North American Exploration - Vol. 3

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

19 / Nineteenth-Century Exploration of the Arctic

W. GILLIES ROSS

The North American Arctic is usually considered to be the region beyond the northernmost limit of tree growth. The tree line here lacks the nearly latitudinal alignment that it exhibits in Eurasia. Between Labrador and the Aleutian Islands it soars north and swoops south, producing a sinuous pattern with troughs on the coasts of the Labrador and Bering Seas and in Hudson Bay and with crests at Ungava Bay and the northern slope of Alaska. The Arctic region thus includes the two maritime fringes on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, the Arctic mainland extending between northern Labrador and northwestern Alaska, and the islands north of the continental mass, distributed in three tiers aligned from east to west. The maritime Arctic fringes in Labrador and Alaska, which had been explored and partly exploited by Europeans before 1800, are not within the scope of this chapter. The discussion that follows concentrates on the Arctic mainland and islands between Cape Chidley on the east and Point Barrow on the west, from the tree line in the south to the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. This territory, largely unknown in 1800, has a maximum east-west extent of approximately twenty-six hundred miles and a maximum south-north dimension of roughly two thousand miles. Most of this vast domain was thinly inhabited by Eskimo hunters (Inuit), whose ecumene extended as far north as the Parry Channel, the series of waterways running west from Baffin Bay (Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, Viscount Melville Sound, M'Clure Strait) and dividing the southern tier of Arctic islands from the two northern tiers. The northern tiers ( Queen Elizabeth Islands) did not support a permanent indigenous population in 1800.

Most of the Arctic mainland had been claimed by Great Britain and put under the commercial control of the Hudson's Bay Company. British North. America met Russian America in Alaska, and the boundary between them was established along the meridian of 141° west in 1825. Four decades later Alaska was purchased by the United States, and Canada became a self-

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