John Rae holds a special place in the history of the Hamilton Association. In 1857, while living in Hamilton, he was one of the Association's founding members. Our first Vice-President, he later became our second President.

John Rae's Birthplace

The Hall of Clestrain, by HA member Pat Green

Still standing and now a designated heritage site, John Rae's birth­place is currently in disrepair and requires a complete res­tor­a­tion. For more information about the restoration project, contact the Orkney Boat Museum (

Rae was born on 30 September 1813 near Stromness, on the windswept Orkney Islands in the north of Scotland. In 1833, after graduating in surgery at the University of Edinburgh, Rae joined the Hudson's Bay Company as a physician, and was posted to Moose Factory, where he was based until 1845.

Working as both a trader and surgeon for the HBC, Rae was unusual in choosing to learn the living and survival skills of the native peoples, skills which the Company soon put to good use.

In 1846-47, Rae explored the Arctic coast westward from Fury and Hecla Straits to the Boothia Isthmus, mapping more than 600 miles of shoreline.

In 1848 he accompanied Sir John Richardson on a search for the lost Sir John Franklin expedition; and in 1851 searched the western, southern and eastern shores of Victoria and Wollaston islands, charted some 630 miles of unknown territory, and found pieces of wood that were probably parts of Sir John Franklin's vessels.

John Rae, by Stephen Pearce, exhibited 1853 - NPG 1213 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Rae, by Stephen Pearce, exhibited 1853

A mapping expedition in 1853-54, covering some 1,100 miles, enabled Rae to return to London with the first solid evidence, from Inuit sources, of the fate of Franklin and his crew. This same voyage also enabled Rae to find the last unknown link in the much-sought-after North West Passage. Further Arctic explorations in 1860 and a survey in 1864 from Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains enlarged his already extraordinary knowledge of Canada's Arctic coast and northern and western interior.

In May 1852 John Rae received the Founder's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London. McGill University, Montreal, awarded him an honourary Doctor of Medicine degree in May 1853 and the University of Edinburgh awarded him the degree of LLD in April 1866. He was also a member of the Montreal Natural History Society and of several distinguished societies elsewhere. Rae was the author of a Narrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847 (London, 1850). John Rae spent his later life in London, England, where he died on 22 July 1893.

To learn more about this amazing explorer

You could begin with this award-winning work by former HA lecturer, Ken McGoogan..
Fatal Passage:  The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin [title various across publishers and editions]. Harper Flamingo Canada, 2001. 328 pp, $34 Cdn, ISBN 0 00 200054 7. Fatal Passage Cover
After Fatal Passage, you could pick up McGoogan's later volume on John Rae's
equally amazing nemisis, Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John's devoted wife..
Lady Franklin's Revenge:  A True Story of Ambition, Obsession, and the Remaking of Arctic History. HarperCollins Canada, 2005. 384 pp, $36 Cdn, ISBN 9780002006712. Lady Franklin's Revenge