A Postal History Gallery of Related Events

1675 - 1799


Discoveries in the Arctic

The exploration of the North has extended over five hundred years and rather than finding a northwest passage to the eastern trade, it discovered a great fur trade and valuable fisheries, and even great oil fields. Traveling in vulnerable wooden ships first powered by only sails, they gradually changed to powerful new and innovative vehicles and a commercial trade in the north was established.

Early crews were often separated from their homes for years and some never returned. While hopes of finding a northwest passage was the initial objective, the ice conditions discouraged expectations of success. Attempts to reach the north pole itself followed using stronger ships with newer designs as a base for the dashes to the almost mythical prize. Balloons and the new dirigibles were tried, followed by airships and submarines. When the pole itself was finally reached, it proved to be a vain goal since it was just a point on the ice above a moving body of water.

The oceans of the Arctic basin and the frozen lands around it are now recognized as important study areas, and over the years virtually all exploration parties became directed toward studies of some kind.

This exhibit displays philatelic and other memorabilia marking the work in the Polar Region. Exploration in the Arctic was, and always will be, a lonely job in which communication is a vital part of maintaining morale.



The Northwest Passage


By drawing a line through the constellation of the great bear, Arktos, you will form a line running parallel to the equator at 64° 30' north. This is the Arctic circle. Above this line lies trackless miles of ice and snow on which civilization has yet to gain a foothold.

This unknown area has excited the imagination of men for centuries and bands of men are constantly searching its surface for various reasons, some commercial, others for scientific study and a few for pure adventure. Regardless of the reasons a desire to contact homes and friends accompanied each one. This desire for communication is the study of Polar Philately. It reveals the joys and anxieties, the achievements and failures of these men. It portrays the development of Polar exploration.

In the past the problems of reaching the North Pole have been subordinate to the hope of finding, via that route, a water way to the east, and though the early north polar attempts failed in their main purpose they resulted in the discovery of new lands and industries. But even from the beginning of polar exploration the ships that sailed with orders to attain the North Pole have been in number and importance the exception, not the rule.

In 1669 the British formed the Hudson Bay Company which was the first and outstanding commercial enterprise in the Arctic. The English fed and grew on its bounty while they continued searching for a passage to the East. An early letter recalls the drama of a visit to the outpost during its early years . . .


A 1675 London Newsletter Announces the Return of the First Resupply Expedition to the New Hudsons Bay Outpost


28 September 1675

On Friday and Saturday arrived in ye Port ye Shaftesbury Pink and ye ship Prince Rupert from Hudsons Bay in ye Northwest passage. It seems they were forced to winter there, and by yt meanes spent ye provisions that should have been left there with the new Governour and men yt were to have staid there, who for yt reason are come backs. They left four English there to keep Pallestion . . .

The vessels arrive at Point Comfort on the Rupert River, deep in Hudsons Bay, on September 12, 1674 carrying a new governor and a crew of 28 men. Due to the lateness of the season the ships were forced to winter there. Because the main cargo was provisions for the post of the new governor, it was left for him to distribute the provisions. He apparently was the rugged, outdoor type who felt sure they could live off the country for they carelessly consumed the entire store of the ships during the first months and suffered severely during the remaining months till spring -- and fresh food. When the water cleared in late spring the ships left for England leaving Lyddal and three men to keep the British foothold in North America. A hungry crew returned home little realizing their role in the building of Britain's Arctic empire of Northern Canada.



A Commercial Voyage to the Arctic

A commercial voyage to the Arctic in 1716 by the JOHN AND JAMES was organized at Liverpool to sail north of Hammerfest, Norway:

The Captain: "Designs to go to North Cape if the Swedish King will let him."


The British shipping centers served all corners of the known world and the ports above the Arctic Circle were a new objective in the early eighteenth century.



A Voyage To North Cape

Captain Lovel sent a detailed accounting to ship owner John Brown, in Liverpool, including supplies and expenses. The starting port for the voyage was the Isle of May. On April 18, 1716, the ship JOHN AND JAMES was ready to leave from Deal on the east coast for its voyage north to the Arctic ports of Hammerfest and North Cape.



It is interesting to note at what early dates in American Colonial history citizens shared in voyages to seek a northwest passage. A letter is known of which the original was presented by George Bancroft to Henry Grinnell (an early and noted explorer) and it is referred to in Mr. Bancroft's "History of the United States", Vol. IV, p. 142). . .


Philadelphia Feby 28th, 1753

. . . I believe I have not before told you, that I have provided a subscription here of £1500 to fit out a vessel in search of a northwest passage, she sails in a few days, and is called the Argo, commanded by Mr. Swaine who was in the last expedition in the California and author of a journal of that voyage in two volumes. We think the attempt laudable, whatever may be the success. If she fails, "magnis tamen excidit ausis.))

With great esteem

Mr. Cawalader - Colden, N.Y.
Benj. Franklin


Of this voyage the Pennsylvania Gazette, Nov. 15, 1753 reported:


"Sunday last, arrived the schooner Argo, Captain Charles Swaine, who sailed from this port last spring on the Discovery of a Northwest passage. She fell with the Ice of Cape Farewell, left the Eastern Ice and fell in with the Western Ice in Lat. 58°, and cruised to the Northward to Latitude 63°, to clear it, but could not, it then extending to the Eastern. On her return to the Southward, she met with two Danish Ships bound to Ball River and Disco, up Davis' Straits who had been in the ice fourteen days off Farewell, and had then stood to Westward and assured the commander that the ice was fast to the shore, all above Hudsons Straits to the distance of forty degrees out, and that there had not been such a severe winter as the last these 24 years that they have used that trade; they have been nine weeks from Copenhagen. The Argo, finding she could not get around the ice, pressed through it and got into the straits mouth the 26th of June and made the Island Resolution, but was forced out by vast quantities of driving ice and got into a clear sea the 1st of July. On the 14th, cruising the Ice for an opening to get in again she met 4 sail of Hudson's Bay Ships endeavoring to get in and continued with them until the 19th when they parted in thick weather in latitude 62 and a half, which thick weather continued to the 7th of August. The Hudsons Bay men supposed themselves 40 leagues from the Western Land. The Argo ran down the ice from 63° to 57° 30', and, after repeated attempts to enter the straits in vain, as the season for discovery on the Western side of the Bay was over, she went on the Labrador coast and discovered it perfectly from 56° to 55° finding no less than six inlets to the heads of all they went, and of which we hear they have made a very good chart, and have a better account of the country, its soil, produce, etc., than has hitherto been published.

"The Captain says 'tis much like Norway, and that there is no communication with Hudson's Bay through Labrador where one has here to fore imagined, a high ridge of mountains running North and South about 50 leagues within the coast. In one of the harbors they found a deserted wooden house with a brick chimney which had been built by some English as appeared by sundry things they left behind: and afterwards in another harbor they met with Captain Goff in a Snow * from London, who informed them that this same Snow had been there last year and landed some of the Moravian Bretheran who had built that house; but the natives having decoyed the then Captain of the Snow and five or six of his hands round a Point of Land at a distance from the Snow, under pretense of Trade and carried them all off, the Snow after waiting sixteen days without hearing of them, went home and was obliged to take away the Moravians to help to work the vessel. Part of the business this year was to Enquire after those men. Captain Swaine discovered a fine fishing bank, which lies but six leagues off the coast and extends from Lat. 57° to 54°, supposed to be the same hinted at in Captain Davis' Second Voyage. No bad accident happened to the Vessel and the men kept in perfect health during the whole voyage and returned all well."

* A three masted vessel, the third mast, abaft the mainmast, carrying a trysail.

Although there were many searchers for the northwest passage during the years it remained for Roald Amundsen to finally seek out and navigate the magic passage in 1906 -- proving only that after so many searches it was a "fool's gold." It was too shallow for large boats and emptied into the ice-blocked Beaufort Sea. He had uncovered one of nature's secrets only to find she had an ace-in-the-hole.



The American Colonists Encouraged the Search For A Northwest Passage in Hope That It Would Distract the British In America


The sloop DILIGENCE "victualled" in Virginia in 1764, was experienced in Arctic sailing and was fitted out by a Virginia subscription in 1772 to search for the Northwest Passage. James Phipps, who was captain of the DILIGENCE in 1764, led a 1763 expedition to try to reach the pole past East Greenland.



Nikita Shalaurov

Nikita Shalaurov explored in the Eastern Siberian Sea in 1764 when his fragile vessel disappeared. One of the New Siberian Islands bears his name as his family continued to work on the development of the Siberian trade in the Northeast Passage. This letter written by P.T. Shalaurov from the town of Sol-Vychegodvsk was sent to his son in Archangel.


"I Am Assured These Seas Will Forever Prevent Discovery Being Made"

Captain James Phipps sailed the RACEHORSE and CARCASS toward the pole from a route east of Greenland and barely reached Spitzbergen.

(Exhibition pieces courtesy of George Hall)