In the year 986 the Norse merchant Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course on his way from Iceland to Greenland. When the weather cleared, he saw a land 'not mountainous, but well wooded and with low hills.' This was the first reported sighting of Canada by a European. The land's remoteness from Greenland and Iceland, and especially a chronic inability on the part of the Norse to get along with the Natives, prevented them from settling the area.
The Norse voyages forgotten, Europe was confronted in 1492 with the electrifying news that Columbus had sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean and found islands off the coast of either India or Japan. England was the first European country to augment these discoveries, when John Cabot made a northern voyage in 1497 (Exploring the Atlantic Coast, 16th, 17th Centuries, Interactive map). Cabot was quickly followed by the Portuguese, who returned from Newfoundland in 1501 with a cargo of 57 Native people, who were sold into slavery in Lisbon. The prevailing opinion at the time was that these northern voyages had reached a vast easterly extension of Asia, but by about 1510 the contention that these lands might be a new continent was gaining respectability. In the 1520s expeditions were undertaken to link the northern English and Portuguese discoveries with the southern Spanish ones and to find a route through this new but inconvenient land mass. These searches led to the exploration of the St Lawrence River valley by the French and to English voyages into Davis and Hudson Straits in quest of a northern route.
Champlain solved the problem of inland exploration (French Exploration, 17th, 18th Centuries). During his first voyage in 1603, he recognized that exploration could be carried out only with Native help. He needed the geographical knowledge, the canoes, and the guidance of the Native people, as well as their expertise in living off the land. The French were drawn inland in search not only of an overland route to the Orient, but of ever more Native groups to engage in the fur trade. They were also motivated to undertake mission work among the Native population and to enlist them as allies against English encirclement. The French reached the Great Lakes in 1615, James Bay in 1671, the Mississippi River in 1673, and the Rocky Mountains in 1751.
Systematic English exploration of the Canadian interior began in 1754, when the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) at last responded to French competition in its hinterland (Exploration from Hudson Bay, 17th, 18th Centuries). After 1763, English-and French-Canadian traders alike pushed westward from Montréal to renew and expand the earlier French fur trade. Again the HBC was forced to react, and rapid exploration of the Canadian interior resulted. By the late 18th century Russian, Spanish, and British expeditions had defined the West Coast, and Mackenzie had crossed overland to reach the Arctic and Pacific Oceans (Exploration in the Far West, 18th, 19th Centuries).
During the early 19th century, British explorers resumed the quest for the Northwest Passage. Following the disastrous Franklin expedition of 1845, the Royal Navy and others intensified their search; they finally charted the passage during the 1850s (Exploration and Assessment to 1892). In 1944, the RCMP schooner St Roch, commanded by Inspector H.A. Larsen, navigated the Northwest Passage for the first time in a single season ( Arctic Exploration, 1851-1944).
Inland, along the margins of the Canadian Shield, the first systematic scientific surveys were taking place in the mid-19th century. The intention was to determine the suitability of the Canadian interior for European settlement and resource exploitation (Exploration and Assessment to 1892, Static maps).