Hudson, Foxe, and James: The Search for the Northwest Passage

Christopher Columbus famously set out to sail to China and instead found the Americas. The riches of China and India drew traders, but the difficulty of known routes inspired explorers. When the Americas were found, the southern route around the Cape Horn proved an even more difficult route than the southern route around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

Lacking any quick southern route, explorers sought northern routes through Arctic seas—the Northeast passage, north of Russia and the great Asian Steppes, and the Northwest passage, across the north of the Americas. Sea ice made these routes impracticable for sailing ships, but that was not known until these routes were explored.

Map of Hudson’s voyages to North America

Perhaps the most famous of these explorers was Henry Hudson, who at different times, sought both the Northwest and Northeast passages. In 1609, working for the Dutch East India Company, Hudson explored the great river that reaches the ocean at what is now New York City—a river he explored in the hope that it might prove to be the elusive passage west—in doing so, he played a crucial role in the foundation of New Netherland and New Amsterdam. 

But most of his journeys were farther north. In 1611, sailing westward, to the north of the Labrador Peninsula, he passed through the difficult waters at the entry of what is now named the Hudson Strait—waters perilous enough that English explorer Martin Frobisher had called it the “Furious Overfall”—and into the vast bay that now bears his name.

Trapped by ice in the southern extension of Hudson Bay—now known as James Bay, for a later English explorer—Hudson and his crew were forced to overwinter. Although he survived the hard winter, when he wished to sail west again as the ice thawed, his crew mutinied and Hudson, along with his son and a few others of the crew, was sent away from the ship in a small boat—and nothing more is known of Hudson’s fate.

John Collier’s painting of Henry Hudson with his son and some crew members after a mutiny on his icebound ship. The boat was set adrift and never heard from again.

Twenty years after Hudson set out, two other English ships set out to find the Northwest passage, and they, too, explored Hudson Bay extensively. One under the command of Foxe returned the same fall, to little acclaim, though his explorations and notes of the Hudson Bay were extensive. The other, James’s Henrietta Marie (named for King Charles I’s wife) overwintered and returned to great acclaim. James Bay at the southern end of Hudson Bay is named for him. Neither ship was able to discover a Northwest passage.

The first sea chart of Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait — an essential map for Canada collectors.

Although these explorers did not find a route to the riches of China, they discovered a rich land. By the time of the voyages of Foxe and James, colonies had been established by England, France, and the Dutch on the eastern seaboard of North America, and the riches of this unexplored continent were beginning to drive colonial expansion. The French had been trading fur in Canada for decades, claiming much of the land west of the English and Dutch colonies. For the English, the explorations of Hudson, Foxe, and James surveyed the lands that would become controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company, formed in England in 1670 (and still an operating business concern, though no longer trading furs or wielding the military power they once held).