Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada

Who discovered and explored the land we know as Canada? Was it the first inhabitants who entered North America over ten thousand years ago? Was it the Norse who established the first European settlement? Or was it John Cabot or Jacques Cartier who first claimed its shores for their respective nations? The answer is that the discovery and exploration of Canada was accomplished by many people and many nations, over thousands of years.

Europeans rarely ventured anywhere in North America that First Nations and Inuit had not already been. Native people often acted as guides, informants, map-drawers, and even saviours to visitors who sought their help. It would be centuries before anyone understood the vastness of the continent, and Native peoples were crucial participants in the exploration of it. Since they left few records of their own, we know about them mostly from accounts written by others.

The accounts written by explorers and visitors to the continent tend to describe the writer's sense of wonder on encountering strange new people, lands and animals. These accounts convey both respect and fear of the natural environment, and recount daring journeys and deaths from cold, hunger, and battle, as well as what the narrators knew of the adventurers who had come before them.

Historical timeline

Land Bridge to the New World
11th Century
Crossing the Atlantic
16th Century
The "New" Continent
17th Century
Expanding in All Directions
18th Century
Exploring Westward
18th Century
Mapping the Northwest
18th Century
The Pacific Coast
19th Century
The Arctic and More
20th Century
Triumph in the High North

About this site

The men and women who have contributed to the exploration of this country are innumerable. For this presentation, a selection has been made of those considered to have directly furthered the geographical understanding of what is now Canada.

In most cases, the explorers' published accounts of their travels are held in the Rare Book Collection and excerpts from these accounts are featured here. Where these do not exist, manuscript selections, or citations from works published by their contemporaries are included. Artistic works, maps, and artefacts are displayed throughout the site, many coming from the Rare Book Collection at Library and Archives Canada.

The site is supplemented by thematic essays on mapmaking and transportation, as well texts on other topics recurrent in the history of exploration in Canada.

Translations of rare book extracts have been included only where such translations have previously been published.


We gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance of the Department of Canadian Heritage, whose Canadian Digital Cultural Content Initiative (CDCCI) made Pathfinders and Passageways: The Exploration of Canada possible.

Our special thanks goes to Michel Brisebois, former curator of the Rare Book Collection.

Author and reviewer

Conrad E. Heidenreich is Professor of Historical Geography at York University. He has taught and published extensively on the historical geography of Canada from pre-European times to mid 19th century. He specializes in the exploration and mapping of Canada, and Native cultures to end of the French regime. (Maps texts, "The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts")


Daniel Francis, a Vancouver writer, is the author of twelve books on Canadian history and is the editorial director of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia. (Transportation texts, "Furs of Gold", "The Hudson's Bay Company", "The North West Company", "Surviving the Arctic")

Michelle Guitard is a freelance historian who has worked with such cultural institutions as Parks Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Archives of Canada and the Ministry of Culture and Communication of Quebec. She was the curator of an exhibit at the National Library on the explorers of Canada and their published works. (Exploration texts)

Olaf Janzen is Professor of History at Memorial University. His research specialty is eighteenth-century Newfoundland, specifically settlement history, piracy, privateering, and the defence of Newfoundland during that period. ("The Vinland Sagas", "Waters of Riches", "The Fabled Northwest Passage", "Attempts at Settling the New Land", "Scurvy: Scourge of the Voyagers")


The Copyright/Sources for site Pathfinders and Passageways page provides a list of thumbnail images that link to a larger image and the following details:

  • A caption for, or description of, the item
  • The copyright notice for the item
  • The name of the copyright owner of the item
  • The reproduction credit for the item
  • The source of the item
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