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Taissumani: Sept. 30, 1813 — The Birth of John Rae


John Rae was born near the wind-swept town of Stromness on the Atlantic coast of the Orkney Islands on the last day of September, 1813. The family home, the Hall of Clestrain, bore the brunt of Atlantic storms – when I stood there on a February afternoon two years ago, I felt as cold as I’d ever felt in the Arctic – and so perhaps it is no surprise that John Rae eventually ended up in the Far North.

But first there was the matter of an education, because Rae had been born into a well-to-do family. He studied in Edinburgh at the Royal College of Surgery, and became a doctor in 1833.

As did so many young men from Orkney, John Rae joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, and served initially as a ship’s surgeon on the company’s vessel, Prince of Wales. On his first voyage, ice prevented the ship from making its return from Hudson Bay to Scotland, and Rae wintered with the ship in James Bay. While there, the company offered him a five year contract as “clerk and surgeon” and so he remained in Rupert’s Land, based at Moose Factory.

There he earned a reputation for his ability as a long-distance walker. On one occasion he walked 105 miles to Fort Albany in two days to treat a patient. Later, returning from an Arctic expedition, Rae walked from Fort Chipewyan to Minnesota – 1,720 miles – in 54 days. “A long day’s march on snowshoes,” he once commented, “is about the finest exercise a man can take.” Rae travelled light, as did the native people he learned from, and lived off the land whenever he could.

Governor George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company suggested that Rae go to the Arctic to survey the uncharted portions of the North American coastline. Rae accepted the suggestion, but first went to Toronto to study surveying.

In all, he made four expeditions to the Arctic. On the second one, a search for John Franklin, missing in the Arctic, Rae and Dr. John Richardson made what is reported to be the fastest canoe trip ever. Leaving Sault Ste. Marie on May 4, 1848, they reached the Mackenzie River delta on Aug. 3. From there they turned east, exploring to the mouth of the Coppermine River. But there was no sign of the lost explorers.

Rae’s final Arctic expedition is his most well-known. After wintering at Repulse Bay, he set off northward in the spring of 1854. From Inuit he heard reports of a large group of white men who had been in the area four years earlier, some dead, some dying. These could only be the crew of the Franklin expedition. From the Inuit, Rae acquired items that proved incontrovertibly that that was the case.

Rae reported the situation tersely to Governor Simpson: “…information has been obtained and articles purchased from the natives, which places the fate of a portion, if not all of the then survivors of Sir John Franklin’s miserable party beyond a doubt – a fate the most deplorable – death from starvation, after having had recourse to cannibalism as a means of prolonging life.”

Rae hurried back to England to break the news that the mystery of the missing expedition had been unravelled. Although the British public, and Lady Franklin in particular, were horrified at the thought that British officers and seamen would resort to cannibalism, Rae nonetheless received the reward that had been offered to whoever would discover the fate of Franklin. That reward was 10,000 pounds, and Rae shared it with the men he had travelled with on that Arctic expedition.

For John Rae, the years of trekking through the Arctic were over. He practiced medicine in Toronto and married there. The marriage was childless. He and his wife returned to Orkney and then, two years later, retired finally to London, where he died in 1893, at the age of 79. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall in Orkney. Inside the cathedral a stunning memorial carved in stone was later erected, depicting Rae asleep on the tundra, still wearing his Arctic clothing, his gun by his side, a blanket tossed over him.

A biographer, C. Stuary Houston, has summed up Rae’s charter thus: “He was intelligent, an accurate observer, a competent writer, and an accomplished doctor. He was pleasant, cheerful, generous, and sensitive. He was frugal, conducting his surveys more economically than anyone before or since. He was sympathetic to the natives and willing to learn their methods of travel, hunting, and building snow houses. And he was candidly honest…”

Rae’s birthplace, the Hall of Clestrain, has not fared well. When I visited it, it had most recently been used as a pig barn. Now designated a historic site, there are plans for it to become one in the chain of small Orkney museums, this one dedicated to the islands’ maritime heritage, with a room devoted to commemorating the life of Orkney’s unsung hero, John Rae.

Taissumani: A Day in Arctic History recounts a specific event of historic interest, whose anniversary is in the coming week. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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