Dr. John Rae


Among the more illustrious names whose signature appears in William Bradford’s scrapbooks is that of Dr. John Rae, one of the most widely-travelled Arctic explorers and surveyors of his day, and the man credited with discovering the final fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.  He was also, due to his reporting Inuit testimony that some of Franklin’s men had turned to the “last resource” — cannibalism — widely criticized, and almost persona non grata at any gathering of Arctic luminaries.  He was an outsider in other ways, too: a medical man, employed as a surveyor by the Hudson’s Bay Company, he traveled Inuit-style, by dog-drawn sledge, and survived easily in the same territory where British seamen starved. An accomplished hunter, he quite often gave his extra meat to Inuit he met along the trail. By the time of Bradford’s visits to London, Rae was long-retired, but still took a great personal interest in the frozen regions; he not only signed the book, but his personal correspondence with Bradford, also in the scrapbook, indicates that the two man dined together and planned to do so on a second occasion (Bradford’s replies to Rae’s letters are not included).

This correspondence shows that Rae was still very keenly focused on the Franklin search and his role in it, anxious that his own remarkable record of extended sledge-journeys be noted, and hopeful that his contributions to discovery would be remembered.  In the letter shown here, Rae remarks on Bradford having mentioned Lieutenant Pim’s extended sledge journey, on which he found and rescued the crew of HMS Investigator; Rae calculates it as “only 432 Geo[graphical] Miles,” noting that both Sir Leopold McClintock and he himself had done nearly twice this distance. He then, somewhat skeptically, mentions a sledge journey undertaken during Elisha Kent Kane’s Second Grinnell expedition, figuring that it was in fact little more than half the claimed 1,400 miles.  One can sense a bit of wounded pride on Rae’s part.

His letter continues:

I and my men got the reward of £10,000 or $50,000 for first information of the fate of Sir John Franklin’s party, 2 or 3 years before McClintock went out to look for further traces of these poor people. It was by acting entirely on information brought him by me, that McClintock obtained the additional information he brought home.

And Rae is correct; despite his being shunned by much of the Naval establishment, it was his evidence that showed the right area for McClintock to search, during which search he found many remains of the men and their equipment, along with the famous Victory Point Record.

Many contemporary historians and writers, the Canadian author Ken McGoogan chief among them, have worked to restore Rae’s reputation in recent years, giving him full recognition for the evidence he found of Franklin’s fate, as well as for charting the “Rae Strait” which some regard as the real “last link” in a Northwest Passage.  In addition to McGoogan’s book Fatal Passage, Canadian filmmaker John Walker’s award-winning Passage documents Rae’s career, and the struggles he faced on returning home with Inuit testimony of cannibalism.

Russell A. Potter has been fascinated with the Arctic regions for many years, and has written and lectured extensively on many different aspects of its history. His book Arctic Spectacles: The Frozen North in Visual Culture, 1818-1875, is required reading for anyone interested in our Arctic Visions exhibit. In addition to contributing to this blog he is providing critical guidance as Curatorial Consultant, and has authored the Introduction to our re-publication of Arctic Regions

3 thoughts on “Dr. John Rae

  1. That Dr. John Rae continued to have a strong personal interest in the ill-fated Franklin expedition is understandable. Readers who have even a cursory exposure to Arctic exploration have a sense of sadness, if not desolation, when learning about the tragic outcome of Franklin’s party – disciplined British sailors. I can understand how, given the mores of the time, the notion of cannibalism was shunned by Rae’s peers and the general public. This probably haunted him until his death.

    That John Rae was a “medical man” makes him particularly qualified for Arctic exploration (as was my personal hero, Isaac I. Hayes, MD). That Dr. Rae adopted Inuit methodologies shows that he was practical in successfully utilizing what had worked in Arctic regions for decades. Posthumous efforts to restore Dr. Rae’s reputation are certainly warranted and are worthy of mention.

    This was an interesting and compelling posting, illustrating how a handwritten letter can lead to discussion and interest in further reading. Thank you.

  2. Frances, many thanks for your comment, thoughtful as always.

    The history of surgeon-naturalists, doctor-surveyors, and other medically trained explorers is a fascinating one; Franklin’s old compeer Dr. Richardson should also be mentioned, as should Dr. Elisha Kent Kane. Rae might have fared better had he been in the Royal Navy, and had the support of his commanding officer; as it was, Navy men (I think) sometimes distrusted Hudson’s Bay men, and looked down a bit on their accomplishments, thinking of them as having somehow “gone native.” The fact that so many “Bay” men were Scots might have had something to do with this attitude as well. I too am very pleased by Rae’s rehabilitation in recent years; of all the Franklin-era explorers, he truly stands alone.

    1. Russell,
      Thanks for your informative response. I was not aware of the dynamic between Navy explorers and Hudson’s Bay men. It’s to be expected I suppose. I have some additional reading to do be more conversant on Dr. Kane. The article in “Arctic” about the forensic examination of the skeletal remains of the Franklin explorers was both interesting and troubling. Despite the tragedies. this is an era of Arctic exploration that i truly love. Regards, Fran

Comments are closed.