John Rae collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of various lists, narratives and other papers by Rae including material relating to the British Exploring Expedition, 1846-1847 [Hudson's Bay Co.] (led by Rae) the British Overland Franklin Search Expedition, 1847-1849 (leader Sir John Richardson) to the Mackenzie District of Canada and the British Exploring and Franklin Search Expedition, 1853-1844 [Hudson's Bay Co] (led by Rae). The second part of the collection comprises of correspondence by Rae.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Rae was born on 30 September 1813 at the Hall of Clestrain in the parish of Orphir on the Orkney Islands, the fourth son of an agent for the Hudson's Bay Company in Orkney. After studying medicine at Edinburgh University between 1829 and 1833, he was appointed surgeon in the Hudson's Bay Company supply ship Prince of Wales, sailing to Moose Factory, Ontario, where he accepted a post as clerk and surgeon for the company. He became more involved in the general trading activities of the post, learning from the Cree Indians their methods of hunting and travelling, in particular, snowshoeing. In 1844, Rae was selected by Sir George Simpson, the governor of Hudson's Bay Company, to lead the British Exploring Expedition (HBC), 1846-1847, with instructions to complete the exploration of the north coast of America by surveying the region between Fury and Hecla Strait. After studying surveying under John Henry Lefroy in Toronto, Rae set out with ten men from York Factory in June 1846, exploring and mapping the Arctic coast between Melville Peninsula and the Boothia Peninsula. On his return to York Factory, he received news of his promotion to chief trader. His account of the expedition Narrative of an expedition to the shores of the Arctic Sea was published in 1850.

While on a visit to London in 1847, Rae was invited by John Richardson to ser-1849, instructed by the Admiralty to search for Franklin's missing Northwest Passage expedition on the coast between Mackenzie and Coppermine Rivers and on the southern shores of Wollaston Peninsula, Victoria Island. Setting out from Liverpool in March 1848, Richardson and Rae joined the rest of the expedition at Methy Portage in June, reaching the mouth of Mackenzie River in August 1848. While searching the coast in boats as far as Coppermine River, they discovered the mouth of Rae River en route but found no trace of Franklin. Richardson sailed for England in the summer of 1849, while Rae with a party of six men returned to the Arctic coast, intending to cross to Victoria Island to continue the search but prevented by the ice.

Returning to Fort Simpson, Rae took charge of the Mackenzie River district in 1849 and later in the year was joined by William John Samuel Pullen of the British Naval Franklin Search Expedition, 1849-1851. In 1850, Rae was appointed to lead the British Franklin Search Expedition (HBC), 1850-1851, with instructions to renew the attempt to reach Victoria Island. During the expedition, he explored over 1,000 km of new coast in the south of Victoria Island although he found no definite traces of Franklin's expedition. Promoted chief factor in 1850, Rae was awarded in 1852 the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his discoveries.

In 1853, Rae was appointed to lead the British Exploring and Franklin Search Expedition (HBC), 1853-1854, sent by the Hudson Bay Company to complete the survey of the north coast of America by exploring the west coast of Boothia Peninsula between Castor and Pollux River and Bellot Strait. Although Rae did not plan to search for Franklin's missing expedition, he found the first substantial clues to the fate of the expedition. He learned from Eskimo reports that a party of about forty white men had been seen walking toward Back River a few years earlier and that later in the season about thirty corpses had been seen west of the Back River. After purchasing articles taken by the Eskimos from those corpses, Rae returned to York Factory before sailing for England to present his evidence to the Admiralty in the autumn of 1854. Despite strong opposition from Lady Franklin, he and his men received the reward of 10,000 offered by the British government for ascertaining the fate of the expedition.

Rae retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1856, settling in Upper Canada. Returning to Britain in 1860, he served as surveyor on the British North Atlantic Telegraph Expedition (leader Allen Young), conducting the overland part of a survey for a proposed telegraph line between Britain and North America through the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. After conducting a further telegraph survey in the west of Canada in 1865, Rae retired to London where he continued to take an active interest in the Arctic. He died on 22 July 1893 in London and was buried at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

Published work Narrative of an expedition to the shores of the Arctic sea in 1846 and 1847 by John Rae, T and W Boone London (1850) SPRI Library Shelf (41)91(08)[1846-1847 Rae]


The collection is split into two sub-fonds comprising of papers and correspondence respectively

Access Information

By appointment.

Some materials deposited at the Institute are NOT owned by the Institute. In such cases the archivist will advise about any requirements imposed by the owner. These may include seeking permission to read, extended closure, or other specific conditions.


Anyone wishing to consult material should ensure they note the entire MS reference and the name of the originator.

The term holograph is used when the item is wholly in the handwriting of the author. The term autograph is used when the author has signed the item.

Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Arctic, exploration and development c500 BC to 1915, an encyclopaedia by Clive Holland, Garland Publishing, London (1994) and Exploring Polar Frontiers, a historical encyclopaedia by William Mills, San Diego and Oxford, 2003 and 'Rae, John' by R L Richards in Dictionary of Canadian Biography volume 12 edited by Francess G Halpenny, University of Toronto Press Toronto (1990) SPRI Library Shelf 92(08)[1966-] and 'John Rae (1813-1893)' by C Stuart Houston in Arctic volume 40 number 1 1987

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue, Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

Conditions Governing Use

Copying material by photography, electrostat, or scanning device by readers is prohibited. The Institute may be able to provide copies of some documents on request for lodgement in publicly available repositories. This is subject to conservation requirements, copyright law, and payment of fees.

Copyright restrictions apply to most material. The copyright may lie outside the Institute and, if so, it is necessary for the reader to seek appropriate permission to consult, copy, or publish any such material. (The Institute does not seek this permission on behalf of readers). Written permission to publish material subject to the Institute's copyright must be obtained from the Director. Details of conditions and fees may be had from the Archivist.


Further accessions possible

Related Material

The Scott Polar Research Institute holds a number of photographs, film and other illustrative material in the Picture Library, which includes images of Rae. The catalogue can be searched on line by going to the Picture Library Database and selecting the Enter Polar Pictures link.