Samuel Hearne's Search for the Copper Mines
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Samuel Hearne's Search for the Copper Mines

In 1774, the North West Company was born and quickly established itself as a fur-trading power in North America.
Samuel  Hearne became the first European to explore the Arctic, travelled overland, in 1771. (As portrayed by Art Kitching in Canada: A People's History)
Samuel Hearne became the first European to explore the Arctic, travelled overland, in 1771. (As portrayed by Art Kitching in Canada: A People's History)
The Hudson's Bay Company, which had enjoyed a virtual fur-trading monopoly for more than a century, was threatened. The HBC realized it would have to adopt some of its rival's tactics and take its business into the interior in order to survive. This decision would lead one young explorer on an incredible journey overland to the Arctic.

One of the HBC's first forays into the interior wasn't to find furs though; it was a search for minerals. The HBC hoped to diversify into minerals and whaling, which would compensate for the diminishing fur profits. Samuel Hearne was one of the explorers sent out to find a huge copper mine that the Indians had described.

In 1765, Moses Norton, the Factor (chief trader) at Churchill, had engaged a Dene Indian named Matonabbee to "go & trace to ye mouth of ye Largest Rivers to ye Northward" in the hope of finding minerals.
Samuel Hearne witnessed a group of Dene killing 21 Inuit during his Arctic journey in 1770 -1771.  Hearne named the site Bloody Falls. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Samuel Hearne witnessed a group of Dene killing 21 Inuit during his Arctic journey in 1770 -1771. Hearne named the site Bloody Falls. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Matonabbee returned in 1768 with a map to the Coppermine River drawn in charcoal on deerskin.

Two years later, Samuel Hearne was given the task of retracing Matonabbee's route and returning with copper. The land was unknown and incredibly harsh; Hearne's voyage was a monumental task of navigation and survival.

Samuel Hearne had fought in the Seven Year's War in the Royal Navy and joined the Hudson's Bay Company in 1763 as a mate on one of its ships, the Churchill. On the slender basis of being young, and adept at snowshoeing, he was targeted by the Bay as an explorer. He also had some navigation skills that he had learned in the navy.

Hearne made two abortive attempts before his definitive third journey, when he was accompanied by Matonabbee.
At the end of his exploring days, Samuel Hearne became the slightly eccentric chief factor (trader) at Churchill where he kept a pet beaver. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
At the end of his exploring days, Samuel Hearne became the slightly eccentric chief factor (trader) at Churchill where he kept a pet beaver. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
They left Churchill in December, 1770.

Hearne and Matonabbee became close during the course of their travels and Hearne saw European qualities in him; "to the vivacity of a Frenchman, and the sincerity of an Englishman, he added the gravity and nobleness of a Turk." Matonabbee was also a fierce warrior, an adept politician and a practiced guide, all qualities that made Hearne's trip a success.

Hearne recalled a confrontation Matonabbee had with southern Indians who were intent on robbing him. "'I am sure (said he) of killing two or three of you, and if you chuse to purchase my life at that price, now is the time; but if otherwise, let me depart without further molestation.' They then told him he was at liberty to go, on condition of leaving his servant; but to this he would not consent.
Arctic journey
Arctic journey
He then rushed into the tent and took his servant by force from two men; when finding there was no apearance of farther danger, he set out on his return to the frontiers of his own country."

When the exploration party reached the tundra, there was no food. "Indeed for many days before we had been in great want, and for the last three days had not tasted a morsel of any thing, except a pipe of tobacco and a drink of snow water; and as we walked daily from morning till night, and were all heavy laden, our strength began to fail."

Hearne's pack had the sextant in it and weighed sixty pounds.
They eventually walked 1,700 miles.

They were joined by a group of Dene, who were looking to fight with their traditional enemy, the Inuit. Near the mouth of the Coppermine River, Hearne's group came upon a party of Inuit. Hearne tried to talk the Dene out of their fight, but was mocked for lacking courage. In preparation for battle, the Dene painted their faces red and black, tied their hair back and stripped to their breech cloths. At one a.m., they attacked the sleeping enemy.

The Indians crept under some of the rocks within 100 yards of the tents, "where they lay some time to watch the motions of the Esquimaux, but finding all asleep... they ran on the tent on a sudden and killed every soul before they had power to rise - in the whole, 21 persons," said Hearne.

In the morning, as they were leaving, they noticed an old woman, probably deaf, catching salmon at the shore, oblivious to the slaughter.
She was tortured and killed as well. "I cannot reflect on the transactions of that horrid day without shedding tears," Hearne wrote. He named the site Bloody Falls.

And the words in his journal turned - from revulsion - to deep disappointment and despair. Seven months after setting off from Churchill, Samuel Hearne reached the copper mines and learned a terrible truth:

This mine, if it deserve that appellation, is no more than an entire jumble of rocks and gravel... I and almost all my companions expended near four hours in search of some of this metal...
among us all, only one piece of any size could be found, said Hearne They turned around and walked the 1,700 miles home. His journey had not yielded riches, but Hearne was the first European to the reach the Arctic overland, and this was the first step toward opening up the interior.

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