Mariner John Cabot was living in Spain at the time Columbus returned from his first voyage, unsuccessful in his quest to find a new route to the Far East. In an effort to one-up his fellow Italian, Cabot proposed a radical idea—instead of a second voyage to what would be the future Americas, he would sail a northerly route to Asia, where the longitudes were closer.
So began the long list of intrepid explorers who would set out in search of the Northwest Passage. It was not Spain, however, that backed Cabot’s voyage, nor even Portugal, which sent its ships eastward around the Cape of Good Hope. Rather, King Henry VII would issue papers for an expedition in 1496, hoping to find a trade advantage for England. It failed. A second one, launched the following year, would prove more fruitful.
After a month at sea, Cabot landed the Mathew along the Eastern Atlantic coast, most likely on what is now Cape Breton Island. Future voyages would lead to his discoveries of Greenland, Baffin Land, Newfoundland, and the Grand Banks, opening them to European fishermen.
For the next 400 years, a series of adventurers would navigate this northern sea route in search of the fabled passage to Asia. Henry Hudson made three attempts between 1607 and 1610, exploring around modern-day New York City; on his final expedition, the crew mutinied, sending their commander adrift to an unknown fate. The great sea captain James Cook—the first European to reach eastern Australia and the Hawaiian Islands—would journey along the coast of Alaska and as far as Siberia on his third and final voyage from 1776 to 1779.
The tragic expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 set off what would become one of history’s longest rescue missions. Franklin had explored the waters 30 years earlier as a young officer in the British Royal Navy; in the interim, a series of British expeditions had navigated much of the Canadian Arctic. It was to the last undiscovered section that the captain sailed with two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror; the second vessel’s name would prove a cruel irony.
By 1848, Franklin and his crew of 129 British naval officers and seaman were presumed missing; searches would continue for the next 32 years. The first skeletal remains were found on King William Island in 1859; many others—along with campsites, abandoned equipment, and other artifacts—have been found around the island, most recently in 1992.
The dream of discovering a northerly sea route would have to wait until 1906, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen successfully traversed the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Yet Amundsen was only getting started—the polar explorer would go on to lead the first Antarctic expedition to reach the South Pole in 1911, and is also recognized as the first undisputed expedition leader to reach the North Pole in 1926.