Dr. John Rae

by Ross Mitchell, M.D.

Manitoba Pageant, September 1958, Volume 4, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Still too little known, even in Winnipeg where he had many associations, is Dr. John Rae. He explored over 1700 miles of the Arctic coast, engaged in three searches for the Franklin Expedition and surveyed a line from Winnipeg across the Rockies to the Pacific coast for telegraph lines. His great merit as an explorer was that he knew how to live off the country. In the Arctic he learned to use igloos and to eat food which the country provided. He was notable alike for his exploits and his character.

He was born and brought up near Stromness in the Orkney Islands and received his medical education in Edinburgh. Stromness was the last port of call for Hudson's Bay Company ships on their western voyages and at twenty he became ship's surgeon of the Prince of Wales and landed at Moose Factory in 1833. While there he experimented in raising a balloon, The Sunflyer by heat from the sun's rays.

His scientific training, his powers of endurance and his capacity for leadership were noted by Governor George Simpson who selected him to complete the survey of that part of the Arctic coast not reached by Thomas Simpson. Rae came to Fort Garry for further study of navigation and surveying, but the surveyor under whom he meant to study was ill and died shortly after Rae's arrival. Rae went to Toronto and studied there under Lieut. Lefroy, R.N. He walked on snowshoes from Red River Colony to Sault Ste. Marie, a distance by the route followed of nearly twelve hundred miles, in two months, and at the end had gained two pounds in weight.

Dr. John Rae in his academic robes from an oil painting by Stephen Pearce.
Source: The Beaver magazine.

In 1846, with twelve men and two boats, Rae landed at Repulse Bay, traversed Rae Isthmus, explored a part of Melville Peninsula and wintered at Fort Hope. Part of the stone hut which he built is still standing. The stone hut was so cold that thereafter he learned to live in snow igloos. In the spring, he showed that Boothia was not an island but a peninsula. After fifteen months of exploration, he brought out all his men in good condition and heavier than when they started.

At one time in this expedition, Rae was within one hundred and fifty miles of the two ships, Erebus and Terror, of the Franklin expedition which were beset by the ice, but he did not know of their desperate plight. In 1848, Dr. Rae went as second in command under Sir John Richardson who had accompanied Sir John Franklin in 1819 and 1824. The two leaders determined to start their search from the Mackenzie River area.

In this connection is a note from Paul Kane, the artist of the Indians, under date of June 12, 1848:

"We arrived at the Paw where my old friend, Mr. Hunter, (rector of The Pas Mission) gave me a most hearty welcome ... We met here Sir John Richardson and Dr. Rae, en route to Mackenzie River with two canoes in search of Sir John Franklin. From them we first heard of the events that had recently occurred in Europe, the flight of Louis Philippe from Paris and the revolutionary movements then agitating the Continent."

What an evening it must have been!

Richardson and Rae failed to find any trace of the Franklin party. With Commander Pullen, R.N., Rae made another unsuccessful attempt in 1850, but in 1853, in still another trip to the Arctic, he met Eskimos who gave an account of seeing men of the Franklin expedition "four winters past," and later he found thirty-five bodies. From the Eskimos he purchased silver spoons and forks, an Order of Merit, and a small plate engraved "Sir John Franklin K.C.B." On his return to London, he learned that he was entitled to the award of £10,000 offered for proof of the fate of the Franklin Expedition. True to character, Rae shared the award with his men. He retired from the service of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1856.

In 1858, he made a tour of the United States and Canada, including the Red River. During that winter, when he was forty-five years old, he walked on snowshoes from Hamilton to Toronto, forty miles, in seven hours and dined out the same evening, showing no signs of fatigue. He lived for a time in Hamilton and was a charter member of the Hamilton Scientific Association.

Rae never failed to keep up with the progress of science. For his 1846-1847 expedition he had, in addition to two open boats, one of the inflatable boats of waterproofed canvas designed by Lieut. Peter Halkett, R.N. It is now in the Stromness Museum and figures of it may be seen on pages 46 and 47 of the Spring, 1955 issue of The Beaver.

In October, 1882, he revisited Winnipeg and lectured at the Wesleyan Institute, the forerunner of United College, before the Manitoba Historical Society. He spoke of his Arctic explorations and on the value of Hudson Bay as a commercial route.

He died at London in his eightieth year and was buried in the churchyard of St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, in the Orkneys. Within the Cathedral there is a striking memorial. The old explorer is lying with a blanket thrown loosely over him and his trusty rifle by his side.

In the Canadian Arctic area his name is perpetuated in Rae Isthmus, Rae Strait, Rae River and Fort Rae at the northern end of Great Slave Lake.

Page revised: 30 June 2009