John Rae (explorer)

John Rae (explorer)

Dr. John Rae (30 September 1813 – 22 July 1893) was a Scottish doctor who became known as an explorer of Canada's Arctic.

Early Life and career

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in the parish of Orphir in the Orkney Islands. After studying medicine at Edinburgh he went to work for the Hudson's Bay Company as a doctor, accepting a post as surgeon at Moose Factory, Ontario, where he remained for ten years. Rae became known for his prodigious stamina and skilled use of snow shoes. He also learned to live off the land like the Inuit. This allowed him to travel great distances with little equipment and few followers, unlike many other explorers of the Victorian Age.

Over two months in 1844-45 he walked 1,200 miles, a feat that earned him the Inuit nickname "Aglooka", "he who takes long strides." In 1846 Rae went on his first expedition and in 1848 joined Sir John Richardson in searching for the Northwest Passage.

earch for Franklin's expedition

By 1849 Rae was in charge of the Mackenzie River district at Fort Simpson. He was soon called upon to head north again, this time in search of two missing ships from the Franklin Expedition. While exploring King William Island in 1853 Rae made contact with local Inuit, from whom he obtained much information about the fate of the lost naval expedition. [cite journal|last=Rae|first=John|authorlink=John Rae (explorer)|date=1854-12-30|url=,M1|title=Dr Rae's report|journal=Household Words: A Weekly Journal|publisher=Charles Dickens|location=London|volume=10|issue=249|pages=pp 457-458|accessdate=2008-08-16] His report to the British Admiralty carried shocking and unwelcome evidence that cannibalism had been a last resort for some of the survivors. Franklin's widow Lady Jane Franklin was outraged and recruited many important supporters, among them Charles Dickens who wrote several pamphlets condemning Rae for daring to suggest the men of the doomed Franklin expedition would have resorted to cannibalism.

Later career and death

In 1860 Rae worked on the telegraph line to America, visiting Iceland and Greenland. In 1864 he made a further telegraph survey in the west of Canada. In 1884 at age 71 he was again working for the Hudson Bay Company, this time as an explorer of the Red River for a proposed telegraph line from the United States to Russia.

John Rae died in London on 22 July, 1893. A week later his body arrived in the Orkneys. He was buried in kirkyard of St Magnus' Cathedral, Kirkwall. A memorial to him is inside the cathedral.


Rae Strait (between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula), Rae Isthmus, Rae River, Fort Rae and the village of Rae-Edzo (now Behchoko), Northwest Territories were all named for him. [cite web |url= |title=Dr. John Rae |accessdate=2008-08-25 |last= |first= |coauthors= |date= |work=Manitoba Pageant, September 1958, Volume 4, Number 1 |]

The outcome of Lady Franklin's efforts to glorify the dead of the Franklin expedition meant Rae was shunned somewhat by the British establishment. Although he found the last link in the much-sought-after Northwest Passage Rae was never awarded a Knighthood, nor was he remembered at the time of his death, dying quietly in London. However, historians have since studied Rae's expeditions and his roles in finding the Northwest Passage and learning the fate of Franklin's crews. Authors such as Ken McGoogan have noted Rae was willing to adopt and learn the ways of indiginous Arctic peoples, which made him stand out as the foremost specialist of his time in cold-climate survival and travel. Rae also respected Inuit customs, traditions and skills, which went against the beliefs of many 19th century Europeans that most native peoples were primitive and of little educational value.



External links

* [ Biography at the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online"]
* [ Heritage page on Rae, with pictures]
* [ Scotsman article on Rae, 21/07/2006]

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