of danger. The second talent proved particularly useful, given his captain’s penchant for seizing French ships in the midst of ferocious sea battles.

Hearne’s naval career lasted until war’s end, when he was hired by the Hudson’s Bay Company as first mate on a whaling sloop that plied the frigid waters of the Bay. His winters were now spent at Prince of Wales Fort, at the edge of the rich fur-trading territory of Rupert’s Land, where the inland reaches were known to company officials only in the roughest of outlines. The youthful Hearne prepared to throw himself into upcoming exploratory expeditions, most notably by learning the languages of the Homeland Cree and the more northerly Dene.

In 1768, two Dene men brought samples of copper to the fort from “far to the northward where the sun don’t set.” Intriguingly, they said they had found the copper beside what they called Far-Off Metal River, located near a northern ocean. Could this be the fabled Northwest Passage?

The fort’s governor resolved that the source of the copper must be found. In McGoogan’s retelling, Governor Norton summoned Hearne to his quarters. “What do you say, ’earne,”Norton asked, after offering him the job. “Is this journey not the opportunity you’ve been wanting?”

It was. In the end, however, it would take three tries to complete it, with Hearne’s third attempt recorded in his memoir A Journey to the Northern Ocean. What is most interesting about this account is the remarkably enlightened perspective that informs it, with Hearne exhibiting a rare understanding of Native culture and its internal logic.

This intellectual engagement would prove invaluable in ensuring his physical survival. One of the Dene men who had originally brought the copper to the fort now acted as Hearne’s guide. The chieftain, named Matonabbee, appears in his account as a fully formed personality. “I have met with few Christians who possessed more good moral qualities, or fewer bad ones,” Hearne notes, making it clear that without Matonabbee’s aid he would never have returned from his travels alive. But he does not shrink from describing an ugly massacre that occurred as they neared the shores of the Arctic. On discovering an Inuit village, Matonabbee and his men carried out a lightning attack. Hearne eloquently describes the extermination of this small band of unsuspecting Inuit:

The poor unhappy victims were surprised in the midst of their sleep, and had neither time nor power to make any resistance; men,women, and children, in all upward of twenty, ran out of their tents stark naked, and endeavoured to make their escape; but the Indians having possession of all the landside, to no place could they fly for shelter. One alternative only remained, that of jumping into the river; but, as none of them attempted it, they all fell a sacrifice to Indian barbarity.

Hearne’s revulsion at this sight made him wonder whether he should strike out on his own, without Matonabbee. But survival won the day, and the group stayed together as he visited the Arctic coastline as well as the supposed copper mine, which revealed itself to be “nothing more than an entire jumble of rocks and gravel.”

By the time they had returned to Prince of Wales Fort, the friendship between Hearne and Matonobbee had resumed and deepened. After their 18-month odyssey, Hearne could claim to be the first European to travel overland to the Arctic, but nothing in his subsequent career could match this youthful feat. In later years, he established the company’s first inland post, then became governor of Prince of Wales Fort. Entering into a devoted “country marriage” with his predecessor’s half-Cree daughter named Mary Norton, he also maintained his close dealings with Matonabbee whenever the latter appeared at the fort.

In 1782, after a smallpox epidemic had ravaged the surrounding Native population, three French men-of-war appeared in Hudson Bay. Hearne was forced to surrender the fort and was taken prisoner, but was later allowed by his captors to sail to England with some of his men. But Mary Norton was not with him, and when he returned to Hudson Bay a year later, he discovered to his dismay that she had died of starvation. Another blow was the news that Matonabbee had apparently committed suicide after learning of Hearne’s capture by the French.

Hearne’s remaining years as governor of the newly rebuilt Churchill Factory were not happy ones. Plagued by illness and mourning his personal losses, he returned to England in 1787 and spent his retirement reworking the manuscript that would become A Journey to the Northern Ocean.

McGoogan is a staunch Hearne partisan. For example, he defends him against accusations made by some commentators that he showed cowardice in voluntarily surrendering to the French. He also answers criticisms that Hearne’s memoir was partly the product of literary invention. This is ironic, given the novelistic colouring in McGoogan’s own account, including imagined scenic detail and dialogue. Moreover, the absence of source referencing, except for a general bibliography, makes it virtually impossible for McGoogan’s readers to sift authentic history from rhetorical fiction—a serious pitfall.

The blurring between fact and imagination is most visible when McGoogan recreates a meeting between Hearne and a youthful Samuel Coleridge, based on evidence (whose specific form goes unmentioned) that Hearne visited the school that Coleridge was attending. It is known that, in his adulthood, Coleridge owned a copy of Hearne’s Journey and was inspired by an incident therein to write “The Three Graves.” McGoogan goes further, arguing that Coleridge’s meeting with Hearne later shaped the conception of his poetic ancient mariner. But McGoogan provides no conclusive proof, making this theory mere diverting speculation.

In Epic Wanderer: David Thompson and the Mapping of the Canadian West, D’Arcy Jenish provides a more straightforward biography of Hearne’s contemporary, the explorer David Thompson. Interestingly, Hearne and Thompson seem to have disliked one another—the result of a memorable conversation soon after Thompson arrived at Churchill in 1784. Following a Sunday service, “the reader, and myself staid a few minutes on orders,” recollects Thompson years later; “he [Hearne] then took Voltaire’s Dictionary and said to us, here is my belief and I have no other.”

In terms of sensibility, the two men were certainly unalike. Thompson possessed an undiluted piety and moral fastidiousness that reflected the rigours of his upbringing as an orphan at a charitable school, where he was handpicked for a company apprenticeship at the age of 14 by a visiting official. He took little joy in his new occupation until a winter spent with the company’s inland surveyor revealed a talent for practical astronomy, which soon grew into a devoted interest in map-making. But his company superiors ignored this new skill, prompting Thompson to look to the Hudson’s Bay’s fierce rival, the Montreal-based North West Company, as a potential employer. Says Jenish:

He had encountered canoe brigades of Montrealers and admired the camaraderie that flourished among these men of very different cultures and temperament.Within their ranks, there were French Canadians, Englishmen, Scots and Americans. They enjoyed more freedom and autonomy than the employees of the Hudson’s Bay Co. They displayed more daring and initiative, and all these things had made them dynamic and formidable competitors.

Most importantly, the merchants of the North West Company were eager to hire a skilled mapmaker. In 1797, Thompson made his break: “This day left the service of the Hudsons Bay Co.,” he wrote in his journal, “and entered that of the Company of Merchants from Canada. May God Almighty prosper me.”

In the ensuing years, he covered vast distances in a series of expeditions that took him from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the eastern edges of the Rockies. He also acquired a country wife—the daughter of a prosperous Nor’Wester who had abandoned his family when returning to London at the end of his career. Charlotte Small was just 13 when she and Thompson entered into what would be a lifelong union. Thompson’s loyalty to her, in an age when Native and Métis wives of European traders were all too commonly abandoned in the way that Charlotte’s mother had been, shows an admirable side of his character. But Jenish’s portrayal makes clear that he could also be obstinate and judgemental. Thompson’s written account of his own career—prepared after he retired and settled in a small village just outside of Montreal—shows none of Samuel Hearne’s engagement with aboriginal culture; nor does it catalogue close friendships with Natives of the sort that Hearne enjoyed with Matonabbee. A loner, Thompson often passed nights with his telescope. The Salish tribe, for example, gave him the name Koo Koo Sint, or the Man Who Looks at Stars.

After several years with the North West Company, he was given the status of partner, then allowed to play a major part in establishing the company’s influence beyond the Rockies. He could later claim to be the first to chart the full extent of the Columbia River. Indeed, his extensive travels in the western mountains meant that he had finished accumulating the voluminous records needed to accomplish his next feat. This was the transformation of his years of journal notes into a grand map of the North West Territory. Measuring almost seven by ten feet, this mammoth work depicted an entire section of the continent, from Lake Superior to the Pacific, and from the 60th to the 47th latitudes. Jenish contends that the map helped define what would later become the evolving vision of Canada as a geographical entity. This historical precedence, Jenish claims, makes Thompson a major figure in Canada’s national development:

A list of the major figures of nineteenth-century Canada would include many names: Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George Étienne Cartier, the brokers of Confederation; their predecessors Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine; the rebels William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis- Joseph Papineau and Louis Riel; the general Isaac Brock and the railway builder Cornelius Van Horne. To these,we should add David Thompson. He was a foundational figure in the creation of the country, and his map was one of the great individual achievements of the nineteenth century.

While such a statement may be a legitimate estimate of Thompson’s historic importance, Jenish fails to infuse Epic Wanderer with the imaginative spark needed to produce a memorable biography. In contrast, Ken McGoogan’s portrait of Samuel Hearne—for all its fictionalizing excesses—is a riveting one. In fairness, McGoogan’s task is made easier (and Jenish’s more difficult) by the shifts now occurring in popular perceptions of Canadian history. Several historians have recently noted that Canadians are becoming less interested in conventional narratives of 19th-century nation building based on the achievements of figures such as Thompson. Instead, there is a growing desire to understand the impact of early European exploration and settlement, especially its long-overlooked ramifications for aboriginal peoples.

The life and writings of a figure such as Samuel Hearne add immeasurably to this latter study.With his worldliness, eloquence and empathy with aboriginal life, Hearne has the ability to speak across the centuries. If nothing else, McGoogan’s colourful but imperfect biography finally gives him the chance to do so.