Dr John Rae lived from 30 September 1813 to 22 July 1893. A native or Orkney, he became a noted explorer of Canada's Arctic; was the first to find the North-West Passage; and was the man who discovered the fate of the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain on Orkney's West Mainland. His father, also John Rae, was the estate factor, or manager, for the local landowner, and later became the Orkney agent of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC). John spent much of his childhood enjoying the outdoors, learning to sail, shoot and climb: skills that would serve him very well in the future.
In 1829 John went to Edinburgh Universityto study medicine, graduating as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in April 1833. Like many Orcadians of the day, two of John's older brothers had already joined the HBC, and in Summer 1833 John Rae signed on as ship's surgeon aboard the HBC ship Prince of Wales for the voyage to Moose Factory in Ontario.
The ship became ice-locked and overwintered at Charlton Island in James Bay. The following July when the Prince of Wales left Moose Factory, Rae stayed to serve as a trader and the post's surgeon, later saying that "from what I saw I should like the wild sort of life to be found in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service." He remained at Moose Factory for the next ten years, spending time living with the Cree Indians and learning from them how to travel and hunt in the Arctic wilderness. Before long, one colleague had described him as "the best and ablest snow-shoe walker not only in the Hudson Bay Territory but also of the age."
In 1844 Rae was asked to lead an expedition to survey the unexplored parts of the northern coastline of Canada. En route to Toronto to learn the surveying skills he needed, Rae travelled 1,200 miles on snoeshoes to Sault Sainte Marie in two months. Between 1846 and 1854 John Rae led four expeditions to the Arctic, travelling in total over 10,000 miles on foot or in small boats, and surveying some 1,800 miles of coastline. In the course of his travels he discovered features now known as the Rae Peninsula and the Rae Strait, and established the existence and course of the long sought-after North-West Passage, the sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Archipelago of Canada.
For much of this time Rae was, in parallel, undertaking a separate quest. In 1847 in London he had been asked to become second in command to Sir John Richardson of an expedition to Arctic Canada to search for signs of the Sir John Franklin, whose own expedition in search of the North-West Passage had not been heard from since the summer of 1845. The British Government were offering £10,000 to anyone able to discover the expedition's fate.
As a result, although Rae's 1846/7 expedition was wholly geared to surveying the coastline, on his expeditions of 1848/9, 1851, and 1853/4 he was both surveying and looking for signs of Franklin's missing expedition. On 21 April 1854 Rae met some Inuit who told him of a group of white men who had died of starvation four years earlier, a long distance to the west. More Inuit later visited Rae, selling him artefacts from the Franklin Expedition and providing more information that allowed him to establish the location more clearly, and to establish that the last members of the expedition had resorted to cannibalism in an effort to survive.
Rae sailed for Britain with the news on 20 September. He was heavily criticised for not having visited the site of the tragedy himself, and for conveying the - to Victorian society - unthinkable information that officers and men of the Royal Navy had been reduced to cannibalism. He was widely accused of simply being interested in the £10,000, which was withheld until July 1856. A 1859 expedition by another explorer to the site identified by Rae confirmed the story he had been told by the Inuit, in all its grisly detail.
John Rae retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1856, and married in 1860. Later the same year he was asked to help survey the route of a transatlantic cable laid via Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. And in 1865 he undertook a final expedition for the HBC. Rae then settled in Britain, dividing his time between London and Orkney.
Rae died in 1893. He was less well known during his lifetime than he should have been, and the controversy surrounding his description of the fate of Sir John Franklin's Expedition probably cost Rae his own knighthood. But in 1852 he did receive the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his Arctic explorations; he was given an honorary degree by McGill College, Montreal in 1853; and another by Edinburgh University in 1856. And he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1880. He was also seen as a forerunner in the field of Arctic survival, adopting native tools and techniques that were scorned in his day, but increasingly emulated since.