Captain Ross, 1833

Letter from
Captain Ross, 1833
Ross’s Expedition, 1829

Editor’s Note: The following is an account of Capt. John Ross of his 1829-1833 expedition in the vicinity of Baffin Bay, Prince Regent’s Inlet. Ross comments to having been in the area in 1818 also. The expedition named the Bay of Boothia, and Boothia Felix Isthmus.

The following letters addressed by the gallant navigator to the Admiralty, war put the reader in possession of all the Adventures and Discoveries of this memorable expedition.

On board the Isabella, of Hull,
Baffin’s Bay, Sept. 1833.

Sir, – Knowing how deeply my lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are interested in the advancement of nautical knowledge, and particularly in the improvement of geography, I have to acquaint you, for the information of their lordships, that the expedition, the main object of which is to solve, if possible, the question of a north-west passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, particularly by. Prince Regent’s Inlet and which sailed from England in May, 1827, notwithstanding the loss of the foremast and other untoward circumstances which obliged the vessel to refit in Greenland, reached the beach on which his Majesty’s late ship Fury’s stores were landed on the 13th of August.

We found the boats, provisions, &e. in excellent condition, but no vestige of the wreck. After completing in fuel and other necessaries, we sailed on the 14th, and on the following morning rounded Cape Garry, where our new discoveries commenced, and keeping the western shore close on board, ran down the coast in a S. W. and W. course, in from 10 to 20 fathoms, until we had passed the latitude of 72 north in longitude 94 west; here we found a considerable inlet leading to the westward, the examination of which occupied two days; at this place we were first seriously obstructed by ice, which was now seen to extend from the south cape of the inlet, in a solid mass, round by S. and E. to E. N. E.; owing to this circumstance, the shallowness of the water, the rapidity of the tides, the tempestuous weather, the irregularitv of the coast, and the numerous inlets and rocks for which it is remarkable, our progress was no less dangerous than tedious, yet we succeeded in penetration, below the latitude of 70 north in longitude 92 west, where the land, after having carried us as far east as 90, took a decided westerly direction, while land at the distance of 40 miles to southward was seen extending east and west. At this extreme point our progress was arrested on the 1st of October by an impenetrable barrier of ice.. We, however, found an excellent wintering port, which we named Felix Harbor. Early in January, 1830, we had the good fortune to. establish a friendly intercourse with a most interesting consociation of natives, who, being insulated by nature, had never before communicated with strangers; from them we gradually obtained the important information that we had already seen the continent. of America; that about 40 miles to the S. W. there were two great seas, one to the, west which was divided from that to the east by a narrow strait or neck of land. Verification of this intelligence either way, on which our future operations so materially depend devolved on Commander Ross, who volunteered his service early in April, and accompanied by one of the mates, and guided by two of the natives, proceeded to the spot, and found that the north land was connected to the south by two ridges of high land, 15 miles in breadth, but taking into account a chain of fresh water lakes which occupied the valleys between the dry land which actually separates the two oceans, is only five mile. This extraordinary isthmus was subsequently visited by myself when Commander Ross proceeded minutely to survey the seacoast to the southward of the isthmus leading to the westward, which he succeeded in tracing to the 99th degree or to 150 miles of Cape Turnagain of Franklin, to which point the land, after leading him into the 70th degree of north latitude, trended directly; during the same journey he also surveyed 30 miles of the adjacent coast, or that to the north of the isthmus, which, by also taking a westerly direction, forming the termination of the western sea into gulf. The rest of this season was employed in tracing the seacoast south of the isthmus leading to the eastward, which was done so as to leave no doubt that it joined, as the natives had previously informed us, to Ockullee, and the land forming Repulse Bay. It was also determined that there was no passage to the westward for 30 miles to the northward of our position.

This summer, like that of 1818, was beautifully fine, but extremely unfavorable for navigation, and our object being, now to try a more northern latitude, we waited with anxiety for the disruption of the ice, but in vain, and our utmost endeavors did not succeed in retracing our steps more than four miles, and it was not until the middle of,. November that we succeeded in cutting the vessel into place of’ security, which we named “Sheriff’s Harbor.” I may here mention that we named the newly discovered continent to the southward, “Boothia,” as also the isthmus, the peninsula to the north and the eastern sea, after my worthy friend Felix Booth, Esq. the truly patriotic citizen of London, who, in the most disinterested manner, enabled me to equip this expedition in a superior style.

The last winter was in temperature nearly equal to the means of what had been experienced on the four preceding voyages, but the winters of 1830 and 1831 set in with a degree of violence hitherto beyond record–the thermometer sunk to 92 degrees below the freezing point and the average of the year was 10 degrees below the preceding; but notwithstanding the severity of the summer, we traveled across the country to the west sea by a chain of lakes, 30 miles north of the isthmus, when Commander Ross succeeded in surveying 50 miles more of the coast leading to the northwest and by tracing the shore to the northward of our position, it was also fully proved that there could be no passage below the 71st degree.

This autumn we succeeded in getting the vessel only 14 miles to the northward; as we had not doubled the Eastern Cape, all hope of saving the ship was at an end, and put quite beyond possibility by another very severe winter; and having only provisions to last us to the 1st June, 1830, dispositions were accordingly made to leave the ship in present port which (after her) was named Victory Harbor. Provisions and fuel being carried forward in the spring, we left the ship on the 28th May, 1832, for Fury Beach, being the only chance left of saving our lives; owing to the very rugged nature of the ice we were obliged to keep either upon or close to the land, making the circuit of every bay, thus increasing our distance 200 miles by nearly one half; and it was not until the 1st of July that we reached the beach, completely exhausted with hunger and fatigue.

A hut was speedily constructed, and the boats, three of which had been washed off the beach, but providentially driven on shore again, were repaired during this month; and the unusual heavy appearance of the ice afforded us no cheering prospect until the lst of August, when in three boats we reached the ill-fated spot where the Fury was first driven on shore, and it was not until the first of September we reached Leopold South Island, now established to be the N. E. point of America, in latitude 73, 56, and longitude 90 west. From the summit of the lofty mountain on the promontory we could we Prince Regent’s Inlet Barrow’s Strait, and Lancaster sound, which presented one impenetrable mass of ice, just as I had seen it in 1818. Here we remained in a state of anxiety and suspense which may be easier imagined than described. All our attempts to push through were vain; at length, being forced by want of provisions and the approach of a very severe winter to return to Fury Beach, where alone there remained wherewith to sustain life, there we arrived on the 7th of October, after a most fatiguing and laborious march, having been obliged to leave our boats at Batty Bay.

Our habitation, which consisted of a frame of spars, 32 feet by 16, covered with canvass, was, during the month of November, enclosed, and the roof covered with snow from 4 to 7 feet thick, which being saturated with water when the temperature was 15 degrees below zero, immediately took the consistency of ice and thus we actually became the inhabitants of an iceberg during one of the most severe winters hitherto recorded; our sufferings were aggravated by want of bedding, clothing, and animal food, need not be dwelt upon. Mr. C. Thomas, the carpenter, was the only man who perished at this beach, but others, beside one who had lost his foot were reduced to the last stage of debility, and only twelve out of our number were able to carry provisions, in seven journeys, of 62 miles each, to Batty Bay.

We left Fury Beach on the 8th of July, carrying with us three sick, men, who were unable to walk, and in six days we reached the boats, where the sick daily recovered. Although the spring was mild, it was not until the 15th of August that we had any cheering prospect. A gale from the westward having suddenly opened a lake of water along the shore, in two days we reached our former position, and from the mountain we had the satisfaction of seeing clear water across Prince Regent’s Inlet, which we crossed on the 17th, and took shelter from a storm twelve miles to the eastward of Cape York. The next day, when the gale abated, we crossed Admiralty Inlet, and were detained six days on the coast by a strong N. E. wind. On the 25th we crossed the Navy Board Inlet, and on the following morning, to our inexpressible joy, we descried a ship in the offing becalmed, which proved to be the Isabella, of Hull, the same ship which I commanded in 1818. At noon we reached her, when her enterprizing commander, who had in vain searched for us in Prince Regent’s Inlet, after giving us three cheers, received us with every demonstration of kindness and hospitality which humanity could dictate. I ought to mention also that Mr. Humphreys, by landing me at Possession Bay, and subsequently on the west coast of Baffin’s Bay, afforded me an excellent opportunity of concluding my surveys and of verifying my former chart of that coast.

I now have the pleasing duty of calling the attention of their lordships to the merit of Commander Ross, who was second in the direction of this expedition. The labors of this officer, who had the departments of astronomy, natural history and surveying, will speak for themselves in language beyond the ability of my pen; but they will be duly appreciated by their lordships, and the learned bodies of which he is a member, and who are already well acquainted with his acquirements.

My steady and faithful friend, Mr. William Thom, of the royal navy, who was formerly with me in the Isabella, beside his duty as third in command, took charge of the meteorological journal, the distribution and economy of provisions, and to his judicious plans and suggestions must be attributed the uncommon degree of health which our crew enjoyed; and as two out of the three who died in the four years and a half were cut off early in the voyage by diseases not peculiar to the climate, only one man can be said to have perished. Mr. M’Diarmid, the surgeon, who had been several voyages to these regions, did justice to the high recommendation I received of him; he was useful in every amputation and operation which he performed, and wonderfully so in his treatment of the sick; and I have no hesitation in adding that he would be an ornament to his Majesty’s service.

Commander Ross, Mr. Thom, and myself, have indeed been serving without pay; but, in common with the crew, have lost our all, which I regret the more, because it puts it totally out of My power adequately to remunerate my, fellow sufferers, whose case I cannot but recommend for their lordship’s considerations. We have, however, the consolation that the results of this expedition have been conclusive and to science highly important, and may be briefly comprehended in the following words. The discovery of the Gulf of Boothia, the continent and isthmus of Boothia Felix, and a vast number of islands, rivers, and lakes; the undeniable establishment that the north-east point of America extends to the 74th degree of north latitude; valuable observations of every kind, but particularly on the magnet; and to crown all, have the honor of placing the illustrious name of our most gracious Sovereigrn William IV. on the true position of the magnetic pole.

I cannot conclude this letter, sir, without acknowledging the important advantages we obtained from the valuable publications of Sir Edward Parry and Sir John Franklin, and the communications kindly made to us by those distinguished officers before our departure from England. But the glory of this enterprise is entirely due to Him whose divine favor has been most especially manifested toward us, and who guided and directed all our steps; who mercifully provided in what we had deemed a calamity, his effectual means of our preservation; and who, even after the devices and inventions of man had utterly failed, crowned our humble endeavors with complete success. I am, & c.

John Ross, Captain, R. N.

To Captain the Hon. George Elliot, & c.
Secretary Admiralty.