My history hero: Samuel Hearne (1745–92)

Chosen by Ray Mears, survival expert

A portrait of the English explorer Samuel Hearne. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Samuel Hearne was a pioneering explorer of the North American continent. Born in London, he was posted by the Hudson Bay Company to Prince of Wales fort in modern-day Canada in 1766. From there he embarked on three expeditions into uncharted territory in search of copper mines. The third saw him journey 1,300 miles by foot to the Coppermine river.

Hearne was appointed governor of the fort in 1775 but was forced to surrender to the French seven years later. He returned to London in 1787 because of his failing health and did not live to see the publication of his influential travel journal, Journey to the Northern Ocean, in 1795.

When did you first hear about Samuel Hearne?

I can’t remember exactly when, but I kept coming across references to Journey to the Northern Ocean when people were talking about native people and plants. I used to search in secondhand bookshops but I couldn’t find his book. Then seven or eight years ago I had a look on the internet and found a facsimile edition for around £100. I thought, alright, I’ll buy this thing.

What kind of a person was Hearne?

He was a determined, tremendously focused man. He was a broad thinker who lived in an age of excitement. He embraced new ideas and wanted to contribute to the world.

What made him a hero?

Hearne was to my mind the first man to show that the best way to travel across Canada was to employ local expertise, rather than bring a European mentality to his expedition. He was incredibly successful, as were those who followed him and followed his methodology. Those who didn’t all ended up eating their shoes!

Hearne is an unsung hero of exploration because he died young. It’s a tragedy that he hasn’t been celebrated because his journey was incredible. This was the man who brought back word of how big Canada was. He walked into an unmapped landscape and came back saying, you’ll have to think again because the continent is massive. He was the first man to do that and he showed people the way to explore it. These were two huge events in the shaping of a country.

What was his finest hour?

He never knew his finest hour. I think that was probably the publication of his journal, a bestseller, which came out after his death. You will never find a better work of anthropology. It has amazing footnotes and the accuracy is astonishing.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

No, I don’t see many faults in him. Maybe I would have done if I had met him. Hearne was criticised when he came back from his expedition and had to surrender the Prince of Wales fort to the French when they attacked it. But he only had 40 fur traders, none of whom were trained to fight, and was facing 300 trained French troops at a fort with no water supply. He had no real choice but to surrender.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

No, they are completely different. The only thing we have in common is that we are both Englishmen who have developed a love for the Canadian Northwoods. Hearne does inspire my work and I still learn things from his observations even though I’ve spent 20 years teaching people about the area.

Rob Attar was talking to Ray Mears

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Ray Mears: Northern Wilderness, which saw him travelling through Canada in the footsteps of earlier explorers, was shown on BBC Two in October 2009. The accompanying book was published by Hodder & Stoughton.