Northwest Passage Lesson for Kids: Definition, History & Facts

Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Do you like shortcuts? Hundreds of years ago, explorers were trying to find the Northwest Passage, which is an all-water shortcut through North America. A route was eventually found, but it wasn't easy!

What is the Northwest Passage?

Imagine if the only way into your house was through the back door. Every time you got home from school, you'd have to walk the whole way around your house to get inside. You'd grow tired of that in no time!

Well, something similar happened a few hundred years ago. People living in Europe wanted to trade their goods with people living in East Asia. Europe is next to the Atlantic Ocean and East Asia is next to the Pacific Ocean, so the traders needed to sail from one ocean to the next. But, there was a problem. There was a big land mass called North America in their way. North America is the continent that contains Canada, America, and Mexico.

To get to Asia, early European traders thought they would have to cross the land or sail south around the tip of South America, which was a long trip. If you drove from Canada through Mexico, you'd only be about halfway there!

The Northwest Passage goes through the icy Canadian waters.

European traders needed a shortcut, so between the 15th century and 20th century they sent explorers to find the Northwest Passage, which is a sailing route that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through Canada.

These explorations were hard to do because the Canadian waters are very cold, and would often freeze, making it impossible to get ships through. The trips would prove to be very dangerous.


John Cabot

One of the first European explorers to set out in search of the Northwest Passage was John Cabot. In 1497, Cabot and his crew sailed across the Atlantic and landed in North America, but they didn't have any luck finding the passage, so they went back home. Cabot tried again one year later, but never returned. History researchers aren't sure what happened to him.

Jacques Cartier and Martin Frobisher

More explorers would follow Cabot in the quest to find the passage. Jacques Cartier tried in three voyages between 1534 and 1542. Martin Frobisher made three voyages between 1576 and 1578. However, both explorers were unsuccessful.

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