Rae, John (DNB00)

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RAE, JOHN (1813–1893), Arctic explorer, son of John Rae of the Hall of Clestrain, near Stromness in the Orkney Islands, was born there on 30 Sept. 1813. In 1829 he went to Edinburgh to study medicine, and in 1833 qualified as a surgeon. In the same year he was appointed surgeon to the Hudson's Bay Company's ship which annually visited Moose Factory, and two years later was appointed the company's resident surgeon at Moose Fort. There he remained till 1845. Rae spent much of his time in scientific study. In a letter, dated Hamilton, 17 April 1837 (Silliman, American Journal of Science and Arts, xxxiii. 196), he gives an account of his experiments in raising a balloon by means of solar heat, an invention which he called the ‘Sun-flyer.’ In June 1846, while still in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, he set out on his first journey of exploration. His aim was to survey the coast which separated Ross's explorations in Boothia from those of Parry at Fury and Hecla Strait. The party, consisting of ten men in two boats, started from York Factory with three months' provisions but no fuel, and spent the winter at Repulse Bay in lat. 66° 32′ N. Early in the following year Rae and his companions made a long land journey, in which they surveyed upwards of seven hundred miles of new coast, forming the shores of Committee Bay.

On completing this journey Rae returned to London, but was almost immediately (1847) induced to join the first land expedition sent in search of Sir John Franklin [q. v.] under the leadership of Sir John Richardson [q. v.] In 1848–9 all the coast between the Mackenzie and the Coppermine rivers was searched in vain. At Great Bear Lake, the expedition's winter quarters, very carefully registered observations on meteorology, magnetism, &c., were carried on throughout the winter. After Richardson's return to England, Rae in 1849 descended the Coppermine river with a single boat, but his effort to cross Wollaston Land was frustrated by an impassable block of ice (see Rae's Letter to the Admiralty, date 1 Sept. 1849, printed for H.M. Stationery Office).

Rae went back to the Mackenzie river, and was appointed to the charge of that large district; but in June 1850 the government once more requested his services in pursuing the search for Franklin. Rae accordingly took command of another search party, and spent the autumn and winter in its organisation. In order to utilise the time before navigation opened in the summer, Rae made a journey in the spring of 1851 with two men and two sledges along the shore of Wollaston Land. He left Fort Confidence, on Bear Lake, where the party built and fitted out two boats, on 25 April, and, in order to examine as much of the coast as was possible, traversed in sledges a distance of about eleven hundred miles at a daily average rate of more than 24 miles, the fastest on record. A large part of the shore of Wollaston Land was thus examined and mapped out. On 13 June, three days after the return of the sledge expedition, the boat expedition started. Rae joined it at the Kendal, a tributary of the Coppermine river. After descending the Kendal in safety, Rae examined to about 101° the whole south and east coast of Victoria Land, of which a great part had not been previously explored. The west side of the passage, through which Franklin's ships had been forced by the ice, was traced for ninety miles, and named Victoria Channel. The boats then returned and ascended Coppermine river, after a voyage of eleven hundred to twelve hundred miles. At a convenient place one boat was abandoned and the other hauled overland for seventy miles to the Great Bear Lake, and so southward by the Mackenzie river. At the Athabasca river they were frozen in, and had to await a fall of snow to enable them to travel on snowshoes. In this manner they marched about 1,750 miles, by Fort Garry (now Winnipeg), to United States territory. In the last 450 miles forty-five miles a day was the average rate. In about eight months the expedition had travelled 5,380 miles, seven hundred miles of which were newly discovered coast-line. For the geographical results of this expedition and for the survey of 1847 Rae was awarded in 1852 the Founder's gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society.

Rae then returned to England, and proposed to the Hudson's Bay Company the despatch of another expedition to complete, if possible, the survey of the northern coasts of America. The company equipped a boat expedition on condition that Rae would lead it personally, and early in 1853 he once more left England. The expedition wintered (September 1853) at Repulse Bay. On 31 March 1854 Rae set out with four of the party to trace the west coast of Boothia. He reached Point de la Guiche on 6 May, and returned to his winter quarters on 26 May. On this journey he proved King William's Land to be an island. He also obtained news of Franklin's party, and purchased relics from the Eskimos. From 26 May to 4 Aug. he remained at Repulse Bay, gathering more particulars of Franklin's fate. He would then have proceeded to complete his commission, which was to survey the whole of the west coast of Boothia, but decided that he ought to return and prevent fruitless search for Franklin in wrong directions. He reached York Factory on 31 Aug. This expedition connected the survey of Ross with that of Dease and Simpson.

The evidence which Rae collected as to the fate of the Erebus and Terror is given in a letter addressed by him, under date 29 July 1854, to the secretary of the admiralty. He arrived in London on 22 Oct. 1854, and found that his party was entitled to a reward of 10,000l. offered by the government to the first who brought back decisive information of the fate of Sir John Franklin's expedition. On receipt of his part of the reward, Rae, being desirous of completing the survey of the northern shores of America, had a small schooner built in Canada at an expense of 2,000l. The vessel was not ready in time, and she consequently sailed on the lakes in the autumn to earn freight, but was lost in a storm. In November 1858 Rae made a tour through the United States with the Hon. Edward Ellice, and the following summer was one of a party who went across the prairies to Red river. It was about this time that Rae walked from Hamilton to Toronto, a distance of about forty miles in seven hours; he did it on snowshoes, and dined out the same evening, showing no signs of fatigue.

In 1860 Rae undertook the land part of a survey for a contemplated telegraph line from England by the Faeroes, Iceland, and Greenland to America (Proc. Royal. Geogr. Soc. v. 80). In 1864 he conducted a difficult telegraph survey from Winnipeg, across the Rocky Mountains in lat. 53°, to the Pacific coast. Subsequently some hundreds of miles of the most dangerous parts of Fraser river were traversed in small dugout canoes without a guide—a most perilous undertaking, but successfully accomplished.

During the latter years of his life, which he spent chiefly in London, Rae maintained a keen interest in colonial matters. He was an active member of the Royal Colonial Institute, a governor of the Imperial Institute, one of the first directors of the Canada North-West Land Company, and a director of other commercial enterprises in Manitoba and British Columbia. He was a regular attendant at meetings of the Royal Society, of which he was elected a fellow in 1880, of the Royal Geographical Society, and the British Association. He was also an ardent volunteer. He received the honorary degree LL.D. from the university of Edinburgh, and that of M.D. from McGill College, Montreal.

He died on 22 July 1893 at his residence, 4 Addison Gardens, London, of influenza, followed by congestion of the lungs, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.

Rae married, in 1860, Catharine Jane Alicia, the third daughter of Major George Ash Thompson of Ardkill, co. Londonderry, and Glenchiel Munechrane, co. Tyrone. He left no children.

Rae, whose health was exceptionally robust, attributed his success in arctic travel to his power of living in Eskimo fashion and to his skill as a sportsman and boatman. He is said to have walked over twenty-three thousand miles in the course of his arctic journeys. In all his expeditions he made collections of characteristic plants and animals, as well as physical and meteorological observations. He was the author of ‘Narrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847’ (published 1850). He wrote also reports of his journey in the ‘Journal of the Royal Geographical Society’ (xxii. 73, 82, xxv. 246); a paper on ‘Forma- tion of Icebergs and Transportation of Boulders by Ice’ (Canadian Journal, iv. 180), the substance of which is repeated in his paper read before the British Association in 1860 (Rep. Brit. Assoc. xxx. 174). At the same meeting he read a paper (unpublished) on the ‘Aborigines of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic Regions of North America.’

A portrait of him, painted by Mr. Stephen Pierce, and afterwards engraved, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. A later portrait, painted by Mr. Sydney Hodges, is in the museum at Stromness; and there is a bust, by George Maccallum, in the Edinburgh University.

[The Polar Regions, by Sir John Richardson, 8vo, 1861; obituary notices in Amer. Geogr. Soc. Bull. vol. xxv. No. 3, Geogr. Journ. vol. ii. No. 3, Nature xlviii. 321, Times 26 July 1893, Orkney Herald 2 Aug. 1893; and the following Parliamentary Returns: Papers and Correspondence relative to the Arctic Expedition under Sir John Franklin, March 1851, pp. 45, 51; Arctic Expeditions 20 Dec. 1852, p. 72; Further Papers relative to the Recent Arctic Expeditions in Search of Sir John Franklin, January 1855, p. 831 (reprinted in 8vo form under title ‘The Melancholy Fate of Sir John Franklin and his Party, as described in Dr. Rae's Report, together with the Despatches and Letters of Capt. McClure’); Further Papers, &c., May 1856 (containing correspondence relative to the adjudication of the 10,000l. reward).]

H. R.