Rae, Doctor John
b. 1813-09-30
d. 1893-07-22
Doctor John Rae was an explorer for the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) who conducted a survey for a telegraph line from St Paul, Minnesota to Victoria in 1865. The route he laid out went from Fort Garry, to Fort Edmonton, over the Rocky Mountains, and down the Fraser River but the project was abandoned prior to construction when the government withdrew their support.1 In a despatch to Edward Cardwell on 28 September 1864, Frederick Seymour credits Rae with the discovery of a pass in the Rocky Mountains, through which a Waggon Road might with ease be made.2
Rae was born near Stromness in the Orkney Islands, 30 September 1813, and spent his childhood outdoors, developing the skills that served him so well as an explorer for the Hudson's Bay Company. He was educated at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.3
His father and brothers were employed by the HBC; in 1833, Rae was hired on as the surgeon for a voyage from England to Moose Factory aboard the HBC ship Prince of Wales. Rae set up in Moose Factory and, when not engaged in medical work, took part in trading.4
Rae was chosen to lead several expeditions to the Arctic and was head of the first party to winter on the Arctic Coast. He rose through the ranks of the HBC, becoming chief trader in 1847, head of the Mackenzie River district in 1849, and chief factor in 1850, despite his own admission that he lacked skill in business management.5
At various points in his career, Rae was tasked with discovering the fate of the missing Arctic expedition led by John Franklin. He finally got a break in 1854 while on an unrelated survey of the Boothia peninsula.6 A party of Inuit told him of the passage of a group of white men who made camp and were later found dead at the mouth of the Great Fish River. The Inuit sold Rae several items that belonged to the late explorer, confirming the story.
Rae cut his survey short in the fall and returned to England to collect his reward for the discovery. He then found himself at the center of a controversy both for not identifying the bodies in person and because his report, which was published in The Times, stated that the party had resorted to cannibalism.7 Based on his intelligence gathered from the Inuit, Rae's report stated: From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.8 The British public vehemently denied his assertions, most notably Charles Dickens who considered Indigenous testimony loose and unreliable. Their arguments rested on the perceived notion of British racial superiority and apparent ability to resist the last resource.9 Rae's accounting of events was proved true by further expeditions including those of Leopold McClintock.10
Despite retiring from the HBC in 1856, Rae continued to work with them for many years. Rae died of a ruptured aneurism on 22 July 1893.11 Robert Michael Ballantyne, HBC Clerk, called Rae the best and ablest snow-shoe walker not only in the Hudson Bay Territory but also of the age.12
Mentions of this person in the documents