• Left: A 1927 painting by Charles W. Jefferys of Henry Kelsey’s journey to the Canadian prairies. Right: A drawing of Samuel Hearne’s journey to the Coppermine, also by Jefferys. (Images: Library and Archives Canada)

Hudson’s Bay Company employees didn't venture much out of their forts and fur trading posts along the coasts of the Hudson's and James Bay in the early days after the HBC fur trading empire was founded in 1670.

Adam Shoalts, RCGS Explorer-in-Residence, who has traveled extensively by canoe and on foot in the that region, says that isn’t surprising. 

"In their defense they'd probably say, ‘We just crossed 3,000 miles of open ocean and then we sailed across iceberg laden Hudson’s Bay, so we’ve done enough adventuring,’ ” Shoalts says, adding, “If you’re in polar bear country and an unfamiliar environment, why would you want to venture out there?”

Shoalts points out that there some very notable exceptions to this, including explorers Henry Kelsey, Samuel Hearne and the great Dene leader Matonabbee, who all undertook epic and ground-breaking journeys for the HBC in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1691, Kelsey joined a group of Assiniboine First Nations people and set out from York Factory on Hudson’s Bay and became the first European to visit the Canadian prairies, traveling as far as southern Saskatchewan and back. In his diary, Kelsey describes the savannah-like landscape beyond the 100th meridian, with massive herds of bison and other wildlife. His diary also includes the first written description of a grizzly bear.

Shoalts credits the success of this journey, and one 90 years later by another great HBC explorer, Samuel Hearne, to the men’s embrace of Indigenous culture.

“Hearne and Kelsey are unique figures in the early history of the Company,” Shoalts says, “in terms of going into the interior and adopting Indigenous languages and culture and living that lifestyle.”

Shoalts says Hearne’s 1790 journey, led by the Dene leader Matonabbee, from Hudson’s Bay to the Arctic Ocean at the mouth of the Coppermine River, thousands of kilometers on foot, deserves much more attention.

“In terms of the physical achievement of Hearne and Matonabbee, it still ranks today as one of the greatest journeys anywhere in the world, not just Canada,” he says.

At the time this journey took place, Matonabbee was already a noted HBC explorer, who did some of the earliest map work for the Company.

And Hearne was not shy about acknowledging how critical Matonabbee was to this journey, unlike many of his contemporary or later British explorers, like Henry Morton Stanley in Africa.

“Hearne very much gives Matonabbee all the credit,” Shoalts says. “He 100 per cent says [Matonabbee] is the real leader and without him I’d be lost.”

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