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Admiral Sir Thomas Button

by Dr. Ross Mitchell

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1970, Volume 15, Number 3

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Thomas Button was the fourth son of Miles Button, High Sheriff of Glamorgan, Wales, during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Thomas entered the Royal Navy about 1589, just after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. He served with distinction in the West Indies and in Ireland, and his gallantry at the siege of Kinsale, in which engagement he was captain of the pinnance Moon, earned him a pension of 6s. 8d. per day for life.

When Button returned from his voyage of exploration in Hudson Bay, he took up his naval career again. He was subsequently appointed Admiral of the King's ships off the coast of Ireland. In 1616 he was knighted by his cousin, Sir Oliver St. John, Lord Deputy of Ireland. He won this elevation on the strength of his skilled seamanship during combined land and sea operations against rebels in the west of Scotland. Four years later, as a Rear Admiral, he took part in an attack on the headquarters of the Barbary pirates at Algiers. This assault was led by his friend and kinsman, Lord Mansel.

In 1624 he was appointed to the Council of War. Next year he was assigned to a commission enquiring into the state of the navy. There was considerable corruption in the Stuart navy at this time, and any uprooting and exposure of malpractice was bound to raise storms of protest on a wide front. The Navy Board was particularly incensed when Button linked them to some unsavory deals. They therefore mounted their big guns against him and sought to drive him from office. He weathered the storm for two years, but at last, on February 14, 1627, feeling that he was through, wrote the following lament: "All the world will take notice that I am unbound of the ship in which I have served so long. If dismissed I shall shelter myself under the lee of a poor pension." On the following day one of his staunchest supporters, the Earl of Denbigh, wrote to the Duke of Buckingham as follows: "I should be sorry if so able and honest a man as Sir Thomas Button were neglected." Later the same month the Navy Board complained bitterly that Sir Thomas "would take no notice of any order unless he received it from Buckingham's immediate command."

The Navy Board followed this blast by accusing him of misconduct. Button countered with a claim for long overdue pension. The charges against him - neglect of duty, fraudulent appropriation of prizes, and shielding pirates - were dismissed. But to make good his claim for money due him was not easy. His accounts were muddled, and no one could agree (or wanted to agree) as to how much pay he was entitled as Admiral of the Irish Seas. The opinions varied from five shillings per day to twenty shillings per day. Such conflicts followed him to the end of his days and the question of his pension was still unsettled at his death in 1634. Several years later, his eldest son, Miles, petitioned for the compensation of services rendered in the cause of royalty but apparently without success.

Following Button's exploration of the western mainland of Hudson Bay, two other expeditions were outfitted in 1615 and 1616. William Baffin was pilot on both these voyages, and when he returned from the second voyage he wrote: "There is no passable nor hope of a passage to the north of Davis Strait, we have coasted all or near all the circumference thereof and find it to be no other than a great bay." Button had not worked that far north, but during his probing along the western shore of Hudson Bay and through the islands in the strait, he had never given up hope of a passage being found. Accordingly, when he was consulted in 1631 about the voyages being planned by Captain Luke Foxe and Captain Thomas James, he was delighted. He was still confident that the north-west passage existed.

Where lies Button's claim to fame? Surely it must rest in the knowledge that he and his seamen secured the western coast of Hudson Bay for Britain, hence for Canada. He and his men were the first recorded Europeans to set foot in the territory which became Manitoba, and his raising of the symbolic cross of title at Nelson was subsequently advanced to counter later claims to the land. Button's voyage and his wintering in the new land did not lead directly to settlement or to inland exploration, but his discovery stimulated others to follow after him. In so doing they used his landmarks and his plottings, and the first maps of Hudson Bay were struck from his reckonings and from those of his great predecessor, Henry Hudson.

Many writers and historians have neglected Thomas Button. Manitobans in general know little about him. No history of the province does him justice. A recently produced audio-visual aid for teaching Manitoba history in the schools does not mention him at all. One new history of Manitoba glosses over his exploits and places him in a secondary sequence to Munck (who used Button's navigators to get to Churchill River in 1619).

What is the truth?

Captain Thomas Button and his men were in the territory which became Manitoba so far ahead of anyone else that their exploits have become lost in the glamor which surrounds later events. The voyage of the Nonsuch to the bottom of James Bay in 1668, the founding of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670, the thrust of La Verendrye to the Red and Assiniboine in 1738, and the establishment of the Selkirk Settlement in 1812 are frequently given precedence over Button.

Yet Button and his men were at Nelson River just eight years after the first settlement in all of Canada, Port Royal, on the Atlantic seaboard, was started in 1604. Button's New Wales, now Manitoba, was named after his homeland just four years after the Citadel of Quebec was founded. Button was in Manitoba and Western Canada thirty years before the City of Montreal was founded. He was there more than sixty years before York Fort was built on Hayes River, seventy-eight years before Henry Kelsey's first journey to the western plains, and one hundred and twenty-six years in advance of La Verendrye's arrival at the fork of the Red and Assiniboine. In the perspective of American history, Button and his men landed at Nelson River eight years before the Pilgrim Fathers went ashore in Massachusetts Bay.

In the light of these things, isn't it about time that Thomas Button received his just due - at least from the people who live in the land he discovered?

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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