Memorable Manitobans: Thomas Button (?-1634)
Born at Worlton, Glamorganshire, the fourth son of Miles and Margaret Button, he married Mary, daughter of Sir Walter Rice of Dynevor, Carmarthenshire. It is alleged that he was twice married and had a large family. He entered the naval service of the Crown in 1588-1589, serving in the West Indies and in Ireland. In 1612 he was chosen to command an expedition to Hudson Bay in search of a North-West Passage to India. His patron was Prince Henry, eldest son of James I, and his instructions were drawn up by Edward Wright, mathematician and tutor to the Prince. He sailed from England about the beginning of May 1612 with two ships, the Resolution and the pinnace Discovery. His name was included in the Royal Charter granted by James I on 26 July 1612, incorporating the Governor and Company of the Merchants of London, Discoverers of the North-West Passage.
On 15 August, after proceeding through Hudson Strait, he sailed south-westward in Hudson Bay arriving at a river in the vicinity of 57° 10’. To this place he gave the name Port Nelson, after the Master of the Resolution whom he buried there. He named the adjacent land New Wales and called the bight at the mouth of the river Button’s Bay. He took shelter at this place for the winter. In the early summer of 1613, he sailed northward in the Discovery, continuing his search for the North-West Passage. He abandoned the Resolution at Port Nelson after it had been crushed by ice. On 29 July he took his reckoning and was assured that he was at 65°, which was the highest degree of latitude recorded by him. In August, bearing southward in latitude 61°38’, he saw and named Mansel Island, after his friend and kinsman, Sir Robert Mansel. He returned to England in September 1613.
He is given credit for leading an expedition into uncharted waters and securing for his country the first claim to the lands bounding the west coast of Hudson Bay. Three hundred years later, on 15 May 1912, Port Nelson was included in the territory given to the Province of Manitoba on the extension of its boundaries. Thus, it may be claimed for Thomas Button that he was the first white man to visit this area which now belongs to Manitoba.
Upon returning to England, he learned that his patron, Prince Henry, had died on 5 November 1612. Thereafter, he guarded closely all information relating to his voyage. His journals, proceedings and findings were never made freely available to contemporary scholars and explorers. Button pursued his naval career, and in a short time was appointed Admiral of the King’s ships on the Coast of Ireland. At Dublin, in 1616, he was knighted by his cousin, Sir Oliver St. John, then Lord Deputy of Ireland. In 1620 he took part in an unsuccessful attack on Algiers as Rear-Admiral of the Fleet commanded by his kinsman, Sir Robert Mansel. In 1624 he was a member of the council of war and in 1625 was on a commission enquiring into the state of the navy. The last ten years of Admiral Sir Thomas Button’s life were harried by a long quarrel with the Naval Board and a bitter argument with the Admiralty. The latter body alleged misconduct on his part and Sir Thomas counter-charged with non-payment of pension and other allowances. He cleared himself of the Admiralty’s charges, but died in 1634 before his claim for money due was determined.
He is commemorated by the Button siding on the Wekusko Subdivision of the Hudson Bay Railway.
Pioneers and Early Citizens of Manitoba, Winnipeg: Manitoba Library Association, 1971.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 19 July 2018