Breaking the Ice: The Early History of the Northwest Passage


Voyages in the Arctic seas, from 1821 to 1825, for the discovery of a north-west passage to the Pacific Ocean. Dublin, Printed by R. Napper, 1830.

The history of the Northwest Passage begins much earlier than the famous Franklin Expeditions.  Our exhibit describes significant events prior to Franklin’s travels in the following three collections:

Initial Perceptions

Acts of Parliament

Early Exploration

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the feasibility of  a journey to the Arctic, many explorers risked their lives time and time again in hopes of discovering the Northwest Passage. Motivated by political pressures and economic incentives, explorers, such as Captain Thomas James, Captain William Parry and Sir John Ross, endured this dangerous voyage. Their observations of the arctic landscape and documentations of their expeditions provided invaluable information that supported the practicability of the Northwest Passage. For example, Captain Parry’s observations regarding weather and the arctic coastline supplemented the information gathered by Sir John Ross and his expedition, making the Northwest Passage appear attainable. Captain Franklin’s early land expeditions further complemented these observations; he surveyed the northern Canadian coastline and explored the possibility of finding a land-based route through the Arctic. As a result of these successes, the British Parliament offered hefty rewards to those who could discover the passage. Such insentives led to a series of government funded expeditions which culminated with Franklin’s famed last voyage in 1846.

There are several diverse documents that collectively recount the history of the search for the Northwest Passage before Franklin’s final expedition. Drawing upon first-hand accounts of voyages, legal documents, pamphlets, maps, and even fictitious novels, we delve into the initial perceptions surrounding the feasibility of the arctic journey. We conclude with a chronological exploration into the attempts of previous explorers to discover the elusive and dangerous Northwest Passage.