Who Discovered The Northwest Passage?

Who discovered the Northwest Passage

From the end of the 15th century, Europe sent explorers in the hope of discovering a commercial sea route north and west around North America to establish a new route to the trading nations of Asia.

This fabled passage has taken the lives of many explorers trying to navigate the harsh conditions of the Arctic. Before satellite navigation existed, intrepid explorers attempted to pass through the passage, even in winter, often perishing in the attempt. 

These days things have changed. Thanks to retreating sea ice and modern technology, the Northwest Passage can now be navigated safely by expert expedition cruise ships each year. 

Below we have written a guide on who discovered the Northwest Passage.

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Who Discovered The Northwest Passage?

Many explorers have set out in search of a way through this difficult and unforgiving land known as the Northwest Passage. But who actually made the route first as we know it today?

The Earliest Explorers

John Cabot led the 1497 discovery of the coast of North America. This was under the commission of Henry VII of England and is the earliest known European exploration of the North American coast since the Norse discoveries.  

Although many discoveries were made, the crossing of the passage did not succeed. Christopher Columbus was an explorer at the same time and had earlier set sail in search of a westward route after overland travel to Asia had become more difficult. 

After these attempts and new discoveries, the venture to find the Northwest Passage was still something much sought after for trade from Europe. 

Who discovered the Northwest Passage - henry hudson

Henry Hudson

The third explorer to search for the Northwest Passage was Henry Hudson who set sail in his ship the Discovery on May 1610. He entered an area that is now known as Hudson Strait, at the northern tip of Labrador, Canada, mapping and exploring the area for the first time.

During this period, Henry Hudson also discovered what is now called Hudson Bay. These days the bay is one of the top tourists spots to see beluga whales and polar bears.

The expedition did not have a happy ending for Henry Hudson. Unhappy with how the expedition was going, Hudson's men mutineered in June 1611, leaving Hudson and a few loyal crew on a small boat in the sea. They were never seen again.

Who discovered the Northwest Passage - john franklin

John Franklin

John Franklin made three attempts to find the Northwest Passage, however, his final voyage in 1845 ended in tragedy.  

After sailing up the Wellington Channel, then south down Peel Sound, the team found themselves trapped by the ice flow down the McClintock Channel. A crew member deposited a record of their progress and it is thought that they reached as far as Cape Herschel. Franklin died later that year.

The ship still trapped was later abandoned, but the crew were so weak and malnourished that none are known to have made it back to the river. The expedition became the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration.

Who discovered the Northwest Passage - roald amundsen

Roald Amundsen

In 1903, Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to successfully cross through Canada's Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. 

Learning from the failures of the past, Amundsen used a smaller ship and a crew of just six men to complete the journey. The ship - the Gjøa - travelled across Baffin Bay, through Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait and reached Beechey Island. After dropping anchor in Erebus Bay, they followed the route towards King William Island anchoring on the east coast of the island at what is now named Gjøa Haven.

The expedition spent two years here learning survival skills from the local Netsilik Inuit people. In 1905 they set sail once again heading through Simpson Strait to the south of King William Island and on to the Bering Strait. It is said that when Amundsen saw an oncoming whaling ship from San Francisco he knew the expedition would be a success. 

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Expedition Cruise do not sell tours, we simply provide impartial advice. If you would like an exact quote with our recommended specialist click Get a Quote.

The Northwest Passage Today

Largely due to climate change, the Northwest Passage has opened up considerably. Retreating sea ice means that in the height of summer, large cruise ships can pass through with relative ease. 

There are a number of itineraries that follow in the footsteps of Amundsen's and Franklin's route. Would you consider taking part in such a epic adventure? 


If you have any queries or questions regarding who discovered the Northwest Passage, please feel free to contact us or leave a comment below.

Thank you and happy travels!

Expedition Cruise Team

About the Author Burnham Arlidge

Burnham started his career as a professional tennis player before retiring due to injury. Since then Burnham has thrown himself into adventure travel. He has cruised to some of the most iconic and obscure parts of the planet.

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1 comment
Elin Nilsson says August 8, 2020

Thank you….very informative.

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