The Quest for the Northwest Passage

by Terry Hogan

In 1996, I wrote a brief article for the infant Backtracking column entitled Sailing the Frozen Sea of History. It was about John Calder, who after an exception life of wandering the globe by sailing ship, ended up as a farmer in Warren County. Among his many travels, he sailed the Arctic Sea not once, but twice, getting ice-bound both times. They were daring exploits. They were dangerous. It was the 1800's version of space travel. After eight years, I thought I'd take another shot at portraying some of his exploits before coming to plow the prairie soils. It is just too good of a story.

Most of what I know about John Calder is taken from his biographical sketch, published in "The Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois" published by the Chapman Brothers of Chicago in 1886. These published biographies were the "vanity press" of the late 1800's and early 1900's. They're a blessing for genealogists as they are a good source of information. You will never find the phrase "horse thief" associated with anyone who paid to have his biography published. Nevertheless, even allowing for the possibility of a little inflating of the tale, it seems John Calder had a life worth telling to his grandkids.

As all good stories, this one starts at the beginning. John was born on January 12, 1819, in Somersetshire, England. At the ripe age of 14, he left home to apprentice to a butcher. Like a good lad, he needed to learn a trade, "to make on it life." After serving his apprenticeship, he headed to the big city - London, where he worked during 1839-1840.

But he apparently got the yearn to travel. In the spring of 1840, the young man of 21 decided to see how the other side of the world lived. He sailed for Australia. From there he went to Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania) for several months. Next, he sailed to China and stayed there for about 18 months before heading out to Bombay, India. He lasted 6 months in India, before returning to England, but could only manage 6 months there before putting to sea again. His next sailing loop took him to Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, and then back to England.

After over-wintering in England, John Calder was starting to gather moss. He went to sea again. South America was where he was heading this time. He spent time in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Like any good lad worth his (sea) salt, he spent six or seven months at Rio. But his homeland apparently called. He returned to England in March 1848.

John arrived home at a good time. In 1848, the famous English explorer, Sir John Franklin, was missing. He was somewhere in the frigid Arctic. There was great public interest about Franklin's whereabouts. An expedition was being prepared to go look for him. Two ships, under the command of Sir James Ross and Captain Bird, set sail to find Franklin. John Calder was on board the H.M.S. Investigator, under command of Captain Bird. They set sail in the spring of 1848. The British government was offering a reward of 20,000 pounds sterling to any private ship that contributed significant assistance to Sir John Franklin, his ships, or their crews.

The Investigator sailed through David's Straits, Baffin's Bay, Lancaster Sound into Barrow's Strait, at Prince Regent's Inlet. The ship and crew overwintered at Leopold Bay, North Somerset, but discovered no traces of Sir John Franklin. Unable to continue north, the ship returned to England, arriving in November 1849.

By now, England was in an uproar about the whereabouts of the famous explorer, Sir John Franklin. So the government fitted out two ships - the Enterprise and the Investigator, under the commands of Captain Collinson and Commander McClure, respectively. John Calder, not to be left behind and miss the fun, sailed out with Commander McClure. Calder was the "Captain of the forecastle" on his old ship, the Investigator.

The Investigator overwintered in 1850 and 1851 at Prince Royal Island in the Arctic Ocean. With Spring of 1851, the Investigator traveled south, around Barring’s Island and then traveled northward between the island and mountains of ice. The ship and crew made it to a bay on the northern shore of Banksland. After the dangerous passage, they named the bay the Bay of God's Mercy. It became the final resting place for the Investigator. It was trapped and held by ice.

During the summer of 1852, Commander McClure, with a portion of his crew, including John Calder, set foot across the ice to Melville Island. They left papers which miraculously were later found by the Resolute and Intrepid. Information provided in the papers gave the crews an idea where to search for the crew of the Investigator.

But the adventures of the Investigator's crew were far from over. Winter was on them again and food was by then, in very short supply. Bitter cold weather brought air temperatures of 60 to 66 degrees below zero. Water was in limited supply, derived only from melting snow and snow was limited during the bitter cold periods. By the spring of 1853, Commander McClure, short of food and water, and with the loss of the ship as a means of transportation, was preparing to set out for a long trek to reach America. In early April, 1853, the first death of a crew member occurred. However, like a good movie, the Resolute and Intrepid had been re-supplied and set sail again for the Arctic to rescue the rescuers. Just in time, on April 6, 1853 a lone man was seen approaching the ice-bound Investigator. Commander McClure greeted the heavily-dressed figure with a blacken face. McClure is quoted as saying, "In the name of God, who are you?" The black-faced figure replied, "I am Lieutenant Pim, late of the Herald, and now in the Resolute. Captain Kellett is in her at Dealy Island." (Delgado, 1999, page 130)

On June 3 or 4, 1853, the crew abandoned the Investigator and headed to the east side of Melville Island where the Resolute and Intrepid were waiting. On board the Resolute, the crews sailed only 60 miles before becoming ice-bound where they were forced to spend another winter in the Arctic.

On April 14, 1854, both the Resolute and Intrepid were abandoned by their crews and the crew of the Investigator. The three crews of the abandoned sailing ships made their way down to Beechey Island, where yet another ship, the North Star was awaiting them. The North Star remained until September when it set sail for England. The crew, including John Calder, returned to the homeland shores of England after four years, nine months and fifteen days. On return to England, Commander McClure and his crew were credited with discovering "a Northwest Passage". The wording was carefully chosen as another ship, arriving in 1855 under command of Collinson had also discovered a passage (Delgado, 1999).

John Calder spent five winters in the bitter, life-threatening cold of the Arctic. The crew was awarded with medals. Parliament awarded the crew 10,000 pounds, and John Calder was individually awarded a medal for "meritorious conduct."

In 1855, John Calder married in England and set sail again. This time, he sailed with his wife. But it was for the relatively calm trip to America. They initially settled in Chicago where he returned to his roots of butchering, feeding cattle and speculating. Then, in 1863, they moved from Chicago and settled in beautiful, balmy Kelly Township of Warren County, snuggled up next to Knox County. Our wandering adventurer took up farming and raising cattle on land that he purchased.

Illinois is a long way from the Artic, or even an ocean. Do you suppose that the itch to sail the ocean returned to him on the wing of a warm spring Prairie Breeze? Perhaps. Or perhaps the wind blowing across the prairie grasses was enough.



Chapman Brothers (publishers). 1886. Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois. Chicago.

Delgado, J. P. 1999. Across the Top of the World, the Quest for the Northwest Passage. Checkmark Books.

Hogan, T. 1996. Sailing the Frozen Seas of History. Zephyr. (February 22, 1996)