Northwest Passage

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Northwest Passage,

water routes through the Arctic Archipelago, N Canada, and along the northern coast of Alaska between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Even though the explorers of the 16th cent. demonstrated that the American continents were a true barrier to a short route to East Asia, there still remained hope that a natural passage would be found leading directly through the barrier. During the same period, the idea of reaching China and India by sailing over the North Pole or by sailing through a passage north of Europe and Asia—the Northeast PassageNortheast Passage,
water route along the northern coast of Europe and Asia, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Beginning in the 15th cent., efforts were made to find a new all-water route to India and China.
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—also became popular. The Northwest Passage, however, remained the most important goal, and the search for the passage continued even though at that time such a route had no commercial value.

Proof of the existence of the passage in the mid-1800s only revealed how difficult its transit would be, and it was not until the early 20th cent. that the first transit was accomplished. The first commercial ship to successfully transit the Northwest Passage was the SS Manhattan, an ice-breaking tanker, in 1969. In 1988 the United States, which contends that the passage is an international strait through which all navigation may pass unimpeded, and Canada, in whose sovereign waters that passage lies, agreed that U.S. icebreakers could cross its arctic waters, but only after approval on a case-by-case basis. Although the straits that form the passage have historically been ice-clogged year-round, by 2007 warming in the Arctic made the area almost ice-free in late summer.

The Search for a Passage

Sir Martin Frobisher, the English explorer, was the first European to explore (1576–78) the eastern approaches of the passage. John Davis also explored (1585–87) this area, and in 1610 Henry Hudson sailed north and visited Hudson Bay while seeking a short route to Asia. Soon afterward, William Baffin, an English explorer, visited (1616) Baffin Bay, through which the passage was finally found. English statesmen and merchants, anxious to have the passage found, encouraged exploration. Luke Fox and Thomas James made (1631–32) voyages into Hudson Bay.

Although one of the avowed goals of Hudson's Bay Company was to find the Northwest Passage, little was accomplished until a century after its charter, when Samuel Hearne, a British explorer with the company, went overland as far west as the Coppermine River (1771–72) and demonstrated that there was no short passage to the western sea. The British government offered prizes for achievements in northern exploration, and Captain James Cook was inspired to make the first attempt at navigating the passage from the west. He died before he could accomplish anything. The British, Spanish, and Americans, however, pushed explorations on the Pacific coast, and the explorations of the Russians about Kamchatka and Alaska, together with the voyages of Alexander Mackenzie, the Canadian explorer, and the expedition of the Americans Lewis and Clark, revealed the contours of the continental barrier.

Wars between Britain and France interrupted the search for the Northwest Passage, and when resumed after the wars the explorations were made in the interests of science, not commerce. The desire to extend human knowledge was the chief motive in arctic exploration after the expeditions of British explorers John Ross and David Buchan were sent out in 1818. Ross's later voyages, and those of Sir William Edward Parry, F. W. Beechey, Sir George Back, Thomas Simpson, and Sir John Franklin pushed forward the knowledge of the Arctic and of the Northwest Passage. The last tragic expedition of Franklin indirectly had more effect than any other voyage because of the many expeditions sent out to discover his fate. In his expedition (1850–54), Robert J. Le M. McClure penetrated the passage from the west along the northern coast of the continent and by a land expedition reached Viscount Melville Sound, which had been reached (1819–20) by Parry from the east.

The actual existence of the Northwest Passage had been proved, and the long search was over. It was many years, however, before a transit of the passage was made. This feat, which had been attempted by so many men, was first accomplished (1903–6) by the Norwegian explorer Roald AmundsenAmundsen, Roald
(Roald Engelbregt Grauning Amundsen) , 1872–1928, Norwegian polar explorer; the first person to reach the South Pole. He served (1897–99) as first mate on the Belgica
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. Interest in the Northwest Passage slackened until the 1960s, when oil was discovered in N Alaska and there was a desire for a short water route to transport oil to the east coast of the United States.


See R. J. McClure, The Discovery of the North-West Passage (1856, repr. 1969); B. Keating, The Northwest Passage (1970); A. E. Day, Search for the Northwest Passage (1986); F. Griffiths, ed., Politics of the Northwest Passage (1987); A. Savours, The Search for the Northwest Passage (1999); G. Williams, Voyages of Delusion (2003); A. Brandt, The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage (2010).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Northwest Passage


a sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the bays, seas, and straits of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

The search for the Northwest Passage as the shortest route from Western Europe to East Asia was first undertaken between 1497 and 1542 by English, Portuguese, and French expeditions, which discovered and explored the eastern coast of North America. Between 1576 and 1631, English arctic expeditions discovered Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, Hudson Strait, Hudson Bay, and Foxe Basin. Difficult ice conditions long delayed further penetration of the north and northwest. In the period 1819–20, W. Parry discovered Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, and Viscount Melville Sound, all located at 74° N lat., and in the period 1821–24, he discovered Fury and Hecla Strait and Prince Regent Inlet. In 1821 the possibility of navigation in Coronation Gulf was demonstrated by J. Franklin, and in 1826, Franklin and J. Richardson proved the possibility of navigation in the southern and southeastern parts of the Beaufort Sea; in the course of these expeditions, Amundsen Gulf and Dolphin and Union Strait were discovered. In the period 1837–39, P. Dease and T. Simpson, sailing east of Coronation Gulf in small boats, discovered Dease Strait, Queen Maud Gulf, and Simpson Strait. In the period 1845–46, J. Franklin’s expedition on two ships passed from Barrow Strait through Peel Sound and Franklin Strait to King William Island. In the period 1850–52, traveling eastward from Bering Strait, R. M’Clure discovered Prince of Wales Strait and M’Clure Strait, thereby proving the existence of the Northwest Passage. In 1852, W. Kennedy discovered Bellot Strait.

R. Amundsen, on the ship Gjöa, made the first east to west crossing of the Northwest Passage in the period 1903–06, stopping to winter three times. The first west to east crossing was made by H. Larsen on the St. Roch in the period 1940–42; he and his party stopped to winter twice. In 1944, Larsen, on the same ship, traveled from east to west in a single season.


Arkticheskiepokhody Dzhona Franklina. Leningrad, 1937.
Magidovich, I. P. Istoriia otkrytiia i issledovaniia Severnoi Ameriki. Moscow, 1962.
Dodge, E. S. Northwest by Sea. New York, 1961.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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