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

On September 3, just five days after arriving at Fort Michilimackinac, Carver set out, joining a party of fur traders paddling across Lake Michigan. Besides his provision, Carver packed a small Union Jack to attach to his canoe. It was evidence of his sincere belief that he was bringing the king’s goodwill to the Indians.

If Carver’s muscles ached as he maneuvered his canoe toward Green Bay, if he worried about the months, maybe years, it would be before he saw his family again, perhaps the feelings were outweighed by his thrill at heading into a vast wilderness known to Europeans only through the maps and writings of a relative handful of French explorers, missionaries and fur traders. And what if it was he who was to discover the headwaters of the Northwest Passage—that great river Rogers called the “Ouragon” in his petition to the British government for funding?

But even Rogers’s formidable ego couldn’t will a river that stretches from coast to coast into existence. So the expedition would have been a complete failure, except that Carver brought a wide-eyed appreciation to the land that he traversed as a foreigner. In this pristine country he found adventure, primeval nature and even the supernatural. Carver kept a careful journal along the way, making notes not only worthy of a cartographer but also of an ethnologist, geologist, botanist and historian.

Within the first weeks of his journey Carver fended off a marauding band of Indians. On the Mississippi, near the mouth of the St. Croix River, he mediated a peace settlement between the Sioux—Indians he called the Naudowessies—and a party of armed Ojibwe ready to attack them. At St. Anthony’s Falls he watched a young Winnebago fly into religious ecstasy over the beauty of the falls. When Tute and the rest of the expedition failed to rendezvous with Carver before winter, the cartographer wintered with the Sioux, learning their language and making copious notes about their culture.

In the spring, Carver journeyed with the tribe to a cave, in what is now Indian Mounds Park in St. Paul, noting ancient hieroglyphics on the walls. Then he watched as the Sioux buried their dead, transported from their winter settlement, near the mouth of the cave. Carver’s eyewitness account of the sacred place was rendered more valuable after the cave was destroyed during the construction of the railroad in 1869.

In the spring of 1767 Carver finally met up with Tute, Goddard and the rest of the party at Prairie du Chien in what is now Wisconsin—only to find that they were as low on supplies as he was. The three decided to change the expedition’s course and head north for Grand Portage on Lake Superior, in the hopes that Rogers could get supplies to them there. From Grand Portage they planned to explore the possibilities of a Northwest Passage via Hudson Bay.

At Grand Portage the party waited anxiously for the traders they hoped would replenish their dwindling provisions. When the traders didn’t come, a Cree priest (called Killinistinoes by Carver) encamped with his tribe near them, offered to confer with the Great Spirit to find out the traders’ whereabouts. Carver watched as the shaman, wrapped like a mummy in an elk skin and surrounded by torches, writhed and talked in tongues until he foamed at the mouth. The shaman then predicted that a canoe would arrive the next day bringing not the traders, but news of the traders. To Carver’s astonishment, that is precisely what happened.

When the traders themselves finally arrived several days later, they brought only a message from Rogers that he was out of money. Carver returned to Michilimackinac, paddling the northern perimeter of Lake Superior to the St. Mary’s River and into Lake Huron.

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