What Is the Northwest Passage? - Explorers, Definition & History

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  • 0:01 Introduction to the…
  • 0:31 Definition of the…
  • 1:17 History of Exploration
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the Northwest Passage and the explorers who devoted voyages to finding a quick route to East Asia, through North America, from Europe.

Introduction to the Northwest Passage

Everyone has their own little shortcuts in their daily life. Whether it's the side street that avoids that long street light at the corner, or that country road that bypasses miles of busy interstate, shortcuts make your everyday travel easier.

A few hundred years ago, Europeans wanted a shortcut of their own to East Asia, where they could trade for spices unavailable in Europe. Seventeenth and eighteenth century explorers tried this by searching for the mother of all shortcuts, the Northwest Passage.

Definition of the Northwest Passage

The Northwest Passage was a sea route through North America to the Pacific Ocean and East Asia beyond first hypothesized by European explorers. The Northwest Passage, in its traditional sense, was never found. However, in the early twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully sailed through the Canadian Arctic, proving that a Northwest Passage does exist.

It took Amundsen three years to traverse the Arctic islands in a small fishing boat, sailing north of Baffin Island and through Parry Sound. Despite Amundsen's discovery, the path certainly was blocked by sea ice during the first period of the search for the Passage and is only viable today as a route for larger, commercial vessels because of the warming climate's impact on seasonal sea ice.

History of Exploration

Several European kings commissioned dozens of their explorers to find the fabled Northwest Passage throughout the past five hundred years. Now, we are going to look at the most notable and/or successful accounts.

John Cabot, 1497

First, let's look at John Cabot, who sailed in 1497. Likely the first European to reach mainland North America since the Vikings (historians believe Columbus' 1492 only reached the Caribbean islands), Cabot was commissioned by the English king Henry VII to search for a route to East Asia through North America and claim any lands he encountered for the English crown. Cabot likely landed at Newfoundland before returning to England. He then led a second expedition in 1498 from which he never returned.

Jacques Cartier, 1534-1542

Next, let's look at Jaques Cartier, a French explorer who sailed in 1534-1542. Over an eight-year period, Cartier made three voyages to North America in the name of the French king Francis I in search of a quick path to Asia. Cartier sailed around the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the first voyage, and on the second, he traveled as far as his boats could travel down the St. Lawrence River. Despite being blocked by rapids, Cartier was convinced he had found the Northwest Passage via the St. Lawrence.

Martin Frobisher, 1576-1578

Now, let's look at Martin Frobisher, a British privateer and explorer who sailed in 1576-1578. Frobisher made two voyages from England in the 1570s, attempting to find the Northwest Passage. Frobisher's second voyage left Plymouth, England, in June 1578 and sailed north for what is now the Canadian Arctic. Frobisher got as far as Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in what is now Nunavut. Despite being forced to turn back for lack of supplies, Frobisher believed the bay now named after him was part of a strait that was part of the Northwest Passage.

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