Explorers Set Out to Find the Fabled Northwest Passage From the Straits of Mackinac

After days floating on the cobalt, emerald and steely swells of Lakes Huron and Michigan bound for the Straits of Mackinac from Fort Detroit, Jonathan Carver must have become accustomed to the fresh, organic and faintly fishy scent of water. An aroma purified of humans and their business.

So the waft of humanity that greeted the stocky, 56-year-old Carver when he arrived at Fort Michilimackinac’s water gate on a late-August day in 1766, had to have been jolting. Gamey smoke swirled from the Indian campfires around the fort. Fur traders loading their canoes with pelts bound for Montreal reeked stale rum breath. Stench rolled in waves from summer-hot pit latrines. The 50 British soldiers of the 60th Regiment of Foot who guarded the fort stunk and so did their heavy redcoats and gathered-at-the neck white blouses.

Perhaps Carver also sniffed the scent of desperate ambition as he looked up into the face of the 6-foot-tall (towering for that era) Governor Commandant of the fort, Robert Rogers. Rogers was a man with a problem. The former French and Indian War hero, famed for forming the elite assault corps Rogers Rangers, was out of money, and his once brilliant reputation was tarnished by debt. Rogers’s solution? To accomplish the feat that had defied explorers for centuries: find the Northwest Passage. Carver was to be cartographer on the expedition.

If a waterway connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, known as the Northwest Passage, did exist it would open up a trade route to China, provide access to a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fur and, legend had it, lead to mountains and cities rich with gold. In the words that Rogers wrote to the man he’d charged with commanding the expedition, James Tute, those lucky enough to find the passage would come to: “an Inhabited Country, and great Riches … From this Town the Inhabitants carry their Gold near two Thousand Miles to Traffick with the Japancies, and it’s said they have some kind of Beasts of Burden.”

Rogers’s post at the windblown Fort Michilimackinac, perched on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, seemed well suited to seeking the Northwest Passage. At least that’s what England’s King George hoped when he appointed Rogers Governor Commandant of Michilimackinac, a title that extended from the fort to include Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior. From Michilimackinac exploratory parties could head north to Lake Superior and on to the Hudson Bay, where it was believed there might be accessible “communication” with the Pacific Ocean. And from Michilimackinac it was only a paddle across Lake Michigan to rivers that led to the Mississippi—where current thought said one would also find the headwaters of a river that stretched to the Pacific.

If Rogers succeeded in finding the Northwest Passage, the English Crown would, or at least Rogers hoped would, reimburse him for his expenses. On top of expenses, the English Parliament promised to reward anyone who found the Northwest Passage 20, 000 pounds sterling. But there would be no up front money, as Rogers found on trip to London in 1765, where he was granted a visit with the king to plead for funding. Rogers would be forced to use his own money and many promissory notes to foot the cost of the expedition. It would be the biggest bet of his life.

Carver was simply coasting in the tailwind of Rogers’s bluster of ego and power. A French and Indian War hero himself, though with hardly the reputation of Rogers, at midlife Carver was faced with the prospect of making a mundane living—the self-taught cartographer was probably a shoemaker by trade—to support his wife and seven children in Massachusetts. Or, he could sign on with Rogers’s expedition for the adventure of a lifetime. At the very least, Rogers promised that the work would pay 8 shillings a day, a salary Carver would receive upon his return.

Carver would leave ahead of the party to reach the Mississippi headwaters in time to scout them before winter set in. He was to rendezvous with Tute, second in command James Goddard and the rest of the party, at St. Anthony’s Falls on the Mississippi—the present day site of Minneapolis-St. Paul—some time before winter.

Rogers was to catch up later, if the expedition proved promising.

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