Exploration and Settlement

Northwest Passage

What is the Northwest Passage?

The Northwest Passage is the circuitous sea passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans; it was long sought after by explorers. Though it was eventually found through a series of discoveries, it was not completely navigated until 1903 to 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872–1928).

Convinced of the existence of such a passage, numerous navigators attempted to find it during the early years of European westward sea exploration. Their determination led to the discovery of the St. Lawrence River, between Canada and the United States, by French sailor and explorer Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) in 1534 to 1535; of Frobisher Bay, off the coast of Baffin Island, north of Quebec, by English commander Sir Martin Frobisher (1535–1594) in 1576; of Davis Strait, between Baffin Island and Greenland, by English navigator John Davis (c. 1550–1605) in 1587; and of the Hudson River, in eastern New York State, and Hudson Bay, the inland sea of east-central Canada, by English navigator Henry Hudson (?-1611) in 1609 to 1611.

After centuries of efforts, Roald Amundsen finally completed the first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage in September 1906; it was after a journey that lasted more than three years. The Norwegian adventurer had left the harbor at Oslo at midnight on June 16, 1903, aboard the Gjöa, a ship so small it required only a crew of six; Amundsen had bought the vessel with borrowed money. After a harrowing adventure that saw the Gjöa and her crew survive a shipboard fire, a collision with a reef, fierce winter storms, and ice that hemmed them in, Amundsen arrived in Nome, Alaska, where the entire town turned out to greet him and his crew. The nephew of Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup (1855–1930), who was there at the time, played the Norwegian national anthem as the ship pulled into the dock. Amundsen is said to have broken into tears.


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