The search for the Northwest Passage

Learn about the explorers – both before and after Cook – who ventured into the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, a navigable channel that was believed to connect the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

Early voyages for the Northwest Passage

Early voyages for the Northwest Passage include three by the Elizabethan, Martin Frobisher. But after the harrowing experiences of Luke Foxe and Thomas James in the 1630s, the search for a passage would not begin again for nearly 100 years.

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18th-century voyages for the Northwest Passage

There were many expeditions in search of a Northwest Passage during the 1700s. They include the voyages of Frances Smith, Samuel Hearne and James Cook. By the end of the century, George Vancouver had explored the northwest coast in detail.

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The third voyage of James Cook

Article by:
William Frame

William Frame, the British Library’s Head of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, describes Cook’s third voyage of 1776–80. The expedition’s aim was to find a passage from the North Pacific to the Atlantic. It was during this voyage that Cook was killed in Hawai’i.

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The Admiralty's search for the Northwest Passage

The early 19th century witnessed a number of expeditions to Arctic regions using Royal Navy ships. Some explorers also undertook epic overland journeys and surveyed miles of Arctic coastline.

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The search for John Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage

The many searches for the missing explorer John Franklin led to the discovery of all the Arctic waterways. The knowledge gained from these voyages helped Amundsen to finally cross the Northwest Passage in 1903-06.

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Further themes

People of the Pacific

Discover modern-day responses to the expeditions from people of the communities Cook encountered, documented and learned from.

The search for the Northwest Passage

Learn about the explorers – both before and after Cook – who ventured into the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, a navigable channel that was believed to connect the North Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

The voyages

Read about James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific.