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Manitoba History: Review: William Barr and Glyndwr Williams (editors), Voyages in Search of a Northwest Passage 1741-1747. Volume II: The Voyage of William Moor and Francis Smith 1746-1747

by Michael Payne
Alberta Community Development, Edmonton

Number 32, Autumn 1996

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

William Barr and Glyndwr Williams (editors). Voyages in Search of a Northwest Passage 1741-1747. Volume II: The Voyage of William Moor and Francis Smith 1746-1747. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1995. Second series No. 181. Pp. xvi + 393. ISBN 0-904180-41-7.

This volume continues the story of Arthur Dobbs and his attempts both to find a Northwest Passage and to have the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trade monopoly revoked. On the surface these issues may seem quite unrelated, but in Dobbs’ mind they were intimately connected. Although he never visited Hudson Bay himself, Dobbs was convinced by his reading of explorers’ accounts of tides and whales and ice that there had to be a connection between Hudson Bay and another ocean to the west. Dobbs reasoned that if this connection were found, it would be of vast commercial value. The Hudson’s Bay Company, however, showed little or no interest in discovering this hypothetical Northwest Passage. Other merchants might finance exploration, however, if they had some expectation of trade. The conclusion Dobbs reached was that the Northwest Passage would not be found unless the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trade monopoly was revoked.

Volume I of Voyages in Search of the Northwest Passage 1741-1747, published in 1994, covers the beginnings of Dobb’s campaign against the Hudson’s Bay Company and details the voyage undertaken by Captain Middleton in 1741-42. Middleton’s voyage probably should have put the notion of a Northwest Passage through Hudson Bay to rest, but he did not fully explore Wager Bay and Dobbs and his supporters leapt on this omission. As long as it was possible that Wager was not a bay but a strait, Dobbs’ theory had life. Dobbs and his associates, who included some members of Middleton’s crew who undoubtedly knew better, vilified Middleton and his conduct of the expedition. Middleton replied in kind, and the debate quickly degenerated into a long and polemical exchange of pamphlets. Volume I ably summarizes these initial exchanges, while Volume II carries the story through to the aftermath of William Moor and Francis Smith’s explorations of 1746-47.

A depiction of York Factory in the 18th century around the time that William Moor and Francis Smith wintered near the post at Ten Shilling Creek.
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives

Dobbs won the pamphlet war, and he had influential political support for his plans for exploration and trade. He convinced the British House of Commons in 1745 to offer 20,000 pounds sterling as a reward for the discovery of a Northwest Passage, and then convinced a group of investors to finance an expedition in return for a chance at a share of the reward. By 1746 enough money had been raised to purchase two ships, the California and the Dobbs Galley, to hire crews, and to outfit the expedition for two seasons of exploration. In theory the ships were to return home within the year, unless they found the passage, but this was probably never intended. Serious exploration required wintering on the Bay, and an early start the following summer to have any hope of mapping the complex coastline north of Churchill. This was certainly known to the expedition leaders, both of whom had experience sailing on Hudson Bay. William Moor, Captain Middleton’s cousin and a member of Middleton’s expedition, commanded the Dobbs Galley, and Francis Smith, a former HBC sloop captain with experience sailing north from Churchill, commanded the California.

Moor and Smith reached Hudson Bay only at the beginning of August, and after some desultory exploration around Marble Island they sailed for York Factory. By August 25 they were at York Factory, where the two crews settled in for the winter, though not without some conflict with James Isham, the officer in charge of York Factory and a reluctant host. Eventually the ships were brought into a relatively safe harbour at Ten Shilling Creek, across the river from York, and the crews built a large house, called Montague House, and several log tents for their winter accommodation. The winter of 1746-47 was both early and difficult. As was the case whenever explorers overwintered at bayside posts in any number, fresh provisions soon ran short and scurvy appeared. By spring Moor and Smith’s crews were unhealthy and disgruntled, and Moor, Smith and their officers were feuding as well. As a result the explorations of 1747 were not marked by much cooperation or coordination between the two ships or their captains and crews. For the most part these explorations lacked either drama or consequence. Wager Bay was explored and shown to be a bay not a strait, but the exploration was really no more conclusive than Middleton’s voyage. After Moor and Smith returned to Britain, Dobbs and his supporters continued to argue that a passage could possibly exist through Chesterfield Inlet or Repulse Bay, though apparently few others remained convinced. Dobbs attempts to overturn the Hudson’s Bay Company’s charter also came to naught, and after a Parliamentary inquiry in 1749 the issue was effectively dropped. Indeed the story ends less with a bang than a drawn out whimper.

This is not the editors’ fault, however. As in the case of Volume I, they have skillfully stitched together a coherent narrative from the two printed accounts of the voyage, a manuscript journal, portions of James Isham’s Observations, and a variety of archival documents. As editors, Barr and Williams are quite unobtrusive, limiting themselves to brief introductions to each of the book’s three sections, and two short appendices discussing the rival accounts of the voyage and the intriguing history of the Fonte letter. This celebrated hoax influenced exploration up to George Vancouver, and Dobbs deserves much of the credit for popularizing its highly creative geographic misinformation. The editors are also very judicious in their presentation of material which is often highly polemical and equally self-serving.

In the end, Barr and Williams suggest the significance of these voyages and all of Dobbs’ machinations was bringing “Hudson Bay and its trade into clearer focus.” Middleton and Moor “added to the sum of geographical knowledge”, while the published narratives of the latter’s voyage “contained much new information, perhaps not all of it reliable, on the Bay region and its inhabitants” (318). These conclusions are fair, but I’m sure Arthur Dobbs would be disappointed with such a Prufrockian epitaph.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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